John James Osborne (12 December 1929 – 24 December 1994) was an English playwright, screenwriter, actor, known for his excoriating prose and intense critical stance towards established social and political norms. The success of his 1956 play Look Back in Anger transformed English theatre.
In a productive life of more than 40 years, Osborne explored many themes and genres, writing for stage, film and TV. His personal life was extravagant and iconoclastic. He was notorious for the ornate violence of his language, not only on behalf of the political causes he supported but also against his own family, including his wives and children.
Osborne was one of the first writers to address Britain’s purpose in the post-imperial age. He was the first to question the point of the monarchy on a prominent public stage. During his peak (1956–1966), he helped make contempt an acceptable and now even cliched onstage emotion, argued for the cleansing wisdom of bad behaviour and bad taste, and combined unsparing truthfulness with devastating wit.
Osborne was born on 12 December 1929 in London, the son of Thomas Godfrey Osborne, a commercial artist and advertising copywriter of South Welsh extraction, and Nellie Beatrice, a Cockney barmaid.
In 1935 the family moved to the Surrey suburb of Stoneleigh, in search of a better life, though Osborne would regard it as a cultural desert – a schoolfriend declared subsequently that “he thought [we] were a lot of dull, uninteresting people, and probably a lot of us were. He was right.”
He adored his father and hated his mother, who he later wrote taught him “The fatality of hatred … She is my disease, an invitation to my sick room,” and described her as “hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating and indifferent.”
Thomas died in 1941, leaving the young boy an insurance settlement which he used to finance a private education at Belmont College, a minor public school in Devon. He entered the school in 1943, but was expelled in the summer term of 1945, after whacking the headmaster, who had struck him for listening to a forbidden broadcast by Frank Sinatra. School Certificate was the only formal qualification he acquired, but he possessed a native intelligence.
After school, Osborne went home to his mother in London and briefly tried trade journalism. A job tutoring a touring company of junior actors introduced him to the theatre. He soon became involved as a stage manager and acting, joining Anthony Creighton’s provincial touring company.
Osborne tried his hand at writing plays, co-writing his first, The Devil Inside Him, with his mentor Stella Linden, who then directed it at the Theatre Royal in Huddersfield in 1950. Around this time he also married Pamela Lane. His second play Personal Enemy was written with Anthony Creighton (with whom he later wrote Epitaph for George Dillon staged at the Royal Court in 1958). Personal Enemy was staged in regional theatres before he submitted Look Back in Anger.
John Osborne’s plays in the 1970s included West of Suez which starred Ralph Richardson, A Sense of Detachment, first produced at the Royal Court in 1972, and Watch It Come Dawn, first produced at the National Theatre at the Old Vic starring Frank Finlay.
In 1971, he made his best remembered acting appearance, lending gangster Cyril Kinnear a sense of civil menace in Get Carter. In 1978 he appeared as an actor in Tomorrow Never Comes and in 1980 in Flash Gordon.
Through the 1980s Osborne played the role of Shropshire squire with great pleasure and a heavy dose of irony. He wrote a diary for The Spectator. He opened his garden to raise money for the church roof, from which he threatened to withdraw covenant-funding unless the vicar restored the Book of Common Prayer (he had returned to the Church of England in about 1974).
In his latter years, Osborne published two volumes of autobiography, A Better Class of Person (Osborne, 1981) and Almost a Gentleman (Osborne, 1991). A Better Class of Person was filmed by Thames TV in 1985 and was nominated for the Prix Italia with Eileen Atkins and Alan Howard as his parents and Gary Capelin and Neil McPherson as Osborne. In 1999 the two volumes of autobiography were combined and published under the title “Looking Back – Never Explain, Never Apologise”.
He also collected various newspaper and magazine writings together in 1994 under the title Damn You, England. At his memorial service in 1995, playwright David Hare said:
“ It is, if you like, the final irony that John’s governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labelled cold. If they are emotional, they get labelled stupid.
Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John’s case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door. ”
His last play was Déjàvu (1991), a sequel to Look Back in Anger.
Osborne had many affairs over the course of his life and frequently mistreated his wives and lovers. He was married five times with all, except his final marriage, being unhappy unions.
His wives and lovers were not always kept apart, either. In his 2006 biography, John Heilpern describes at length a holiday in Valbonne, France, in 1961, that Osborne shared with Tony Richardson, a distraught George Devine, and others. Feigning bafflement over the romantic entanglements of the time, Heilpern writes:
“Let’s see: Osborne is on a besieged holiday with his aggrieved mistress while having a passionate affair with his future third wife as the founding artistic director of the Royal Court has a nervous breakdown and his current wife gives birth to a son that isn’t his.”
Pamela Lane (1951–57)
In Volume 1 of his autobiography A Better Class of Person, Osborne describes feeling an immediate and intense attraction towards his first wife. The pair were both members of an acting troupe in Bridgwater.
She had just recently shorn her hair down to a defiant auburn stubble and I was impressed by the hostility she had created by this self-isolating act… her huge green eyes which mock or plead affection, preferably both, at least… She startled and confused me… There was no calculation in my instant obsession.
Though Alison Porter in Look Back in Anger was based on Pamela, Osborne describes Lane’s parents as ‘much coarser’ and how at one point they hired a private detective to follow him after a fellow actor was seen ‘fumbling’ with his knee in a teashop. Though he admits that it was true at least that the actor in question did have a homosexual crush on him.
I began to feel surrounded and outflanked by hostility.. I had set off a crest of anger that had not been much more than drowsy before my arrival… It was scarcely important. Pamela was the battlement I was determined on.
The two married in secret in nearby Wells and then left Bridgwater the following Sunday amidst an uneasy truce with Lane’s parents (Osborne’s hated mother was not aware of the union until the couple were divorcing), spending their first night as a married couple together in the Cromwell Road in London.
I was unable to take my eyes off her. I watched her eating, walking, bathing, making-up, dressing, undressing, my curiosity was insatiable. Seeing her clothes lying around the floor (she was hopelessly untidy, in contrast to my own spinsterish habits). There was little doubt in my otherwise apprehensive spirit that I had carried off a unique prize…. Perhaps I interpreted what might have been bland complacency for the complaisance of a generous and loving heart.
The two lived a fairly itinerant and reasonably happy married existence at first, living at a number of digs around London and finding work in London at first, touring then in Osborne’s case Kidderminster and Lane’s Derby. Lane’s acting career flourished in Derby while Osborne’s floundered and she began an affair with a rich dentist. Somewhat ironic given that Osborne had been playing a dentist in the company’s production of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell and that it was Osborne who had inadvertently introduced them by succumbing to a toothache he attributed to marital woes.
This was in the summer of 1955 and Osborne spent much of the next two years before their divorce hoping they would reconcile. In 1956, after Look Back in Anger had opened, Osborne met her at the railway station in York, at which meeting she told Osborne of her recent abortion and enquired after his relationship with Mary Ure, of which she was aware. In April 1957, Osborne was granted a divorce from Lane, on the grounds of his adultery.
Mary Ure (1957–63)
Osborne began a relationship with Ure shortly after meeting her when she was cast as Alison in Look Back in Anger in 1956. The affair swiftly progressed; and the two moved in together in Woodfall Road, Chelsea.
Mary was one of those unguarded souls who can make themselves understood by penguins or the wildest dervishes .. I was not in love. There was fondness and pleasure, but no groping expectations, just a feeling of fleeting heart’s ease. For the present we were both content enough.
Contentment, in Osborne’s case, grew into a jealousy and slight contempt for Ure’s stable family background and the banalities of her communication with them and a somewhat withering regard for her acting abilities.
I had stopped concealing from myself, if I ever had, that Mary was not much of an actress. She had a rather harsh voice and a tiny range. Her appearance was pleasing but without any personal sweep to it.
Like most actors, she was hysterical when unemployed and resentful when appearing every night to full houses. She also entertained the common belief that a writer is only working when he can be seen head down at his desk. Why are you drinking/dreaming/farting/fornicating instead of making typewriter noises?
There was infidelity on both sides; and, after an affair with Robert Webber, Ure eventually left Osborne for Robert Shaw.
The fact that my coltish liaison with Francine had been pre-empted by Mary’s conduct with Webber explained her oddly restrained behaviour in New York… Betrayal might end in the bedroom but I found it naive to assume it necessarily began there.
Osborne described visiting her after she had left him and having sex with her while she was pregnant with the first of four children she would bear to Shaw. Of their divorce, Osborne wrote of being surprised that she repeatedly refused to return to him treasured postcards drawn for him by his father but is circumspect at her suicide in 1975.
Destiny dragged her so pointlessly from a life better contained by the softly lapping waters of the River Clyde.
This is in marked contrast to his later revelling in the suicide of fourth wife Jill Bennett.
After a serious liver crisis in 1987, Osborne became diabetic, injecting insulin twice a day. He died in 1994 from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65 at his home in Clunton, near Craven Arms, Shropshire. He was buried in St George’s churchyard, Clun, Shropshire, alongside his last wife, Helen Dawson, who died in 2004.