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Many autobiographies have been derided of late for the sheer paucity of their illuminating content, or being nothing but brazen marketing of a career that is barely out of its infancy. Some, however, give us a genuinely rewarding insight into someone’s journey, whether they are famous or otherwise.
With the death of Pete Postlethwaite in January 2011, aged just 64, there was a feeling we had lost one of the great actors of his generation. Although the general public may have been more familiar with his film work over the last 20 years, it was built on a vibrant theatrical and TV foundation that rivals the best these shores have produced. And its all laid bare in this fascinating book..
A Spectacle of Dust opens with Postlethwaite’s Catholic upbringing in Warrington, and the humble beginnings that saw him flirt with the priesthood and a teacher’s life. Yet the pull of the stage and his gregarious personality soon brought an end to those two strands of his life, however disappointed his mother might have been at the time. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School fitted his combustible and energetic approach to acting perfectly, allowing him the chance to spread his wings.
Early encounters with future silver screen pal Daniel Day-Lewis are a joy to read; their burgeoning relationship one of a few in the book that formed the backbone of Postlethwaite’s life. For many people in Liverpool, the Everyman Theatre was the hub of cultural life and Postlethwaite’s revelations about his immensely talented cast members makes for engaging reading. Future stars of TV and film such as Antony Sher, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly and Julie Walters were his family for an important stage in his acting development.
The raw honesty he displays in detailing the highs and paranoid lows is exactly what you need in an autobiography like this. Life is a rollercoaster, however famous you may be, and Postlethwaite’s candid account of a difficult period amongst this talented troupe is deeply affecting. The way he talks about his formative relationship with Walters, around the time of her breakout role in Educating Rita, is a moving piece of prose that helps us to understand what he wanted from life.
You get a vivid feeling for the hedonistic days following his bold move to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, where director Nick Hamm proved to be another close friend and mischievous partner in crime. His move to TV and film was significant for landmark roles such as the alcoholic father in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which affected him massively, before small Hollywood parts in Alien 3 and The Last of the Mohicans opened the door to that world. His reconnection with Day-Lewis on the latter led to Postlethwaite being cast alongside him again In the Name of the Father, for which both actors received Oscar nominations.
Postlethwaite’s account of his sudden spotlight elevation is peppered with down-to-earth anecdotes; a successful fight against testicular cancer and his blossoming relationship with Jacqueline Morrish keeping him grounded. Sean Bean soon becomes another lifelong friend on the sets of Sharpe and When Saturday Comes, excellent performances in The Usual Suspects and Romeo + Juliet coming on the back of fun shooting spells. For those of you with a sweet spot for Brassed Off, his fondness for the whole experience will sit well ahead of his Steven Spielberg period in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. His enthusiasm for the lead role and rare intimate celluloid scenes in Among Giants opposite Australian actress Rachel Griffiths also spills over from the pages.
Other highlights include The Sins, The Constant Gardener and Criminal Justice before cancer took hold of him again towards the end. You can’t help but be moved as Postlethwaite prepares for one last defining role as King Lear on the stage and kindly lets us in on the days leading up to his sad passing, the love for Jacqui, son Will and daughter Lily shining throughout.
A Spectacle of Dust: The Autobiography by Pete Postlethwaite is published by W&N, and is available now from Amazon in both hardback and paperback.