Images: My Life in Film
The Best Intentions
Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage
I worked with Ingmar Bergman for two weeks in 1970 when he came to London to direct Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre. His charm was spectacular. So were the demons that possessed him. What terrible things he said about people once their backs were turned. How skillfully he instructed the actors, and how shamelessly he manipulated the play so as to make it an Ingmar Bergman statement rather than an Ibsen one. Humility is not one of this gifted man’s qualities, though he can seem humble in interviews. Not for him the approach of a soloist toward a great composer. My agent, the late Peggy Ramsay, pithily summed up his Hedda when she said that for anyone who didn’t know or didn’t like Ibsen it was a great evening.
To me personally he was charming and even flattering; he had chosen to use my translation in the face of opposition from Laurence Olivier, the head of the National, with whom I had had a public row about that theater’s penchant for adapters who didn’t know the language of the original. After the dress rehearsal (he didn’t stay in London for the premiere), Bergman took my hand in both of his and said: “When you come back to Stockholm, phone me. We’ll have an evening.” I never did. He is the unknowing president of an imaginary society I have founded called the Long Spoon Club, people with whom one for some reason hesitates to sup.
He and Olivier got on far from well. You cannot have two Napoleons in the same room. He banned Olivier from rehearsals after the second day because of some suggestions that Olivier had made, admittedly fatuous ones, abused him before the cast at the lighting rehearsal because the lighting had gone wrong, and, most humiliatingly, excluded him from the final get-together in Maggie Smith’s dressing-room when he said goodbye, with irresistible wit and charm, to all of us who had helped with the production. Olivier had lent him his flat to stay in, and in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman described this flat as “dirty, the expensive sofas grubby, the wallpaper torn… Everything was dusty or stained…the wall-to-wall carpets were worn out, the picture windows streaky.” I knew that flat and never noticed any of these things. But Bergman’s physical hypersensitiveness is legendary, his memory for facts not always reliable. When I asked one of his best-known actors what he thought of Bergman’s autobiography, he replied: “You mean that novel Ingmar wrote about his life?”
I first encountered Bergman’s work as a director in the late Forties, when I was a lecturer at Uppsala University in Sweden. During the war I had seen Torment (1944), directed from a story by Bergman by his mentor, the great Alf Sjöberg; then, in Uppsala, I saw his own exciting early films such as Port of Call, The Devil’s Wanton, and Three Strange Loves. The …