Sir Laurence Olivier - from humble Surrey beginnings to international star of stage and screen

As Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, thanks to British Library Board

As Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, thanks to British Library Board - Credit: Various

Regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation, Sir Laurence Olivier went on to become an international star. But with the release of a major new biography this autumn, Amanda Hodges investigates his humble beginnings here in Surrey...

The Dorking birthplace, by Pete Gardner

The Dorking birthplace, by Pete Gardner - Credit: Various

He may have been a star of both the stage and the screen, but Sir Laurence Olivier never forgot his Surrey roots. Born in Dorking in 1907, he spent his infant years in the attractive county town and always remembered the place fondly: ‘My earliest memory is aged two, corroborated by a view through a window which establishes the place as Dorking,’ he wrote in his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor. ‘I was being dried after my bath in front of this window and it must have been summertime as it was open and was sunny outside. I was gazing down at my four-year-old brother in his smock who was making a determined effort to climb the trellis-work.’

Olivier’s father Gerard had trained as a teacher, his early career spent at a school near Guildford where he’d met future wife Agnes, the sister of the headmaster’s wife. Married in 1898, the Oliviers subsequently moved to Dorking to start Gerard’s own school, but after this failed to thrive, Gerard decided to take Holy Orders in 1904 and became an assistant priest at St Martin’s parish church in the town, the church where Olivier would be baptised on July 9, 1907.

Early memories

The stipend for a parish priest was minimal and so the family moved to a small house at 26 Wathen Road, a semi-detached property located just off Dorking’s High Street. Their daughter Sybille was born in 1901; Gerard – always known as Dickie – in 1904; and Laurence Kerr Olivier arrived on May 22, 1907. Brother Dickie subsequently became his childhood hero and Olivier later recalled, ‘in spite of the gaps between our births I cannot imagine a more truly fond and closer trio than we three.’

Such a bond was not unfortunately repeated with his father, often referred to as Fahv. From the first, Olivier was convinced of Gerard’s distinct lack of paternal affection and in his amusing autobiography he describes his father’s parsimonious nature in detail. ‘For my father saving was a craving. At the end of every month a feast awaited as the bills came flooding in. We did enjoy the luxury of toilet rolls though we were encouraged to be as sparing as possible in their use as there were always the daily commodities to be examined with a keen master’s eye.’

Things were vastly different with his beloved mother Agnes, their reciprocal adoration clearly a major source of comfort. Gifted with ‘a delightful wit and high spirits’, Olivier’s mother was the focus of Olivier’s devotion from the first and he insisted, ‘my mother was lovely – there is no photograph I’ve seen that has revealed this in anything like its true measure.’ Nicknamed ‘Paddy’ on account of his temper tantrums – which would persist into adult life – Agnes’ premature death when Olivier was only 12 would profoundly shatter his existence. As an adult, he could draw upon this painful memory and the ache of what he perceived as his father’s subsequent neglect as a guaranteed source of emotion.

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New biography

Philip Ziegler, the author of a new Olivier biography, which has substantially benefited from access to taped interviews the actor gave to journalist Mark Amory in 1979, agrees that whilst attributing any of Olivier’s emotional blocks to his mother’s demise could easily become “a pat psychological answer… nevertheless it must have been a frightful loss for him.” Ziegler lost his own mother at a similar age and concedes that whilst he was fortunate in having a father with whom he got on well, notwithstanding this “it’s still an appalling blow for any 12 or 13-year-old boy,” and that for Olivier the pain must have been deepened by his unsatisfactory relationship with his surviving parent.

Olivier’s penchant for the dramatic would express itself early, his aptitude for a well-embroidered tale soon evident as he later acknowledged. ‘I believe I was born to be an actor. It was a compulsion in me to invent a story and tell it so convincingly that it was believed without doubt or suspicion.’ In terms of motivation he’d admit ‘in all honesty, I have to confess, rather shamefacedly, that I was not conscious of any other need than to show off,’ and in his seventies Olivier would report that whenever his third wife, Joan Plowright, was asked how she knew when Larry was acting, she would reply, ‘Larry? Oh, he’s acting all the time!’

Another tale he sometimes related was that of the time, when as a teenage boy, he expressed determination to follow in elder brother Dickie’s footsteps as a rubber-planter in India. His father apparently responded, ‘don’t be such a fool, you’re not going to India, you’re going on the stage.’ Since this level of paternal perception was uncharacteristic, however, it might perhaps be an embellished anecdote, something that Philip Ziegler clearly suspects. “I cannot hear his father saying that! I think I said in my book that Olivier said that his father mentioned it – thus it implied a slight element of doubt on my part… but it’s a good story anyway!” He continues: “I think it would have been evident at an early age that whatever Olivier did would be done with total dedication and concentration and nothing was going to stop him.”

The setting for this momentous occasion had apparently been the daily bath that the male members of the family took in succession, sharing the same bathwater. ‘And so it was, sitting in two or three inches of lukewarm water that my fate was sealed,’ Olivier recalled 60 years later. Whatever the origins of his dramatic destiny, Olivier was clearly a natural performer, the writer J.B. Priestley once commenting ‘no English actor, living or dead, can begin to compete with him.’

Glittering career

Such a sweeping statement invites refutation but in Olivier’s case as pre-eminent classical actor, romantic screen hero, innovative actor-director and architect of the embryonic National Theatre, the list of credits bears eloquent testimony to the staggering breadth of his achievements, a career deeply impressing his recent biographer. “As an actor and director and producer, he surpassed my expectations – I mean his achievement was prodigious.”

Yet despite this, the man himself remains rather an enigmatic figure as Ziegler acknowledges. “One thinks as a biographer, if you burrow away at someone, that eventually one gets through to the real person but I’m not certain I did; he’s the most elusive figure. I would have enjoyed his company obviously… he would have been funny, interesting and charming but whether I would have actually liked him I don’t honestly know.”

Gerard’s frequent change of post would subsequently bring a peripatetic childhood for Olivier but his commitment to acting, so evident at an early age, already proved a major source of sustenance. At around age nine, Olivier, now attending the All Saints choir school in London, appeared as Brutus in Julius Caesar and then Kate in Taming of the Shrew, productions that also happened to be attended by distinguished actress Ellen Terry who later confided to her diary that the schoolboy actor was, despite his youthful years, ‘already a great actor.’

By 1910, Olivier’s father had decided his spiritual aims could not be amply fulfilled within the confines of Dorking and that a more challenging environment was required. A move to the slums of West London was decreed and, although this wasn’t initially popular with the family, the change of location would eventually bring Olivier to the Central School of Dramatic Art (then based at the Royal Albert Hall), which would turn what he self-deprecatingly called ‘his nursery game of make-believe’ into the foundations of a long and truly glorious acting career.


Life of a film star...

1907: Born in Dorking, Surrey

1916: Makes his stage debut at the age of nine as Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

1924: Attends Central School of Speech & Drama in London

1930: Marries his first wife, the actress Jill Esmond

1939: Cast as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, his first major Hollywood role, which brought international stardom

1940: Marries the actress Vivien Leigh

1947: Knighted, the youngest actor to achieve this honour at the time

1961: Marries Joan Plowright after meeting her on stage

1963: Becomes The National Theatre’s inaugural director (until 1973 )

1989: Dies at home in West Sussex aged 82