Monday, May 27, 2024
HomeCulture WarDavid Niven and a lesson for the show-offs of today

David Niven and a lesson for the show-offs of today


A FEW days ago, via BBC Archives, a clip from the BBC’s early evening programme Nationwide in 1973 popped into my feed. It starts with a grey establishing shot (for some reason, footage of the 70s always seems grey) of a barge on the Thames before revealing David Niven, resplendent in a matching deep-collared shirt and tie – there are, perhaps, some things which are best left in the past.

He starts talking and, within a few seconds, opines: ‘Every time you go on a bus there’s something funny, isn’t there?’ By this stage, Niven’s days of using buses, if he ever had them, were long gone, so he launches into an anecdote about sitting next to a general on a plane (the interview may have been part of a book tour for The Moon’s a Balloon) ending with the observation, ‘I think things are funny all the time.’ And this, I felt, every bit as much as his clothing, told us that we were no longer in contemporary Kansas.

I found it impossible to imagine those words coming out of the mouth of any contemporary Hollywood A-lister. Indeed, any public figure. We live in an age in which everything is serious. We are experiencing an epidemic of earnestness. Actors are no longer actors, they are artists. They are not entertainers, they are thinkers, keen to share their thoughts (unfortunately unaware that speaking your mind is praiseworthy only if there is something in it). To the modern star (hello Daniel Radcliffe), everything is an opportunity to display their moral heft; to Niven, by contrast, everything was a potential source of entertainment.

Nor did I find it easy to imagine a contemporary celebrity giving Niven’s answer to the first question from presenter Sue Lawley, pointing out that he has contrived to win an Oscar and write a bestseller without training as either an actor or a writer. With no hint of defensiveness, invocations of ‘passion’ or suggestions of unseen hours honing his craft or multiple jobs worked to pay the bills, he simply acknowledges the point, ascribing his success to ‘huge luck’.

Perhaps troubled by his dead bat, or maybe looking for a ‘Gotcha’ moment, Lawley steers the conversation on to the current generation. Again, Niven refuses to play ball. Yes, he admits, he feels lucky to have been born when he was, but argues that everyone does, before suggesting that the current cohort, in his opinion, is the best, and that it is ‘marvellous’ that he can, in some way, be part of it. Despite having all the attributes to be a crusty colonel harrumphing that the kids don’t know they are born, he refuses to do so.

Ahh, Lawley says, in your book there’s a passage where you attend a ‘hippie party’ and take drugs which make you sick. Niven admits this is true, but points out that drugs are merely the drug of choice of the present generation. His used alcohol and, in his personal case, often used it a bit too freely. There is nothing, he suggests, inherently wrong with stimulants if one can control them.

The interview ends with an anecdote about Niven’s schooldays in which a prank designed to entertain his classmates goes wrong, embarrassing the Bishop of Ripon and leading to the cane.

It would be easy to watch the clip and conclude that Niven was an insubstantial figure, an entertainer who had fluked his way through life. He was not. In 1939 he was the first British actor to leave Hollywood, returning home to re-activate the Army commission he had resigned in 1933 (Churchill’s remark to him at a dinner party, ‘It was a good thing you did, young man, to give up your career for your country. Of course had you not, it would have been despicable’ often ran through my mind as the nation genuflected towards its covid medics).

He passed Commando training and led a ‘Phantom’ reconnaissance unit in France after D-Day. He rarely talked about it. Asked by some friends to find their son’s grave near Bastogne, he said, ‘I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.’ He stuck to his word – no publicist was employed to allow stories of his derring-do to become known.

While his achievements mark him out as a man from a different time, so too do his attitudes. He takes no credit for his success, tells no stories of his ‘struggle’. Nor does he seek to elevate himself by doing others down. Sue Lawley gives him plenty of opportunities to condemn the younger generation and he refuses to take them, preferring, if anything, to make excuses on their behalf and do himself down. They may be sinners, but so is he and, who knows, he may be worse than them.

Compare this with today. Is there any public figure who tells you their success is due to luck rather than guts, determination and sheer hard work (which will be extensively covered in their future biopic)? Is there any public figure who uses his own flaws to excuse those of others? Of course there isn’t.

As I write this [before last week’s election for London mayor], there is a minor spat on X over a post by Wes Streeting saying ‘A win for Susan Hall and the Conservatives is a win for racists, white supremacists and Islamophobes the world over‘. Many have confessed themselves surprised at the Labour health spokesman’s tone. The real surprise is, of course, that they are surprised – those of his transparently titanic moral self-regard are always those who go too far. Streeting is a modern figure par excellence, replete with inspiring, rising-by-his-own-bootstraps backstory, seriousness plastered on with a trowel and an overwhelming certainty. He is right and those who differ must be malign.

Niven would not, of course, have said this. He was a man of a different time and of different values, values he shared with the great French writer Michel de Montaigne – curiosity, seeking the best in others, an awareness of human fallibility (most of all his own), an understanding of the role of chance in our lives. Both were tolerant because both knew they had erred in the past and could do so again. They were quick to understand and slow to condemn – Montaigne uses the phrase ‘que sais-je?’ (what do I know?) so frequently he could have had printed it on the Renaissance equivalent of a T-shirt. They lived lightly and humanely, knowing that whatever they did the world would still turn. But they live no more and, it seems, their art of living has – in the public sphere at least – died too.

So while a modern clip shot with modern technology would be much brighter than the leaden scenery in Niven’s, we live in a world much darker than his.

This article appeared in Country Squire Magazine on May 7, 2024, and is republished by kind permission.

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Stewart Slater
Stewart Slater
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.

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