The Monroe Doctrine. October 2014.

Dear Rowley,

Can Strictly Come Dancing’s opening numbers get any camper? I’m just watching a hoedown number with all the boys in spray-on denim and cowboy boots and all the gals in pink gingham. Well, as Julian and Sandy would say ‘you can’t beat a pair of rough shaggy chaps up your Ponda Rosa’. As always one gets to know and love the contestants whether you’d ever heard of them or not. Craig aside, the judges are beginning to pall.

Len always says ‘you came out and give it your all’, Darcey ‘the boys are right’ and cheeky cheeky Bruno can’t resist innuendo that would have him tarred and feathered by Auntie Beeb if he was batting his lashes at the ladies. I must say Claudia could front the whole show without having to play the monkey to Tess’s giraffe. She can clearly work without autocue and seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself. Tess appears to be working and doesn’t ring true.

Alors, as I write I am contemplating another birthday and another mile on the clock. Can’t say life began so much at forty as it started to become awfully complicated. There isn’t so much time to rectify mistakes or optimism to set-up the future with as much confidence that the rewards will be reaped. Birthdays are however a good MOT. If you don’t receive as many cards that equal your age something is not quite right. The same is true of salary. If you’re earning £1000 for each year of life you’re ahead of the game.

Fortunately I can see the long game. It is truly astounding to me that great work can be achieved in ghastly circumstances. I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn the details of Rembrandt’s life when reading-up about the exhibition of his later work at the National Gallery. Rembrandt was manic depressive in all but diagnosis. He lived very high on the hog in good times, maintained mistresses, squandered money and was practically broke when he was painting his later portraits: great work entirely unappreciated in the short term.

I was recently re-reading Colin Clark’s The Prince, The Showgirl and Me in the name of researching Marilyn Monroe’s one and only visit to England. The year was 1956 and the 30-year old Marilyn was riding high on the success of Marilyn Monroe Productions’ first hit Bus Stop. Monroe travelled to London with her new husband Arthur Miller, her baby-faced business partner Milton Greene and her acting coach Paula Strasberg, wife of Actors’ Studio founder Lee.

Marilyn’s co-star (and co-producer) was Laurence Olivier, then 49, and the film The Prince and the Showgirl; an adaptation of Terry Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince that Olivier had performed with his wife Vivien Leigh. Eton boy Colin Clark was 23 and employed as third assistant director (read gopher) on the picture. Colin Clark’s memoirs are largely a cause célèbre because of the relationship he and Marilyn formed against a backdrop of the Arthur Miller marriage disintegrating and the actress’s increasing reliance on pills and champers to dull the pain.

For me the diaries are fascinating as a ruthless examination of making movies. Marilyn had a reputation for being chronically late on set and ill prepared when she finally arrived. To be fair this was only public knowledge because MM’s studio 20th Century Fox waged a press war with her when she fought for better parts and creative control.

The making of The Prince and the Showgirl teaches lessons. Olivier was stagey and rather old hat. Marilyn was trying to establish herself as a serious actress. He became increasingly frustrated because Marilyn blew lines, behaved unprofessionally and went through hell to shoot a scene. And yet looking at the rushes Olivier recognised that Marilyn was magic. Co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike told Olivier that MM was the only one on the set who really knew how to act on camera.

The film is unsatisfactory. Nobody could seriously think Elsie Marina would fall in love with Olivier’s Grand Duke. He looks old enough to be her father and acts like a block of wood. Apparently this was a common complaint with Marilyn. The take that would be printed was the one she got right. This could be 20 or 40 by which time her co-stars were exhausted. Perhaps this is why Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder called MM the most selfish woman he’d ever met and the most fabulous ever to be captured on screen.

What is the conclusion? Marilyn delivered pure gold in adverse circumstances. Her dalliance with Colin aside, The Prince and the Showgirl was hell to make. But she stole the show from arguably Britain’s greatest classical stage actor. I don’t know why I find Marilyn’s work ethic comforting but I do. She loathed making Some Like It Hot (her next movie after Showgirl) but it was her most popular movie. What I think I’m trying to say is that we don’t have to adore what we’re doing or value it to make something that future generations will love. On that note…