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Trevor Howard: A Personal Biography

Trevor Howard certainly enjoyed being somebody else -- so much so that he made major embroidery of his war record, no small irony for an actor so memorably associated with roles playing men of war. It is the central revelation of Pettigrew's biography and the central weakness: The discovery was made after Howard's death, so there was no opportunity for confrontation, explanation or perhaps expiation.

When Terence Pettigrew asked Trevor Howard whether he ever wanted to try his hand at directing, the actor replied, “I enjoy being somebody else. Directing a film is no fun. You have to be yourself!” Howard certainly enjoyed being somebody else — so much so that he made major embroidery of his war record, no small irony for an actor so memorably associated with roles playing men of war. It is the central revelation of Pettigrew’s biography and the central weakness: The discovery was made after Howard’s death, so there was no opportunity for confrontation, explanation or perhaps expiation.

In his early screen career, Howard was usually in uniform: in Carol Reed’s “The Immortal Battalion” (1944), in Anthony Asquith’s “Johnny in the Clouds” (1945), in Cavalcanti’s “I Became a Criminal” (1947). Pettigrew claims Howard was dismissed from the Army in October 1943 after being found to be “suffering from a psychopathic personality and considered unfit for military service” without having even left Blighty. Howard repeatedly told the press he had been awarded the Military Cross, had almost drowned in the invasion of Sicily and seen action in Norway! Pettigrew claims that the man who played so many military heroes and so completely inhabited the officer class never even saw action.

Howard granted Pettigrew permission to start this bio in 1980 and the revelations Pettigrew makes were clearly not unearthed until after Howard’s death in 1988. Questions are left answered. The reader is left wondering how Howard’s alleged psychopathic personality manifested itself. Without the answers, Pettigrew offers a sad but familiar defense for Howard’s lies: Howard had a deep fear of abandonment stemming from a lonely childhood, which accounts for deceptions in later life. Pettigrew has clearly returned to research he undertook 20 years ago, a fact that gives the book a clunky feel. The beans have been re-fried and they don’t taste as good this time round.

Howard’s big break came when Noel Coward and David Lean spotted him in the roughcut of “Johnny in the Clouds” and cast him alongside Celia Johnson in “Brief Encounter” (1945). Lean wanted an unknown he could mould into the part without the audience having any preconceptions. Howard was his man and his gripping portrayal of the repressed middle-class doctor struggling with his unquiet heart is the actor’s best-remembered role and a catapult to international fame. Pettigrew’s painstaking account of the filming of “Brief Encounter” is excellent, as much for what it tells us about Lean’s obsessive attention to detail.

Pettigrew portrays Howard as what he was: a hell-raiser from the old school. Like those who followed in his footsteps, Richards Harris and Burton, he saw acting as just another job. He had little time for showbiz bashes and only begrudgingly accompanied his wife, Helen Cherry, to parties. He preferred to be drinking pints with locals in his village pub in Arkley where he lived most of his life, or watching his beloved England team play cricket at Lords.

Throughout his long career, Howard worked with plenty of Hollywood stars, and Pettigrew has all the stories. On “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Howard was furious at the way Brando staged a mutiny of his own and usurped Carol Reed. Howard rated Reed’s masterpiece “The Third Man” (1949) as the movie he was most proud to have been in — quite a compliment coming from the eternally gruff Howard. On “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965) he worked with Sinatra and was amazed at how off-handed the actor was in real life. He’d expected Sinatra to be as gregarious as the characters he often played. Instead, he found a spoiled kid surrounded by his sycophantic “gorillas.”

Cherry stood by her man till the end despite enduring years of his prodigious drinking and serial womanizing. Shortly before her death earlier this year, Howard’s long-suffering wife denounced Pettigrew’s new biography of her late husband as “sensationalist.” She challenged Pettigrew’s controversial claim that Howard was dismissed from the Army, an assertion Pettigrew makes based on interviews with senior government figures with access to war office documents. The real truth cannot be known until Howard’s records are released by the Public Record Office in 2018, in accordance with the 75-year confidentiality rule.

Military records aside, Pettigrew’s bio sets out to uncover the frailties and insecurities of the real Trevor Howard behind the craggy face and booming voice. This it does, and Howard fans will love this peek behind the veil, warts and all.

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