"Rickman is a subtle actor, but he is not a writer" Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images

October 7, 2022   4 mins

“Arwen Holm phones,” writes Alan Rickman, “to tell me of a nasty little piece in the Telegraph saying how unsmiling I was in the local deli.” This is from his diaries Madly, Deeply, which are published posthumously — he died in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. The name is based on the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which Rickman plays Jamie, a dead, cello-playing Labour activist, who returns from the grave to console his devastated lover.

Jamie is closer to Rickman than any of his other parts: not only was Rickman also a Labour activist who played the cello, but he was similarly needling and obsessive. And I wonder if Madly, Deeply is supposed to perform the same spell for a different woman: the resurrection of a loved one. This book is not a finished piece of art. Its publication feels personal: it is a fragment of a man, a fragment of the cult of the actor, and vanity by proxy. Obliviously, this book investigates that cult of the actor.

People will say that they like the diaries because they like Rickman the actor, and they want more of him: but you don’t get that from the diaries. He was clearly likeable, and generous: he mocked himself in Galaxy Quest, playing a Shakespearian actor slumming it in a Star Trek rip-off for money, and he felt that tension between artistic and commercial imperatives. (An entry written during a Harry Potter film says bleakly: “More Great Hall. More turkey. More Hogwarts song”.) But the diaries aren’t good. Rickman is a subtle actor, but he is not a writer, and I think he knows it. He agonises over the entries. He hints that he lied to them, fretting that he cannot remember the “coded details and the sharp thoughts hidden between the safer lines”. A good diarist will betray his friends and, above all, himself, as consciously and willingly as an actor will put “the chicken” on his head for the part. But Rickman is more oblique: his confessions are accidental.

You yearn for him to tell more — to inhabit himself consciously. But the most he manages is to call women he dislikes “Ms”, beadily; suggest that famous actresses are controlling, and write “[He] has a wonderfully pitched reading. I wish he would find different mouth-shapes,” about Simon Russell Beale. He is fragile. He struggles. He watches Yes To The Dress.

Rickman knows that fame is self-hating: the phenomenon of wanting to engage with fantasy people not real ones, that is, not engaging at all. I suspect his battles with the media are a proxy for his battles with himself: art versus commerce. He notes the terrible questions journalists ask on press junkets: “Alan, what are the smells of Barcelona?”

He notes the offensive diary items. He suspects a female masseur is taking sexual pleasure from touching him in a professional capacity. Did she confuse him with Hans Gruber, or the Vicomte de Valmont? Many actors excel at playing who they are not — it’s the ecstasy of transgression. He is nothing like a villain, or a satyrmaniac: he was in a relationship with the same woman for almost 50 years.

I think a large part of Rickman was repelled by his fame — he mocks actors who care who is playing what and for how much — but it addled him anyway. Fame corrupted and exposed him, and we know that because in the diaries he accidentally exposes himself. He and his partner are distraught to discover that there are no Leftists at the luxury hotel in the West Indies they visit over Christmas: why would there be? He frets that the (presumably First Class) airport lounge he finds himself in has no space for “Eccentrics and Weirdos” like himself. So why not step outside?

His serious politics — and I am willing to believe they are serious in intent — are made absurd by the publication of these diaries. If you place serious things next to trivial ones — and the lifestyle of a famous actor can only be trivial — they become trivial too.

This is Rickman at an anti-austerity march in 2011. It reads like parody. “Straight to EAT for coffee and a sandwich before wandering down to Trafalgar Square and long wait for the Equity banner. At Park Lane the sight of the Dorchester proved too much.” “Ms [Mia] Farrow talked long and expertly about Darfur,” he writes in another entry. “Salma Hayek talks of her time in India as a volunteer for Mother Teresa — this utterly beautiful woman talking of wiping up shit and worms and keeping the flies off a dying woman’s face.”

It often reads like parody, Adrian Mole grown up: “On the way home, a visit — forced — to Dean Street Tesco. What a dump this chain is. A sort of shopping equivalent of our shoddy government.” Or: “St James’s Christmas Mass. The sermon evoked Stalin as a reason for the need for God. Mostly I was looking at the congregation and wondering why we don’t have a local Waitrose.” Or: “Tonight the tree frogs were silent. What do they know?”

He should have written a book about acting. He is, of course, a superb critic: “Emma [Thompson] needs to work with someone who will ask her to dig rather than skim”; “Ms [Georgina] Cates [in An Awfully Big Adventure] suffers from only functioning from her sense of the story. She listens to nothing, responds to nothing. She’s a butterfly inside her own glass case, watching herself bat around.” “Every line,” in a Henry Goodman performance of Shylock, “is a thought contained in a body which has a life.”

But mostly it is Rickman in an unfinished play: what would he think? It is a fair metaphor for our treatment of the acting class: deification is objectification, and destruction; the end of Perfume, in which the desired man is torn apart. It is fragments from a nervous man who hated gossip, and now will be read for it: “Bumped into P. Mandelson & Reinaldo [his partner] in Westbourne Grove. He was eating a choc-ice and trying to rent a video. Tea with Mussolini.”

So it is a tragedy, then: with the publication of this book, perhaps commerce won. A question from the Sweeney Todd press junket is cruel, but it displays his predicament neatly: Alan, if you were a pie which flavour would you be?

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.