Vivien Leigh, Actress and icon – Q&A with Kate Dorney and Maggie B. Gale

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Tuesday, 12 Dec 2017


What book in this field has inspired you the most?

It was the lack of books and scholarship considering Leigh’s contribution to theatre and film that inspired us. Most books about focus solely on her personal life and relationship with Laurence Olivier. When her archive was acquired by the V&A we saw an opportunity to reassess her work and life in the light of what the archive revealed.

Did your research take you to any unexpected places?

As theatre historians we both spend a lot of time in archives around the country and this was no exception. In our work it tends to be the subjects of our research who end up in unexpected places rather than the researchers. There’s a great letter from Vivien Leigh to Noel Coward when she’s in Sri Lanka filming Elephant Walk where she runs him through her morning: ‘I’ve had a cobra round my neck – sat on an elephant – swum in a pool on a hill 1600 feet high which I climbed before sunrise’. We spent most of our time in the V&A, British Library and BFI.

What did you enjoy the most about writing your book?

The book was a collaborative exercise. We were the editors and commissioners of the work and on this project we got to invite people with expertise in a range of areas to explore Leigh’s archive, life and work. The most enjoyable aspect of writing the book was sharing findings with each other.

What did you find hardest about writing your book?

We’ve both done a lot of revisionist historical work in the past in which we’ve been intent on recovering lost figures or works and it was odd to be doing the same thing with a world famous star. We were both conscious of needing to keep making points about the extent to which Leigh’s work is usually attributed to the labour of a man, usually Olivier, but to not demonise him as a result.

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