In 2014, 15 years on from Galaxy Quest, a New York film critic tried to prise a nugget out of Alan Rickman. Had he disliked his co-star Tim Allen? Rickman was much too discreet to let on, but now we have the answer. “Tim Allen has this perverse need to needle, antagonise, provoke, demoralise,” he wrote after a day on set in 1999. “Takes every opportunity to belittle.”
Anyone who knew Rickman will be dashing to the index to see how they fare in Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries. Some win the fluffiest praise. Ian McKellen “has the biggest heart”, Helen Mirren is “the freest soul”. Fortunately he doesn’t dispense only hugs and high fives. When Rickman died of pancreatic cancer in 2016 tributes lauded both the charisma of his acting and the unusual extent of his kindnesses. But who can be quite so uncomplicated a paragon even when no one is looking?
So here he is bristling when Stephen Frears won’t chip in for a meal (“You’re in a hit film, aren’t you?”). Ewan McGregor is taxonomised as “self-involved to a jaw-dropping degree” while David Hare is “more self-involved than any actor I have ever met”. Alan Rusbridger is “as ever, it seems, devoid of questions or curiosity or life, really”.
These are swiftly daubed judgments after random encounters. Rickman’s friendships prove more richly textured. Take Fiona Shaw – Fifi, as he calls her. “One does not so much act with her as against her,” he sighs after a knackering evening in Ibsen. “In life – a glorious, generous, open, hilarious force. In art – a nightmare.”
Then there’s Juliet Stevenson, with whom he performed the ravishing duet that gives the diaries their title: “The shock (as ever, as so often) is the lack of any real interest in other people (in the same profession).” And to complete a trifecta of great actresses he befriended at the RSC in the 1980s: “Dame Harriet Walter for goodness’ sake!” Rickman, whose class rage never seemed to moult, had declined a CBE two years earlier.
Even Emma Thompson, who contributes a foreword, is denied a free pass. “So talented,” he notes when they’re shooting the splendid The Song of Lunch – “so controlling, so vulnerable, so closed. Not curious.” Would Rickman’s toes be curling in his grave as these cloistered scribblings reach the light? He left no instruction about what to do with them, shrugs his editor Alan Taylor, but here they now are and, appropriately for a journal which early on describes playing Anton Mesmer, they are mesmerising.
Rickman began keeping a diary in 1993. Thanks to Die Hard and the Sheriff of Nottingham, he was already a Hollywood star. “Quiet pleasure of preparing food for friends,” he says in his first entry. In fact he eats out far more than in, principally The Ivy and Sheekey’s, later The River Café and The Wolseley, where from the next table he sends Lucian Freud a telepathic plea to “paint me”.
Instead he has painted himself: the actor on stage, set, holiday, always watching, always noting, usually brickbatting directors. “I want to be directed not whinged at,” he growls when shooting Rasputin, then adds a parenthetical concession: “(But I think I must be a bit of nightmare with my ‘certainties’).” Those certainties – the sense that he instinctively knows what, for him, is right in art as in politics – are the diaries’ honest coin.
While the years impart structure, a contrapuntal rhythm comes with the life cycle of every fresh project. He embarks each time on a wave of idealism, only to chronicle the crushing impact of reality in the form of colleagues, audiences, the press. “Once again The Telegraph shows its tawdry little fangs,” he mutters, though a Guardian critic enrages him too. He feels it all even more when directing.
Come the 2000s an overarching plot is provided by Harry Potter, the imperious juggernaut he loves and loathes and cannot escape. Along the way he vexes about his weight, does up new homes, semi-detachedly star-spots at parties thrown by Tash and Liam or Trudie and Sting (“I feel like I am walking around in a magazine”). After shooting a big scene in Love Actually he goes to Peter Jones to buy a loo brush. And there are lovely off-duty enthusiasms: Gogglebox, Wimbledon, window cleaning (“always therapeutic – instant results”). He also offers an illuminating side-eyed account of New Labour’s entire life span, starring Kinnock and Blair.
The going is not always easy or unfrustrating. In 2000 the diarist himself worries that, looking back, he won’t remember “the coded details and the sharp thoughts hidden between the safer lines”. Many entries are briefer than tweets, or cryptic as crossword clues. It’s sometimes unclear why he’s got on a plane or, though footnotes do their best, who he’s with.
Then there are the omissions. He writes a memo to self re Frances Barber: “Never divulge anything to her that you do not want spread like soft margarine.” Presumably the most violating indiscretions have been culled as a million words were boiled down to about 150,000. Opacity even lingers over Rickman’s 46-year relationship with Rima Horton, whom he married in 2012. “There but for the grace,” he confides to Emma Thompson on the set of Sense and Sensibility when their co-star Hugh Grant is arrested with a sex worker off Sunset Boulevard.
It’s a measure of how widely Rickman was esteemed in his community that he spoke at so many funerals. These crop up with ever greater frequency and then, after an earlier bout of prostate cancer, his own bell tolls on July 14 2015: “A different kind of diary now.” Rickman’s different kind of diary is witty and debonair, caustic and fretful, for which some readers may like him less, others love him more. Madly, deeply and, better, truly he writes about what it is to be an actor. Imagine the purring motor of that voice as he issues his decree: “Actors are great people, and special and funny & self-denigrating, so f--- you anyone who disagrees.”
Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries is published by Canongate at £25. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk