Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in 1988’s Die Hard: ‘I had never seen a suaver, funnier screen villain and I still haven’t.’ Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar
The star’s thoughts reveal a man unwilling to suffer fools or mince his words – most of the time
Alan Rickman’s voice was a purr, but it masked sharp claws. This was evident in the memorable baddies he played and now you can hear it in the feline prose of these selected diaries. “John Major said, ‘You have given us so much enjoyment.’ ‘I wish I could say the same of you,’ was the unstoppable reply. He had the grace to laugh.” You suspect not everyone did. Rickman didn’t suffer fools and his intelligence keeps chafing against his fellow professionals – their self-absorption, their vanity, their unresponsiveness. He snipes and then regrets it. After a barney with his latest director he writes: “How can I curb this ability to distance and intimidate?”
If a script wasn’t up to snuff he would change it, as he admitted doing for his Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
It was an ability that casting directors noted and audiences loved. His smarmy cleric Obadiah Slope in the BBC Barchester Chronicles and his vulpine seducer Valmont in the RSC Les Liaisons Dangereuses were early delights, though he was already in his 30s, a late starter. He wrote to Rada when he was 26 after initially pursuing a career in design. He hit pay dirt in 1988 as Hans Gruber in the immortal Die Hard, holding a skyscraper to ransom while running a malevolent eye over his to-do list in a Filofax. I had never seen a suaver, funnier screen villain and I still haven’t. (Orson Welles’s Harry Lime is the only one who comes near.) These diaries begin five years later when he’s famous and famously picky. He turns down another script with this: “Would not require acting – just getting on with it while the camera has a look.” If a script wasn’t up to snuff he would change it, as he admitted doing for his Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It won him a Bafta.
It also made him rich and an unexpectedly keen shopper. He loves buying clothes and popping into Conran for what he calls “gift items”. The boy who grew up on a council estate in Acton had a taste for the high life, and he and his long-term partner Rima Horton are regularly on the move between London, an apartment in New York and a house in Tuscany. They holiday in Antigua with Ken and Barbara Follett. Affluence has its downsides, though. When the director Stephen Frears excuses himself from paying in a restaurant (“predictably”) Rickman writes: “The general assumption that I will pay the bill is beginning to pall.” As the years go by the company gets ever grander: “Trudie and Sting’s Christmas party. Byzantium meets Fairyland.” “Richard Rogers’s 70th birthday party at the River Café.” “Car to Chequers… Tony hanging around at the door to talk to me.” One wonders if anyone dared call him a Labour luvvie to his face. Horton in fact served as a Labour councillor and Rickman put his politics front and centre when in 2005 he collaborated with the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Kath Viner, on My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play about the American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.
He is harrowed by bad manners and rudeness, deploring the want of “curiosity” – he meant an interest in others. He has sharp words on the matter even for his dearest friends, Emma Thompson, Juliet Stevenson, Ruby Wax. He claims never to have met a curious politician, “one who asks questions rather than makes little speeches”. (He offers the exception of Neil Kinnock.) A certain sighing impatience dogs him and he doesn’t mince his words, at least in private: “15 May, 2004. Jumpers. Stoppard bores me rigid again… Simon [Russell Beale] needs a smack rather than a director”. He has no illusions about his own repeat role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, but it keeps the money rolling in and introduces him to a new generation of fans. He’s not a full-time moaner and will often write something to make you smile: “29 October 2005. Four great words – I MET TOM WAITS”. His design background didn’t go to waste either. The book’s endpapers reproduce his sweet illustrations and affable handwriting.
Great actor that he was, he never starred in a great film. Did he know it? He ought surely to have been Valmont on screen – they chose John Malkovich, alas – and he turned down Roger Michell’s fine adaptation of Persuasion. On stage, I saw him twice in Private Lives opposite Lindsay Duncan and rejoiced both times. I spoke to him once at a party sometime in the 1990s, a burst of gush about how much I admired him and he took the praise with the slow-blinking cool of one who was used to it. He died of pancreatic cancer in January 2016, the same week as David Bowie, also aged 69. From his obituaries I got the feeling he was wonderful company. These diaries confirm it.
Anthony Quinn’s latest novel, Molly & the Captain, is published by Little, Brown later this month
- Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries, edited by Alan Taylor, is published by Canongate (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply