Writer Helen Osborne – wife of playwright John – died, aged 64 , on January 12. Although not as well known as her husband, Helen offered a lot to the theatrical world by writing for The Observer and The Telegraph and sitting on the board of the National Theatre.
Born Helen Dawson on March 11, 1939, she was educated at the Mount School, York, and went on to read history at St Hilda’s College, Durham, before spending a year at Brown University in America where she acted in a number of student productions and acquired her life-long passion for the stage.
She was a journalist in Northumberland before arriving in London in 1962. Helen then rose swifly through the ranks at The Observer where she did a spell as drama critic before becoming arts editor in the late sixties. This led to an administrative post on the board of the National Theatre and thence to a renewed acquaintance with John Osborne.
These were bleak times for John. His fourth marriage to the actress Jill Bennet had hit the buffers along with his glittering reputation as leading light of the new drama that had changed the face of theatre in the late fifties. Suffering writer’s block and weary of the clamour of London, Osborne longed for sanctuary. Helen provided it and in 1974 the couple turned their back on the capital, settling first in Osborne’s house in Edenbridge, Kent where they were married four years later.
It was during his years with Helen that John produced his two famous volumes of autobiography – A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991). These works, with their vicious attacks against his mother, ex-wives, colleagues and friends served to seal John’s reputation as an ogre – later the National Theatre would place a wreath on his grave with the message ‘Goodbye you old bugger’. It is well know that Helen was a doughty defender of her wayward husband but less well known is her contribution to his writing. It is doubtful whether John’s memoirs would have had such an impact had they not been so skilfully lightened and polished by Helen’s editorial hand – I remember her insistance on including ‘lots more jokes’. The autobiographies also benefitted from Helen’s first-hand knowledge of one of the most formative and creative periods in British drama. If you fillet out the rants, the memoirs provide a rich slice of theatrical history for which we have Helen, in part, to thank.
But thanks are also due for her journalistic contributions. Her recent reviews of theatrical biographies, written mainly for The Telegraph are as sharp and well informed as ever.
Helen was left to deal with the aftermath of John’s unsparing diatribes – she once wrote that the “literary vultures” gathered to “pick over his bones” within weeks of his death in 1994 – and she has done so boldly and with foresight. Firstly by authorising a biography and secondly by releasing her husband’s private notebooks. The tidal wave of rubbish being written necessitated finding a biographer who had no axe to grind and, more importantly, one with experience of the theatre. Although John Heilpern – a distinguished New York based critic and author of a widely admired study of Peter Brook – has yet to publish his account, the signs are that Helen’s trust was well-placed.
By her own account, John’s private notebooks do more than throw light on his own private demons, they expose the torments of anxiety to which all gifted playwrights are prone. John himself once said that all the playwrights he knew “go to bed with depression, some for months”.
Theatre lovers everywhere can, however, take heart at what might be Helen’s most enduring legacy. The Osborne’s rambling house and gardens has been handed over to the Arvon Foundation for residential courses for aspiring playwrights and script writers. It is sad that Helen, who initiated this venture and served on the centre’s management board, did not live to see its fruits.