By Janet Sullivan Cross
Author’s Note: Over the years, I have cobbled together as much information about Colin Clive as I could, and I continue my quest for more. But much still remains shrouded and unknown, at least to me. In cases where I have had to rely on speculation rather than verifiable fact, I have stated as much. – JSC
“You see, my country was engaged in the Boer War. My mother went to France to get away from the turmoil at home, and I wanted to be with her when I was born, so I had to be born in France.” — Colin Clive, 1935
Early on the morning of January 20, 1900, Colin Glennie Clive Greig was born in St. Malo, France, to a British Army colonel, Colin Philip Grieg, and his Irish-born wife, Caroline Clive Grieg, known to everyone as Daisy. The eldest child, he was followed by two sisters, Noel in 1902 and Cecily in 1904.
By the time Colin was ready for school, the family had returned to England, where Colin boarded at the Convent of the Holy Cross school in Bournemouth. But the move back home didn’t give the increasingly fragile family any more stability. The next chapter of their lives reads like a Victorian novel, and its effect on a shy, sensitive schoolboy, who’d barely had a chance to plant roots anywhere, can only be imagined. In 1911, his mother began an affair with a local sculptor named Cecil Johnson, and his father sued for divorce, resulting in a messy—and quite public—court case.
Colin’s father was awarded sole custody of all three children—a ruling that was almost unheard-of in those days. When the divorce became final the following year, his mother quickly married Johnson, and the pair decamped for Schenectady, New York, of all places, where he may have had a teaching job. (This is only speculation; a textbook titled Sculpture, written by a Cecil Johnson, was published around that time—and just about the only thing in Schenectady is a small college or two.)
When he was 13, Colin left for Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, a Catholic boarding school founded in France in 1593, when penal laws forbade Catholic education in England; the college moved to England in 1794. (Charles Laughton was one of his classmates, though no word on how well they knew each other.)
Run by the Jesuits, Stonyhurst emphasized a broad, liberal education, and a priest remembered Colin as “a keen member of the orchestra, playing the clarinet.” He also joined the soccer team, though cricket was more of a family tradition: his uncle, John Glennie Greig, was considered the best British cricketer ever to play in India, where he was stationed as an Army captain; a picture of him, on a trading card, shows a lean, lanky build similar to his nephew’s.
At some point, either on the soccer field or elsewhere, Colin broke his left knee and spent the better part of a school year in a “bath chair” (a wheelchair with a long, sloping seat, allowing the patient’s legs to be propped up—so named for its resemblance to a bathtub on an angle).
Both sides of Colin’s family were steeped in the military (his mother was a distant relation of Robert Clive, who helped secure India for the British), and Colin had been heading in that direction himself. Stonyhurst was a bit of a “feeder school” for the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which was his next stop. But early on at Sandhurst, when he was just 18, he fell from a horse, which had the bad manners to land on top of him. He shattered what was left of his bad knee and broke the other one in the bargain, scuttling his plans to join the “family business.”
Whether he was disappointed by this detour, secretly relieved, or a bit of both, is unclear. But he rather quickly turned his sights to the stage. “My family did not object,” he recalled in a 1931 interview with Theatre World magazine. “In fact, my father was extraordinarily decent about it and gave me every encouragement.
“My first step was to take a course at RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts], and I do not want you to think that I say this in the least disparagement of this excellent academy when I remark that I consider the best training for an actor is experience. He should play every part he possibly can.
“This conviction came to me very early, and I was determined to get onto the actual stage as quickly as possible… ‘where angels fear to tread’—you know the rest. With the audacity of a beginner I went to the Playhouse one night and sent in my card to Charles Hawtrey, who was then appearing there. He would have been quite justified in refusing to see me, for he had never heard of me in his life. But his goodness of heart is still famous, and to my great delight he not only saw me, but offered me a part in his next play. I believe I had one line to speak, but you can imagine with what joy I accepted the offer.”
And so began Colin Clive’s career on the stage: the walk-on role of Claude in a musical farce called The Eclipse, at the Garrick Theatre on Charing Cross Road. But a secure spot on the West End was still a ways off. Aside from some small roles in London, he spent his first few years in the theatre as many actors did, barnstorming through the provinces.
“On tour, I made my first acquaintance with repertory,” he recalled in the Theatre World interview. “I took part in the farewell season of Miss Horniman’s at Manchester, though I came into it so late that I cannot claim to belong to that brilliant company of actors and actresses who were trained under her banner.”
The daughter of a wealthy English tea merchant, Annie Horniman underwrote the founding of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1904, and remained a creative and financial force during its fledgling seasons. Four years later, she headed home to start The Gaiety Theatre, England’s first-ever regional repertory company, showcasing classics as well as plays from young local writers who became known as the Manchester School. Known for her exotic wardrobe and then-scandalous habit of smoking cigarettes in public, Horniman was a heroine to young artists and actors, and was credited by G.B. Shaw with “starting the modern theatre movement.”
But as is often the case, the Gaeity’s artistic success did not translate into long-term commercial viability. After struggling through the war years and hanging on for just a bit longer, Horniman sold the theatre to a film company in 1921. Colin got in just under the wire for the troupe’s last few months.
In 1923, after touring the provinces for another year and a half, Colin became an inaugural member of the Hull Repertory Company, a crafty, resourceful little troupe in Kingston Upon Hull in Yorkshire, which was started up by actor/producer A.R. Whatmore.
Designer Eric Hiller transformed a drab, barren hall, previously the local firehouse, into the Hull’s main stage—and from there he conjured up a fog-shrouded Norwegian fjord for the British premiere of Bjornstjerne Bjornson’s Leonarda, an English drawing room for C.K. Munro’s At Mrs. Beam’s, a country garden for A.A. Milne’s The Lucky One, a run-down estate house for Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, and anything else the current production called for. Colin played the lead in many of these, including the Munro and Milne plays.
Rather than relying strictly on local talent, Whatmore ran limited 10-week seasons, so he could also draw from a wider pool of seasoned, working actors, including Colin and Roland Culver. In his autobiography, he described the company as “a bundle of temperaments, explosive as an arsenal.” But onstage, the results were nothing short of magic. In 1925, the legendary Miss Horniman herself—clad head to toe in red and gold brocade—attended a performance of H.F. Rubenstein’s Peter and Paul, starring Colin and Culver. After the curtain fell, she took to the stage to warmly praise the actors and the production.
But that same year, Colin reluctantly left the Hull to join the run of Rose Marie at the Drury Lane Theatre. “I followed Brian Gilmore,” Colin recalled in Theatre World. “He had played in it about ten months when he became ill. Even then I got nearly two years’ work out of it, such was the phenomenal run of the play.
“I had a part in the next Drury Lane production too, so I was lucky enough to be spared any lengthy period of ‘resting.’” In this, the first London production of Show Boat, Colin played Steve Baker, Julie’s husband, in a cast that also featured Cedric Hardwicke as Cap’n Andy and Paul Robeson as Joe.
By the end of the run, Colin had logged a decade in the theatre. His “overnight success,” in Journey’s End, lay just ahead.
To be continued…