Ronald Harwood: 1934-2020

Gail Renard pays tribute to screenwriter, author, playwright and former WGGB Chair Ronald Harwood
Ronald Harwood

Ronald Harwood was a screenwriter, author and playwright, best known for The Dresser and his Oscar-winning script for The Pianist. He was also a former WGGB Chair during a particularly volatile time in the Guild’s history.

Harwood was born in South Africa and, like his cousin Antony Sher, came to Britain to act. From 1953 to 1958, Harwood became the dresser of the larger-than-life actor/manager Sir Donald Wolfit. Harwood took great pride in his work, “I loved the job, was very good at it, and didn’t feel demeaned at all.”

By 1959 he was an out-of-work actor; about to take a labouring job on the Hammersmith Flyover when his father-in-law gave him a typewriter. His writing career was launched.

Harwood wrote various television plays, including Private Potter, starring Tom Courtenay, about a soldier being accused of cowardice during the Cyprus emergency. Harwood also went on to write screenplays, including One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, based on the book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Theatre remained Harwood’s main love. His most famous play, The Dresser, premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 1980, based on his experience of working with Wolfit. The play transferred to the Queen’s Theatre in London and went on to become a film with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. The Dresser had a West End revival in 2005.

Harwood became Chair of the WGGB in 1969, when the Guild was riven with internecine debates (largely regarding South Africa and Czechoslovakia) and whether the Guild should have a political opinion. As described in Nick Yapp’s book about WGGB history, The Write Stuff, Harwood was a man of strong principles with a strong dislike of “politics of gesture”.

Harwood was one of many to oppose a decision to send delegates to the International Writers’ Conference in Moscow at a time when Soviet writers were being imprisoned for not toeing the Communist Party line.

Geoffrey McGivern, who was in the original cast of The Dresser, recalls Harwood’s “endless, affable energy. Oh, and his glee when he got flown to the USA and back on Concorde! He was a lover of life.”

Co-Chair of the WGGB Books Committee and Write Stuff author Nick Yapp said: “I interviewed Ronald for The Write Stuff in 2009. He was a lovely man to interview – quick and detailed in his memories, and phrasing his answers to questions in a way that made them ready to go to press without any contribution from the interviewer. He was Chair of the Writers’ Guild at a very tricky time, so tricky that the 1969 AGM never started – the floor refused to accept Standing Orders.”

Our condolences to his family.

Gail Renard is a former Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain