When the boy was 14, his mother casually informed him that his real name was Guinness – though all attempts to trace his father and discover whether he was part of the famous brewing family failed. And it was as Alec Guinness that he became one of the most distinguished and beloved of all British actors.
Stage struck as a teenager, Guinness got his first break in the acting world early after boldly phoning up John Gielgud, already one of the leading actors of his day, and asking his advice. After drama school and a few small stage roles, in 1934 he appeared in Gielgud’s Hamlet at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward) as Osric. His name is listed at the bottom of the cast in the Times of 15 November 1934, below Jack Hawkins (Horatio), Jessica Tandy (Ophelia) and Sam Beazley (Second Player). The redoubtable Mr Beazley is still alive, a talented artist, and was acting on the West End stage as recently as 2005.
Guinness’s other early plays included Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Old Vic, in 1936, with Michael Redgrave and his wife Rachel Kempson plus Alec Clunes (father of Martin) and Margaretta Scott, who older readers may remember as Mrs Pumphrey, owner of a memorable Pekinese in All Creatures Great and Small).
You can find about about Guinness’ stage career by looking through our newspaper archive (log in using your Westminster library card number). However there is no need to rely on reviews to find out about his distinguished film career which ranged from adaptations of Dickens to science fiction via dark war films and joyous comedies. Why not track some of them down – Kind Hearts and Coronets (in which Guinness famously played eight roles) and Great Expectations are particular favourites at Treasure Hunt Towers.
Of course, his most famous role for a younger generation (and one which he was slightly ungracious about, though it made his fortune) was that of the Jedi knight Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy. You’ve probably seen those already, so instead of watching them again, why not listen to Sir Alec narrating Prokofiev’s famous musical story Peter and the Wolf instead? You can find the recording as part of the Naxos Music Library (again, log in with your library card).
Towards the end of his life Guinness published a charmingly indiscreet memoir (Blessings in Disguise) and two volumes of pleasingly curmudgeonly diaries. For a more in-depth look at his stage, screen and writing career, check out the Guardian archive: go to Advanced search and look at the Arts, Film and Music database where you can read over 300 articles in academic journals about him. Or search Youtube to see him collecting an Oscar, being interviewed by Michael Parkinson and appearing in some of his most famous films.