A Forehead Pressed Against A Window

Life worth recording but not like this

By John Nathan, July 8, 2011
Vocal hero: Robert Rietti, the doyen of dubbing, in action

Vocal hero: Robert Rietti, the doyen of dubbing, in action

Robert Rietti
Ari Scharf Publishing £12.50

Although more books are being published than ever before, it's not enough to write well and have led an interesting life for your memoir to end up in bookshops. You usually have to be famous, too, or at least have had a childhood mired in misery.

Only one of these boxes - the interesting-life one - is ticked by actor Robert Rietti, although there was a period of misery when Rietti and his family were interned during the war. His Italian father Vittorio was the second youngest of - is this possible? - 18 siblings. "Papa", a talented violinist and actor, was the greatest influence on his talented son's career. Talented, that is, as an actor. But as a writer…

The book comes with a recommendation from the Chief Rabbi, who accentuates the positive, particularly the Jewish sensibility that runs through Rietti's autobiography. But it is less revealing about the Victorian-style melodrama that saturates Rietti's account of his childhood. The key relationship here, other than with his father, is with the family dog, Flossie, who, with cloying anthropomorphism, Rietti characterises as being as wise and as articulate as a benevolent Oxford don.

You can understand someone publishing a pumped-up memoir in an attempt to endow with significance a life that never amounted to much but Rietti, who was honoured with a Knighthood of Merit for services to Italian culture, doesn't need to. His career as an in-demand child performer led to work as a moderately successful screen actor and a hugely successful dubbing and radio performer working with Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and Laurence Olivier. Dubbing is a fascinating, unsung stratum of acting and Rietti, who was known as "The Man of a Thousand Voices", was king at making foreign actors in English-language films more intelligible, or overlaying a bad vocal performance with a good one.

As Rietti says, it is a discipline which requires accuracy and attention to detail, virtues he needed in spades when he dubbed the voices of all 85 actors in the 1971 film Waterloo. But these qualities are almost entirely absent in this book. I'd be surprised if an editor had walked past the manuscript let alone worked on it.

Rietti's publisher has done no favours to an artist who deserves much better - as does the reader.

John Nathan is the JC theatre critic

Last updated: 10:02am, July 8 2011