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University of Texas at Austin

John Osborne and Helen Dawson Osborne:

A Preliminary Inventory of Their Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Osborne, John and Osborne, Helen Dawson
Title: John Osborne and Helen Dawson Osborne Papers
Dates: 1929-2003 (bulk 1960s-2003)
Extent: 35 document boxes and 13 oversize boxes (osb) (23 linear feet)
Abstract: The papers of John Osborne and Helen Dawson Osborne include works, notebooks, clippings, correspondence, financial, and personal material for both John and Helen Osborne.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-5139
Language: English
Access: Open for research

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Purchase (2008-11-009-P), 2008
Processed by: Liz Murray, 2010

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center

Scope and Contents

The papers of John Osborne and Helen Dawson Osborne complement a number of previously received additions to the Osborne Collection held at the Ransom Center. Obtained from The Hurst, the Osborne's residence in Clunton, Shropshire, England, after the death of Helen Osborne in 2004, the papers include works, notebooks, clippings, correspondence, financial, and personal material for both John and Helen Osborne. Married in 1978, they formed a close working partnership in personal, professional, and financial affairs so that the content of the papers intertwine their mutual endeavors. However, it was possible to separate portions of Helen Osborne's papers as they relate to her formative years, correspondence, and journalistic career. Her correspondence contains letters written solely to her, unlike the John Osborne correspondence which is often addressed to the both of them. With this in mind, the papers are organized into two distinct yet somewhat interwoven series: I. John Osborne and II. Helen Dawson Osborne.
Series I. John Osborne is arranged into six subseries: A. Published Works, 1966-2000; B. Notes and Notebooks, 1952-1994; C. Clippings, 1957-2003; D. Correspondence, 1966-1994; Business and Financial, 1957-2003; and F. Career-Related and Personal, 1929-2002.
The published works in Subseries A. are arranged alphabetically by title and include plays, screenplays, and autobiographies. Most of the titles are reissues of previously published plays by Faber and Faber and Oberon Books in collections, such as Four Plays (“A Sense of Detachment,” “The End of Me Old Cigar,” “Jill and Jack,” and “A Place Calling Itself Rome”); John Osborne: Plays Two and Plays Three; Plays for England and Watch It Come Down; and Osborne's translation of Hedda Gabler. These works are represented by uncorrected page proofs and contain no original material such as notes or drafts. Correspondence included with these reissued titles was directed to Helen Osborne who mediated the production and publication of John Osborne's work toward the end of his life and after his death. The earliest work is his 1966 production script for the film The Charge of the Light Brigade, a project that led to a falling out between Osborne and his long-time friend and collaborator Tony Richardson. England, My England is well-represented with marked-up copies of J. A. Westrup's Purcell and Tony Palmer's Charles II, followed by a succession of film outlines and drafts leading to the final script and bound presentation copy. Also of interest are extensive handwritten notes for Déjàvu and a copy of the film script Handel inscribed to Osborne by director Tony Palmer. The papers contain material for Osborne's autobiographical work A Better Class of Person (1981) in the form of a corrected typescript, as well as BBC radio scripts. Looking Back, published posthumously in 1999, combines A Better Class of Person and Almost a Gentleman in one volume. Osborne's handwritten and typed notes, as well as page proofs, are included for this title.
The notes and notebooks in Subseries B. provide revelatory content, for they were written over a considerable time span, 1952-1994, and contain insight into John Osborne's frame of mind, especially in his later years of ill health and disillusionment. Characteristically, the entries are often constructed of brief paragraphs or runs of short phrases and single words. This is especially the case for entries in the years closer to his death when his handwriting became more erratic. Many of the notebooks contained inserted material such as notes and newspaper clippings. The loose material that arrived with the notebooks is gathered in two folders at the end of the notebook series.
A number of the notebooks have pages removed. Entries for the majority of the notebooks are dated. Undated entries were placed in approximate chronological order with imposed dates listed in brackets with question marks. The notebook entries that appear in quotation marks were obtained from the covers or first page of the notebooks.
Subseries C. contains numbered clippings scrapbooks from 1957-2003 and loose clippings from 1989-2003. The numbered scrapbooks run from No. 3 to No. 21. Scrapbooks No. 2, No. 4, and No. 5 are located with Osborne materials previously received at the Ransom Center. Scrapbook No. 1 appears to be an unnumbered item dated 1956-1961, from the earlier accession. The scrapbooks contain review articles of Osborne's plays and other works, as well as general articles on Osborne, supplied by a clippings service. There is considerable obituary and tribute material at the end of 1994 and early 1995. The clippings dwindle by 2003 as Helen Osborne entered a period of ill health leading to her death on 12 January 2004. The scrapbooks are in delicate condition and may require special handling, as the clippings are becoming brittle and less securely anchored to the support pages.
The correspondence in Subseries D. ranges from 1966, with early letters from John Betjeman, ending in December 1994 with Osborne's death. The arrangement is alphabetical by correspondent name or organization. The bulk consists of personal letters and notes addressed to Osborne alone or to John and Helen jointly. Infrequently, there are letters addressed to John and Jill Bennett, his fourth wife. There is a small amount of Osborne's outgoing drafts of letters in the last folder of this subseries and also scattered throughout. An index to the correspondence is found at the end of the finding aid. The index, while comprehensive, is not exhaustive. For example, fan mail from the general public was not usually indexed. Notable correspondents include Lindsay Anderson, Lynn Barber, Jill Bennett, John Betjeman, Dirk Bogarde, Robert Bolt, Peter Bowles, Richard Burton, Noël Coward, Gordon Dickerson, Margaret Drabble, Peter Egan, Richard Eyre, Edward Fox, Robert Fox, Michael Gambon, John Gielgud, Michael Gough, Richard Griffiths, Alec Guiness, David Hare, Neil Hartley, Michael Holroyd, Michael Holt, Pamela Lane, Dominic Lawson, Doris Lessing, Peter Nichols, Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, Tony Palmer, Harold Pinter, Tony Richardson, Jocelyn Rickards, Tony Snowdon, John Tydeman, Arnold Wesker, and Charles Wood.
Subseries E. Business and Financial, 1957-2003 contains a significant amount of financial and publisher correspondence, bank account statements, contracts and agreements, invoices and receipts, royalty statements, and material related to J. O. Productions Ltd., the company Osborne formed in 1961 for his business affairs. Of interest are the original incorporation documents for J. J. Scripts which became J. O. Productions Ltd. and its Combined Register from 1961-1990. The Register lists the few directors and shareholders, chiefly Osborne and his solicitor Oscar Beuselinck with Helen Osborne as secretary, as well as brief minutes of the directors' meetings. Correspondence in this subseries has not been indexed, except for drafts of letters from both Osbornes found throughout. Included are letters from accountants, banks, solicitors, agents, production companies, publishers, television and radio networks, and governmental agencies especially the Inland Revenue. This correspondence chronicles Osborne's financial success as a playwright, as well as his penchant for underestimating his income/debt ratio and his dislike of paying taxes. In later years the financial standing of the Osbornes became increasingly bleak, as years of spending beyond their means, coupled with an escalating tax liability, finally became an insurmountable burden. The debt load was crushing at the time of Osborne's death and Helen spent her remaining years in dialogue with accountants, creditors, banks, and the Inland Revenue in an attempt to float the debt against dwindling income. In 1998, the Arvon Foundation stepped in to secure The Hurst as their fourth writing center, thus providing Helen financial relief and securing The Hurst as her residence for her remaining years.
A wide variety of material is included in Subseries F. Career-Related and Personal, 1929-2002. Leading the group is correspondence related to disputes and legal issues from 1961-2002, arranged in rough chronological order, involving Woodfall Film Productions Ltd., Jill Bennett, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, Nicholas de Jongh and Anthony Creighton, biographer Peter Whitebrook, and ITC Channel 4. Spanning decades, various people and institutions were called to task for a range of reasons, wrangling over personal or professional matters. Some disputes ended in lawsuits, others were mediated by solicitors, and some ran their course in an exchange of heated missives. Also included in this subseries are personal documents such as passports, a 1982 will, as well as birth, death, and wedding certificates. A file titled 'Glory Box' yielded clippings, notes, greeting cards and postcards, photographs, and a diabetes record book. Some of the material may have been pinned up, as the corners bear thumb tack holes. A number of the cards are written by John and Helen to each other for various occasions. One of the photographs captures Osborne holding a young girl, probably his daughter Nolan. The photo mat is covered with a scatter-shot of Osborne's notations, front and back, referencing themes of love and hatred. There are also photographs from the 1980 'Playwrights Mafia Meeting,' two family photos, the Osbornes aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1981, and clippings related to Jill Bennett. The subseries also contains two non-literary notebooks, one titled 'Committees' and the other '1991.' Osborne collected and annotated a considerable number of newspaper articles, clippings, and other publications dating from 1960 through the 1990s ranging in topics of interest to him. Also present is the 12 December 1929, issue of the London Times, the day of Osborne's birth, and a sampling of stationery used by the Osbornes.
The last subseries contains works by others, including material on several biographies of Osborne by Luc Gilleman, John Heilpern, and Peter Whitebrook. There is also a short piece on Strindberg's The Father by Jan Myrdal and Osborne's annotated copy of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The presence of a single typescript page on comedian Max Miller is likely due to Osborne's interest in Miller in connection with his play The Entertainer.
Series II. Helen Dawson Osborne is arranged into four subseries: A. Writings, 1971-2003; B. Notebooks, circa 1963-2003; C. Correspondence, circa 1941-2003; and D. Personal, 1939-2003.
Reflecting Helen Osborne’s long career as a journalist and arts editor, the bulk of the writings in Subseries A. consists of articles and reviews written for The Observer, 1971-1972, and The Sunday Telegraph from 1988-2003. Material for The Observer consists of a clippings scrapbook of theater reviews. Arranged alphabetically by person or subject, The Sunday Telegraph material contains Osborne's typescripts and corresponding clippings of the published articles when present in the papers. Osborne wrote about and reviewed authors, actors, musicians, and playwrights as well as a column “Books of the Year.” Her piece on widowhood and Denis Thatcher's death drew a large response from her readership as evidenced by letters written to her after the article appeared. Her wit and astute critiques informed her writing which was highly regarded by readers and colleagues alike. Also present in this series is an undated novel-length work Crunch, likely written in the mid-1960s.
Subseries B. Notebooks, circa 1963-2003, spans Osborne’s entire professional life and references her journalism, although many of the notebooks pertain to her personal life with John.
The correspondence in Subseries C. ranges from early Dawson family letters from before World War II to 2003, with the bulk of the letters from the 1960s through 2003. Many of the names are familiar from the letters written to both Osbornes found in Series I., as friends and associates continued their correspondence after his death. Likewise, there is much correspondence written to Helen Dawson before she married in 1978. There are two folders of greeting cards, notes, postcards, and letters that John Osborne wrote to Helen over the years and large runs of letters from her parents and Richard Findlater. Other correspondents include friends from her college days as well as Eileen Atkins, Michael Attenborough, Margaret Aynsley, Alan Bates, Arnold Beck, Prue Bellak, Jill Bennett, Sir Robin Chichester-Clark, David Hare, Dominic Lawson, Penny Mortimer, Peter Nichols, Tony Richardson, Kevin Spacey, David Storey, Peter Stenson, Joseph Strick, and Olga Wilkinson. This correspondence is indexed at the end of the finding aid.
Subseries D. Personal, 1939-2003 includes academic records from high school and college; address, birthday, and daybooks; material for John Osborne's memorial service, personal documents, and a clippings scrapbook. There is also a folder of material on the Arvon Foundation, containing several newsletters and Helen Osborne's planning notes for a 1998 celebration announcing The John Osborne Centre at the Hurst. The scrapbook for 1959-1961 contains clippings related to her Rotary Foundation scholarship and involvement with the dramatic society while at Durham College. After graduating from Durham, she spent a year abroad on a Rotary Foundation scholarship attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island for the academic year 1960-1961.

Separated Material

The following item has been removed from the collection and housed with the Center's Personal Effects holdings: Helen Osborne's leather writing case with the initials H. D. embossed on top of case.

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