|Wednesday 13th March 2013|
|An Interview with Clare Duffy, this year’s winner of the Simon Gray Award|
Clare Duffy’s play Money: The Gameshow played at the Bush Theatre from 31st January to 9th March 2013, directed by the playwright. It is now going on tour.
Interview by Anthony Wilks
Where did the idea for Money: The Game Show come from?
For Money, we started from a creative theatre-making place, rather than deliberately trying to make something topical. It was originally a short story I wrote about a couple breaking up – a couple who had put one pound in a pot for each day they were together, and when they broke up she took half. Then we performed it with the audience sitting round a table listening to this story. It was intimate and domestic – not at all about high economics. But having real money on stage made us think about what money really was and what it meant. It was from there that we started to think about the financial crisis and how dramatic, frightening and amazing the whole thing was. Seeing the people coming out of Lehman brothers, they looked so pale-faced and stunned by what had happened. It is a huge story of our time. So it started creatively.
Did you find that global finance lent itself well to the theatre?
Some people think economics is scientific, some think it’s an art form and some think it’s just crazy. I don’t think of economics as being a science. People often think that because it involves numbers it must be a scientific discipline, but one of the points of the play is that numbers aren’t quite hard and fast – things can change so quickly.
So how did the show develop practically from that original, intimate production?
In 2011 I applied for the Platform 18 Arches New Directors Award, and the award was for £6,000 – for the whole show. Now £6,000 was probably just about enough to pay for two actors to rehearse and perform the show, and I certainly wasn’t going to get paid anything, but I was a new director and it was a great opportunity. So I put as much money on stage as the production would allow. But it’s extraordinary to think what some people expect to be able to do for that amount of money – what it means to them. Then when I got the chance to do the play again, at the Bush, I got roughly 10 times what I had to do the show before – about £60,000, so I put £10,000 on the stage.
The characters in the play are hit hard by the financial crash. Do you feel sympathetic towards them?
I don’t have much sympathy for the characters – I admire them, and they are heroic in a sense, but I wouldn’t want them to be my friend. I wanted to create characters who were heroic – who were superheroes – who present themselves as more than human. But they also reflect on what’s happened to them, and where they’ve come – to being performance artists. I’m not interested in blame, or what we can do to change the future. What I hate is that some have suffered a lot more, and that the least privileged are the least protected.
If we just point the finger at the bankers or regulators or politicians, or mortgages or maxed-out credit cards – then we should remember that we all benefited in some way from the huge bubble, while it was there. From the outside it looks very aggressive, but a more generous way of looking at the problem is to ask what it is in human nature that makes us do these things. If you’re constantly saying that’s a bad thing you close off any chance of change.
How did you come up with the games played in the gameshow?
I developed the games with the actor playing Casino [Brian Ferguson]. I had a core idea of how the games would work from thinking, how does a hedge fund work? You need funds, you go long, you go short, you hedge – thinking about those things. One game involves getting the audience to keep a bubble in the air for as long as possible, and actually a bubble is an interesting choice of words. What is a bubble? It’s a beautiful thing and you want them to survive. They’re fun, and silly. I love seeing the audience with the bubble.
What’s your next project?
I’m in the middle of working on The Noise which is a co-production coming on in the autumn. I’m currently developing the script, with the sound designer, composer, and the same set designer, and the same actors – a really good pool of creative people. It’s a thriller about noise, set on an island in the middle of the ocean between the Arctic and Chile – British, but a long way away from Britain. So it’s using an old island metaphor. A man is found dead and the chief of police and helper investigate – it’s a whodunit.
Another piece I’m working on is called Some Other Stars for Magnetic North, about a man with locked-in syndrome. It’s all about his internal world – at one point the man is represented by fruit and veg. The brilliant thing about theatre is that you can just tell the audience that something is the case – that this is someone talking in their head, for example – and they are taken along with it.
For more information about tour dates for Money: The Game Show, visit the Unlimited Theatre website.
|Posted By admin on Wed 03/13/2013 - 13:37|
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|Sunday 6th January 2013|
|An Interview with Stephen Page|
The CEO of Faber & Faber discusses his career in publishing and the future of the book. Interview by Anthony Wilks.
AW: What drew you to publishing as a career?
SP: I wasn’t a great reader as a child and teenager, but I did study English at O Level, and then A Level. I read History at (Bristol) university but my priority then was music. I came to London to play in a rock and roll band but I needed to sustain myself so I got a job in a bookshop. I had started to think that I liked reading as a student, and a friend of my Dad’s who worked at Hamish Hamilton agreed to meet me for a chat. He said, go and get a job in a bookshop, don’t bother us in publishing with your naivety until you know a little bit more about it. So I went to work in Sheratt & Hughes for a year and a half in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon and served the good people of Purley, and just completely fell in love with the notion of putting books into people’s hands. But I found retail quite limited and quickly got the idea that I wanted to get nearer the engine, which meant being closer to the writers. So within a very short period of moving to London with a rock and roll band I realized that was not what I wanted to do. Fun as it was – I wasn’t a good enough player, I didn’t like it enough and the music business was unappealing – from the performer’s position anyway. I just became much more interested in reading and literature.
AW: Was there a point when you decided you were just going to stop with the music?
SP: I left the band in a dramatic, living room departure. I continued to play music as a hobby, and that was always the right thing. I quickly learned that publishing is a business; it’s not all about postgraduate study, it’s not about your interest in literature only, and only very small parts of publishing are involved in literature. So it was about trying to find a route through to learning the industry and hoping that further down the line I’d end up nearer to the books I really cared about. So I didn’t plunge into editorial, I plunged into marketing and sales. And I didn’t plunge into fiction but into selling and marketing computing books. Importing them from the States was my first job. Then I did gardening books and mass market fiction. But always in the back of my mind was to get nearer to the paperback that was in my pocket.
AW: This was in the ‘80s, a time when the publishing industry suddenly changed quite a lot.
SP: Yes, the phases of the industry I’ve been involved in are really interesting. I arrived at Longman, in my first job, at a time when conglomeration had begun. The big businesses were starting to emerge. Lots of different imprints were merging. The accountants and finance people were sort of in charge. There were economies of scale being discovered. Waterstones had emerged. There was an extraordinary explosion in British fiction at that time, from Ian McEwan to Salman Rushdie to Kazuo Ishiguro. Picador and Faber were the two lists that really embraced the notion of cool branding. Faber with Pentagram, Picador with their white spines. It was a sort of post-Penguin world in which suddenly new brands emerged. Picador majoring in the Americans; Faber in translation and the Commonwealth.
AW: Was that rise in fiction connected to corporate culture in any way?
SP: I think it was more connected to Waterstones and also to do with Margaret Thatcher, maybe, and the terrible 1970s. If you read early McEwan, you find an evocation of a dull, timeless, awful Englishness full of by-ways and back gardens. It was a recognizable world to me. There seemed to be lots to say about the dying embers of British culture and life but the voices are very individual. The UEA [Universtiy of East Anglia] course genuinely did create a path for these writers. There was also of course, the Commonwealth, with the rise of Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje. There was amazing work coming out of parts of the old Empire.
AW: Was there a sense in the ’80s that you were starting to do things completely differently in publishing?
SP: Definitely. When I arrived at Transworld in 1990, there was a story being told about how it had gone from being just a (highly successful) paperback publisher to a vertical publisher, i.e. one company publishing hardbacks as well as paperbacks. There was strong, commercial management of those hardback and paperback businesses, all integrated under one roof. The marketing department was really powerful, but nothing was more heroic then the Imperial Guard of Sales. Three rep forces going out in the market every week – everything was geared around it. They were lauded and rewarded for pushing stuff into the market. It was still a very ‘push’ world. But I was in a mass market part of it, and that helped, because the next part was 1995, when the Net Book Agreement went.
AW: And you felt prepared for that?
SP: Yes. Having been somewhere where books had already been commodified up to a point – passionately commodified – when I was at Fourth Estate, I was at least armed with knowing what a fit, modern publishing house looked like. Because you had to be really fit and tough and strong, and had to have very clear channels for getting books into the market. What had changed, through Waterstones’ success really, and then the removal of the net book agreement – was that the market had become interested in a much wider range of books. Supermarkets were traditionally interested in Delia Smith and some romance and westerns. And there was a snobbery about that – that readers were somehow different in different places. The removal of the Net Book Agreement, and the opportunity to use price, invited in all sorts of non-book specialists, who said they just wanted to sell the best books. So they wanted to sell the Booker Prize winner; they wanted to sell the best Christmas non-fiction. That’s really when the race began for the bigger books getting bigger, wherever they came from. Because the bandwidth suddenly exploded once you got a book into the sights of the mass market. But of course, the flip side of that was that price points went down, and the High Street specialists got squeeze and, of course, in 1997 Amazon was born. So you then have the online world next to the mass market world, and the High Street caught in the middle.
AW: Do you think the Net Book Agreement had been stultifying the book trade?
SP: There is a definite argument that the end of the Net Book Agreement opened books up to a far wider audience. The trouble is it made other things unaffordable, and it certainly commodified books. That destroyed the independent bookshop world and we’re now down to one retail chain. When I was at Transworld, I had three roles, and one of them was Specialist Retail Sales Manager, because there were so many small book chains that needed picking up, that they needed the office junior to do it, basically. I was young and flogging the Dummies computer books and gardening books, and looking after Ottakar’s, Penguin, Hammick’s, Volume One – these all had 20 or 30 shops. Now we just have Waterstones.
AW: And who knows what will happen there?
SP: Who knows? Because they are in a very tough position. In America we’re down to Barnes & Noble. There were huge numbers of bookshops that were willing to buy books up front. Subscriptions were in the 8 to 15 thousands for all sorts of moderately good books.
AW: There was the same fear in the 19th century too, wasn’t there – that bookshops would disappear completely? And that’s why the Net Book Agreement came in, to protect them.
SP: Yes, the Net Book Agreement was a reactionary imposition from the 19th century. There were publishers who were terrifying other publishers. Everybody published in library sets that were in three volumes. Then someone came along and said they weren’t going to do it like that – they were going to do it one volume. One of the reasons why things were bound up in a single volume way back in the 1500s was because transportation was so precarious – you would bind them up to protect them. You would literally get a miscellany of pamphlets, because the binding was what protected them on its journey from London to Bristol. So that’s all a book is in the end: protective form of transport packaging for one or more copyrights.
AW: Are figures like Unwin, Lane and Gollancz still inspirations to people like yourself or is it just so different now?
SP: I certainly have a bit of a penchant for publishing history. There’s always been an obsession in media businesses – and publishing is a media business – to describe everything as brand new, to say that things like this have never happened before. That’s particularly true right now. The word technology only seems to apply to new technology. Actually – the book is very good technology, the bicycle is very good technology. ‘Technology’ doesn’t only apply to the new. That’s partly because a generation are defining themselves by their grasp of new technologies, which is challenging an old order, and of course challenging the business model. My sister-in-law once gave me a copy of Frederic Warburg’s An Occupation for a Gentleman. It’s a very ironic title. The poor man: his marriage has fallen apart, he’s in psychotherapy, he’s desperately trying to keep his fledgling publishing company alive, the shareholders are terrified. But he manages to buy some copyrights and keep going. His working day looks an awful lot like my day. If you read Geoffrey Faber and Eliot’s exchanges about the business you find the same things as you do with any of those thirties publishers: bookshops don’t know what they’re doing, they never buy enough of the right books, there are not enough reviews of what really matters, too many books are published, they want to publish less and put more energy behind fewer books – and you think, this is exactly where we’re at now.
Warburg did something really interesting. He bought H. G. Wells at a time when everybody else thought H. G. Wells was of the past. And you can see that endlessly in independent publishing – supporting writers who have gone into the doldrums when they aren’t so recognized, and then they come back, because they’re good. One of the things about Faber that I try to hang onto is that when you publish people who are really good and they’ve created an audience and they go through a fallow patch, you can’t suddenly decide that’s that. You’ve got to hang on. You’ve got to have a beady eye for where other businesses are giving up too soon.
If you look at the history of publishing, there was a very clear time when the word ‘Publisher’ didn’t really exist. It’s very ambiguous as to who is the publisher. Is it booksellers reprinting things, copyright owners who are selling stakes in Shakespeare – who is it? And what is publishing? The modern version of publishing has become rather restrictive, I think. The period between the 1660s and the 1760s is a period when it really changed. There was a highly restrictive world around printing and publishing, because of religion and civil unrest, but these restrictions just could not hold. The last printer or publisher to be executed was in the 1720s, and it becomes far more diverse and open. But in the middle of all this you hear publishers complaining about self-publishing, prices being wrong, that authors ought to be happy with a certain royalty – I hear a restrictive industry desperately trying to hold on to a model that’s gone. But the publishers who didn’t die adapted and changed.
Another piece of history which is interesting is the pamphleteering in the early 19th century. During the French revolution and in the late 18th century and early 19th century, there is a vast explosion of pamphlet publishers in London. There were about 300 pamphlet publishers in London, most of them somewhere around Bloomsbury and Fleet Street I think. By 1830 there were 30. Tastes changed, and you have to remember that big history does happen.
AW: Do you think there is anything inherently political about publishing? Looking at people like Lane and Gollancz, they were on the left, and had a left wing agenda.
SP: Well, it’s a good coincidence to have your politics about creating a mass audience, if you’re running a business you will be more successful if you create a mass audience. The oddity of some of literary publishing is its anxiety about mass. That it is somehow the enemy of quality. And to some extent the history of Faber, certainly since I’ve been here, has been about getting that balance right. Success will not only look like having a mass audience. You have to look more subtly at the different layers of success. Because if you build your corporate body around creating mass success then you will undo all sorts of other important things. And all of these things come back to the money. The shareholders at Faber have always had a desire to create two things: a contribution to culture, and a business that succeeds. That is the relentless balance. You could argue that Faber and its shareholders have done that more successfully then almost any other publisher, particularly Bloomsbury publishers after the 1920s and 30s, because most of them had to sell up in the end. Except Faber.
AW: Why is that?
SP: There have been crises here when the shareholders could have sold up, and they didn’t.
AW: So it’s purely down to the personalities of the shareholders?
SP: The shareholders have played a big role, meaning the Faber family – starting with Geoffrey Faber – and of course Eliot himself. The shareholders also want a cultural business, a cultural business that is thriving commercially. We’ve got an engine here that could cope with publishing almost anything, but we choose not to. Publishing companies have identities, and there are things that they do well and things that they do badly. I don’t think Faber is political on the political spectrum – I think it identifies with the culture and is more committed to a notion of writing as the freedom of expression of ideas.
AW: So, do you think the challenges now really are different, or are they the same as at other points in history?
SP: There are similar challenges, but the manifestation of them is dramatically different. I might as well be doing an entirely different job to the one I did when I arrived at Faber ten years ago. My title and role haven’t changed but the content of my day has changed dramatically. The bits that haven’t changed are trying to communicate as well as possible with writers and estates – if anything, more so, because you are having to communicate change so much. The manner in which copyright is distributed has changed – the format, the customers, the opportunity to be imaginative around copyrights. But also this commodification of books after the ending of the Net Book Agreement, colliding with an online deflation of price, combined with a global technological transformation, has created an environment in which the power has moved around. The technology businesses, of which Amazon is one, and Apple, Microsoft, Google – have a different scale of operation than anyone we’ve ever dealt with before, and you need to learn how to cope with them. But perhaps the biggest change that’s now coming at us is trying to create audience, and I wouldn’t say that many people are very far on with that. Because, really, the mechanism for creating audience was a combination of media and booktrade – excellent publicity, and some consumer marketing on top of that, but that was very broad brush. Publishing has never really done TV advertising because it can’t afford it. Suddenly you’re in a world where a growing chunk of your sales happens in a digital format, in which there’s no pile-‘em-high form. A chunk of your sales happens through people buying online physical books, for which there’s no equivalent browsing experience. The book trade is using price more and more as their major mechanism, though Waterstones is trying to pull in a different direction now. It gets harder and harder to derive value reliably. And a lot of things have very small beginnings, so print run margins collapse because you can’t print as long, that puts pressure on pricing, inventory – in all of these ways we are suddenly dealing with a model which, when you’re looking ahead, will have to require a huge re-skilling and transforming of publishing businesses. One that is much more like delivering an audience for broadcast. Audience has to be created in other ways. The extraordinary opportunities, and vagaries, of the social online world is one place. Partnerships also become hugely important. Are you going to partner with people that have audiences? So, with plays, how are you going to partner with theatres, globally, to make copyrights available digitally and physically? Are they going to be willing? Of course, one of the problems with all of that is that most publishers don’t have a brand which anybody gives a hoot about. Writers have the brand. So publishers that do have a brand – like Penguin, Faber, Picador, OUP – have a staggered start. We’ve spent 85 years developing our identity, and finally we’re going to be able to use this identity and amplify it and grow it, to gather audience for our writers. The big question is, how quickly can we do that?
AW: It’s often painted as a battle between Amazon and the rest of the world – is that accurate?
SP: No, I’d contest that. Amazon is a customer we’ve dealt with for 15 years very productively. Clearly Amazon has a lot of strategic issues to deal with, and books are just one. And there have been some fairly aggressive exchanges between lots of entertainment and technology businesses over the last 10 years. But I’ve got a great belief in what we do here between writers and customers. The commercial front end is always a battle. You’re always trying to hold on to as much of a portion of the value as you can, to pass on to writers and to pay for everything that we do here. That’s endless. It would be better to say that Amazon has revolutionized certain aspects of the business of reading and writing. Some of that’s of benefit to publishers, some of it’s very challenging. But if you regard self-publishing as a challenge to publishing you’re missing the obvious fact that half of that term is the word ‘publishing’. It just happens to have “self” in front of it. Who cares how it is published, apart from the few main publishers? The point is, you have to publish. You can’t just stick stuff up in the world and expect a readership. Therefore, the cost of publishing presumably has fallen, if self-publishing has found it so easy to enter. But I’m not sure that’s quite true. You might say that the removal of shops has reduced the costs of retailing. But I’m sure Amazon would tell you differently, because of the cost of marketing. The expectations of online are different.
AW: Does that mean publishers need to shout louder about what they offer, to the reader and the writer?
SP: Yes, and like all entertainment businesses, they’ve been slow to do it. Because in some ways they’ve been so outraged. Look how outraged the music industry was about Napster. I thought publishing had done okay for a while, but we’re in danger of sounding outraged that people have managed to publish their own work and be successful and make a lot of money. What’s so outrageous about that?
AW: There’s no point whining about it then?
SP: No. But there is a big point in explaining the extraordinarily pejorative use of the word legacy. People don’t seem to understand what we do and think it’s worthless. I’m fed up with being casually referred to as a legacy publisher. What they mean is what they mean about software – legacy software doesn’t work any more. But what I say is that legacy has two meanings. If you’re stupid enough to let your business not work any more, fine, you are like legacy software. But if you have legacy, which is expertise, relationships, history, copyrights that you own licenses in – these things are of value. But not if you stand behind the walls of the castle and say you’ll clutch them to your chest.
AW: Do you think people are too sentimental about the physical book?
SP: Perhaps. I think two things: people are over-sentimental about the book. The book will last if it’s of use and people want it. Equally, people are overstating the joy of e-reading. We’re not very far into that yet. It could be that it wipes everything else out, or it could be that some people say – I’ve read for a while using my reading device, and actually I’ve gone back to books. I think there’ll be much more of a mixed picture. And if that reading audience, which is demographically slightly older, loves the physical book, it will last. And then it will remain around and other people will discover it. There’s no question that e-readers are going to very quickly devour genre reading, for instance – crime, romance, porn. That said, the physical sales of Fifty Shades of Grey very quickly overtook e-reading. But I completely agree that if people are saying that there’s some kind of wake required, for the death of something that was better, then no, I don’t agree. Reading is what matters. People will shop at Poundstretcher and Waitrose, ride bicycles and own cars – we don’t have to have a mono culture. There are businesses that would prefer readers to only read in one way or another. Digital gives readers and publishers the chance to re-engage with what a book is, and the turf that we call ‘book’.
Paul Hamlyn is a person who is in my mind now, because he figured out mass-market colour. If you go into the Faber archive you’ll see that our publishing of children’s books trips over in the late 60s. We published a huge range of illustrated black and white children’s books. Suddenly Paul Hamlyn arrives, with the How and Which and When books, which I remember from my childhood, and blasts his way in with mass-market produced colour. We’re at that moment again, waiting for someone to figure out the animated book that lives and breathes across a range of platforms with ease. At the moment it’s very hard to imagine it outside of the Apple environment – the app version of the book. To me it’s incredibly clear that that is a book. It just needs to find its invisible platform. Whatever tablet you have, you’re going to want a library of books that works like apps.
AW: Does this depend more on tablets getting cheaper?
SP: I think it depends more on mobile phones having a larger screen, which is what is coming. I don’t think people necessarily need books that are A4 sized, which is the iPad. When I look at what I do on my iPhone, it’s just a bit too restrictive but I can navigate the web pretty successfully. I hear a lot of people saying, “if only I had a slightly larger screen”. Then it’s about a stable platform. So someone can securely buy and use the Sonnets app for whatever devices they have. Then you ask, who is going to run the shop? It’s always about channel. But at the moment we can’t reliably create a mass market for these products.
AW: What’s going to happen to bookshops in the middle of all this?
SP: We’ll have bookshops, but the scale in which we have bookshops, which is an invention of the 1980s and 90s, that’s going to be challenged. There isn’t a CD store in New York. Not one. But I think books are a bit different. The thing that bookshops cannot replicate is the sheer scale of what’s available online, so I suppose if I had to guess I would say they’re going to become more curated universes, where the joy is of discovery, and the books will look better – they’ll be higher specification, more gift orientated. But those shops will have to have a credible online place where customers can do all sorts of other things like buy ebooks and browse.
|Posted By admin on Sun 01/06/2013 - 14:29|
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|Thursday 3rd January 2013|
|An Interview with Kenith Trodd|
An interview with Kenith Trodd
The television and film producer talks to Colin MacCabe about his career and collaborations with Simon Gray
CM: How did your career in television start?
KT: I got into the BBC, classically, by the back door. At Oxford I hadn’t really thought of the arts world at all; I had decided to become an academic. After spending two years teaching at universities in West Africa, I was offered a job at Sussex, but decided I didn’t want it. I was doing the most ludicrous things – Sussex at one point even phoned, and I got a girlfriend to say, oh he’s too ill to come to the phone to give you an answer. Meanwhile a friend from Oxford who had found his way into the BBC, Roger Smith, said, why don’t you come into the BBC? I asked Roger why, and he said, ‘because I can’t stand these fuckers I’m working with’.
CM: So which years is this – ‘65?
KT: That would be ‘65. I became number three script editor. Roger was number one, Tony Garnett number two, and I came in as the tyro. Our kind of uncle-boss was James MacTaggart. My first claim for attention was when a play that was going out on the Wednesday had a crisis on the Tuesday. I had to find the writer and tell him that there was a problem and they were not going to put it out that night. They couldn’t find him. The writer was one Dennis Potter. So I called him and said, I think you’d better come down to Television Centre. Sydney Newman, who ran BBC drama at this point, got us all together – Garnett, Roger, Dennis and me – and said look they’re not going to broadcast it, because they said it was exceeding its remit as drama. Although the Wednesday Play had a remit to be radical, Dennis had gone too far.
CM: Which play was this?
KT: This was Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, based on his experiences as a Labour candidate in a hopeless Tory seat. It wasn’t just a chronicle of his experiences – the character was fictionalized, and there was a lot of original stuff in it, including a very bold use of, if you like, the studio technique. And at the end, the thing I think they most objected to – this was Paul Fox, who was then not Controller, but head of public affairs – was the very end where the main character, played by Keith Barron, does a walk-down to the audience, straight into camera, having had a humiliating defeat, and says: ‘That’s it folks, and if you’ve got any problems with the tone or content of this, ah, documentary? you know what you can do – write to your MP’ (documentary and drama were not expected to cross into each other’s territory). We never got that back in, and there were months of negotiations with Dennis, who for some reason at that time was living in the wilds of Norfolk. Tony Garnett and I went out there as mates and emissaries, but were treated like men from the Kremlin, and Dennis, who was never someone to put a low price of forgiveness, said, well, I’ll make some changes but we’ll have to negotiate them all, and what I want is another commission. So he then wrote a prequel, Stand Up, Nigel Barton, and that was paired with Vote, Vote, and they went out in the autumn. And that kind of launched Dennis.
My next assignment was to go to BBC 2 and develop this series called Thirty Minute Theatre. It was meant to be new writers, 26 half hours, transmitted week by week. And it was live. And that was a blow, because in so far as I had habituated myself during that first year, with Garnett and Smith and so forth, it was to develop a healthy dislike of the prevailing dramatic norm, which was multi-camera in the studio. The other figure floating around then was Ken Loach, and during that year we were preparing things like Up the Junction and so on, where Ken was showing his weight and total doggedness, saying: ‘I want to be a film-maker, I want to get out on the streets and you know, bugger this script stuff’. The actual prelude to them agreeing to Up the Junction was itself characteristically anarchic. Ken had some arrangement, as a number of directors did, to do 4 or 5 dramas a year as freelancers. The way Up the Junction got into production was exactly the way it shouldn’t have got into production, by way of BBC norms. Ken turned down various scripts that we’d offered him, and came in one morning with this book, and said, can you read this? It was Up the Junction, and he only gave us one copy. We glanced at it – it wasn’t a drama; it wasn’t a story. Tony said to me I’ll read it over night and get in early, then you can read it. Tony came into my office holding the book and said ‘it’s all cunt!’ And we then had to decide whether to commit ourselves to the idea of the book or not. James MacTaggart was scared stiff at the idea of giving Ken this thing just to run with. And so day after day we would stand in the area between our offices and Jimmy’s with Ken hovering between us, and Jimmy would say ‘no’ and Ken would say ‘I want to do it’ and Garnett and I wouldn’t quite know what to do. And then there came one morning when we were having one of these pointless arguments, and Ken suddenly looks at his watch, and pushes his spectacles up his nose and says, if you don’t mind, I’m going upstairs to start doing some casting. And we were down the slip road. That kind of creative anarchy was how things worked.
Getting together Thirty Minute Theatre in the studio, live and with a great pressure on the actors to be wonderful was kind of anathema to the prejudices or ambitions I’d developed in the first year. The way that we rose to this challenge was to make it as difficult and ambitious as we could. I can remember we did one written by Raymond Williams, whom I was working with quite a lot as a writer at that point. That one was mostly set on platform one of Paddington station. It had a moving train with characters running up and down, and was directed by a man called Toby Robertson, who was totally a theatre not a cinematic figure. It kind of collapsed, but we got through it, and as the half year wore on we learned a few tricks and had the courage of our convictions. I can remember that the season climax was a piece set in the Southern States, about the freedom movement, with 29 characters and eight or nine sets. In the middle of all this there was I scrabbling to find material, and I came across a story in one of those random short story collections – I think it was called Winter’s Tales – and it was ‘The Caramel Crisis’. It’s about someone who impersonates or appropriates someone else’s medical qualifications and passes himself off as a doctor, so it had very dynamic narrative implications. I liked this story and I was looking around for a hack to adapt it, and I suddenly got this call from somebody who said, I wrote it, can I have a go? And I said, who are you? And he said, my name’s Simon Gray. And I said, have you written any drama? No – and I said, OK you’re on. So essentially on that project we were two tyros finding our way, in the geography and conventions of how to be an actor in this new medium, how to be anything in this new medium. We assembled quite an extraordinary cast which included Peter Sallis, George Cole and John le Mesurier. In the interval before the live transmission, the dinner interval, I troll the writer around and wish all the actors good luck. So, there was Sallis and whoever else – can’t find Le Mesurier. And it’s getting quite close to transmission. Eventually we find him shaking in some bereft coffee bar, with 5 minutes to go. It never occurred to me whether he’d been drinking, I don’t know if he had or not. But we just about managed to get him there, put him on his mark while the titles rolled. And it came off.
CM: You’re describing what is seen as the great Golden Age of television. Were you aware of that at the time?
KT: No. We had very little idea how lucky we were, and most of the valid insights I have about the experience are after the event. Because during the time it was a scrabble, about keeping going, delivery dates. It was exciting, but it wasn’t that easy for me to get going. During the first year there had been one or two hiccups, when I didn’t quite adjust to how you speak to agents, and what the conventions of operating with actors are. I think, by the end of that year, if someone had come back to me, and rung me from Sussex and said we’ve held the job open for you I might have gone. I mean I didn’t find it particularly glamorous, although it was new, and in a way both terrifying and some aspects of it distasteful. I can remember one piece we did written by John Hopkins, called Fable, and starring Eileen Atkins. Fable was fabulous in many ways, in that again it was much too ambitious not just in scale but in its content. By this time we already had a reputation for cutting edge and I suppose being leftish, and Fable was about apartheid. Fable’s proposition was, let’s just invert it, that it’s the black people who are in power and the white who are oppressed. And it boomeranged. The general reaction was: that’s what would happen if you gave the blacks power. Completely hit us back in the face. And we were so naïve about the freedom we had, that we didn’t have the time or non-excitement enough to sit down and be beady about it.
So after little more than a year I was dicing with all three of the impudent, edgy new dramatic thrusts – Potter the maverick innovative talent, the raw working class tones of Jim Allen whose live building site piece, ‘The Hard Word’ was directed by Ridley Scott, and Simon, the elegant ironist from a Cambridge-fed world and an utterly inimitable voice.
I can remember being in the gallery for the first time, and the thrill of seeing the row of monitors in front of you, and with your left eye you could look down and see the reality below you. It was utterly magical. But also very slightly repellant because it was something depended on a certain militaristic temperament, an organisational ability to be able to marshal people, remember the names of the cameramen who you’ll never meet again, or at least not until the next show – but somehow gather the creative juices out of that. And the person during that era who in my experience was best at that was Piers Haggard. He looked like a blonde god, had a great deal of charm, was a descendant of Rider Haggard, and could do all that stuff – marshal everything. We did Pennies from Heaven together when he was extremely good at being inventive. That should have been a movie, it should have been made on film but we had to use mostly the studio. What we were trying to create already, through experiences like that, was the ability to get out of that studio, in a kind of controlling way, and to make movies in the streets. But of course, what was associated with making movies in the streets was a content commitment to something very radical and quite un-bourgeois – bourgeois in content, bourgeois in structure. And I know at that time we used to try and inspire new writers with saying this is what we don’t want. We do not want your old-fashioned non-kitchen sink play which opens in a kind of sunlit drawing room, leading on to a garden, and a character rushes on into it and says ‘anyone for tennis?’ And ironically, at the end of that year, the team which took over the Wednesday Play, were quite traditional and right wing-ish. And the first play they commissioned and broadcast in their season was by J B Priestley, who was still thriving, and it was called Anyone for Tennis?
CM: So how did it work when you started working with Simon,on The Caramel Crisis?
KT: The Caramel Crisis worked very well, as I remember. So I said to him, do you fancy tackling something longer? And he did, and came up with a piece called Death of a Teddy Bear, which, like Terrence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, is about the Alma Rattenbury case in the mid-30s where a middle class woman married a much older man, took on a gardener who became her lover, and the man was eventually killed. And so Simon made out of this a very memorable piece of kind of English meditation, about taboos and about characterization, and in a way about a certain kind of English woman. That was not live, it was done very painstakingly in a mixture of film and studio, directed by the great Warris Hussein, but we don’t have it any more. But we do have the next one I was involved in, Man in a Side-Car. Simon, of course, was extremely resourceful in the way he used his material, and Death of a Teddy Bear became a moderately successful stage play called Molly. One of Simon’s characteristics was how prolific he was, how tireless he was in his activity, and how he never wanted to stop the kind of manic creative momentum. I can remember much later, in Unnatural Pursuits, which is one of the landmark pieces of the later years – we’d finished it, it was going to be broadcast quite soon, and we had a preview in Soho. And Simon and I picked up that there was one scene that didn’t quite work, and we said, we could actually make a nifty cut there, and it would make a difference. So we went to the editor, a very sweet, diligent BBC woman, who said, we have to massacre a music cue there. And Simon and I said, OK well if we have to massacre a music cue, we do. And she said, if only you’d told me few days ago, I could have really done something smooth there for you. And Simon said, we didn’t know until ten minutes ago. And it was that kind of craziness and persistence, which went on and on, and I didn’t meet that in any other writer, including Potter.
I don’t know how long in his life Simon claimed only to get up at two in the afternoon, but I can tell you for those years I don’t believe it, because nobody could have turned up quite so much material, nearly all of it vibrant. The pairing of Plaintiffs and Defendants and Two Sundays, for example, came about because he was writing draft after draft of a piece I commissioned, and it wasn’t quite working, and I didn’t really take to it, He said, OK, I’ll have another go, and he goes away, and comes back and there’s a quite different play. But it isn’t quite a different play, and what we’re able to do is to make both of them with the same cast, with Alan Bates and Dinsdale Landen, and the two pieces complement each other. That prolificity was quite amazing in Simon, and it was one of the most admirable things about him. And I think he had, whatever misgivings one might have about the more or less similar trail of middle class preoccupation that he trod, he had a very radical attitude to his material. It seemed to me as radical and as honest as anything that was in Jim Allen and Colin Welland and the other people I was also working with during that time. I think what defines a writer’s thrust, or a writer’s moral motivation, has very little necessarily to do with content. Potter was very indifferent to political drama, he did not particularly want to see it, did not particularly want to write it. He wrote one play called Angels Are So Few about a young man who believed he could fly and jump of roofs. And Dennis told me, you don’t see what that’s about, do you? I said, no. And he said, well, it’s about Roger Smith, who was a mutual friend and we’d been at Oxford with. And Roger by this time had become a disciple of the WRP – the Workers Revolutionary Party – and Dennis had observed this from a distance (because Dennis, unlike the rest of us, did not attend their Friday night gatherings). Dennis was very detached from that, partly because he didn’t live in London, and partly because he had a feeling of caution about the whole thing. And he used this wonderful phrase from Dryden “he was everything by starts and nothing long”. Dennis had this insight about our friend, of someone who was absolutely in the middle of something, of the WRP, so he did believe that he had wings and could jump of roofs. and then suffered all the disillusionment of that.
CM: Were you relatively active in the WRP at that time?
KT: No, the full extent of my activity was going to meetings and occasionally giving them a cheque. But I was pursued by them quite avidly, particularly by Gerry Healy, who was the leader of the WRP. Gerry used to flatter me by calling me the man with the rapier mind, and I remember very clearly thinking, yes, but that rapier’s not for you. I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren – a very fundamentalist, protestant sect who believe they are the chosen, and that the verbal inspiration of the Bible is based entirely in the King James version. That was my parents’ background. They were not the most ardent of Plymouth Brethren, but that was their life and their mind. And I went to quite a posh local grammar school when I was eleven, and my parents then encouraged me to go to a slightly posher version of the church in that town, in Southampton. But I can remember quite consciously deciding – I’m sure this was not the language in my head as a 13 year-old – belief systems are not for me, I’d have enough of that, and I can balance the life at home, without confronting the contradictions that are there when I go to schools and have science lessons and talk Darwin. And so it managed to insulate me from ever again being that committed or that in thrall to any belief system ever again. And of course there’s a down side to that as well which means you’re a bit too detached –
CM: But at the same time you’re very actively involved, or in the world of, Trotskyost politics.
KT: When you say actively involved – I was not a member. The closest I came to being warmed to it was through Roy Battersby, who became a full-time revolutionary Roy really abandoned his life as a director and an artist to make the revolution happen. There was a curious parallelism there – we made a film in I think ‘73 or ‘74 called Leeds United, which was probably the most radical piece I was associated with. It was written by Colin Welland, who was Leftish, but was more sentimental than Marxist, in the best sense, but nevertheless he made sense of that story, which was the story about a woman’s clothing strike in Leeds only a couple of years before Colin wrote it, and he wrote it because his mother-in-law had been a participant in that strike, and didn’t understand what had happened to them. Colin, as he did with everything, researched it thoroughly. We were going to do it with Granada, but Granada bottled out, so we took it to the BBC. And there’s no doubt it was informed a little by the insights of the WRP – the only trace of it in the film is the voice-over at the end, spoken by one of the women, which says, the next time we have a fight, we’ll trust ourselves to those who won’t let us down. There’s a kind of message there, but it didn’t offend it dramatically. One of the interesting things is that we’re dealing here with a period when there was a Labour government, and not a Tory government, who were increasingly uneasy about the BBC, or certain elements in the BBC. That perennial thing, that the BBC is endemically lefty – I’ve never been able to make up my mind about that really. I certainly didn’t feel that the antagonisms I was involved in at the BBC were political on that narrow basis. But nevertheless there was that perception. And around 1976 – 2 or 3 years after Leeds United – they tried a purge.
CM: At this point you are moving between BBC and ITV. At what point did you move from being a script editor to a producer, and what were the contractual relations?
KT: I was never on the staff of the BBC. Soon after the Thirty Minute Theatre year, there were big changes in ITV, and a lot of contracts were given out. And London Weekend were given a new contract to provide the national ITV television across Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the group that had got it was a very trendy liberal group – David Frost, Michael Peacock and Humphrey Burton. They won this goldmine, and they separately approached Garnett and me to say, would you like to come and be producers? Garnett and I got together, and I remember completely sort of flippantly said well, do you want to do that? Do you want to go and work for some dirty commercial company? I said, not really, do you? Then we came up with this jape: we would go back to them, and we would stymie them by saying, we’ll come but we’ll come as a company, as an entity. And we thought, that will completely throw them because it’s not part of their horizon, or their vision, at all. But they bought it. So we became Kestral Productions, got their drama contract for two years, and supplied them with all the single drama they did in that period
CM: So apart from anything else that means considerable professional success?
KT: Oh yes. But not for the first time, and not for the last time, I sensed that what LWT were wanting was to buy and appropriate what we’d done at the BBC. Because it was very prestigious, it was the kind of thing that got you television contracts. But we were in a sense trapped by our own joke, and then went ahead with it, and formed a group which included David Mercer and James McTaggart, and I was providing most of that material because Tony by this time was trying to go towards movies, and he must have already done Cathy Come Home. I was still earning my spurs mostly in television. So I took on producing all that stuff, and among the people I used in that year were Simon and Dennis Potter. But the London Weekend arrangement sort of soured through our mischief from the beginning, because we were contracted to do 16, and they said, do you want to do another one? They were opening in August and wanted to have an opening soufflé. They obviously didn’t have any sense of how ill-motivated we were. We said fine, we’ll do something, we’ll do this piece celebrating the opening of a new television station. And it’s called The Franchise Trail, written by Nemone Lethbridge. It was a comic expose of how they got their franchise and had a much lighter, more comic touch than most of the others we did. They immediately wanted to ban it, and they didn’t quite ban it. That was the only ITV piece I was involved with which did get wiped, because they couldn’t see the joke.
CM: And you’re working with Simon throughout this period?
KT: Yes. We did The Franchise Trail, and then Death of a Teddy Bear, then Man in a Side Car, and then another one also wiped, which was an adaptation about an elderly serial killer, called A Way with the Ladies – that got wiped as well. Then during this period I went to Granada for a couple of years. The London Weekend thing finished because that glorious, liberal optimistic London Weekend didn’t survive more than about 2 years. So we were still, at least I was, sort of starry eyed, in the face of reality, believing we were not ambitious –
CM: There is a period from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, when very large numbers of people were starry eyed in that way. But Simon was never one of those.
KT: Simon was never one of those, but Simon was never hostile, he was just not involved. I don’t know how many times he would have met Dennis Potter, for example, or Jim Allen. During that period the media glitterati tended to be on the left. They tended to be committed to change. The extreme epigram for that was the WRP telling you that when the revolution came the gutters of Park Lane would be running with the blood of the aristocracy. And quite a lot of people believed that. I never did – I didn’t find it that repellant, I didn’t find it that particularly real as an image or a creation. But, there was a kind of very strange, ironic pay-off to that. Because that was around ‘76 which was the year there was a big purge at the BBC.
What’s notable about that was not that the BBC was corporately or ideologically disposed to work like Leeds United, it was that they saw, on that narrow commercial definition of cutting edge drama, where the measurement for success wasn’t only ratings, it was a combination of ratings, press approval and consensus inside. It was almost like a commercial consideration where the commerce was not money. And I think that prevailed for a number of years. And in ‘76 I was in this bad situation of being fingered and told they didn’t want me any more. But the other thing that happened in that very year is that I had done three new Dennis Potter pieces that were due to be transmitted in the Spring of 76. One of which was a piece which I still admire enormously, and which earned me my only written communication from Mary Whitehouse, which was a letter of praise. It was called Where Adam Stood, based on a classic called Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, the son of Philip Gosse, a Plymouth Brethren biologist at the time of Darwin.
Dennis and I picked that partly because we knew of that background. That was a very brilliant piece of work, both in content and in structure, because if you look at Father and Son the book, it’s four fifty minutes, six if we’re lucky. Dennis did it in a single 75 minutes and got perfectly the essence of the thing. Then there was a piece that I thought was really going to give us a problem, called Double Dare, which was probably one of the most personal and awkward pieces that Dennis wrote. He had a writer’s block, owed me script, and I was pestering him and trying to manoeuvre around it. He suddenly called me one day and said, I think I can break the block if you’ll be helpful. And I said, well, what do you want? He said I want you to arrange for me to meet Kika Markham, a very glamorous actress who had been David Mercer’s girlfriend. So I set them up for a meeting in a hotel in the West End, and I’m just about to leave my office to go to the theatre, and I get this call from Kika saying, can you come over? And I said, what do you want me there for? What does he want? So I go over there, en route to where I was going, and have a drink to try to get the temperature of the thing. Clearly Dennis is coming on to her but is also promising her a part at the same time. But anyway, I do my bit and off I go and I don’t really hear much more about it from either of them, except within, at the most, six weeks, probably less, I get this script, which is about this writer meting an actress in a hotel. But the writer is doubled with a client who’s actually meeting a call girl. And these perambulations are interrupted by the writer’s producer turning up on the way to the theatre. But that was a very kind of itchy piece, really about Dennis’s own obsessions at that time, which were to do with the difficulty of writing and what kind of sexuality he could identify himself with. The equation he had in that film was the equation between the actress and the tart, which did provide an absolutely brilliant part for Kika, and we made it as a film, in the old Ealing Studios then owned by the BBC, directed by John Mackenzie. It was in the end a very Htichcockian thriller. The third one was Brimstone and Treacle, and, of course, I was wrong, it was Brimstone and Treacle that gave us the problem, and got banned and became a cause célèbre.
CM: How did you work with Simon in this period, did you ring him up every six months?
KT: He was by that time quite prolifically operating in the theatre, with Butley in ’71, but across that period we were still working. Simon would say I’ve got this idea or whatever. There was then a gap which was maybe two or three years before we came to Plaintiffs and Defendants and Two Sundays, which begins the main body of the successful surviving work I did with him. Before that there were two pieces of Kestrel’s at London Weekend. One was called Pig in a Poke, directed by Jimmy MacTaggart, about a writer. Watching it recently I thought, God we were on a learning curve, we really did not quite know what we were doing. It was mostly based in the studio, and it was really gawky, even though MacTaggart directed it – straining for articulacy, straining for a voice. But if you can deduce Simon from that piece, he’s just as trendy and interested in a kind of radicalism, or radical attitudes, as Potter was. And the other one, which again is accidentally topical, was called The Dirt on Lucy Lane, adapted from a story by a writer called Thomas Hind, about tabloid journalists. It’s almost like a paradisical anticipation of what we’ve got going on now, without the technology. It’s about a journalist preying upon a fading star and her husband putting pressure back. So Simon was still developing his voice.
CM: If we go forward now to Plaintiffs and Defendants, this is, in a sense, the second phase.
KT: The second phase, yes, although the time between A Way with the Ladies and Plaintiffs and Defendants probably is no more than about two years. So I wasn’t, as I was with Dennis and Welland, and Poliakoff later, getting everything they did and everything they offered. So you could probably say that Simon wasn’t settled into television at that point. I cannot remember the germ of Plaintiffs and Defendants, but it was only going to be one piece. It would have been that I had an assignment to come up with six or seven Plays for Today, as it was by that time called, in a season, and was looking around for material. There were 13 in total, and I shared them in numbers with a producer called Irene Shubik. One just had to put material together. That was the last time I did that, because gradually, partly through our growing ambition to do things on a bigger scale and always working on film, the numbers of single dramas on BBC television generally began to decline.
CM: But you did Two Sundays immediately after –
KT: Well they were done together. That would have been one long production period where we would have had, with only a short break, Alan [Bates] and Dinsdale [Landen], going right through for the best part of 6 months. Back to back. Because the casts are similar in both cases.
CM: But then there’s really quite a long break until After Pilkington, presumably because Simon’s writing for the theatre.
KT: Yes, and I was then quite manically busy, I think. Because we also started to be ambitious about the movies. And there was the second period at London Weekend, then run by Michael Grade, when we did three of Dennis’s pieces, and I commissioned Simon intermittently. We wanted to do Simon’s Dickens play. That had a stumbling history for some reason. At one time MacTaggart was going to do it, and MacTaggart died around ’77.
CM: So how did After Pilkington happen, which is a very accomplished film?
KT: By the 1980s my brief with the BBC was to produce fewer things over a season that could all be on film. One of the things I was doing in that period was the Singing Detective. It took me a long time to find a director, but I eventually found Jon Amiel. I then went off to do a film in Italy, and when I got to Bologna, there was this urgent message from Jon saying I think you should come back because Dennis is trying to get rid of you. There was all this professional jealousy going on, because Dennis felt I should be exclusively for him and I wanted to work with other people. There were periods with Potter where we didn’t speak for two years and then we’d come back suddenly and work prolifically.
CM: Was that the nature of your relationship with Simon as well?
KT: There was never any negativity between me and Simon. And retrospectively the oddity I feel about our personal relationship is that it’s almost like we never discussed the fact that Simon, having studied at Cambridge, was a kind of Leavisite. At Oxford I had braved their obscurantism of the English school by proposing Scrutiny, F.R. Leavis’s Quarterly as the subject of my thesis. So there was a kind of intellectual congeniality which was never spoken, despite having done a television film version of The Common Pursuit, which is about that era.
CM: How did the Golden Age come to an end?
KT: The Golden Age went into the 90s, flourished intensely and then suddenly stopped. For example, the presentation voiceover for The Common Pursuit, which had a glittering cast of Tim Roth, Andrew MacCarthy, Stephen Fry, is introduced as “Ken Trodd and Christopher Morahan’s latest piece.” As late as ‘91/’92, ours were the names that you sold it on. I just took it for granted. However, by that time, things were already crumbling. Still, this period did included a supreme achievement which along with After Pilkington and Unnatural Pursuits makes up the trilogy of Simons’ works I’m most proud of. They Never Slept is a glorious satirical traducing of the stiff upper lip tradition in British War movies. The coincidence of the first Iraq war gave it an extra sheen at the time and Udyan Prasad directed a wonderful cast including Edward Fox, Harriet Walter, James Fleet and Emily Morgan with Pete Postlethwaite in a cameo as a Broadcasting House Commissionaire.
As Simon was concerned the gold was truly in crumble after we’d made Femme Fatale, which was the last one. After that I went with Simon to see the Head of Drama, Mark Shivas. We were just going to say, we’d like to do another one, can we go ahead? Probably in past years I wouldn’t have even had to wheel Simon into the building. But this time there was a new elephant in the room, Jane Harris, who had been around the Garnett entourage for some time and had got herself a job like special assistant to the Head of Drama. This time there were just too many questions being asked. They all seemed perfectly innocuous, like who do you see being in it, what’s the span, can we have a treatment? And all that was just too much for Simon. Because what he’d been used to, being able to get something commissioned and made, they were wanting to put a stop in that process. And I remember later going to the launch of The Smoking Diaries. I hadn’t seen Simon for a little while, and I remember saying to him, do you think there’s anything in this for television? And Simon saying, in a rather legendary but terminal way, I think I’m too old for television!
CM: Can you tell me more about the culture before the changes?
KT: I remember once giving an interview to Screen International or Broadcast, where I said in a rather vainglorious way, if I decide I want to give a writer a commission, all I have to do is get the signature of a little boss along the corridor. The little boss along the corridor read this and thought, oh, is that what I am? But it was in effect like that. You were given a kind of autonomy. Greg Dyke told me that he thinks one of the big mistakes John Birt made was to come in and decide we’ve got to have an executive cadre which has nothing to do with programme making. Because I think the real fibre of the BBC had been programme making – getting people who were producers like myself, to be between the management, the money and the talent. What Birt introduced was a quite alien culture.
CM: So if we go back to this period, when there were six films in six years, and look at the process. With After Pilkington – did Simon send you a script? Did you say, I want a script?
KT: No. We had talked about the character being this woman who was a kind of mad person, and Simon was very keen to make her the centre of attention and for it to be Oxford oriented. He developed the plot and we tweaked it.
CM: So you work on the script together. And the casting was particularly brilliant. Was that Simon or was that you?
KT: And Christopher too. We were offered or mooted Helen Mirren. We decided no, we would rather have Miranda [Richardson]. Incidentally, Chris Morahan’s contribution to all this work went well beyond that of a hired Director. His judgment and flair were terrific and of course as an Executive he’d earlier been a great friend to the best dramatic talent the BBC learned to foster.
CM: Was Simon very active in rehearsal of his plays?
KT: He was when he needed to be. He wasn’t required to be there every day, but when Simon did appear on sets, he was an extraordinary, insistent power. I remember on the set of Old Flames, something wasn’t quite working during a scene between Simon Callow, Stephen Fry and Miriam Margolyes. Simon expressed some dissent. The etiquette of how you did this was charming but elaborate: Simon would speak to me, I would speak to Christopher, the director, who would then cross the floor and whispers to the actor, and off we go again. One take wasn’t working and Simon was persisting. So I speak to Christopher, and Christopher goes up the actors again. And again the take doesn’t work, and Simon is very persistent, so we do one more. And Simon still hasn’t been able to break the etiquette and speak to Fry directly. And the tension is beginning to rise, and Christopher finishes whispering to the actors, and walks back towards us, and then turns round and says ‘And Stephen, this time just act it a lot better!’ That was the effect, in the most courteous way, of Simon being very insistent and always caring, and in a way never leaving things alone.
CM: So that’s After Pilkington, and then you go straight on to A Month in the Country – they must have almost been back to back.
KT: Yes, I think it was. Again, Simon’s attitude to other material was very creative, in the best, almost destructive, anarchic way. I remember Simon sent me a first draft that was full of voiceover and too respectful. I can’t bear literary voiceovers in movies, and I think I waited perhaps half a day too long before getting back to Simon. He then called me, and before I could speak he said, ‘I know, it’s not right, it’s not right. Don’t say a word. I know what mistake I’ve made. I haven’t learnt to despise the book yet.’ From then on in there was not a word of voiceover or narrative, and yet almost everybody who loves the book recognises it as an honest and filmic account.
CM: You then make what I think is, in some ways, one of Simon’s strangest pieces, which is Old Flames.
KT: I think he wanted to work with Simon Callow – it started with that. But I think unlike Pilkington, which went through a lot of mutation, Old Flames was substantially what we were going to do when it came in. What we didn’t do there, and I don’t know why – my fault, I suppose – is we did not put that ending through the ringer as many times as we should have done. And I think Christopher was a little too unaware that there were risks in realising that. Because there’s quite a jump in style, a kind a leap of faith in what’s happening in that ending, and I should have been more insistent on our trying to rework it. But I think Christopher found it very satisfactory from his point of view, as it was – and I didn’t see it as a problem. Do you think it’s a major problem?
CM: No, no – it’s a shock.
KT: It’s a shock, but it’s a shock that works? Yes I think it probably does.
CM: And then you have The Common Pursuit, which we’ve talked about before.
KT: One interesting thing is the contrast between Common Pursuit, in ’92, Pilkington in ’87, and a television version of Quartermaine, also in ’87. Quartermaine was made on film too, but with a different team and Director and it feels as static and as stagey as anything. Whereas I think with Pilkington and Common Pursuit you do feel that conscious efforts have been made to cinematicise both the writing and the realization. It feels like something in a different mode.
CM: And Common Pursuit in terms of script development, casting, how did that all go?
KT: We got money from Simon’s theatre producer in New York, Jack McQuiggan. There was a year or two when Simon was directing his own things in New York, and Jack turned writer and wrote a script. Simon heard about it and said, Jack and I don’t speak very much, but if you’d like to get me the script I’ll see if I can make any suggestions. I got him the script, but if there were any suggestions they went directly to Jack. That worked extremely well. It’s rather a strange cast – the only thing you have to get over is that these actors are mostly in their early 30s, but in the first scene they’re undergraduates. Again, to me it feels like a movie rather than an account of a stage piece.
CM: And then, one of my complete favourites, Unnatural Pursuits. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. How did that come about?
KT: That came about because I read the diary – How’s That For Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady – and said, there a piece here. That was the inspiration. It wasn’t an enormous hit on BBC2 when it first went out, then we managed to get it to the Emmy’s, and it took off from there. I find the stuff in London a little bit self-conscious. It doesn’t really liberate in terms of his obsession until you get the American cultural clash. It’s just a tiny bit cosy – filming in the Riverside in Hammersmith. But it’s fun.
CM: I don’t think I can get enough distance from it. It’s one of the very few things I’ve seen on television since I was child that’s made me almost ache with laughter.
KT: Some people have that intensity of feeling about After Pilkington, although it isn’t so much laughter. You know a writer called Frank Delaney, told me that when his kids were growing up they used to watch Pilkington two or three times a year as a treat. One of the characteristics of Simon is that when you start watching, you feel that vitality and that confidence of someone with something to say and who is in control of the material.
CM: And then the final one, Femme Fatale directed by Udyan.
KT: It’s a strange piece. I think it starts as a kind of pastiche of a slightly cod Italian thriller, and then moves into English pastoral and acquires Simon’s own voice. It’s telling and effective, and the cast is very strong.
CM: One of the things that becomes clear to me is that Simon’s career is much more tied up with television than I thought, and almost to an uncanny degree – from 1966 to 1993 – it is the golden era of television.
KT: Yes, it is.
CM: It you were to look back at Simon’s career, how would you characterise his relation to television?
KT: It was very fruitful, although it was almost like a stealthy career, alongside the theatre one. There’s no doubt that it suffers not in its content but in its approbation. There is a snobbery you face if you work intensely in television. Simon was never condescending towards television, but I think he wanted to be a great man of the theatre. He did acknowledge that to be lucky in the theatre you need one big simple idea which you milk for two hours. But if you are entertaining a larger audience for television, you’ve got to keep coming up with new tricks. I think instinctively he developed that, so whereas with the stage pieces there’s more hallmark, the originality of some of the television pieces is extremely strong. I think that the body of work speaks for itself. It lives. I think there’s something about Simon’s detachment from the furore of the day which gives it great strength.
|Posted By admin on Thu 01/03/2013 - 14:38|
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|Thursday 3rd January 2013|
|An interview with Stephen Hollis|
The distinguished theatre director discusses working with Simon Gray from the beginning of both of their careers in the theatre, and his experiences working with William Gaskill, Harold Pinter and many others. Interview by Anthony Wilks.
Anthony Wilks: How did you first got interested in the theatre?
Stephen Hollis: I never went to the theatre as a kid. My parents never went to the theatre, really, apart from taking us to the annual pantomime nor did I ever study theatre at school or at college. I kind of got into it socially. I worked in advertising when I first graduated, for a big agency called the London Press Exchange, as a trainee executive. There were all these very smart college graduates at various meetings trying to work out how to get people to buy this can of hairspray as opposed to that can of hairspray. And after two years I thought to myself, I don’t really give a damn what can of hairspray people buy – do I really want to spend my life trying to get people to buy things they don’t really want or need? As it happened, I had a lot of friends socially who were artists – Derek Jarman was a very good friend of mine – and through him I met other painters, actors and theatre people. I was living this double life – one person during the day in my advertising agency suit and tie and then in the evening I would change and be with my artist friends – sort of defending myself as to what I was doing during the day. It got to the point where I didn’t want to be two different people, I just wanted to be the same person all the time. So I gave up advertising, hitch-hiked to Greece with Derek, and didn’t come back to my job in advertising or indeed London for about three months.
Through Derek I met a director called Anthony Page, who had then, and still has, a very successful career as a film and theatre director, and he got me a job on a film first of all, called Inadmissible Evidence, as an Assistant Location manager, I think was my official title. After that I got a job at the Royal Court theatre as a student Assistant Stage Manager – it was the most lowly and poorly paid job you can imagine. It was my job to sweep the stage and go out and buy the props.
The first play I worked on was called Fill the Stage with Happy Hours by Charles Wood, in which there were these three very famous television stars – Sheila Hancock from The Rag Trade; Harry H Corbett, who was the star of Steptoe and Son; and an hysterical comedienne called Hilda Baker. It was directed by Bill Gaskill, who was the Artistic Director of the Royal Court, which at the time was the power house of modern European drama. I’d never given any thought to what a theatre director was or did but if anyone had asked me , I would probably have said he was a kind of magician, like the Wizard of Oz, or someone born in a trunk, like a circus person. But when Bill Gaskill walked in I saw he was just a man, with two eyes and a nose, and he spoke the same language as me. I distinctly remember him saying to the actors things like – ‘Sheila, if you pick up the glass with your left hand you’ll find it easier to open the door, and ‘Harry, I think you should be a little more suspicious of what she says to you on that moment’. And I thought to myself, at the age of 24, ‘that doesn’t seem very difficult – I could do that – I could tell these famous people what to do’. It sounds stupid now but at that time, it was like a blinding flash – one of those seminal moments in one’s life – I thought well, that’s what I want to do.
So I quickly got myself fired from being an inefficient, hopeless assistant stage manager, and at the time the Arts Council were offering scholarships for trainee directors, which I heard about. You had to be sponsored by a regional theatre company, and a friend of mine knew Giles Havergal, who was the Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre, and I introduced myself to him, and he very graciously, and astonishingly, agreed to sponsor me for a scholarship. I went for a series of interviews with an Arts Council committee, had to write a paper on The Seagull – how to block it and some character analysis – and by some fluke I got accepted. God knows how because I really had no idea what I was doing. In order for a regional theatre to be granted a trainee director they had to give the recipient a production, so I went to Watford knowing that at the end of my year I would be given a production, after which I would be thrown out into the world as a freelance director. Well I was there for a few weeks learning the language – ‘that’s the box office, that’s a stage manager, those are the wings, that’s the auditorium, that’s the costume department’ – when Giles said ‘ OK, you’re going to direct the next production’, which happened to be The Homecoming by Harold Pinter. The production before that, which Giles had directed, was Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams, and Vivien Merchant was playing the lead – Princess Kosmonopolis. Vivien was married to Pinter at the time, and he would come and watch run-throughs and dress rehearsals and several performances, so I had met him – we didn’t really know each other, but I’d been introduced to him, we’d shaken hands. He knew who I was. And I remember distinctly on Christmas Eve, Giles and I and the rest of the staff were having a drink in the office – when he’d told me I’d be directing The Homecoming – and he asked who I thought should play Lenny? I didn’t know many actors – I’d only been in the business for less than a year. The only actors I knew were those that I’d seen on television and those that had been in some of the plays at Watford. And I had read somewhere that Harold had been an actor before he was a playwright, so as a joke, I said, ‘well why don’t we ask Harold? ‘And Giles said,’ well that’s an awfully good idea’, and promptly called him up, explained that he was going to produce The Homecoming with me directing, and would he be interested in playing Lenny in three weeks time? At that time Harold’s work was considered to be rather mysterious. He was known as this somewhat enigmatic playwright whose plays were certainly fascinating but no-one really quite understood them, so the idea of having Harold illuminate his text was intriguing to Giles, and as it turned out, to Harold as well as I don’t think he had ever acted in one of his own plays before. So, I was summoned to meet with Harold on Boxing Day, which fortunately gave me Christmas Day to read the play. So I read it and went over and talked to him about it, and obviously made some kind of sense, because three weeks later I was directing Harold Pinter in his own play. And I don’t remember – because I was so young and ignorant and green I suppose – being particularly intimidated, I just thought, ‘Oh, this is what directors do, they direct playwrights in their own plays’.
We only had two weeks rehearsal at that time. He was extremely respectful of the director-actor relationship. He never contradicted me in rehearsals but we would go out and have a drink after rehearsals, and I would ask him – ‘is that what this means, and am I doing that right, and is this relationship right, and is that the right motivation ‘– that’s even if I knew what the word motivation meant at the time. And we got it on, and apparently it was very successful as everybody in the world came to see it. All the critics came, because the idea of seeing Harold interpret his own play was intriguing to them so it really was a great opportunity – a great start to launch one’s career.
Very shortly after that Giles was made Artistic Director of the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, which was a much bigger and more prestigious theatre than Watford. So even though he was still Artistic Director for the next six months, he was up in Glasgow a lot, so he pretty much left me to direct the rest of the season. So the next play I did was Simon Gray’s Wise Child, which had been his first play. It had just finished a very successful run in the West End, which John Dexter directed, and this was the first regional theatre production, I think, and I was rehearsing that while The Homecoming was on in the evening. So Simon obviously went to see The Homecoming, and I think that’s probably where Simon and Harold first met. That obviously led to their very successful and enduring friendship and professional relationship.
AW: What did you know of Simon as a writer at this time? Had you been to see Wise Child in London?
SH: I had been to see Wise Child, yes, and thought it was very funny, so I was thrilled to be asked to do it, when Giles put it in the season. Obviously Simon came to see run-throughs and dress rehearsal, but I don’t remember him being there much in rehearsal, because that must have been when he was writing Butley, or Butley was being set up. But we obviously got on. One of the reasons our friendship has endured so long is we both have very similar senses of humour. We made each other laugh. His sense of humour was rather sarcastic, as was mine, and we enjoyed joshing each other and having fun at each other’s’ expense. So Giles went to Glasgow. And after my year at Watford was up he kindly asked me to go and join him as one of three or four resident directors. It was a real company – with a resident group of actors and directors – and it was a great learning experience. The way I leant to be a director was by doing it. I never read a book about directing, I just did it. Giles kept throwing me back in. I cried myself to sleep most nights for about two years, because I really had no idea what I was doing most of the time– and the actors knew it. I tried to copy Giles, because I watched him a lot in rehearsal, but you get to the point where you become unstuck, because you’re not doing it from a personal or individual belief. Slowly, I developed my own method as I came to realize that directing is a kind of extension of one’s own personality. It took me a couple of years to learn that and actually the breakthrough for me was having the courage to say one day ‘I don’t know’ – because as a young director you think you’re supposed to be God and know everything, and actors would ask me questions and I would sort of bluff my way through, because I thought I should know. It was only when I got the confidence to say ‘I don’t know’ – which was a breakthrough for me, because the world didn’t stop revolving and the actors didn’t rush to their agents screaming ‘get me out of this’. I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ll think about it and we’ll talk about it tomorrow’ .
In the first year in Glasgow Giles presented the stage adaptation of Spoiled, which was one of Simon’s early television plays, and was one of the plays which got wiped by the BBC. Simon re-wrote it as a stage play and I directed it with Dan Massey, Stephanie Bidmead, and David Hayman, who played the boy – it was his first job straight out of Glasgow drama school. And then we did it in the West End a year later, not with the same cast. It was recast with Anna Massey, funnily enough – Dan’s sister – playing the wife. Jeremy Kemp played the schoolmaster, Howard, and Simon Ward, who’d played Donny, the boy, in the TV film, resurrected that role on stage. It only ran for six weeks, I think – it wasn’t a commercial success.
AW: And this is your first play in the West End?
SH: Yes, my first play in the West End, I was only in my mid twenties so it was pretty daunting.
AW: Spoiled has a lot of themes that appear in Simon’s later plays. But looking at the other early plays, in particular Wise Child and Dutch Uncle, they don’t necessarily have the feel of his later plays. They seem to have settings that are more akin to a Joe Orton play, or an early Pinter play –
SH: Kind of farcical, yes. Dutch Uncle – which I also did at Watford, and was originally done at the Royal Shakespeare Company, was written in the convention of farce, I always thought. I remember being locked up in Simon’s house in Highgate one weekend, and we kind of re-wrote the play. He mostly re-wrote it, with a bit of nudging from me. It’s essentially a play about how many times you can get a woman into a cupboard. And it’s a true farce, and I thought it was really funny, but it just didn’t take off. It didn’t work at the RSC, and it didn’t get much of an audience at Watford. I’ve always liked farce. I’ve always thought Simon’s plays are essentially farces, because what he writes is not purely naturalistic or realistic. Look at Otherwise Engaged – it’s about a man who’s trying to play Parsifal. But he can’t because every 5 minutes somebody arrives. And as soon as one person leaves, another person arrives. It’s not naturalistic in that sense – it wouldn’t happen in the course of a day, that all these people would turn up one after the other. And a lot of times in his plays someone comes in just at the wrong moment, or they mistake each other and get each others’ names wrong. Those sort of – it’s slightly heightened naturalism. It’s not farce like Feydeau, or Orton, but I think it’s in that genre – it’s very light, subtle farce. It’s heightened reality – because the characters are so eloquent. It’s not naturalistic speech. Please God, we could all be as eloquent as the characters in Simon’s plays! But I think Dutch Uncle and Wise Child are slightly different. As is Rear Column, which is a kind of one off. Most of Simon’s plays deal with the world of literature, or academia or publishing, dealing with educated, intelligent, articulate people. It would be very interesting for someone to write a book about – not Simon’s life, because he’s done that himself – but the themes and the movement and the development of his work.
AW: You were saying that Harold Pinter at that time was a kind of enigmatic, European writer. Whereas Simon had stared off writing for television – his first dramatic work was The Caramel Crisis, and Spoiled was a TV drama originally. Was it possible to characterise what kind of writer he was?
SH: Well, I’ve always thought that Simon’s writing is in the tradition of Restoration, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward. He’s not a kitchen sink writer. I mean the movement of the late sixties – John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, John Arden – was much more about the working class and political ideology. Simon’s plays weren’t part of that movement. I’m not saying he’s in the tradition of drawing room comedy but David Hare and Tom Stoppard’s work , for example, was much more anti-establishment and Simon never dealt with political issues in his plays. He was never against this government or against that political movement. He wrote about people, emotions, and the problems of relationships, really. Betrayal and Infidelity occur in a lot of his plays, and the damage it does to both parties is one of the themes that occurs repeatedly. And, you know, that English, public school upbringing that has an effect on men for the rest of their lives. It’s very English. It’s very interesting – many years later we did a play called Dog Days, in Dallas – I was running a theatre in Dallas and Simon came to co-direct Dog Days with me. The leading character in this play, Peter, like many of Simon’s leading men, was witty, charming, articulate and always able to win arguments based on his ability to out-articulate anybody else. He wasn’t necessarily right either factually or morally or superior or correct, but the ability to articulate is a very highly regarded social skill in England. Look at our politicians. If you can outwit somebody in the House of Commons, you can win, and people will laugh, and you can move on to the next subject. But the audiences in Dallas just could not get this play at all, they didn’t find the characters funny, they were resistant, they didn’t like them, and then you realise, that’s not how you win arguments in Dallas.
AW: Do you think that his starting as a TV writer had an influence on his writing for the theatre. When you were doing Spoiled, for example, did you have a sense of it having been for TV originally?
SH: Well, I knew it had been on TV and I’d seen it on TV. But that’s an interesting question, I’d never even thought about that before. I would say that because his work as a playwright was so economic – you would beg Simon to leave wonderful speeches in – he would cut. He would say they were not necessary or redundant – you can achieve that with a look, or with one word. Maybe that came from his training as a television writer, when the whole thing had to be done in an hour or an hour and a half. Or a close-up of an actor could speak volumes. His plays were always short. He was a very economic writer. As was Harold. Harold’s plays are like jigsaw puzzles – you can’t remove one word or the whole thing collapses. And the same was true of Simon’s plays. A lot of his early plays were very tightly structured and there was nothing redundant in them.
AW: Yet still he would sometimes find things to take out?
SH: Always. He would very rarely add anything. Occasionally he would add a couple of lines – but very rarely he would add anything. Every time he came to see a run-through you knew something would go.
AW: Spoiled is a play about a young schoolboy who comes for some cramming lessons before some French exams –
SH: Yes, he comes from a poor family. His mother’s desperate for him to pass his exams so he can get to college – to university. And Howarth feels sorry for this boy, because he’s not the brightest bulb. And so he agrees to give him private lessons for free at a time when his wife – the teacher’s wife – is heavily pregnant. So she’s very emotional, very needy. And the play deals with this conflict between the demands of his wife, and the adoring, cloying young student, who obviously hero-worships his schoolteacher. And he’s caught by his wife in a compromising situation with the boy.
AW: Which seems quite daring.
SH: For that time
AW: For this time, even – maybe even more for this time –
SH: Yeah, I mean – it’s a play that should be done again, I think. It’s a wonderful play, it’s very moving. You’re right, it’s still quite – although there’s very little shock value. It’s also done in a very tasteful way. There’s nothing gratuitous or graphic about it. Which is why I was impressed watching Two Sundays at the BFI the other day, which again explores a relationship between two boys in school and they become lifelong friends. But there’s a sort of unspoken homo-erotic theme that plays throughout, unspoken but very rich and deep and profound and subtle, and whether that’s the product of a public school influence, I don’t know.
AW: And it’s also something that came up in his novels, too, which he’d been writing for some time by then. He wrote a lot about public school experiences and relationships between school masters and students.
SH: Well, it does have a profound effect, certainly. I went to one of those schools, and it’s something that stays with you.
AW: Spoiled was the second of Simon’s plays you directed. And after that was Dutch Uncle, which was back in Watford.
SH: Yes, so I was in Glasgow for a couple of years. Then I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year as assistant director, and then the Artistic Director of Watford who’d replaced Giles, left after a couple of years so they advertised. And I thought, one day I’d like to run a theatre, so I’d better start going to interviews, so I can see what the experience is like. So I went for an interview, and they offered it to me. I was very, very surprised. Because I wasn’t ready.
AW: How old were you then?
SH: 28. I mean my whole career had been like driving a car at 60 miles an hour, and changing a tyre at the same time. Learning as I go – pretending I know what I’m doing then learning just by doing it. Probably the best way to learn anything. Like learning a foreign language! And I did a lot of Simon’s plays – I didn’t direct them all myself, but I included a lot of his plays in the season at Watford, and Dutch Uncle I think was in the second season. Butley, I did there – I didn’t direct that; Otherwise Engaged, I did – I didn’t direct that; and then Molly, which was the stage version of Death of a Teddy Bear – which was another of his plays which was wiped by the BBC, and has always been a favourite of mine. I think it’s a wonderful play. I did five productions of it. Actually I didn’t do it at Watford first – I did it at the Spoleto festival in Charleston, South Carolina – the very first production. Don’t ask me how it started out there, I can’t even remember now. Then I did it in New York, at a small off-Broadway theatre company.
AW: With Tammy Grimes, was it?
SH: Yeah, that’s right, Tammy Grimes. Then we did it in Watford, then it went to the West End, then I did it again in America at the Long Wharf theatre in New Haven. All with different companies, all with different groups of actors – I think every Molly was different. And the final production in the West End was with Billie Whitelaw and T. P. McKenna – a wonderful company of actors. And it ran for six weeks, I think. It didn’t take off commercially.
AW: And this was a play about the Alma Rattenbury trial?
SH: Well, it wasn’t about the trial. Rattigan had written a play about the trial, Cause Celebre, which is like a courtroom drama. Molly was about events that led up to the trial. A relationship between a woman who was unfaithful to her husband – she was married to a much older man. She lived in the country, she was bored – based on a true case – and seduced this young gardener, who fell in love with her and got jealous of her relationship with her husband. Her husband found out, behaved vengefully to the boy who then stabbed the husband to death with a pair of garden shears. And Molly felt so responsible for this that she said she did it. Beautiful play – beautiful rich play. I’d love to do it again, actually.
AW: It’s an interesting comparison to see that Rattigan chose to look at the courtroom. But in a way, what Simon did, trying to recreate what really happened, is much more daring, much more of a challenge for a playwright.
SH: Yes, well to what extent Simon did a lot of research on the actual circumstances of the case I’m not sure. Whether just the outline of the story appealed to him and then he used his own dramatic skills to bring it to life, I’m not sure.
AW: Why do you think he was so interested by that story?
SH: What intrigued him about that? It sort of fits in with a lot of the themes of his plays – the guilt that the unfaithful party has to carry, has to live with. Molly, on a whim seduced this boy in a moment of irresponsibility. And there are consequences to that, and she had to live with the guilt of that. Look at one of the last plays he wrote – Little Nell – Dickens seducing Nellie Ternan, causing great pain to his wife, then the guilt of Nell because she was married, and then the pain and the damage that it causes to all parties involved. It happens in Butley, in Otherwise Engaged, it happens in Spoiled, in a lot of his television plays. It’s a theme that a lot of writers have explored, and I’m not saying it’s the only theme in Simon’s plays, but it does seem to be one that he got a lot of mileage out of.
AW: Just going back a bit, to when you started being the artistic director at Watford – this was in the mid seventies, or early seventies. How did you go about deciding what you wanted in a season?
SH: Well, I think an artistic policy needs to be based on a number of factors. Where you are – what part of a country you are in. if you’re running a theatre in Cincinnati and you’re the only theatre for a hundred miles in every direction, you have a responsibility to offer a range of world drama to your audience. I was in Watford, seventeen miles from London, so anyone who was interested in going to the theatre could be in the West End in half an hour. We had to therefore somehow position ourselves so that our audience didn’t go into London. So the policy that I pursued was based on what we called a bold and original choice of play – either a new play, a rediscovery of a neglected play, or reinterpretation of a classic. There was no point in our doing Shakespeare when we’re fifteen miles away from the Royal Shakespeare Company. We didn’t have their resources – Shakespeare didn’t write plays for five actors. We couldn’t afford 16 actors. Also, being close to London enabled me to attract more well-known actors to come out. They could stay at home, we could get reviewed by the national press, their agents and casting directors could come to see them, especially if they were in new plays . So we did things like The Provoked Wife – a little-known restoration play that David Hare directed, a revival of Ballad of the False Barman and I did new plays by Don Taylor, Ken Lee and other writers. It was a mixture, and a certain amount of what turned me on. There’s a certain amount of arrogance involved in choosing plays. You have to do plays that excite you. If I’m not excited by them, it’s difficult to get the people that are working there to be excited by them as well. I learnt that from Giles. I was artistic director of a theatre in Dallas, and I’ve worked in lots and lots of different theatres in America and England, so I know lots of artistic directors, and it’s based on what you can afford to do, what you think the audiences will like. When I first started at Watford, my choices were rather stupid and reckless. I would do obscure plays by Ibsen, for example, because I thought people should see them but, of course, nobody’s ever gone to the theatre out of a sense of duty, so at the end of the year, when they’re not coming to see the plays you think they should see, the artistic policy goes out of the window and you put on an Alan Ayckbourn, because you’ve got to balance the budget. So it became more and more practical and realistic as I matured.
AW: So Simon’s plays often fitted into that?
SH: Yes, well Simon’s plays – you couldn’t do plays until they’d come off and were available – they were known because they had been done in the West End. The new plays were obviously not known, but Simon was known, and I was always able to get very good actors to come and do them. Actors adored Simon, as a writer and as a person, because he wrote wonderful parts fro them. His plays are a real treasure for actors, because they’re so rich, and there’s so much on the written page for the actors to flesh out.
AW: Do you find them difficult to direct?
SH: No, not at all.
AW: Is that because the actors get carried away with it and find themselves easily, or does it just kind of work itself out?
SH: Well, every writer is different and every writer is difficult to direct in one sense, but I mean, Simon’s characters – once you understood what their motivations were, the writing just kind of took you there. And I learnt a lot as a director from Simon, just being around him, and being in rehearsal with him. His work is Chekhovian in a way, in that the conflicts in his plays are very subtle and somewhat elusive. If you don’t capture them, the plays don’t reveal themselves fully. But if you capture them, which is not easy, then they take on a dramatic life and create electricity. Simon would sometimes watch a scene, and often just give the actor or me one note, changing the motivation very subtly, and immediately the scene would go from being just a chat between two characters, into having some drama. Without knowing the language of actors – Simon wouldn’t talk about intention, or motivation or objectives – but he understood how actors function. He knew how to give them directions that they could act. He wouldn’t give them adverbs. He’d always talk about what that character wanted at that moment – which is of course what actors need. His direction was always very specific, it was never general, so the more specific this actor’s objective is, as opposed to what that actor wants, the more tension and electricity can be created, which keeps the audience held. Simon’s characters are very subtle in that they disguise their feelings a lot. They would say one thing and mean another. You look at Butley – he covers his feelings incredibly. You never quite knew – you thought it was all light and mischief, but underneath that – I think it’s a great study in loneliness, Butley. His inability to connect with people – he pushes people away.
In one of Simon’s plays, I think it’s Dog Days, the wife says something like – you have all your friends, while everyone closest to you is quietly going mad. Because they can’t – the leading character won’t let them get close, because he’s frightened. You ask, are his plays difficult to direct? Well, not for me, because I love plays about complex emotional relationships, when people hide and disguise their feelings. And all of Simon’s characters attack and defend themselves with wit, with language, not with emotion. At the expense of emotion. They can hide their emotion with language. Which, as I said earlier, I think is in the tradition of Restoration, of Coward, and particularly Oscar Wilde. I mean – in Oscar Wilde you act from the neck up – no other emotions come into play, which is not quite true of Simon. I’ve always liked plays that deal with language. That’s why Simon was very specific about language. If an actor said ‘and’ instead of ‘but’, he would correct them, . He was always a great stickler for the actors getting all the words exactly right, as all playwrights are I guess. But it was really important to him. He didn’t like actors improvising, and would correct them, or correct me, if they didn’t get it exactly right – in the nicest possible way, I might add!
AW: And yet there is usually an emotional crisis point in his plays, or some kind of comeuppance. Like at the end of Quartermaine’s Terms or Close of Play. It might not be dramatic, but there’s a moment all the emotion that has been kept under wraps.
SH: Yes, but in Quarteramine’s Terms, when he’s got rid of, he apologises – “I’m sorry” – as if it’s his fault. I saw a production of that recently in America. It was a magnificent production, and it’s so powerful that play – a heartbreaking play. Recently I saw the revival of The Common Pursuit at the Chocolate Factory, Quartermaine in Williamstown, and the American premiere of Close of Play, at the Long Wharf in New Haven. They all had wonderful actors in them, but the plays are just so powerful, I think. You can identify with the characters, they’re about something, they’re very intelligent. You leave the theatre having been entertained, certainly, but having thought about stuff, and you leave slightly different. To my mind, that’s a great writer: that when you leave the theatre at 10 O’clock you’re slightly different from what you were at 8 o’clock. You’ve learnt something, had a prejudice removed , or something’s happened to you. You haven’t been bored. But you’re right, they have great inner emotional life – you feel it and you sense it. Like Two Sundays. Really not much happens. There’s not necessarily a beginning, a middle and an end. But you feel so much unspoken emotion between the two men when they get older. There’s just a look, or in the writing, and it’s not necessarily all put out there. It’s like watching a really good French movie. You really have to think about – you participate yourself. You contribute. The audience is part of the experience. You have to work – maybe people don’t like doing that now.
AW: I think it was about the time you were doing Molly that you also did Stage Struck.
SH: That was about 1979 – It was my last year at Watford. We didn’t do it at Watford. It just came to me actually – I suspect that Harold was offered it and didn’t want to do it, I don’ know that for a fact. Simon said ‘ I’ve written this new play, and I think Alan will do it, and I read it. Again, it’s a play about infidelity. But I can tell you how that play came about. Just before that, Molly had been on for six weeks in the West End, and the year before that Rear Column had been on for six weeks – they got decent reviews but they didn’t have a commercial run. And that was the time of Deathtrap and Sleuth – these thrillers that were running for years and years and years, and making a lot of money for the playwrights. And Simon said, to hell with this, I’m going to write a commercial thriller that will run and run, which is what Stage Struck was. And Alan was toying with doing it – Alan always took a long time to make up his mind. And Michael Codron said he’d do it, so we didn’t do it at Watford first, we did a tour. Then Alan committed, then Sheila Ballantine, Nigel Stock – who played Widdecombe – and a young Australian actor played the fourth part. So, we had a very happy rehearsal period, and then we did a tour of Brighton and Croydon and Richmond and came into the West End, and ran for over a year. Alan was only in it for 6 months, and then we redid it with Ian Ogilvy, and then I did a tour of it with a different cast, and then I think I did it in South Africa. So I think I did it four times. I know it’s never been done in New York. But it’s one of his plays that’s revived quite a lot, I think.
AW: So it did what he wanted then? It was a commercial success?
SH: Yes. It didn’t get good reviews, but I don’ think Simon cared about that. It was – ‘how dare Simon Gray write a pot-boiler’. But it was fun. The audience loved it, it’s a funny play. It’s quite an elaborate show to design. It was the only time I worked with Alan – he was an absolute delight. Very easy going, very professional, very un-starry.
AW: Is it a farce more than a thriller, would you say?
SH: Well, it’s a thriller which is also written in a farcical manner.
AW: I guess Dutch Uncle is a kind of thriller as well?
SH: Well, you know Dutch Uncle is based on the Christie/Evans case? That mad guy who murdered all these women – 10 Rillington Place. He was a very famous murderer called John Christie, who lived at 10 Rillington Place, which is was just behind Ladbroke Grove. And he hid all the bodies of these women under the floorboards of his house. And this young man called Evans got the blame for it. So, that was based on a true story. But Simon took that and totally made it into a farce. Every time we mentioned Dutch Uncle over dinner, Simon would just be reduced to guffaws of laughter, spluttering and choking.
AW: Why do you think that was?
SH: I don’t know. He just found the thing so hysterically funny,
SH: I remember coming home one evening and switched on the TV, and it was already ten minutes into the show, and within a minute I knew it was a play by Simon. It was After Pilkington. That’s the mark of a good writer – you just recognise their style. His style of writing is so individual, I think.
AW: And what is that?
SH: In a farcical manner. In that someone will say something and the other person will misunderstand it. Or there’ll be a play on words. Or you’ll notice a lot of times there’s someone who keeps misidentifying someone, keeps calling them the wrong name. That happens a lot. Something like that – a definitely recognisable ‘Simonism’. Like you’d recognise a Joe Orton or an Oscar Wilde or a Noel Coward play. He has his own, very individual style of writing. Now that he’s sadly passed away he’s getting the kind of recognition that he’s always deserved.
AW: Do you think he didn’t have that in his lifetime?
SH: I don’t actually. I don’t believe he was well enough regarded. He didn’t receive the recognition he was due as a writer, that I think he’s now getting - the retrospective of his films at the BFI, the revival of Butley.
AW: And The Late Middle Classes last year at the Donmar Warehouse
SH: Yeah, The Late Middle Classes – another wonderful play, about the relationship between an older man and a boy, of a dubious, or questionable nature.
AW: Now, is it true that Dog Days was originally written for you to direct?
SH: Well, what happened was that – I’m not saying he wrote it for me to direct, but he wrote the play and then sent it to me to see if I wanted to direct it at Watford, and I loved it and wanted to do it. But when you want to do a play and you’re running a theatre, you can’t do it for at least another year, as your season is set, announced and advertised. So, I said I would do it the next year, or nine months away, as soon as I could. Fit it into the next season. And he’d also written another play, which was like Dog Days, which became Otherwise Engaged. And I can’t remember what it was called when he sent it to me but it was clearly a companion piece to Dog Days. Maybe it was a re-write of Dog Days. And he sent me that, and I didn’t like it as much. I said I’d prefer to stick to Dog Days, thank you. In the meantime he sent Otherwise Engaged to Michael Codron, who said he wanted to do it but he was prepared to do it immediately. His condition, however, was that I couldn’t do Dog Days at Watford. Because, it was too similar. So, if I’d done Dog Days and two months later Michael Codron was doing Otherwise Engaged, it would be rather redundant. So, Simon was obviously put in this very difficult position. I was not mature enough at the time to understand or sympathise with Simon’s conflict as a writer. He was faced with a choice of Dog Days at Watford directed by me, as against Otherwise Engaged in the West End, produced by Michael Codron, with Alan Bates, directed by Harold Pinter. Now, of course, there’s no contest obviously, but I was rather put out. So, I never got to do Dog Days, because once Otherwise Engaged had been on, there was no point in doing Dog Days, so I sort of lost out all around. But I always had a hankering to do Dog Days, and I did, years later, when I was running a theatre in Dallas, which we co-directed.
AW: Yes, and you also have the distinction of being a fairly major character in one of Simon’s diaries – How’s That for Telling ‘Em Fat Lady, which talks about Dog Days and your experiences of it.
SH: Right – I didn’t know he was writing a diary at the time. But his diaries are hysterical. His take on the world was so individual. It was so warped, is the right word. His ability to just go into a restaurant, sit down with a group of people and write about it. He would just see things and explain things in such an individual, humorous way.
AW: It was obsessive really – not just the amount he wrote, but the amount he was interested in writing about people.
SH: That whole experience of Dog Days – it was never a good idea to co-direct. Two people can’t direct a play really. What do you do – one person directs Act One and one person Act Two? Or one person does stage left and one does stage right? It’s very difficult.–I don’t think we had a formal arrangement of ‘I’ll do Monday, you do Tuesday but I think it came down to that. I directed them for two days. And Simon didn’t like a lot of movement. He didn’t like actors to move, really, because he thought it took away from the words. So I would block it – and I’m not an excessive mover, but I like actors to move around, because theatre is a visual medium after all. In Glasgow, where I was trained by Giles and Philip Prowse, the work was very visual. They had brilliant designers. So I was heavily influenced when I was starting out by these wonderfully visual shows. And Giles would block actors very specifically so I came to believe that blocking is terribly crucial. Some directors who are great at getting good performances out of actors can’t move them around the stage. Or they’re always in the wrong position. So blocking’s always been very important to me and I’ve always thought I’ve blocked plays, at least, quite well, so that whoever is speaking would be in the right position at the right time, so you could see him and hear them. So I would block it, accordingly, and Simon would come in and unblock it. And then I’d go back and I’d block it a little bit less, and Simon would unblock it a little bit less. We would have these arguments – I would say ‘ look Simon it’s not a radio play, we’ve got to give the audience something to look at. And if actors sit down for too long and don’t do anything, the audience will get a bit bored.’ I didn’t mean, they’re bored with your language. So, it was all very amicable, but it’s not easy to co-direct with anybody.
AW: So you were literally taking it in turns, one day each…
SH: Pretty much. I don’t think it was a day. It was like two days on and two days off. And then it becomes more – who do the actors listen to. I’m going to say one thing – obviously I had my own interpretation of something. And then Simon would say something, and they’re obviously going to listen to the playwright. Simon was a very winning, charismatic character. We all got on famously. We all went out for dinner all the time. It was his play, he wrote it, he knows more about the characters than anybody else. And he’s very articulate and persuasive. And talks to the actors in a way they respond to. But the play wasn’t Dallas’s cup of tea, let’s put it that way. Then it was done in England, in Oxford, and I don’t know who directed that. But it never came into the West End, did it?
AW: No. Those experiences in the diary which later went into the TV play, Unnatural Pursuits –
SH: In which I was cut, I noticed!
AW: Yes – in Dallas you’re replaced by an American in a cowboy hat. There’s a person who accompanies him to interviews and talks, which you do in the diary. He talks about the time you both went to talk to some students and it was Harold Pinter who was held up as the holy trinity.
SH: Yes, as the great God and there’s Simon as his second Lieutenant, or whatever. Yes, he’s very funny about that. I remember that section. I remember going to that radio interview. It’s very funny that diary. They’re all funny. I rarely laugh out loud when I’m reading books, but I find those hysterical. Simon used to make me laugh – I miss him terribly. I could go out to dinner with him every night for the rest of my life and never be bored. I think everyone who knew him felt the same, in that the one thing you remember about Simon is his wit. In the way that he would take a conventional situation or subject and turn it on its head. He would always say exactly the opposite of what would be the conventional response. But it would usually be more right, in a way, when you’d thought about it. Sometimes it was flippant and facetious. And he never took a lot seriously. We’d tease each other endlessly. Simon liked that – he didn’t like reverence. He was shy, actually, very shy. Didn’t like adulation. He liked to be anonymous – he would skulk around during intermissions. We’d go and see previews of his plays, and just before the intermission, he’d shoot out and go to the nearest bar because he couldn’t stand hearing what people said. I think everyone’s had the same experience: he went to see one of his plays and he was in the loo during one intermission when one audience member said to his friend – ‘well this is almost as boring as his last play, isn’t it?’, Simon would dine out on those kind of stories. He was very self-deprecating. He knew he was a good writer. He knew that. But he never bragged about himself at all, which was very endearing about him. But he didn’t like public speaking – he was very nervous about public speaking. I saw him read extracts from, I think it was his diary, in New York, and he was clearly very uncomfortable. He didn’t mind if somebody was asking him questions, but to just be up there on his own reading, he didn’t like that kind of public spotlight at all.
AW: Now, much of your career has been in America, where you did Dog Days. Simon has had lots of his plays done over there – what do you think it is in his plays that has made them so successful in America?
SH: Well, I think that what he writes about, relationships between humans, transcends any geographical barrier. I think he is at heart a very English writer – his plays are deeply English, which is why some of them haven’t been so successful in America. Because, as I said earlier, all his leading characters, whether they’re male or female, attack and defend themselves with language and with wit, and cover up emotion. American writers tend to be much more emotional – Tennessee Williams, for example – emotionally violent. So the interaction between people – human emotional responses – are going to work anywhere. The original production of Butley was very successful in New York; Otherwise Engaged was very successful in New York. I’m not sure that Broadway really, as people say, is a place for writers. It’s not really. Nine out of ten shows in New York are musicals. You hardly ever see a straight play. Maybe there’ll be one or two a season in New York. It’s not really an issue to do with the play, it’s the expense. It’s so expensive to put anything on Broadway. Even one set with four actors these days would be cost prohibitive unless one felt it would run for at least a year. So you’ve got to appeal beyond the theatre-going New Yorkers. You’ve got to appeal to tourists and the coach parties, and if they’re faced with a choice of seeing a play in a drawing room with four actors or 42 dancing girls, they’re going to go for the musicals. Very few playwrights these days get a play on Broadway. Off-Broadway is a different matter, because it’s less expensive. The play that I just saw there – Quartermaine’s Terms – that was a successful off-Broadway production, which started at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Normally Simon’s plays are started in a non-profit theatre company, like the Manhattan Theatre Club, or the Long Wharf, and then the producers would wait to see what the critics say about the non-profit productions. And if they get great reviews, then they bring them in. Very rarely do producers put an un-tried, new play on Broadway without some guarantee that the critics have already given it their stamp of approval. That’s why a lot of them are London imports, because they come with London reviews.
AW: Like Jerusalem, recently.
SH: But again – I saw that here and in New York, and it got rave notices here and rave notices there, but it was never packed over there. Seats were always available.
AW: One final question: which of Simon’ s plays that you haven’t directed would you like to direct?
SH: Well, I would say perhaps The Late Middle Classes, but it’s a question of casting – you can’t do that without a really good child actor. But that play has always intrigued me. But … Quartermaine, probably. Or Common Pursuit. The Rear Column – Simon always used to say that was his favourite play. But I’ll say Quartermaine’s Terms.
|Posted By admin on Thu 01/03/2013 - 12:51|
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|Sunday 13th November 2011|
|An Interview with Tom Wells|
An Interview with Tom Wells
Tom’s play, The Kitchen Sink, is the first recipient of the Simon Gray Award at the Bush Theatre, which each year supports a new piece of writing. The Kitchen Sink runs from 16th November to 17th December at the Bush Theatre.
For more details and to book tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.
How did The Kitchen Sink come about?
It was commissioned by The Bush, while I was doing something at the Arcola. I was invited to the Bush, and we had a little chat where I told them what my idea was, and then I went away and wrote it. It was all quite straight forward, really.
What idea did you start with?
I wanted to write a play about a family who were quite nice to each other. Lots of people write about families who are nasty to each other, but that’s not what I know. When I showed it to my Dad he said, ‘there’s a lot of home in this, Tom’. But it’s the only family I have, and you have to write about what you know. In fact, all my plays are set around Withernsea, near Hull, and quite domestic.
How did The Bush help you develop the play?
I did the first draft and then got a few notes from Josie [Rourke – Artistic Director of The Bush]. The material was all there in the first draft, but there was no plot to speak of. It was just people sitting around. Josie suggested how I could bring out certain things. Like the milk float goes wrong in the autumn – in the first draft it happened out of nowhere. Josie suggested making more of it, and so there is the bit of the milk float on the sink at the start. She taught me about planting something if you want it to happen later on or at the end. In the first draft I didn’t really explain lots of things. One bit I added is a scene between Billy and Martin when Billy gets accepted to art school. I realised that I’d never explained that Billy got accepted in the first draft. But it gave the opportunity to have a scene with his Dad, which is good because it gives that extra connection at the end.
What plays or playwrights have influenced you?
I’ve always loved the kitchen sink plays. They’re the things that I read first, when I started training to be a playwright. Look Back in Anger - Osborne, Delaney etc. And I think one of the main things they’ve done is to lead to a type of TV comedy – things like The Royle Family, Gavin & Stacey and Mike Leigh. It’s very detailed. When I started I thought I might play with the genre a bit. I like the idea of writing a kitchen sink play where the sink is a character, as a kind of tribute. I thought of writing a year in the life of a kitchen sink, and it has become that in a way. Pete is there as an outsider to the kitchen sink set-up, as someone who doesn’t have a family and misses what everyone else in the play has. But it’s also quite handy that he’s training to be a plumber, so he can actually fix the sink.
So is it a happy family?
They are a functioning family – it works – but they’re not very good at talking to each other. Everyone has a thing that they want to do, and everyone apart from Martin is doing that at the end. Martin is doing what he wants to do at the beginning, but the world changes around him and leaves him behind. A lot of the scenes I’ve still no idea if they’re sad or funny. I hope both. The milk float being towed away is the best example of that. We’ve done readings, but I don’t know yet how each bit will play.
The difficulties the characters face in the play reflect a lot of the problems in the country as a whole at the moment. Was that deliberate?
I don’t think it’s a case of trying to create a contemporary story, you just do. It’s just a particular set of circumstances. Withernsea is a small place. When Woolworths closes or a Tesco opens it has a big effect. There aren’t that many alternatives. It’s not easy to get another job. And the milkman is an iconic figure – someone who has a small business in a community, and that’s gone. That really affects a small community. It’s a family of quite independent people. What Martin likes about being a milkman is that it’s sociable, and he feels valuable. Sophie is similar, though she has a different skill. Kath’s got a different attitude to work. What she’s good at is being a mum. Being a lollipop lady and a dinner lady is just a job.
How are the rehearsals going?
They’re a good laugh. Everyone has a family, so it’s easy for it to come alive. Everyone has their specific roles. When Lisa, who is playing the Mum, first started rehearsing with the set she immediately started being a Mum, instinctively getting things out of cupboards and things.
The play has changed a bit too. You don’t want to make things obvious when you’re writing it, but then you realise in rehearsals that things need to be made clearer. You can keep refining it. But some things never quite work properly. You have to respond to what happens in rehearsals. For example, I knew I wanted Peter to be from somewhere else, and we have him coming from Preston because that’s where the actor playing him is from. So that’s involved changing the script a bit. But a play is never quite finished.
How did you start writing plays?
I did a course at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was the first time I’ve ever met other writers, or seen new plays. I didn’t really like theatre before then, I didn’t get it. When I finished uni I went back home. I dropped out of training to be a teacher, did some brief, disastrous temping, then worked in a cafe. The West Yorkshire Playhouse did this thing called, So You Want to be a Writer? You didn’t have to have written a play, just write a letter about why you want to be a writer. I just wrote about the rubbish jobs I’d had, and got accepted. Then we wrote a short play, and some of us then wrote a longer play. Then someone decided to take my play [Me, As a Penguin] on tour. That’s how I started.
Now I’m working on some short films for Channel 4, and a commission for Paines Plough and the Hull Truck.
|Tags: Bush Theatre, John Osborne, Kitchen Sink, Simon Gray, Tom Well, Withernsea
Posted By admin on Sun 11/13/2011 - 19:06
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|Monday 1st August 2011|
|Winner of the 2011 Simon Gray prize at Portsmouth Grammar School|
Many congratulations to Peter Rapp, who is the first winner of the Simon Gray prize at Portsmouth Grammar School. The prize is awarded to a student at Simon Gray’s alma mater who has demonstrated particular achievement in English or Drama.
|Posted By admin on Mon 08/01/2011 - 20:07|
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|Wednesday 8th June 2011|
In Simon Gray’s 1993 film Unnatural Pursuits, Alan Bates, who played Butley in the original production in 1971, has a conversation with a limousine passenger, played by Nathan Lane, who went on to play Butley on Broadway in 2006. In the same episode, Bates takes a cab driven by Wendell Pierce, co-star of the HBO series The Wire with Dominic West, the latest actor to play Butley.
Read more about Butley.
|Tags: Alan Bates, Dominic West, Nathan Lane, Wendell Pierce
Posted By admin on Wed 06/08/2011 - 09:56
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|Friday 4th March 2011|
|Christopher Morahan in Conversation with Colin MacCabe|
An interview with Christopher Morahan
The television, film and theatre director talks to Colin MacCabe about his career and collaborations with Simon Gray
Colin MacCabe: Christopher Morahan is one of the most successful directors of post war British theatre and television and also had a very considerable career as an administrator in both. You obviously made a choice for theatre very early in your career. When was your first attraction to acting and producing and directing?
Christopher Morahan: I think it started in the dramatics society at school. The biggest part I ever played was Mrs Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma at the age of thirteen. I was going to be an architect. My father was an artist and a film designer and producer; he and I had always fancied the idea of my being an architect, but towards the end of my national service, at the ripe age of 20, I became impatient at the notion of it. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to make my living as an architect for seven years, so I wrote to him and said look I think I really would like to be a film director. Which was in a sense rather absurd but nevertheless quite feasible because my uncle was in it, my mother had been as well and so on and so forth, even my grandfather at one time worked in the plasterer’s shop, in one of the Elstree studios. And he said fine. I thought I was going to come up against a parental refusal, or shall we say disapproval. But he said no, no. But he said: “You ought to ask some advice about this”. So he put me on to Thorold Dickinson, a really marvellous English director – film director – who had worked with my father a number of times. And I asked his advice and he said: don’t go into the film industry. It’s a craft business, and in a way it’s a slightly closed shop. Find out about acting and plays. Then you’ll be able to see really where you want to go. So I wrote to a lot of repertory theatres and got no reply. And I decided to hitchhike around the home counties. There used to be a repertory in every small town, in the south of England, and I got a job at Henley-on-Thames. I worked there in weekly rep for about nine months and thereafter I was very fortunate, I went to a very good theatre school. I went to the Old Vic Theatre School, which was headed by Michel Saint-Denis, and George Devine. I had two years of that and worked one summer vacation for Percy Harris, Motley, as an assistant designer on the Orson Welles Othello, and the following year did research for George Devine when he was doing Volpone in Stratford. So I had an introduction to big theatre, but decided not to become a director directly because I wanted more experience, so I worked for a time as a stage manager. But I found the theatre at that time pretty dreadful, dominated by the well-made play. I’m talking about the early 50s. In the mid 50s I decided it might be more interesting to go into television, so I went to the BBC and became an assistant floor manager. When I said I wanted to be a director they said, it’s not possible. Couldn’t possibly have you as a director because we always get our directors from the film industry or the theatre or from broadcasting. Four months later I doubled my salary going to ATV, as a floor manager. But then I had the good fortune to be one of the floor managers on a soap which immediately became a national event – not my working for them – but it became a national event, Emergency Ward 10. It ran for about 30 years and I floor managed episodes two, four and six and directed episode nine, I think it was.
Emergency Ward 10
MacCabe: So that was your first outing as a director……
CM: Yes, yes that’s right. I went to the boss of ATV, and I said look I’d like to be a director, and he said start in three weeks. No training at all. But it was marvellous. I did eighty of them in two years.…
MacCabe: One has the sensation hearing people talk about those early years, when ITV opened up and the BBC responded to it, that it was an extraordinarily adventurous moment.
CM: It was like the wild west. If you rode into town and only had a pair of pistols you could get a job. Or nerve to say I want to be a director – they said fine, ok start. And ITV did revolutionise television in this country. The BBC was very conservative, dull, most of the people had been there for rather too long and they used to do a big play on Sundays, and then they’d go back on Thursdays to repeat it. Whereas at ITV a number of very bright people came, notably from Canada, because American television – New York television in the 50s was remarkably strong – that’s where the centre of television drama was in America, it hadn’t gone to California at that time, it was New York, United States Steel Hour and so on and a number of distinguished and highly regarded people started there at that time. You know – George Roy Hill and Sidney Lumet and Franklin Schaffner: considerable figures, and good writing, very good writing indeed. And that was imported to ABC when Sidney Newman came over. Sydney Newman who had been running CBC drama in Toronto. And he brought over a number of directors – Ted Kotcheff, for instance. Charles Jarrott. And he recruited Alan Cooke and Philip Saville over here. And it was a must. Every Sunday evening we would be in to watch Armchair Theatre. It was a revelation, what could be done in 52 minutes, exciting plays, good acting, good story telling. And they set a mark to which one aspired. In the fullness of time, three or four years, I became a freelance, and went to the BBC to do Z Cars, and then increasingly, during the 60s, I found myself working more and more at the BBC. I enjoyed literate plays, and liked, particularly the range that was suddenly open to us when BBC 2 was created. A season of George Orwell, for instance – Coming up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying – and two plays by de Montherlant – you know, strange thing to do, but I found them fascinating – The Master of Santiago and Malatesta
MacCabe: How was what is now called the commissioning process? How did something get to the screen?
CM: Well, Sydney created three departments: a Series department, Serials department and a Plays department. Each of which was the creative home for up to about a dozen producers. A producer, with the script editor, would submit ideas to his Head of Department, and then up to the head of drama. It was an extraordinarily simple system. The controllers at the time were audacious –Hugh Greene the director general, had created a sense of change and excitement at the BBC, particularly when, BBC 2 started, allowed it to look for a very, very rich mix. A number of young people came in to television. Ken Loach, Waris Hussein, John McKenzie for instance, – it was a lovely time, one could do practically anything. Out of that I had the good fortune to work very closely with John Hopkins, and I did a couple of his plays, and then he showed me the script of Talking to a Stranger. And Talking to a Stranger was a kind of milestone for me, with Judi Dench and Michael Bryant –it was a critical success. Very painful, very, very painful. Television had been a kind of blunt instrument, at that point – you broadcast what you’d made in the studio. Gradually as video tape editing became more common place, Ken Loach drove a horse and cart through the BBC system. You weren’t supposed to film a drama unless some part of it could be made in the studio. So he did about four scenes in the studio for Up the Junction. and with Tony Imi just went and shot stuff on 16mm, and of course the BBC engineers had all been saying – you can’t have 16mm, you’ve got to have 35.
Up the Junction
Well, he challenged that, and brought back Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, which were just astonishing. And suddenly one felt television was the place where things were happening. It became vividly exciting. I think at that time Dennis Potter was asked to do one of his first Wednesday plays. And Laurence Olivier was starting the National Theatre, and Dennis said what is all this fuss about a national theatre? The National Theatre exists here, it’s here in the BBC that we are talking to the nation. It’s a dialogue, and before recording, home recording, we had this phenomenon, you know, the water cooler phenomenon, that everybody saw the same programme, and they talked about it the next day, and it was that kind of dialogue between an excited audience, sometimes a shocked audience, and sometimes shocked critics, that the directors, and the actors and the writers and, this goes back to Sydney, the script editors and the producers, and a whole generation of writers began to write and treat television seriously. By this time, of course, George Devine at the Royal Court had changed attitudes in the theatre. The angry young men – John Osborne, Harold Pinter – were also doing exciting things in the theatre. So it was a most lively time. I had no sense of moving away from television, except that I was rung up one day by Peter Hall who said look would you like to come and direct a play at the RSC – Little Murders at the Aldwych. Peter had seen Talking to a Stranger. He said, it’s family drama, this business about talking to strangers. Little Murders is it’s all about families. Well of course Little Murders wasn’t a family drama, it was the most savage political satire about New York and about American violence. But it was marvellous to do, and suddenly my life changed, suddenly I had the opportunity of working in the theatre.
MacCabe: That wasn’t a normal career path, was it? It’s one of the things that’s very striking about your career is, certainly from that moment on, you’re working as much in theatre as in television.
CM: Alan Bridges, who was a magnificent television director was asked at the same time by Peter, and did a production in the same season. But he didn’t stay with it. He had a different kind of ambition. He had an ambition to go to Hollywood. He kept himself at arms length from theatre, I think. But not many people in television did actually cross over to the theatre. Ted Kotcheff did a very good production – the first production – of Progress to the Park, the Alun Owen play, at Stratford East. Bill Hayes, a very interesting and lively director, did a lovely play called Close the Coalhouse Door which came out of Newcastle, which was also very fine, very fine indeed. But it was exceptional – no, not exceptional, that makes it seem too important, but we were the exception.
MacCabe: Can I just take you back to Talking to a Stranger for a moment. For plays of over an hour and 15 minutes each, how long did it take you to make it? What was the process? How was such a long, serious, difficult drama commissioned?
Talking to a Stranger
CM: It was commissioned by Cedric Messina, and the script editor was a writer called James Brabazon, and they always knew it was going to be four ninety minuters. It seemed to be perfectly possible, because the BBC was ambitious at that time. The financial climate was continually good, because of BBC 2 audiences grew, and then of course the clincher was impending colour, there was an extra levy to get a colour licence. The BBC income during the 60s and 70s, and ITV too, was buoyant. So a great many risks were taken, both in ITV and at the BBC. There was no real risk in taking four times 90 minute plays. It was a lovely time, we had four weeks rehearsal, and then one would go into the studio for three days, and then edit afterwards, so I suppose the whole thing took about – probably about four and half months – it was possible, everybody really thought it was a reasonable thing to do.
MacCabe: It was a huge critical hit, even at the time. Were you aware of that as you were making it? Did you think this was something really extraordinary?
CM: I didn’t know it was going to be a hit, but I did know while doing it, that it was very worthwhile. I remember one particular day when I was rehearsing with Maurice Denham, Michael Bryant and Judi Dench, a long scene, in the very painful third episode. And I said, I think I’d rather like to work in the theatre. I really do want to work in the theatre. Because of the intelligence, the concern for character, the value of the material, the discovery of it, the whole process seemed to have a depth to it, which I found immensely rewarding. So when Peter Hall – well, I pinched myself, to be rung up by Peter Hall – to come and do a play. And I leapt at it.
MacCabe: You were a very successful director, working both in television and the theatre. And then you become Head of Plays for BBC in 1972. That looks like quite an unusual step. Did it seem an unusual step at the time?
CM: Huw Wheldon had tried to get me to go there earlier. And I turned him down. I said no I’m going to be a film director. And I made a couple of films which were terribly unsuccessful. So you say, alright, ok, you go on. And then it came again, the request, whether you would come along to be Head of Plays. I’d been frustrated by some elements of the climate at the BBC. And I felt alright, I will do it, but for a limited time, not on the staff, but on a contract, because I felt it was a tribute to the talent that there was around, you know amongst the directors and the producers, that they should recruit somebody from the making part of it. And I thought yes, I’ll do this, and I’ll do it for a limited time, and I did for three – four years. And Jimmy Cellan Jones, who succeeded me, who had been a superb director, particularly of serials, had exactly the same attitude. It’s rather like saying, if it’s our turn to take responsibility, there may be an influence we can have historically over events, to continue to make the kind of television we believed should be made.
MacCabe: If you look back to those four years, what are the real high points? What are the things that you say – I did that!
CM: Yes, there are three directors that seem to figure very much in that. Alan Clarke – who I asked to do The Love-Girl and Innocent – by Solzhenitsyn – and he did it superbly, quite marvellously. He created a gulag in a Norfolk aerodrome in the winter. The continued work of Stephen Frears, who was looked after marvellously by a very good producer, Innes Lloyd. He did a whole number of really lovely films for us. Humane and moving. Most particularly working with Alan Bennet. And Ken – Ken Loach and with Tony Garnett. Because Ken – Ken wanted to continue his radical position. There was one occasion when Tony approached me he said, look Ken’d like to do three plays by Jim Allen about the Labour party between 1919 and 1926. I’d read the first one – it’d been knocking around for some time – and I said, no, no, no it doesn’t really go very far. But, no he said, no Allen wants to write three plays about the history. And we went to Paul Fox, Controller at BBC 1, and said we’d very much like to do this – it’s outside the offers, it’s outside the agreed amount we’re going to do next year, would you be able to find some money for us, would you support us? And he listened to us, and he said, yes, do it. Simple.
MacCabe: And that was Days of Hope?
CM: Days of Hope. Which was extraordinary. A marvellous film. But it was done – Huw was livid. Huw Wheldon said why do you always do these films, which run down the English. No, no. It’s going to be very, very good. He said it’ll never be repeated –ever. And it was of course. It turned out to be a masterpiece.
MacCabe: So you’ve come to the end of your period of taking your turn, and you become much more closely allied with the National Theatre.
CM: Yes. I wrote to Peter Hall and said, look you’re starting at the National Theatre. Can I be part of it? When I’d done Little Murders, the RSC said would you like to do a play in Stratford next summer, and I said no I’m doing this film, and the film was no good. I was very grateful to Peter for the opportunity he’d given me, and liked working with him, he was a very good producer. And also my wife was an actor in the company at the time – she was in John Gabriel Borkman – my second wife – my first wife had died about four years previously. So I wrote to Peter and said can I come. And he said yes. I worked there for about four years. It was exactly what I wanted to do. At the end I said I wanted to go and make something of my own, because being a selfless administrator in the theatre is up to a point very exciting, but after that you actually want to go out and make your own thing. Actually, two things happened very, very close to each other. One that Jeremy Isaacs asked me to go to Channel Four, and I said no I’m not I’m going to be making something in India – the Paul Scott – and he said, OK fine, who shall I have? And I said, well, why don’t you try David Rose? He said David Rose? I said yes.
MacCabe: A little bit of history written.
CM: David knows about it. And, yes, it was one of the nicest recommendations I’ve ever given in my life. Because he’s a fine man, David, absolutely fine man. And of course was the producer of Z Cars, I’d known him for some years. But anyway – I did the Indian thing.
MacCabe: Yes, let’s talk just a little bit about Jewel in the Crown. You had an urge to go and do something yourself?
CM: Yes. By chance I’d been given the books at Christmas time. And my new in-laws were ex-India – Anna’s father had been a colonel, no he’d risen to the rank of colonel, but he’d been a captain in the lancers, in the Indian army, and I looked at the family photos, and I found a vanished world. You remember there was a very good documentary programme called One Pair of Eyes. There was one interview with a memsahib, which I remember acutely, and she said when I came to the station and the CO’s wife interviewed me, she said – you know you’re going to lose some of your children. And I was fascinated by that. By what people did, to go a long long way, to rule this vast place, and the prices they probably had to pay. So when then I read the books – and I found them fascinating too because they had an alternative view to the received Empire view of our rule in India, and Ken Taylor had been asked to do six scripts, for Granada, and somebody else had been asked to do the other six. I wrote to the producer, Irene Shubik, and said that I’d like to be the lead director. And she said yes. I knew the people at Granada well and had done a number of plays there. So I did some spadework just finding out about what it was like in India when they made Staying On. Silvio Narizzano had made that in India with Trevor Howard. And I did a report for them, and the long and the short of it was they asked me to produce. They were marvellous stories, and I said yes I’d do this, as long as I’m able to choose the director I work with, and also I want you to commission Ken to do further six scripts. And they did. And it now had a unity to it. I asked a director who had an excellent film in Ireland, in Londonderry – Derry – Shadows on Our Skin – Jim O’Brien. And he leapt at it, and we became good friends, and good partners, and it was a really rewarding experience.
MacCabe: That must have taken a little more than four and a half months.
CM: It took about three and a half years.
MacCabe: We now approach the period, or at least I think we approach the period when you meet and work with Simon – we certainly approach the period when you worked with Simon, but when did you first meet him?
CM: I think I met him when I was Head of Plays – there were two plays that Ken Trodd, when I’d asked him to join the plays department, there are two plays by Simon Gray. They were terribly good. Two Sundays and Plaintiffs and Defendants.
Human and witty and compassionate, and they were done beautifully. I met Simon then. And then at the National he was doing – there was a play of his, Close of Play, which had a rather sad history – in that Peggy Ashcroft – they were in the Lyttlelton, I was running the Lyttelton at the time – Peggy Aschcoft broke her Achilles tendon, and wasn’t able to play – a lot of conversations at the theatre about whether they should go on with the understudy. It was about ten days before they should have opened. And the decision was to go ahead. And I think it was the wrong decision, and I said so at the time, and I think Simon agreed with me. So I met him then and it was about two years later that Duncan Weldon put on Melon at the Haymarket, and obviously he had talked it through with Simon and I was asked to direct it. With Alan Bates.
Plaintiffs and Defendants
MacCabe: So Melon was the first play that you directed, all the films come in the period just after that?
MacCabe: So, directing Alan Bates – what was that like?
CM: It was a delight. Charming, and brave, audacious. Funny. Serious. He was frightfully good in Melon. Simon did re-write it. We’ll probably talk about that later – Simon’s desire to continually work on his material was always fascinating – it comes up again and again in Unnatural Pursuits – wants a few changes to the first act, or the second act, or the first scene of the first act, or the second scene of the first act, and so on and so forth. He wanted to re-work Melon, make it an interior play, and he did that in America, but I didn’t do the production in the West End with Simon Callow, as far as I can recollect – called –
MacCabe: The Holy Terror
CM: The Holy Terror– that’s right. We didn’t actually work together until Kenith Trodd asked me, he said look, there’s this BBC film called Porker –
MacCabe: Before we get on to Porker, which I think will be a change of title – working on Melon, did Simon work very closely with the director, did he come into the theatre a lot? What was the working process, was he sitting there scribbling notes all the time?
CM: He would come after lunch. And because he and Alan knew each other very well, because of Butley, that seemed to be acceptable – he came, you know, when he could, during the day, he wouldn’t write notes. He would just listen, and make observations, and talk to us, and maybe issue us new pieces of script to work on. But he was very close to us, which was fine as far as I was concerned, but it was interesting that when he came to do television, he wouldn’t come at all. He found filming boring.
MacCabe: Well I can’t say I disagree with him actually. The director’s always having a great time, but everybody else is bored stiff.
CM: Absolutely, waiting while the company decides where the camera’s going to be, and then they’re putting up lights and things of that nature, and they’re measuring things, you know. For heaven’s sake, what can a writer do then? You know. It takes you an hour and a half to set up a new scene – oh gosh! – you’d much prefer to be at home, writing another play.
MacCabe: So, you did Melon, and then Ken Trodd comes and says what about Porker. Tell me the history of Porker.
CM: Porker – yes. I mean, it was a very pleasing one. A very enjoyable film, and we had a superb cameraman, and as usual, as I discovered with Simon, we shot quite a lot of material which we never used. Because – Simon was continually working on his material –
MacCabe: So he didn’t come to the set but he was sending you new versions?
CM: No he allowed us to make the film as written, but he edited his film material continuously. That is, he says – look, drop that, don’t need that, don’t need that, change orders – things of that nature. He always liked shifting things round. One had to be absolutely aware of that and totally unfussed by it, because if that’s what he wanted to do, that’s what we would do. Because there was a whole sequence in Porker – which I said was a rotten title, and he said oh well think of another one, so I said, After Pilkington –
MacCabe: So that’s how it became After Pilkington –
CM: That’s right, yes. Porker – I said, no. The play’s about a man called Porker – or Piglet – but After Pilkington is more interesting. Particularly in Italian, because we had the good fortune to win the Italia prize, and I’ve got a little poster in the downstairs loo and it says ‘Dopo Pilkington’. And people think – what is ‘Dopo Pilkington’? And I say, well that’s what it is.
MacCabe: Let me probe you just a little bit more. You get the script –
MacCabe: Ken Trodd comes to you and says here’s a script I want to make.
MacCabe: At what stage does all this editing and rewriting take place? Is it being biked down to the set, or is it happening after you’ve shot the film?
CM: After we’ve shot the film.
MacCabe: Ah, so then he was very closely involved in the editing with you?
CM: Oh yes, yes, I mean he’d see the first assembly. Yes. There was – if you recollect, in After Pilkington there’s a very brief sequence between the young boy – the young Porker, and his playmate girl. He puts her to bed and he kisses her. There was another of the boy witnessing what possibly was a sexual encounter in a little shed somewhere, and there were quite a lot of them playing in the woods, and things of that nature, and Simon said – we don’t need that. It’s simply unnecessary. I don’t need this. Particularly when you actually see images up on the screen. What is it like without? I always found Simon a marvellously hands on author in the editing process. And the BBC was marvellously liberal about running times. There was a time when people said all plays have to last one hour and fifteen minutes, or one hour and a half or whatever – or on ITV 57 minutes, because of the commercial break. But at the BBC you just delivered the play. Ken was able to say, this is the film we’ve made. This is the film the author wants. And it’s that we should be broadcasting. And the BBC was honourable and very straight forward and accepted every single one of those because it happened again and again. Simon was severe with himself, he was continually writing, you know, as he finds himself not making television films he starts to write these absolutely masterly diaries. The act of writing is the vital one. Sitting at the desk and writing it. Typing it or whatever he did. Led to his extraordinary night life, like an owl. He wrote massively in the middle of the night. Just himself, his mind and his intelligence. And you think of The Common Pursuit, think about how many times that was altered and changed.
MacCabe: So, After Pilkington, we may come back to. The Common Pursuit is the next one – because there’s Old Flames –
CM: Yes I think I made Old Flames before Common Pursuit, I don’t think that changed a great deal. There was always the threat of change. If something didn’t work, he would be very ruthless. With himself. He wasn’t necessarily passing judgement on what we did. But in actual fact with himself. Though in Old Flames I don’t think there was any wastage, you understand. Though you shouldn’t actually think of it as wastage. It’s part of the process.
MacCabe: After Pilkington is a play which as it were has at least a surface of social realism, even if it’s accentuated to a very sharp point. But Old Flames is almost in another register entirely, isn’t it?
CM: I know. It’s fantastic, a tale. It isn’t a piece of naturalism at all. The last five minutes of Old Flames is extraordinary. A man is resurrected. Made up. He plays as he’s never played before. But does he exist? Is he there? Is it his ghost? We don’t know. Don’t ask – we mustn’t ask questions. We just accept that he’s there and he’s playing the violin. And there is music, there’s lights suddenly through this window. And when Stephen [Fry] leaves the room he goes to join his wife who’s just had twins in the next room. So everything was suddenly condensed at that time without explanation, and for us too – it’s like a La Douanier Rousseau – is he painting a forest, or is he painting an imaginary world? And it’s that capacity that Simon had for creating that imaginary world that I think is one of the most rewarding things about him as a writer. I think it marks his originality. And I think that Kenith Trodd – the producer – we must credit him for creating a climate in which his work would be understood and interpreted by a number of people. Particularly Udayan Prasad – whose marvellous production of They Never Slept, a kind of barmy and vivid picture of wartime England and the secret services, and also Running Late, which was not made by Trodd, it was made by Verity Lambert at ITV. It was that kind of richness which stood out in a naturalistic world. And I responded to that hugely. So when we came to do The Common Pursuit – it doesn’t have any of that at all. But it recurs again in Unnatural Pursuits, partly to do with the nature of his narrative and the absurd things that happened to him, and also I think probably – Simon would cringe if I mentioned this – he’d say it was a lot of nonsense – but nevertheless Dennis Potter had gone down a similar path. I’m thinking of Pennies from Heaven – a remarkable piece of work, in that case using his Al Bowlly music, and that particular notion, that particular musical notion which was very much part of Dennis’s background.
Pennies from Heaven
I don’t think that Simon had that kind of anchor, it was to do with his imagination. The use of songs in Unnatural Pursuits is I think largely to do with musicals, the Hollywood tradition that people, if they’re dancing – you know Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly move from speech to song in a kind of elegant simple way, you know that Fred Astaire’s going to sing in a moment, because something happens in the pitch of his voice, and you say ha ha it’s going to happen. There’s a marvellous song where he makes love to a woman in the room below by dancing on the carpet, with such delicacy. We owe something to the Americans for their audacity –modern musicals, have been used by them with such delight and delicacy – telling stories. And we tried that in Unnatural Pursuits. One group of critics said “silly little tunes”, but what the hell. I watched it the other day, and I laughed at it. I laughed at it because it seemed to me to be doing what he wanted to do, which was to entertain, and also it is an act of homage to the world which he was part of. The use of song. I remember he’d been to see Carousel at the National Theatre, and he said it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre. He was moved. I think that brings us, really nearly up to date.
MacCabe: Well no, I’ve got one or two questions. First of all about Old Flames. You say you didn’t ask any questions. But did you not ask any questions about the end?
MacCabe: You just shot it as written –
CM: As it was written. I assumed – by that time I knew him well enough. I don’t think he’s made a mistake. He just believes there is such love generated when the sister explains, and Stephen’s character learns about his own guilt and responsibility for the situation, and she says I want you to come upstairs and say goodbye to him. We’ve heard cries of pain and sadness – clearly he’s died. But when we see him actually resurrected, we both of us see what he really wanted. To be admired. And that makes the whole story so poignant, to see that done. And at that time we’re, shall we say, two minutes thirty seconds away from the end titles, I’m not going bother about whether people are going to go with it, because they’re not going to turn it off, they’re going to go with it and perhaps enjoy its other worldliness as a mater of fact. Quite magical, and I didn’t ask the question, I just did it.
MacCabe: And then we go back to a very different naturalism, which is The Common Pursuit.
The Common Pursuit
CM: Yes, yes. I’m much less happy with what I did with The Common Pursuit. I looked at it yesterday again. And I felt that I’d treated it – slightly sentimentally. And I think that if I’d – given a chance, if God would give me again a chance of going over I think I would ask Ken, and I’d say I’ll re-edit it and I’ll cut ten minutes out of it. But only because of storytelling. I think that I was sometimes too discursive. I didn’t go to university. I didn’t know Cambridge – I mean the only one that I knew anything about was the one in After Pilkington – and I had a girlfriend at Lady Margaret Hall, and I climbed over walls of other people’s colleges and things of that nature, but I wasn’t there myself. I was in weekly rep. I didn’t have first hand experience of that world in any way. I look at it and I say, no I think its a bit obvious. I think we’re just spending too much time – we’re talking seconds. We’re talking milliseconds. We’re talking about ten frames, things of that nature, all the time, I thought – no, just do this, just a little bit quicker – and don’t strive to make us all undertstand and take part in it. Just be quick and light and truthful. I think that McNally – he was superb. Very, very good. But the interesting thing is that maybe – am I taking responsibility for something that’s never quite worked? Because you could say if you look back at all the history of The Common Pursuit – is it something – well, he parodies it of course in Unnatural Pursuits, and in his books, he keeps on talking about it – just want to do a little more work on the second scene of the first act. That play I suspect is more personal to him than the others. Others are kind of imaginative notions, but The Common Pursuit was a celebration of a great deal of his life, from 18/19 to 32 – and his dear friends who were poets or editors and things like that, it was that world, which he knew and he grew up in and which of course endowed him with a fascination with groups and with literature. And I have a feeling – I wonder, if we had Simon with us – and I wish we did have Simon with us – was he happy with the script eventually, with the play, or was he always wanting to go further, just to polish it? I don’t know. Do you have any idea?
MacCabe: You’re right, he does go on in the diaries a lot about doing it and redoing it so perhaps he never did feel he’d got it right.
CM: Yes, he’d had a production that Harold had done, which I think that – he writes about in one of his books – which didn’t quite work. I think some bit of casting wasn’t quite right. It didn’t have the success it was meant to have. And of course it did lie fallow for a time. And it was done Off Broadway, and the material was written for Unnatural Pursuits, because it then went round America etc. etc., and then Simon directed it himself at the Phoenix Theatre, with Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry, so then when I was then asked to do it on television – Ken wanted to make a kind of small television feature, and that’s why he brought this American over. And I think he actually pinned more on it that the material sustained, because the material was serious, and it had notions of failure and success, and was in a sense a kind of account of British London creative life that would have probably bewildered a North American audience. It was quite special, and because it was naturalistic, we were asked to concern ourselves naturalistically with these people, whereas Old Flames and later on Unnatural Pursuit became something much bolder in his imagination.
MacCabe: Well let’s move on to Unnatural Pursuits which is, I have to say, my own favourite. Do you remember when you were first given the script of that?
CM: Yeah I loved it. I though it was terrific. Ken had a lot of difficulty – Ken and I had a lot of difficulties with each other – because we weren’t able to cast it. And there was a time when Ken made a suggestion that a certain actor should play Partt, and I said well ok fine, I’ll wrap up, I’ll go home. And he was upset by that. And we wound down the film after a period. We closed up the office. I think that Ken was perhaps hopeful that I might resign. And I decided not to. I said no, no, I’m not going to do that. And I had a conversation with Simon at the hotel he used to go to across the road, and we talked about it –
MacCabe: The Halcyon.
CM: Halcyon, that’s right – and he said, no, no, stick with it, stick with it. We’ll do this. So I stayed with it. And then we foolishly said – oh, I suppose we’ll get Alan Bates. Which was absolutely mad, we should have thought of that months before, and Alan was shown it and he said, yes I’ll do this. From that moment on it all changed. We were all identifying with it. And Alan – particularly because he knew Simon so well, because he knew about him as an individual and also the various layers that there would be in the part, leapt at it. And his performance was a joy. An absolute joy. It was charming and loving and funny, and sometimes angry.
Unnatural Pursuits: ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’
MacCabe: Did you have to direct him much or did you just point the camera at him?
CM: Well, no. He was remarkable. And we were very fortunate in our casting to get Bob Balaban, for instance, and Paul Guilfoyle, those two Americans at the beginning, and they’re seen in the bar after the auditions. It’s a delight, actually, that conversation there where he’s trying to get a drink, and the director’s wife turns them down because she doesn’t like the play. It’s enchanting. Very, very, very funny. And to do with also Simon’s own kind of dealing with events – or I will say Simon/Alan dealing with events – I found deeply funny and very touching and very true. It was just a joy. I think it was a very happy show. But even on that show, after we’d actually reviewed the final cut, even the final print, I think it was the final print – Simon said – I think that speech is too long. And I remember my editor – a very good editor, she won the Editing Bafta that year for it, got very angry: why do you do this now? I said, don’t worry, let’s look at this. He wants to cut, you know, the last third of the speech. There was a Steenbeck in the corridor, and we took the show print, and put it on the Steenbeck, and I said, alright you can take that, and in fact you won’t ruin the sound, we can make good cuts here, taking that – just take that out, join it up, there’s only one join in the whole film. And nobody can tell. And he said, I got it wrong. I just wanted to polish it.
Unnatural Pursuits: ‘I’m the Author’
MacCabe: Unnatural Pursuits seems to me one of the seeds of the diaries?
CM: I don’t know about that. I don’t know which is the chicken or the egg. I think the diaries are there, his accounts of that time, you know, of Harold directing it and then of doing it in America, I think that’s what it draws upon, it may have then informed him about his diaries. I don’t know. It may be true. But the accounts of The Common Pursuit are in the early diaries. This is why Common Pursuit is a marvellous piece of the puzzle. And it dominated really I think ten, fifteen years of his creative life. And of course the emotional history of the misunderstanding between him and Harold. So we get Hector Duff, and a season of Duff plays. Harold was deeply upset by it. And I’m not at all surprised. But nevertheless Unnatural Pursuits contains a marvellous moment of total togetherness, when they sing The Lonesome Pine together. Which I like to think is clearly something that Harold and Simon did. Richard Wilson in a way slightly seized the opportunity, because he came from a different theatrical background. You know – Glasgow, Labour – he jumped at the part.
MacCabe: Now, a relatively short period of time where I think that there’s five projects you do with Simon. And then, that’s it. Was that deliberate or did it just happen like that?
CM: Just happened like that. I mean I certainly wasn’t in the position to say no if anybody had asked. But I think partly because the BBC changed, and I found myself fairly shortly after that making much less television. The organisation of television changed radically, and an intervening class of executives emerged, it became an organisation which wished to control – they didn’t trust the people to make the programmes they wanted. Maybe they found themselves in financial problems, I’ve no idea, they felt themselves besieged. So the stories within the BBC now of attempting to get projects approved is much more painful. I remember, this is an anecdote going back a long time, a long time ago that when I was Head of Plays, I remember, during one of those explorations of broadcasting, I forget whose it was, Marghanita Laski wanted to meet the Plays Department – the producers, and the Head of Department. We met in a room in the basement of Television Centre. I said a few words. And then I asked everybody – all the producers, about twelve of them – each one of them, to say something, and they did, and I was delighted, absolutely delighted. And it was a marvellous spectrum. Tony Garnett and Ken Trodd at one end and shall we say Cedric Messina on the other. Marvellous, a panoply of difference of opinions of what television drama should be. And I heard afterwards that Marghanita Laski said the plays department is out of control, because they were different from each other. And I have a feeling that some way or another during the last 20 years television became more and more driven by formulae of one form or another, and the relationship of writers to the BBC, except with honourable exceptions – the space that they’ve given Stephen Poliakoff and also Jimmy McGovern, a marvellous writer and a marvellous producer. But generally, you know, people have been measuring people’s quality of writing by their ability to write hit six part serials or Dr Who. And the notion of a writer coming to them and saying – you know, like Alan Bennett – and saying look, I’ve got this little play about two old people, retired people in Morecambe. Did you ever see, there’s a lovely film that Stephen made called Sunset Across the Bay about these two old people. In a way a kind of portrait of Alan’s mother and father. And what happens is, the drama that happens is that the old man goes to the lavatory and dies, leaving the wife on the seafront. That’s the anecdote. And deeply human and humane. And I’m not sure whether television has lost its nerve, from that point of view. Maybe the audience too.
MacCabe: But this would fit with the dates – crudely put, you stopped working with Simon because the arena in which you worked ceased to exist?
CM: Yes, I think so. I don’t think Simon wrote a television play after Unnatural Pursuits.
MacCabe: I don’t think so, certainly not many. OK a final question, which is, you look back over a long collaboration with him, and an even longer period when you knew him. Is there one memory that stands out for you. Is there one?
CM: Yes, I think that I’ve already described the moment, when Ken and I had a difference of opinion, and I said to Simon I don’t know quite what to do. He said – we met at the Halcyon and we talked about it, and he was able to give – you know, just reassure me, it wasn’t lightly done, it was serious and intelligent, and I’m very, very, very grateful for that, because, you know, he treated my question on its merits, and I had therefore to treat what he said to me on its merits too. And he was a very, very witty, humane friend and colleague.
MaCabe: Thank you very much.
|Tags: After Pilkington, Al Bowlly, Alan Bates, Alan Bennett, Alan Bridges, Alan Clarke, Alan Cooke, Alun Owen, Armchair Theatre, ATV, BBC, Bill Hayes, Butley, Cathy Come Home, Cedric Messina, Charles Jarrott, Christopher Morahan, Close of Play, Close the Coalhouse Door, Colin MacCabe, David Rose, Days of Hope, de Montherlant, Dennis Potter, Duncan Weldon, Emergency Ward 10, Franklin Schaffner, Fred Astair, Gene Kelly, George Devine, George Orwell, George Roy Hill, Harold Pinter, Hugh Greene, Huw Weldon, Irene Shubik, James Brabazon, Jim O'Brien, Jimmy McGovern, John Hopkins, John McKenzie, John Osborne, Judi Dench, Ken Loach, Ken Trodd, Kevin McNally, La Douanier Rousseau, Little Murders, Marghanita Laski, Maurice Denham, Melon, Michael Bryant, Michel Saint-Denis, National Theatre, Old Flames, Orson Welles, Paul Fox, Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Hall, Philip Saville, Richard Wilson, Rik Mayall, Sidney Lumet, Sidney Newman, Silvio Narizzano, Simon Callow, Simon Gray, Solzhenitsyn, Stephen Frears, Stephen Fry, Stephen Poliakoff, Talking to a Stranger, Ted Kotcheff, The Common Pursuit, The Holy Terror, The Jewel in the Crown, The Love-Girl and Innocent, Thorold Dickinson, Tony Garnett, Tony Imi, Trevor Howard, Unnatural Pursuits, Up the Junction, Waris Hussein, Z Cars
Posted By admin on Fri 03/04/2011 - 19:44
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|Thursday 23rd December 2010|
|Critical Forum: On directing The Late Middle Classes by David Leveaux|
On directing The Late Middle Classes
by David Leveaux
First published in the Independent on 24 May 2010
In a moment of inexplicable buoyancy, I once told Harold Pinter, who was about to rehearse the role of Hirst in our production of his play No Man’s Land, that I thought it essential that we didn’t fall into being “Pinteresque”.
Looking back, I must admit it was a note that could have gone either way. Luckily – and perhaps not too surprisingly, given Harold’s energetic pragmatism when it came to the job in hand – he seemed really quite pleased.
Famous writers tend to attract adjectives the way whales attract barnacles. Pinter is invariably “enigmatic”, Stoppard “dazzling” and the great whale, Beckett, “existential” – something I imagine used to be rather a fun thing to be, but now means basically “bleak”.
It’s been my great luck to be in a rehearsal room with all of the above, and the only thing I can say with certainty that they share is a general impatience with their adjectives, if only because those adjectives delay – or more often outright traduce – the main event. And to be fair, the particular barnacles that have attached themselves to these writers over time last about as long as useful commodities in the rehearsal room as an estate agent’s brochure on entering the house to which it actually refers. There isn’t, as far as I know, an adjective for Simon Gray.
And I have the feeling this is rather cunning of him, even though I also feel there ought to be one for someone who perhaps more than anyone captured the sheer hilarity, embarrassment and improbable heat under the ice of the English. His play The Late Middle Classes, which we are rehearsing for the Donmar in London, was originally directed by Harold Pinter in 1999 but was never seen in London after the West End producer took the cue from a critic to dump it for a show called BoyBand – which then closed in a few weeks. It’s the kind of thing I imagine Simon Gray being as funny about as he must have felt desolated about at the time.
So when the play came to me about two years ago, I got the rather guilty feeling that I ought to have known it already. And, on reading it, was instantly happy that I had not. Because what leapt off the page was the strangest, loveliest, fiercest account of a boy growing up in post- war England that was not nostalgic but did that thing that Coward at his best could do – give you the facts about a nation coming to terms with what we mean by victory. And the facts about sex under the defensive but desirously seeking radar of language.
I did not know Simon Gray. I met him only briefly. But now I wish I had known him. Victoria, his wife, remarked to me that he was “the funniest man in England”. And she said that with the kind of suddenness that managed to combine romance and the facts in one go.
What I do know is that he had the special gift of making the English language subversive. At once energetic, lethally penetrating, locally vulgar, and, in the high moments of passion, molten.
By coincidence, the heirs to the late middle classes he wrote about recently strolled through the gardens of Downing Street. But theirs strikes me as a dismally tinny echo of the troubled and passing world Simon nailed – and gave words to. Because his English was vibrant with purpose. Suspicious of the empty phrase, ruthless and spare and quite beautiful.
Samuel Beckett once referred to a favourite rugby fly-half as “capable of genius when the light is dying”. I think it’s an apt phrase for Simon’s evocation of a certain England. Not a phoney, sentimental version of it, by any means. In fact, one frequently outraged by its secrets and hypocrisy. But also one alive to the power and grace of the English language to demolish the often unspoken anxieties of incomprehension and cliché on which sentimental tyranny and ideology depend. In other words, he had a lovely way of using words to make you free – or to fall silent at all the moments that count. And who needs an adjective for that?
|Tags: David Leveaux, Harold Pinter, No Man's Land, Noel Coward, Samuel Beckett, Simon Gray, The Late Middle Classes
Posted By admin on Thu 12/23/2010 - 13:28
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|Friday 18th June 2010|
|Critical Forum: Sorrow Laughs, an appreciation of Simon Gray by Josephine Hart|
An appreciation of Simon Gray by Josephine Hart
Published here by kind permission of the author. First printed in the programme for the Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Late Middle Classes, May 2010.
Simon Gray wrote 40 plays – and a number of the wittiest diaries in the English language. He was nominated for and won countless awards – too many to list here – and anyway he would not have approved, having a healthy distrust of “the arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around”. There was no kidding him and he knew that to write was to sit in judgement on oneself and mostly to find oneself wanting. Anything else was false. And false he never was. He wrote with the perfect poise of a poet, with his ear trained to our voice as he noted every lie. No playwright in modern theatre had a more finely tuned sensibility to the dangerous seduction of what Auden called “the folded lie, the romantic lie in the brain”. In play after play, with scalding vertiginous wit, Simon Gray added to our store of uncomfortable self-knowledge: our terror of the abyss; the utter fragility of normal life; above all our often secret desire to be alone, endlessly thwarted as Larkin noted by the concept that “Virtue is social”; and the torture of love when it turns to something else yet remains shadowed by its own loss. His art acknowledged, as we all must, that whatever personal courage or bravado we bring to it, however we attempt to swagger through it, the art of living and losing is harder than we pretend.
His characters were called into being during years of long nights fuelled by cigarettes and alcohol, alone, typing till dawn, on and on till the morning of ecstasy when a play was finished: “This for me the only moment of pure happiness I ever experience in the playwriting business. I wish there was some ceremony, some physical ceremony to express it – picking it up, turning it upside down, slapping its rump, dishing out cigars…” Plays are indeed a multiple-birth experience – to a perpetual life. In this art it is kinder than the experience it seeks to represent. And what characters he gifted us in those astonishing plays, beginning with Jock, played by Alec Guinness, in Gray’s wildly controversial debut Wise Child.
Ben Butley, in Butley, seemed to respond to Gray’s Pirandello-like invitation, “It’s show time, folks”, and became, in Alan Bates’ seminal performance, a terrifying Nietzschean figure, raging in his love-loathing, life-hating diatribes, culminating in a verbal marital flaying which would give Tarantino pause for thought.
In Otherwise Engaged, Simon Hench’s icy heart beat out Sartre’s mantra, “Hell is other people” with hilarious brutality until our laughter freezes in the waste of cruelty that is the last scene.
St John Quartermaine in Quartermaine’s Terms can only whisper as his seemingly ordered life is almost stolen from him: “Oh Lord!/Well – I say – / Oh Lord!” It was the poetry of defeat (perfectly spoken) in a master-class from Edward Fox.
Close of Play starred Michael Redgrave as Jasper, a character whom, as Gray pointed out, lives in “Hell which turns out to be ‘life, old life itself’”.
Jameson, in The Rear Column, is one of five men isolated in the Congo – waiting, watching in Jeremy Irons’ performance, as civilised behaviour, including his own, collapses. Geographically, the territory may have been alien – the moral issues remain the same – betrayal, particularly the betrayal of self, as demonstrated by six academics adrift, in their own way, on a literary magazine in The Common Pursuit.
In the heartbreaking Japes, the eponymous hero was played by Toby Stephens – his agonising disintegration witnessed by his appalled brother. Charles and Celia, the parents in The Late Middle Classes, are seemingly unaware of their son Holly’s psychological growing pains during his dangerously sentimental education – one which will distort his soul forever. Their elective moral blindness destroys grace – as it almost always does in Gray’s universe.
This warning sounds out in all his plays. It is what gives them their moral tone. Attention must be paid to this above all else. No system is to blame – the fault lies in ourselves. Thus Gray’s work cuts along the nerve – a sometimes painful process. With his natural gift for comic timing, the soaring, thrilling laughter which drenches the plays was also his anaesthetic of choice. There was and is an artistic price to be paid. In the literary arts an almost Orwellian hierarchical system denies the accolade of greatness to work we designate as comedy. In this we are often wrong – forgetting that “Excess of sorrow laughs/excess of joy weeps”.
There is a strange custom in contemporary theatre which ranks the political as of greater consequence than the examination of the human heart in conflict with itself. Truth is timeless, it has no accent and is beyond class and is as easily found in Moliere’s court and Chekov’s dying estates, in Rattigan’s drawing rooms as in Gorky’s lower depths. It lies in the interior and Gray was always on his way to the interior. The exterior was ever only the frame. His plays have little to say about the politics of the day. Arthur Miller shrewdly noted that before a play is – “it is a kind of psychic journalism”, a mirror of its hour – and this reflection of contemporary feeling is precisely what makes many plays irrelevant to later times. What finally survives, when anything does, are archetypal characters and relationships which can be transferred to the new period.
Simon Gray left us a gallery of such characters to see us through life. Their vibrant nature, their thrilling command of language to torment, to seduce, to manipulate, will forever attract our best actors. Indeed few playwrights can number performances from so many artists whom one can truly describe as great. Nor can many boast that much of their work directed with such exquisite precision and celebration by one of theatre’s seminal figures – fellow playwright and Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter: “Life in the theatre has not brought me anything more rewarding than directing Simon Gray’s plays.”
|Tags: Alan Bates, Alec Guinness, Butley, Close of Play, Edward Fox, Harold Pinter, Japes, Josephine Hart, Michael Redgrave, Otherwise Engaged, Pirandello, Quartermaine's Terms, Simon Gray, Simon Hench, The Common Pursuit, The Late Middle Classes, The Rear Column, Toby Stephens, Wise Child
Posted By admin on Fri 06/18/2010 - 17:01
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