Unnatural Pursuits was produced by the BBC in association with A&E Television Networks in 1992 as two hour-long episodes, titles ‘I don’t do Cuddles’ and ‘I’m the Author’. It is based on Simon Gray’s diaries describing his experiences of productions of his plays in the UK and USA. It won an International Emmy for best drama in 1993.
The cast was as follows:
HAMISH PARTT – Alan Bates
BLOSSOM – Tom Hickey
HECTOR DUFF – Richard Wilson
SKATEBOARD – Paul Zimet
DIGBY MASON – Keith Szarabajka
GEORGE PEPPERLY – Nigel Planer
LARRY LEITZ – Paul Guilfoyle
LOU FINKLEBERG – Bob Balaban
ELAINE – Amanda Boxer
SU – Lisa Orgolini
PADDY QUINN – John Mahoney
JENNY MCDAISH – Marty Cruikshank
DR WICKS – Rosie Kerslake
GERRY – Tom Beard
AMANDA – Rachel Fielding
WENDY – Sarah Sutton
LIMO PASSENGER – Nathan Lane
MAYOR – David Healy
TEACHER – Mary Ellen Ray
SILKEN – Gina Torres
JEANINE – Kerry Peers
ART NOVAK – Jack Gilpin
MAITRE D’ – Vincent Marzello
CABBIE – Wendell Pierce
Music by Robert Lockhart
Directed by Christopher Morahan
Produced by Kenith Trodd
“The film is a comic masterpiece, the ultimate, unbeatable, perfectly judged exaggeration of America: a tricky thing to have accomplished, since that country is already a Spitting Image version of its original self. Gray may not be the first to have given his hero some self-destructive vice as a way of aligning himself with the rest of decently suffering humanity and isolating his satirical opponents, but it has rarely been done with such surf-riding comic flair.”
Hugo Williams, Times Literary Supplement, 12th December 1992
“Normally, writers who write about writing are as interesting as drivers who bong on about the best route from A to B via C, but Gray is no normal writer, being highly controlled and funny, defying logic to be both touching and merciless at one and the same time. His heroes tend to be so detached that they can even be detached that they can even be detached about their own detachment, and Alan Bates as the playwright Hamish Partt looked with cold mirth at the absurd gesticulations of everyone’s lives, including his own… A delightfully jaundiced joy from start to finish.”
Craig Brown, Sunday Times, 13th December 1992
“There’s always a danger when writers start writing about what they do; but in the case of Simon Gray’s two-parter, Unnatural Pursuits, the results are simply breathtaking… anyone who’s been drunk, in a theatre or travelled across America will absolutely adore this programme; and if the future of the BBC threatens productions of this caliber, then frankly, my dear, we should go to war.”
Steve Grant, Time Out, 2nd December 1992
“[A] richly observant, always amusing, sometimes hilarious chronicle of a besotted, haunted, chain-smoking Brit dramatist named Hamish Partt (Bates, who’s in top, top form).”
Hay Loynd, LA Times, 22nd January 1994
An extract from Richard’s Brook’s article, ‘A silly habit for a grown-up’, The Observer, 6th December 1992:
Since the late Sixties Gray has written about one play a year. Many, such as Wise Child, Butley (also filmed), Otherwise Engaged, Hidden Laughter and Quartermaine’s Terms (made for TV, too), have been both critical and commercial successes. His TV plays, such as After Pilkington, Old Flames and Running Late, have successfully bridged the gulf between intelligent writing and popular drama.
Unnatural Pursuits, directed by Christopher Morahan, is Gray at his most personal. ‘Partt, Me? Well, kind of,’ he eventually admits. Gray is an oddly diffident man, hard to pin down. He didn’t know why Unnatural Pursuits was given that title (while being shot it was called With Two Lumps of Ice). In fact, as [producer Kenith] Trodd makes clear, it was changed a few months ago because he thought the Americans would not understand ‘lumps of ice’, ‘To them it’s “rocks”,’ says Trodd.
Gray was also unsure whether it was made with co-production money. It was. With the American Arts & Entertainment station. For good measure, he also could not tell which of his cats was sick over our photographer’s cameras. Vagueness has its advantages.
His diffidence meant that, despite Trodd’s prompting, he was unsure about adapting his diaries for television. ‘After all, they are a day-to-day account,’ says Gray. ‘We had to make it all rather different for TV.’
It is. For Unnatural Pursuits is a musical comic fantasy. Trodd and Gray decided to enliven it with occasional singing. Shades of Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, which Trodd produced for writer Dennis Potter.
What emerges on screen is a funny, at times lunatically so, account of Partt’s travails. In reality and in the diaries, The Common Pursuit began its American trip in New Haven, then Los Angeles and finally new York. Gray decided for dramatic reasons to set the TV play, which recounts the attempts to stage the fictional Unnatural Pursuits, in LA and Dallas, Partt, an innocent abroad, is bemused by the daffiness of California and then the crassness of Texas.
‘People in Los Angeles just seem sunnily imbecilic,’ says Gray. ‘I hated the place. It was my one and, hopefully, only experience there. Everybody seemed to be actors. They also got terribly excited about putting on a play. I suppose it is because there is so little theatre there. I also hated it because you need a car there and I don’t drive. This is partly why I love New York. You don’t need a car. It’s also very European, with bars and bustle.’
Gray really never had any doubts that his old friend Bates (they first worked together in Butley) would be Partt, though initially the role of Partt was not going to be fictional, but Gray himself. ‘Alan knows what my lines mean,’ says Gray. In fact, the two do seem similar in many ways. Bates usually plays nice, yet rather confused and lost, characters…like Gray?
There was also an early plan for Harold Pinter to take the part of Hector Duff, an old director and writer friend of Partt, who is described as ‘the world’s greatest living playwright’. But Pinter was not available and so the role is played by the splendid Richard Wilson from One Foot in the Grave.
In the TV play, Partt quite often finds himself imagining some rather ghastly people threatening him. He sees them in his mind’s eye. Has Gray himself had similar experiences? ‘Yes, I did go through a period a few years ago of hallucinating. It was a waking nightmare. The doctors told me it was stress-related. I don’t want to go into too many details