Stephen Hollis spoke to Anthony Wilks about his career and experience working with Simon Gray in December 2012
AW: How did you first got interested in the theatre – how did it all start for you?
SH: 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 buy generic alprazolam 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 thems, 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 StageStruck.
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 Death Trap 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 Waford 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,
AW: That theme of comedy murder comes up in his later TV work. In After Pilkington and Old Flames – they have high body counts.
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.