Funny Turns

Peter Nichols, The National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1967-1982
by Alec Patton

Ph.D., School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics University of Sheffield September 2007


Summary of Thesis
This thesis is a case study following Peter Nichols’ career from his first major stage play in 1967 to his announced retirement from the theatre in 1982, focussing primarily on his work at the National Theatre (NT) and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and looking in detail at the following plays: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health, Beasts of England, The Freeway, Privates on Parade, Passion Play, and Poppy. A great deal of its research comes from Peter Nichols’ personal papers, which the British Library acquired in 1999. It also includes material from first-person interviews conducted with Nichols himself, with the director Michael Blakemore, and with other theatre practitioners. Throughout the thesis, Nichols is treated not only as the author of a series of interesting plays, but as the centre of a network of relationships and an array of forces. Nichols’ experiences at the NT and RSC therefore provide insights into the means of production at these two companies during a key period in their development. This thesis also addresses the geographical, historical, and cultural scope that Nichols brings to his portrayal of post-war Britain. Nichols’ Britain is not ‘white’, nor is it restricted to the confines of a single island. Instead, his plays address both the outward spread of the British Empire and the arrival of immigrants from former colonies. Finally, this thesis examines Nichols’ ‘mixed’ theatrical style, which draws on a variety of theatrical (as well as cinematic and musical) sources, particularly genres such as pantomime and variety theatre which are not constrained by the conventions of ‘naturalism’. Nichols’ plays are therefore riddled with violations of the terms that have been tacitly agreed by performers and audience, and these violations are discussed throughout the chapters.


Table of Contents
Summary of Thesis Acknowledgements Introduction Chapter 1 A Sensation in Glasgow A Day in the Death of Joe Egg Chapter 2 How The National Health improved the National’s Health The National Health Chapter 3 ‘The Widow’s Whims’ Beasts of England Chapter 4 Traffic Jam The Freeway Chapter 5 Theatres of War Privates on Parade Chapter 6 A Company Theatre Man at Heart Passion Play, Poppy Bibliography 2 4 5 42








Acknowledgements I would not have been able to complete this thesis without the generous support of the University of Sheffield and British Library’s Concordat studentship and the British Council Overseas Research Awards Scheme (ORSAS). I have been fortunate to have a tremendously helpful and supportive supervisor, Professor Dominic Shellard, a well as an excellent co-supervisor at the British Library, Sally Brown. I am indebted to the British Library’s Head of Modern Manuscripts, Jamie Andrews, for advice, consultation, and copious amounts of information. I would like to thank Peter Nichols, Michael Blakemore, Cleo Sylvestre, Joe Melia, and Joy Zinoman for their interviews; Dr. Steve Nicholson for his help with research into the Lord Chamberlain’s office; Vanessa Toulmin at the National Fairground Archive for information about British blackface minstrelsy; Kathryn Johnson at the British library for her help in navigating Peggy Ramsay’s personal papers; the curators at the National Theatre Archive, Royal Shakespeare Company Archive, and University of Bristol Theatre Archive; Nick Hern, for his advice about the content; Laura White and Allen Day for incisive commentary; and Finlay Cowan for the use of his studio, which provided a much-needed change of scenery. I particularly want to thank my family and friends both in Britain and in America, especially by brother, mother, and father. My father, Chris Patton, was a generous and clear-headed reader and our conversations were instrumental in the initial shaping of the thesis. He died in April 2006, and since then I have had to write it without him as a reader. Even so, his ideas and his knowledge of the theatre were the earliest source of my own view of the theatre, and therefore, I hope, are present throughout the following pages. Thanks finally, especially, and endlessly, to my partner, Briony Chown, who has been a brilliant editor, advisor, supporter, advocate, and source of inspiration and without whom I am certain I could not have done this.


Introduction This thesis is a case study following Peter Nichols’ career from his first major stage play1 in 1967 to his announced retirement from the theatre in 1982, focussing primarily on his work at the National Theatre (NT) and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). A great deal of my research comes from Peter Nichols’ personal papers, which the British Library acquired in 1999 and catalogued in 2003. I have also conducted first-person interviews with Nichols himself, with the director Michael Blakemore, and with other theatre practitioners. These newly-available resources and original interviews offer new perspectives on both the playwright and the companies that produced his work. My title, ‘Funny Turns’, comes from an early working title for the play that became A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.2 It refers both to the seizures experienced by the brain-damaged daughter of the play’s central couple, and to the comic routines that the couple perform during the play. For my purpose, the title also refers to Nichols’ early career, which was full of switched allegiances, good and bad surprises, and apparent changes of stylistic direction between plays. Both the title itself and its multiple meanings are appropriate to Nichols’ plays, which are often characterised by irony, ambivalence, and the pleasures of wordplay.

Scope Throughout my research, I have treated Nichols not only as the author of a series of interesting plays (though he certainly is that), but as the centre of a network of relationships and an array of forces. Viewed in this light, his career offers a unique perspective on the ecology of the theatre. In particular, Nichols’ experiences at the NT and RSC provide insights into the means of production at these two companies during a key period in their development as nationallyimportant institutions. To an extent, this Nichols-centred theatrical universe is
1 2

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Hersh Zeifman, ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’, Contemporary British Dramatists, ed. K.A. Berney (London: St. James’ Pres, 1994), p. 767


arbitrary: Nichols is at the centre of the narrative because his plays interest me, and a case-study of any of the other practitioners that appear in this thesis would turn up its own unique insights. The choice of Nichols is not entirely arbitrary, however, as he possesses two crucial attributes: great importance to post-war British theatre, and near-total neglect by academic critics and theatre historians. With Nichols’ personal papers available at the British library, and the playwright himself willing to be interviewed, this has been an exciting time to write about his career. In this thesis, I have chosen to focus on Nichols’ work for the stage between 1967, when his first major production, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, premiered, and 1982, when Poppy opened at the RSC and he announced that he would be retiring from the theatre. Though Nichols did not in fact cease to write for the stage, Poppy was the last of his plays to be produced by either the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it therefore provides a good line of demarcation in his career. I do not mean to discount his later work, which deserves more critical attention than it has yet received, or, for that matter, his pre-1967 work for television, which also deserves further scrutiny. However, this thesis follows his early career as a playwright in the theatre, and I have set its chronological boundaries accordingly. The plays that I examine in detail are chosen by two criteria: they were first produced by either the NT or the RSC, and they take place in ‘public’ spaces. This second criterion needs some explanation: Nichols’ plays can be loosely divided between those set primarily in domestic settings and focussed on an individual family, and those set in a public space (a hospital, a military barracks) and addressed to more ‘public’ themes. With only one exception (Passion Play) all of Nichols’ plays that meet the first criterion meet the second as well. These are The National Health, The Freeway, Privates on Parade, and Poppy. The first chapter in this thesis examines A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which meets neither criteria – it premiered at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre and


takes place in a sitting room – but it is Nichols’ first major work for the stage, and introduces themes and preoccupations that recur throughout his later work. In addition to this, it is simply too significant to Nichols’ subsequent career to be ignored. Nichols did not write exclusively for the NT and RSC between 1967 and 1982, but the majority of his full-length plays were produced by one of the two companies.3 Nichols had a definite (though shifting, and never well-defined) ‘relationship’ with both companies, and this connection was important (and often frustrating) to both the playwright and the respective institution. The late 1960s and 1970s were critical both to Nichols’ career and to the development and selfdefinition of the NT and RSC, and in retrospect it is easy to regard them as halcyon days for the subsidised theatre as a whole. I have therefore limited my attention to Nichols’ work with the NT and the RSC because the narrative that unfolds provides a unique and revealing perspective on both Nichols’ career and on the history of the companies themselves. This explains my attention to the NT and RSC. As for my focus on Nichols’ ‘public’ plays, I made this decision for two reasons: first, because I am personally more interested in the broad social scope and explicit political ramifications of these plays than in what Nichols has called the ‘tender trap’ of family life;4 and second, because Nichols’ family plays from the period (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Forget-me-not Lane, Chez Nous, Born in the Gardens, Passion Play) have received much more critical attention than his ‘public’ plays. Three major themes have emerged from my research: first, the primacy of collaboration in the ecology of the theatre; second, the distinctive image of post-war Britain that Nichols presents in his plays; and third, the ‘mixed’ theatrical style that Nichols has created out of a dizzying range of influences.


The National Health and The Freeway opened at the NT, while Privates on Parade, Passion Play, and Poppy opened at the RSC. Forget-me-not Lane and Nichols’ children’s play Harding’s Luck were produced by the Greenwich Theatre, and Born in the Gardens was produced by the Bristol Old Vic company. Nichols’ short sketch Neither Up Nor Down, written for Oh Calcutta but ultimately rejected, was performed at the Almost Free Theatre. 4 Peter Nichols, Forget-me-not Lane, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 292


These three themes are addressed more thoroughly over the next few pages, followed by an outline of the thesis, an account of my research methodology, a survey of existing literature on Peter Nichols, and finally, a brief account of Nichols’ career before 1967, when Joe Egg was produced, and after 1982, when Poppy opened.

Collaboration – ‘a friend at court’ I have used the phrase ‘ecology of the theatre’ in order to emphasise the interdependent nature of the theatre ‘scene’. This thesis is not a work of ecocriticism, though it shares some of ecocriticism’s values and concerns. Chiefly, the term ‘ecology’ is intended to counter the concept of an independent, non-contingent, self-sufficient creator (the ‘Author-God’, to use Roland Barthes’ term5) with the image of a web of mutually-dependent agents, none of whom can accomplish anything without the collaboration of many other people. My intention is therefore similar to Barthes’, though it is much less radical. While Barthes locates his reconfiguration of authorship at the point of creation (‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’6) I locate it at the point of production, when a variety of people with a range of interpretations go to work on the script in order to transform it into a theatrical event. This methodology also has some affinity with reader-response theory, which Marvin Carlson has usefully applied to theatre, proposing that Marco di Marinis’ ‘model spectator’7 is embodied by the modern director ‘who watches the development of a performance from the seat of a presumed spectator and orchestrates the effects for spectator reception.’8 Therefore, Carlson adds, once the show is performed for an audience, ‘we are really speaking [...] of two

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author,’ Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1984), p. 146 6 Barthes, ‘Death’, p. 146 7 This is a corollary to Umberto Eco’s ‘model reader’. 8 Marvin Carlson, ‘Theatre Audiences and the Reading of Performance,’ Interpreting the Theatrical Past, Tom Postlewait and Bruce A. McConachie, eds. (Iowa City: U. of Iowa Press, 1989), p. 84


readings and thus of two simultaneous “productive activations” – that of the performance itself and that of the audience.’9 In fact, there are many more than two ‘productive activations’: the performance is inflected by (for example) the actors, props managers, and lighting engineers, none of whom will fully share the director’s vision for the performance. This is not to deny Nichols’ authorship of his plays – in fact, Nichols himself has been painfully aware, throughout his career, of his contested status within the theatre, and it was the contestation of meaning at the point of production that led him to renounce the theatre. The critic Kenneth Tynan described the ecology of theatre very well in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts in 1964. Tynan observed that in addition to the basic prerequisites of ‘time, talent and a typewriter,’ a playwright requires ‘actors, directors, designers, carpenters, costumiers, wigmakers, stagehands, electricians and possibly singers, dancers and musicians as well, before his work can take on life and present itself for critical assessment.’10 Apart from the expense entailed by such an infrastructure, this (partial) list demonstrates how many different, potentially competing creative visions and practical requirements are brought to bear on a single play. In no narrative form other than cinema is the author forced into collaboration with so many different people. In cinema, screenwriters are rarely well-known, and most of the exceptions to this are famous primarily as directors (such as Quentin Tarantino) or as playwrights (such as Harold Pinter). In the theatre, the author is allowed a coherent identity (rather than being one of the many unfamiliar names in the closing credits) but the script is subject to a vast web of influences, some of which will (almost inevitably) run directly counter to the author’s intentions. In Nichols’ career, the size of the collaboration (or conflict) ranges from the microlevel of author and director to the macro-level of national theatre company and national government.


Carlson, ‘Theatre Audiences’, p. 86 Kenneth Tynan, ‘The National Theatre: A Speech to the Royal Society of Arts’, A View of the English Stage, 1944-1965 (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 353-354


Productions of Nichols’ plays have entailed the playwright’s cooperation (and often compromise) with a vast range of interests, including directors, composers, actors, his agent, the Board of Governors, the Lord Chamberlain, the George Orwell Estate, and even newspaper critics. In fact, critics have played a surprisingly intimate role in Nichols’ career. Cordelia Oliver’s review of Joe Egg in the Manchester Guardian is supposed to have been the single factor that brought national attention to the play, while Irving Wardle re-reviewed The National Health at Michael Blakemore’s request when the NT planned to close it. A few years later, when Nichols wrote to Benedict Nightingale complaining about his review of Privates on Parade (and jokingly mentioning that Nightingale had unknowingly walked in front of his car a few days ago, tempting the playwright to run him over11), Nightingale replied with an account of all the different periodicals in which he had recommended Privates. ‘So you see,’ the critic concluded, ‘my death might have been wasteful.’12 As this indicates, some critics seem to have been remarkably willing not only to advocate Nichols work, but (showing a certain amount of ethical flexibility) to let him know they were doing so. The relationships at the heart of Nichols’ career (and of this thesis), however, have been his relationships with directors, particularly his relationship with Michael Blakemore. Nichols dedicated his Plays: One to Blakemore, acknowledging the protean nature of their friendship: For Michael Blakemore who has been in turn my landlord, friend, actor, critic and editor, theatre and film director, without whom . . . 13 As this dedication suggests, it would be difficult to overstate Nichols’ and Blakemore’s significance to each other’s careers. Irving Wardle has remarked on the benefit to post-war British theatre from ‘front-line directors who have

Nichols to Benedict Nightingale, 27 Nov 1977 (draft or copy) (Nichols Papers, folder 79108, Br. Library) 12 Benedict Nightingale to Nichols, 16 Dec 1977 (Nichols Papers, folder 79108, Br. Library) 13 Nichols, ‘Introduction: Casting the Audience,’ Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991), p. x


devoted much of their working lives to new writers,’ citing such ‘famous-writer director marriages’ as Bill Gaskill and Edward Bond, Lindsay Anderson and David Storey, and Michael Blakemore and Peter Nichols.14 These were artistic partnerships, but they were professional partnerships as well. For his part, Nichols has come to regard a relationship between playwright and director (one which extends beyond a single production) as vital to the playwright’s success in the theatre. At a National Theatre platform in August 2007, he told his interviewer (and former collaborator) Michael Grandage that ‘if young playwrights ask my advice – not that they ever do – I tell them “get someone in your corner.”’15 This echoes the advice that Nichols’ agent, Margaret (Peggy) Ramsay, gave him when he told her he was ‘breaking off’ from Michael Blakemore in 1973. At the time, Ramsay cautioned him that he needed ‘a friend at court’. Nichols, who describes this discussion in his diary, admits that he ‘should have paid more attention to this sound advice from a woman who knew her way around,’ adding that ‘Never having much relish or talent for what Kenneth Williams always called “the business end” or “the suck-off antics”, I needed someone in my corner who enjoyed pacing the corridors of power.’16 Nichols and Blakemore had been friends since the 1950s, when Blakemore was still working exclusively as an actor and Nichols was teaching secondary school children and beginning to write for television. Together, the two men seem to have ignited and clarified each other’s ambitions, imagining a new shape for theatre in which comedy, drama, tragedy, absurdity and horror should be no more compartmentalised on-stage than they are in life, and in which characters would (often unexpectedly) reveal their awareness that they are standing in front of an audience. Nichols would never work as closely with another director as he had with Blakemore, and without an advocate, the playwright found the theatre increasingly inhospitable.

14 15

Irving Wardle, Theatre Criticism, Theatre Concepts Series (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 122 Peter Nichols, platform discussion with Michael Grandage, National Theatre, 3 August 2007 16 Peter Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000), p. 294


Easily frustrated, understandably suspicious of directors’ interpretations of his plays, and often abrasive in rehearsals, Nichols found collaboration extremely difficult. In many instances, correspondence shows that he also made it very difficult for those who tried to collaborate with him, but it is worth remembering just how much sacrifice and trust (or simply resignation) the theatre demands of a playwright. After working on a script, often for years, Nichols began to cede authority over his work as soon as a director received a draft and decided to stage it. This is a frightening prospect for any writer, and one whose difficulty should not be understated.

Plays about Britain – ‘his country writ small’ When Nichols announced in 1982 that he was leaving the theatre, the critic John Peter assessed his oeuvre, observing that ‘The world of his stage is mostly the world of his country writ small. [...] Cool but concerned,’ Peter added, ‘tough but compassionate, he is a patriot for me.’’17 Mervin Jones, also responding to Nichols’ announced retirement, declared that ‘Nichols is greatly preoccupied with the past: both his own past, and the English past as transmitted by family reminiscence and tradition.’ Jones added that ‘He grew up in the last war, which marked a sharp break between an older and an emerging world, but which also brought about a revival and a strengthening of inherited values [...].’18 For Nichols (as for George Orwell, whom he greatly admired) World War II was a momentous event in domestic politics as well as in world politics. The war brought about a great social levelling that seemed primed to usher in a peaceful socialist revolution. In 1941, Orwell predicted that ‘This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges.’19 Thirty years later, the narrator of Nichols’ Forget-me-not Lane (the most autobiographical of

John Peter, ‘No More Opium for the People?’ Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review, No, 147 (1983), p. 42 18 Mervyn Jones, ‘Peter Nichols, the playwright who has had enough’ Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review, No, 148 (1983), p. 7 19 George Orwell, ‘England, Your England,’ A Collection of Essays (London: Harcourt, 1981), p. 279


his plays) admitted to audiences at the Greenwich theatre that the 1940s were his ‘golden age’: I know they were drab but austerity sounds so morally superior to affluence, with its suggestion of sewage and greed and waste. What there was then was shared [...] and Ursula’s father voted Labour in the hope this might continue. Well, these days he’s got an enormous Vauxhall, a motor-mower, a Japanese cine-camera and holidays in the Black Forest, so . . . (He shrugs.)20 In Nichols’ work, the socialist ideal resides in the past, not in the future. On the other hand, Nichols’ nostalgia is always tempered by an equally powerful cynicism, and when his diary announced that the 1970 power-cuts had inspired a ‘return of [the] Dunkirk spirit,’ he was referring not to a renewed sense of cooperation and solidarity, but to price-gouging for candles and ‘Long queues at filling-stations for petrol and in Blackheath Village for paraffin.’21 John Peter describes Nichols’ preoccupation with Britain as an investigation of the ‘muscular hypocrisy and the dogged, comic resilience of the national psyche,’ but in fact, what is most striking about Nichols’ depiction of Britain is not his portrayal of a ‘national psyche’ but his depiction of a heterogeneous nation so intertwined with other countries that it cannot be contained within any supposed ‘national’ characteristics at all. Frank, the protagonist of Forget-me-not Lane returns from National Service in India and lectures his mother about the absurdity of any supposed isolationism: Your nice cup of tea comes from India, Mum. And your cotton dresses. The petrol for Dad’s car and the tyres it runs on from the Middle East and Malaya. Most of the food he sells is grown in countries where people are starving [...] we rely on Asia and Africa for all that just as the posh people in London rely on Crewe for their Rolls-Royces.22 As this passage suggests, Frank has come back from India both politically enlightened and insufferably pretentious: he seems incapable of doing anything with the knowledge that he has gained except to alienate his friends and family.

20 21

Nichols, Forget-me-not Lane, p. 307 [the ellipses are Nichols.] Nichols, Diaries, p. 114 22 Nichols, Forget-me-not Lane, p. 305


This is typical of Nichols’ work – neither his plays nor his characters are apolitical, but his characters are too ambivalent or too preoccupied with the exigencies of supporting their families to take action. Though not an inspiring political vision, it certainly matches the observable reality in post-war Britain. Nichols was hardly the only British playwright in the 1970s to write about ineffectual socialists, and he is certainly not unique in ‘anatomising’ Britain in his plays. But what distinguishes him from most, if not all of his peers is the geographical, historical, and cultural scope that he brings to his portrait of the nation. Nichols’ Britain is not ‘white’, nor is it geographically restricted to the confines of a single island. He has addressed the outward spread of Empire (most explicitly in Privates on Parade and Poppy) as well as the arrival of immigrants from former colonies. This latter theme is most obvious in The National Health, which was the first play at the NT in which black actors played major roles, as well as the first play at the NT to depict Britain as a multicultural nation. Both Nichols’ plays themselves and the circumstances of their production provide evidence and material which documents, explores, and attempts to come to terms with the web of forces, both historical and contemporary, at work in Britain during the period under examination. As Nichols’ plays acknowledge, it is a web with global breadth and a length of centuries, and though he has set his plays throughout the world, John Peter was right to declare that if they ‘are united by any one theme, it would be by his sardonically impassioned preoccupation with the moral state of Britain.’23 In addition to examining Nichols’ vision of post-war Britain, this thesis will consider some of the ways that the National Theatre under Olivier reflected (and failed to reflect) the ‘state of the nation.’ This strays into the realm of historical ‘context’, which I use as a provisional and not entirely satisfactory term. The term ‘context’ militates against its own intentions by implying that a play and its context are separable. In fact, as John McGrath writes, ‘there are


John Peter, ‘Opium,’ p. 42


elements in the language of the theatre beyond the text, even beyond the production, which are often more decisive, more central to one’s experience of the event than the text or the production.’24 McGrath lists the venue, the nature of advance publicity, and the price of tickets, and one can add many more factors. The theatre event is, therefore, a part of its own context – it is a current in the ocean rather than a flower on a vine.

An omnivorous theatre Nichols’ plays frequently contain an element of pastiche or mimicry of specific generic conventions – pantomime and revue are especially prominent – and the stylistic richness of his work led critic Sheridan Morley to describe him as Britain’s ‘most remarkable stage archivist.’25 This is not to suggest that his references are meticulously arranged, or that they are exclusively British: his plays intermingle an array of influences, many of which come from outside theatre, and from outside Britain. Nichols’ omnivorous theatre is fed by pantomime, certainly, but also by (for example) the films of 1930s Hollywood, which were critical to both Nichols’ and Blakemore’s aesthetic visions. In his autobiography, Blakemore writes that his and Nichols’ childhoods were entirely different except for one aspect: At an early age we had both been overwhelmed by the American cinema, and to embrace its vigour, technical dazzle and underlying democratic assumptions was in some way to turn away from England and the influence of things British.26 The idea of ‘turning away’ may have been more of a concern to the Australian Blakemore (who titled his autobiography Arguments with England) than it was to Nichols, but the importance of Hollywood to both men (whatever it signified) is beyond question.

24 25

John McGrath, A Good Night Out (London: Nick Hern Books, 1981), p. 7 Sheridan Morley, Review of Poppy (Punch, London Theatre Record 23 Sep-6 Oct 1982), p. 551 26 Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), p. 198


Nichols had the good fortune to live in Britain at a time when the outward thrust of empire was being superseded by the arrival of a rich array of foreign influences (in the theatre as much as anywhere else), and the even better fortune of recognising it, as he explained to interviewer Jamie Andrews: I saw [...] Death of a Salesman, with Paul Muni, the American film actor, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivien Leigh, and before that, of course, during the War, I‘d seen The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, which was more influential on me, I think than either of the others. And saw all these things and in the ‘50s, we also went and saw the Berliner Ensemble, the Moscow Arts Theatre, Kabuki, anything that visited we rushed to, and saw, and profited by.27 Drawing on this rich supply of influences, Nichols created a heterogeneous theatre for an increasingly heterogeneous country, employing a dramaturgy that transgressed dramatic ‘conventions’ but rarely ignored them. Raymond Williams points out that a ‘convention’ is ‘simply the terms upon which author, performers and audience agree to meet, so that the performance may be carried on.’28 Nichols has found himself liberated as a dramatist by his awareness of this fact: It’s amazing what you can do once you decide that the naturalistic convention is a convention, a device. People complain that they’re fed up with this “device” of people talking to the audience. [...] But if you say ‘Part of the time we’ll have that pretence, and part of the time we’ll drop that pretence and talk to the audience’ it’s amazing the things that can result from this.29 Nichols’ plays are riddled with calculated violations of the terms that have been tacitly agreed by performers and audience, and these are discussed throughout the thesis. One of the most striking thematic attributes of Nichols’ plays is their discursiveness, a dialogic analogue to their ‘mixed’ dramatic style. The rhetorical centre of Nichols’ work is usually located in the interplay of opinions,

Jamie Andrews, Interview with Peter Nichols (31 August 2005), Theatre Archive project <> 28 Raymond Williams, ‘Film and the Dramatic Tradition,’ The Raymond Williams Reader, ed. John Higgins (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, pp. 25-41), p. 29 29 Nichols, quoted in Ronald Hayman, Playback (New York: Horizon, 1973), pp. 159-160. Interestingly, this is an almost exact echo of the remarks that Raymond Williams makes about the convention of ‘naturalism’ in ‘Film and the Dramatic Tradition.’


rather than clearly on one side or the other. Sometimes (as in the case of the racist characters who frequently appear in his plays) Nichols assumes, perhaps over-optimistically, that audiences would side with the anti-racists. Other times (as with the debate over euthanasia in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) the debate is genuine, and audience response entirely unpredictable. Joe Egg, Nichols explains, ‘makes a strong case for euthanasia in cases of extreme, incurable handicap. Being a play, though, it also makes a strong case against euthanasia.’30 The segregation in studies of 1970s theatre between so-called ‘committed’ and ‘mainstream’ theatre, which has been perpetuated, or at least acknowledged, in most histories, does not allow a space in which Nichols can be considered as a ‘political’ playwright. The political implications of his plays can perhaps be best assessed within the context of Bernard Crick’s definition of ‘political theatre’, which runs directly counter to the characteristics most commonly (though not necessarily fairly) associated with the ‘committed’ theatre. Crick first defines ‘politics’ as ‘the creative conciliation of naturally differing interests and ideals.’31 He then observes that ‘Politics, in this sense, has many similarities with drama’: Both involve contrast, clash or conflict of differing viewpoints, values or characters, often in changing or different circumstances. Both of them may find or seek some resolution, but the manner of reaching that resolution is what makes a decision political rather than autocratic or arbitrary, or a play a political drama rather than propaganda.32 Therefore, ‘political drama’ in the sense of ‘committed’ drama is, in Crick’s view, ‘the converse both of what I mean by “political” and of what I mean by “drama” [...],’ because in ‘committed’ plays ‘all important questions have already been decided.’33 Crick’s conception of the ‘political’ is complemented by Loren Kruger’s characterisation of the ‘history play’ in opposition to the ‘State-of-the-Nation’
30 31

Nichols, ‘Green Room’, Plays and Players, July 1982, p. 35 Bernard Crick, ‘The Political in Britain’s two National Theatres,’ Essays on Politics and Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1989), p. 21 32 Crick, ‘The Political’, p. 21 33 Crick, ‘The Political’, p. 21


play, a category which she finds so broad as to be meaningless except as a gauge of a play’s modishness. Kruger uses the term ‘History Play’ to refer both to plays that ‘represent the present as the outcome of historical forces,’ and to plays ‘that make history not by creating a sensation but by illuminating their present moment as a legacy of dramatically conflicting pasts,’34 a definition which applies both to Nichols’ recurring themes (the present as the product of imperialism, post-imperial immigration, class struggle, conceptions of family and gender roles, and a range of other forces) and to his style (self-consciously creating ‘contemporary’ plays by mixing a wide range of older theatrical traditions). At their best, Nichols’ plays present, to quote Kruger again, ‘a persuasive analysis of the historicity of the contemporary and the present inheritance of the past, as well as a compelling dramatic picture.’35

Chapter Outline
The thesis is divided into six chronological chapters, each focussing on a specific play and the context of its production. Some chapters provide extended analysis of the play itself, while others focus chiefly on the circumstances that surrounded it within Nichols’ career, and within the theatre. Chapter 1 reconstructs the circumstances of the creation and production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, based on the home-life of Nichols, his wife Thelma, and their severely brain-damaged daughter Abigail. It examines Nichols’ friendship with the director Michael Blakemore and its significance both to the development of Nichols’ stylistic development (particularly his interest in pastiche and meta-theatrical devices) and its importance to Nichols’ career itself. It also examines the position of two important theatrical institutions in


Loren Kruger, ‘History Plays (in) Britain: Dramas, Nations, and Inventing the Present, Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History, W. B. Worthen and Peter Holland, eds. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 151-176, p. 153 35 Loren Kruger, ‘History Plays,’ p. 153


1960s British theatre, the ‘Board of Governors’ and the Lord Chamberlain’s office, addressing both Blakemore’s negotiations with both institutions on behalf of the play, as well as the wider negotiations taking place at the time over whether subsidy should be regarded as a means for institutional prestige or for artistic innovation.

Chapter 2 focuses on Nichols’ next play, The National Health, which was produced by the NT and was immensely successful, despite NT director Laurence Olivier’s disapproval of the piece, and fears that its vulgarity would reflect poorly on the theatre itself. Kenneth Tynan’s championship of the play casts a new light on his role within the NT management as well as on his ongoing struggle with Lord Chandos, chairman of the NT board. In Part Two of the chapter, I examine the ways that Nichols uses pastiche in the play, both in his interpolation of ‘soap opera’ scenes, and in his use of techniques borrowed from the blackface minstrelsy tradition. I also assess the play’s view (unusual for its time) of Britain as a multiracial society, and, drawing on an interview with Cleo Sylvestre, the first black actor to play a lead role at the NT, I address the position of black actors within 1960s British theatre and the questions of representation and ‘authenticity’ which are raised by cross-racial casting.

Chapter 3 concerns Nichols’ Beasts of England, a play about George Orwell whose lines are drawn entirely from his published writing. Intended as a touring production for the NT, its performance was forbidden by the Orwell estate, represented by Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell. This chapter highlights Orwell’s importance to Nichols and his contemporaries, particularly as an alternative to the ‘New Left’, and considers the play in the context of Tynan’s continuing fights with Lord Chandos, as well as Olivier’s succession as director by Peter Hall. Rather than casting Sonia Orwell as a villain, I consider the unique problems entailed by the on-stage impersonation of a public figure, problems which are absent from literary biography.


Chapter 4 examines The Freeway, Nichols’ last play at the NT, which was a critical and commercial failure. It considers the historical situation anatomised by the play, particularly the apparently unstoppable rise of the private automobile in Britain, which Nichols employs to signify the triumph of the individual freedom promised by capitalism over the solidarity and collective responsibility promised by socialism. It also considers the breakdown of Nichols’ friendship with Blakemore, and his collaboration with Jonathan Miller – which contrasts with Nichols’ work with Blakemore and sheds light on Nichols’ contradictory feelings about artistic collaboration.

Chapter 5 concentrates on Privates on Parade, Nichols’ first play to be produced by the RSC, and his last play to be directed by Blakemore. While the previous Nichols/Blakemore collaborations had been self-consciously ‘theatrical’, Privates goes further than these by making ‘theatricality’ its subject. It therefore epitomises Nichols’ and Blakemore’s ‘mixed’ style. Because of this, and because it has not been given the critical attention accorded to A Day in the Death of Joe Egg or The National Health, I examine the stylistic elements of this play more thoroughly than in any of the others. In this play, Nichols actually sets two distinct theatrical styles against each other: British variety theatre and Peking opera. Analysing this device, I address issues of representation and cross-racial casting. I also set the piece (set in Malaya in 1948, at the beginning of the so-called ‘Emergency) in the context of Nichols’ own time in the National Service and in the context of the history of Britain’s presence in Malaya.

Chapter 6 addresses Passion Play and Poppy, paying closer attention to Poppy, the ‘public’ play, than to the more ‘domestic’ Passion Play. It looks at Peter Nichols’ relationship with the National Theatre and compares and contrasts it with his relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as examining some of the policy decisions that both companies made at the


end of the 1970s. It considers both Passion Play and Poppy in relation to Nichols’ previous work, examines Nichols’ discomfort with collaboration, and finally considers what was required of a playwright by a national subsidised company in the 1980s, under Thatcher’s government.

Research Methodology
My research has focussed on three main areas: archival research into Peter Nichols’ personal papers; first-person interviews with Nichols, Michael Blakemore, and others; and secondary materials, chiefly contemporary reviews and articles, theatre histories, and theatrical biographies and memoirs. Personal Papers At the centre of my research are Peter Nichols’ personal papers, acquired by the British Library in 1999 and catalogued by Jamie Andrews in 2003. The papers consist of 254 folders, containing a wide range of documents such as early drafts of scripts, a vast collection of personal and professional correspondence, reviews and promotional material, and financial papers. My research has utilised all these resources, but I have paid particular attention to the correspondence, which I have supplemented with correspondence in the Tynan, Olivier, and Ramsay archives at the British Library, as well as Peter Hall’s correspondence held at the NT archive. I begin to research a production by compiling as much correspondence as I can and arranging it chronologically. In this way I get a sense of how a script developed, and came to be produced by a particular director at a particular venue, as well as establishing a context for the production. Rather than conforming to a linear narrative, the correspondence provides a polyphonic burst of information: in any given week of pre-production not only is a show being developed, but older shows are being translated into other languages, subsidiary rights are being haggled over with producing theatres, and films and television shows are being discussed. Perhaps the most extraordinary element of the collection is the


amount of correspondence (often lasting for years) devoted to plays and films which were never produced. The percentage of proposed projects that are actually completed is, one begins to realise, incredibly small, and despite Nichols’ tremendous success between 1967 and 1982, those fifteen years were filled with repeated disappointments and hundreds of hours of apparently wasted work. The thesis scrutinises one of these unproduced projects, the ‘Orwell’ play Beasts of England. Elsewhere, these failed projects are only mentioned in passing. Faced with the sheer quantity of material contained within the papers, much of it extraneous to any linear ‘narrative’ of Nichols’ career, it is tempting to treat the archive as an unmediated source of information. In fact, as Diana Taylor writes, ‘What makes an object archival is the process whereby it is selected, classified, and presented for analysis.’36 This is not an intrinsically malign process (on the contrary, my experience with the uncatalogued Peggy Ramsay papers gave me a new appreciation of the importance of classification) but it is never neutral. One obvious (and, for the researcher, frustrating) characteristic of Nichols’ collected correspondence is that the letters he received are overrepresented against the letters he sent, and those letters written by Nichols are generally drafts or copies, which means it is not clear whether the letter was sent as it appears in the archive, or, indeed, was sent at all. Furthermore, there is no way to know what letters he destroyed, retained at his home, or simply lost or discarded – since, by definition, the evidence for them does not appear in the archive. However, as long as one remains conscious of the mediated nature of the archive, it is a tremendously useful resource, and provides insights into both Nichols’ career, and the network of relationships of which he is a part.


Diana Taylor The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 19


Interviews In order to gain a fuller view of Nichols’ career during this period than that which is provided by the archive, I supplemented my archival research with firstperson interviews. Peter Nichols gave me an extensive interview on 5 March 2005. I followed this up eight months later by interviewing Nichols and director Michael Blakemore together (1 December 2005). This was particularly exciting, because the two men sparked each other’s reminiscences, as well as sometimes challenging them, providing an interesting counterpoint with my earlier interview.37 Later, I interviewed the actor Cleo Sylvestre (20 January 2006), who had been the first black actor to play a lead role at the NT when she appeared in The National Health. Sylvestre’s account of her early career provides a distinctive perspective on British theatre in the 1960s and 70s, as well as on the relative political significance of theatre and television. I also interviewed Joe Melia (6 March 2006), who had played the lead role in the first production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and a supporting role in Privates on Parade, and who found that his background in revue comedy gave him an affinity for Nichols’ writing. In addition, on 4 January 2005 I interviewed the director Joy Zinoman, who directed a Washington DC revival of Privates on Parade in 2002. Zinoman offers an interesting perspective on Nichols’ work, having directed a successful revival of his play without collaborating with him at all. Her interpretation of the work is therefore differently inflected from those of his former collaborators, providing a counter-reading of his interests and intentions as a dramatist. I have also drawn on interviews from the AHRC British Library Theatre Archive Project (TAP),38 and from Mike and Trevor Phillips’ collection of interviews, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain.39 Much like an archive, these resources are not as unmediated as they may appear to be, but


The multiple-subject interview was suggested to me by Dr. Pentti Paavolainen at the 2005 IFTR conference. 38 This is accessible online at <>, 39 Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (London: Harpercollins, 1998)


they are also usually (though not necessarily) less subject to the controlling influence of a single author. ‘Reality is complex and many-sided,’ the oral historian Paul Thompson observes, ‘and it is a primary merit of oral history that, to a much greater extent than most sources, it allows the original multiplicity of standpoints to be recreated.’40 Whilst my own interviews have been too tightlyfocussed and specific to qualify as genuine ‘oral history,’ the broad range of relatively open-ended interviews available from Windrush and from the TAP website has served in some instances to complicate the narrative provided by individually-authored histories.

Secondary Research I have combined my primary-source research and use of oral history collections with secondary resources, using both popular and academic works of history and criticism. These are addressed within my literature review in the following section. I have also referred to a great deal of contemporary criticism of Nichols’ plays. Usually I have examined only the reviews of a play’s first production, but I sometimes incorporate criticism of transfers and revivals as well.41 I find the reviews most useful for the multiplicity of responses that they record – it is often only after the first critics have seen the show that a single response (the one most likely to make it into theatre histories and surveys) solidifies into a governing narrative. Therefore, I find that reviews – treated with a healthy suspicion – can be a suggestive and richly polyphonic resource.

Literature Review
The only book-length study of Nichols’ work that has yet been published is Jeannine Schmidt’s Elemente populärer Genres in den Dramen von Peter Nichols [Elements of Popular Genres in the Plays of Peter Nichols]. It is written in German, with a concluding ‘summary’ in English. I do not read German, and have not read the main body of the thesis. The English ‘summary’, however,
40 41

Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd edn, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), p. 6 This is especially true of Privates on Parade, where shifts in the critical interpretation (and even categorisation) of the play have been particularly interesting.


provides an interesting overview of the work. Schmidt starts from the view that ‘The most striking aspect of Nichols’ plays is their continuous use of elements of the popular British theatre,’42 and goes on to examine the history of several British popular theatre forms and to historicise the notion of ‘popular’ theatre itself.43 She also analyses the ways that ‘Nichols makes use of elements of popular genres in terms of content and structure,’ as well as historicising the notion of ‘popular’ theatre and attempting a ‘structural definition of the popular genres that Nichols uses.’44 The only book on Nichols that has been published in English is Andrew Parkin’s File on Nichols45, which is essentially a digest of extracts from reviews, articles, and interviews. It provides a brief, intriguing introduction to Nichols’ oeuvre, but is nothing like a genuine study of his career and work. I have divided the other literature that I have read into three categories: first, the autobiographies and biographies that provide the greatest concentration of information about Nichols that is available in published form; second, the histories and surveys (both of theatre and of Britain generally) that have helped me to site Nichols’ work within their time and place; and finally, the journal articles published about Nichols, which provide a detailed, usually formalist examination of a specific play.


Jeannine Schmidt, Elemente Populärer Genres in den Dramen von Peter Nichols (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990), p. 249 43 Schmidt, Elemente Populärer, p. 250 44 Schmidt, Elemente Populärer, p. 250 45 Andrew Parkin, File on Nichols (London: Methuen, 1993)


Autobiographies and Memoirs Nichols’s autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind, was published in 1984.46 As well as describing Nichols’ development as a writer, it provides interesting firsthand accounts of Bristol during World War Two, as well as of Nichols’ National Service in India and Malaya immediately following the war. Feeling You’re Behind ends with the opening of Joe Egg, but the narrative thread is picked up again in his Diaries 1969-1977, published by Nick Hern Books in 2000.47 This is an extremely useful (though inevitably, extremely partial) book, and I refer to it throughout the thesis. Selections from Nichols’ diaries from 1989 and 2003-04 have been published in the journal Areté.48 Michael Blakemore’s memoir, Arguments With England, provides an interesting counterpoint (and sometimes a corrective) to Nichols’ own writing. In particular, Nichols is ceaselessly self-deprecating and Blakemore’s more flattering description of him helps to clarify the image.49 I have also referred to other autobiographies and memoirs, for example those of Nigel Hawthorne50 and Denis Quilley51, both of which offer insightful (and very different) perspectives on Privates on Parade. In addition, Peter Hall’s published diaries are indispensable to any work that addresses the history of the NT during the 1970s.52 The decision to publish them so quickly has therefore proved a canny one, since it puts Hall’s perspective at the centre of the dominant narrative. I have utilised a few books which, though they are not autobiographies or memoirs, are too personal to be regarded as ‘histories’. One of these is The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil.53 by John Johnston, formerly one of the Lord Chamberlain’s readers. It is an ‘insider’s’ account of the workings of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and describes a meeting with Nichols and director Michael
46 47

Peter Nichols, Feeling You’re Behind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984) Peter Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000) 48 Peter Nichols, ‘Diaries: 1989’ (Areté, No. 15, Autumn 2004; Peter Nichols, ‘Diaries: 2003-04’ (Areté, no. 16, Spring 2005) 49 Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 2004) 50 Nigel Hawthorne, Straight Face (London: Hodder and Staughton, 2002) 51 Denis Quilley, Happiness Indeed (London: Oberon, 2004) 52 Peter Hall, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983) 53 John Johnston, The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990)


Blakemore over the script of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Finally, there are two works by critics which I have found very useful – Michael Billington’s OneNight Stands,54 a collection of his reviews which reads like a highly opinionated historical work, and Irving Wardle’s Theatre Criticism,55 which is basically a meditation on the role of the theatre critic, but which is rich in observations about the theatre of his (and Nichols’) time.

Histories and Surveys General History I began my research with Kenneth O. Morgan’s general history, Britain Since 1945: The People’s Peace, which provides a concise but thorough account of the period.56 I have also benefited from Dominic Sandbrook’s two-volume history of the 1950s and 1960s, Never Had it So Good and White Heat.57 Though there are only three overlapping years between Sandbrook’s period and mine, his copious information, as well as his central argument that ‘the British experience in the 1960s was much more complicated, diverse and contradictory than it has often been given credit for’58 have been immensely helpful to my own efforts at complicating the narrative of British theatre in the 1970s. This thesis is particularly concerned with the intimately-connected themes of imperialism and immigration, and in my research I have found Lawrence James’ The Rise and Fall of the British Empire59 and Dilip Hiro’s Black British, White British60 especially useful.

54 55

Michael Billington, One-Night Stands (London: Nick Hern Books, 1993) Irving Wardle, Theatre Criticism, Theatre Concepts Series (London: Routledge, 1992) 56 Kenneth O. Morgan, Britain Since 1945: The People’s Peace, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001) 57 Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had it so Good (London: Little Brown, 2005), White Heat (London: Little Brown, 2006) 58 Sandbrook, Never Had it, p. xx 59 Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 1994) 60 Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British (Middlesex: Penguin, 1971)


Theatre History and Surveys In many histories and surveys of British theatre since World War Two61, Nichols is accorded a meagre quantity of attention which does not reflect the much greater attentiveness of contemporary newspapers, magazines, and theatregoers when his plays opened. The first chapter on Nichols ever published is also probably the most entertaining – it appears in The Season,62 William Goldman’s idiosyncratic account of a year on Broadway. Goldman begins by announcing ‘The purpose of this chapter is to tell you why I can’t tell you about A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which was, for me, the best thing to hit Broadway in years.’63 He then apparently contradicts himself by providing a brief description of the play. However, at this point he digresses into an account of the first time he ever saw the baseball player Willie Mays, and explains that all the time he had been watching baseball before, ‘I was waiting for Willie because in my head there was a notion of the way things ought to happen but never quite do.’64 Goldman concludes by explaining that he has ‘been waiting all this time for Joe Egg to come along and do its demonstration so that I could sit back and say to myself, “Oh, that’s it.”: Joe Egg is what it’s all been for: it’s the theatre’s special “thing,” and no other art form can steal it away. It is, in the true and non-phoney sense of the word, “theatrical,” and that’s why nobody can ever tell you about Joe Egg. You gotta be there.65 To my mind, no other writing on Nichols has topped this virtuosic piece of theatre criticism (in fact, no critic that I am aware of other than Tynan has combined such enthusiasm with such a flair for eccentric analogy). Notwithstanding Goldman’s excitement, however, Nichols was probably first

Word War II is invoked nearly-universally in the periodisation of British theatre history, and books generally promise to cover the period ‘since the war’ or to focus on 1970s (bleeding slightly into the ‘60s and ‘80s). The ‘1970s theatre’ designation has been most popular among historians of fringe theatre and so-designated ‘political theatre’. 62 William Goldman, ‘Doing Our Thing,’ The Season (New York: Harrows, Brace, and World, 1969) 63 Goldman, The Season, p. 301 64 Goldman, The Season, p. 305. Incidentally, this is an exemplary demonstration of Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis’. 65 Goldman, The Season, p. 306. The ‘non-phony’ sense of ‘theatrical’ would be an interesting concept to unpack.


anointed as a ‘significant’ playwright when John Russell Taylor included him in his survey of playwrights The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies.66 This is an extraordinary title to have given a book published in 1971, when the seventies had hardly begun. It seems meant to be performative: not drama ‘of’ the seventies, but drama ‘for’ the seventies – not description but prescription. It is also a book about a ‘second’ wave, implying a first. Many readers would have known that the first ‘wave’ was the roll-call of playwrights listed in Taylor’s enormously influential Anger and After (if ‘influential’ is the word for his effect on a historical narrative that he was instrumental in creating). It was this work that cemented the questionable notion that ‘post-war’ theatre effectively began not in 1945, with the end of the war, but in 1956, with the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Taylor pays much more attention to Nichols’ television writing than do most later studies of Nichols’ work.67 This provides a useful look at an oftenoverlooked aspect of his writing, but also tilts attention heavily towards Nichols’ interest in families, because his television plays have generally been much more ‘domestic’ than his plays for the theatre. Brian Miller provides a thorough and incisive study of Nichols’ television plays in which he makes the claim that Nichols ‘has developed that medium beyond what it was before he took to writing for it and learning from it.’68 Like many critics, Miller remarks on the ambivalence that pervades Nichols’ writing, which he characterises as ‘a puritanical element [...] at war with a more hedonistic, complacent element,’ adding that ‘the uneasy juxtaposition of these two brings forth some of the most searching and humane moments in TV drama.’69 Most other critics have considered Nichols’ work for television only insofar as it seems to have influenced his writing for the stage – an almost


John Russell Taylor, The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (London: Methuen, 1971) 67 This thesis is no exception to that general trend. 68 Brian Miller, ‘Peter Nichols,’ British Television Drama, ed.George W. Brandt, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), p. 112 69 Miller, ‘Peter Nichols’, p. 126


purely speculative venture which has led two writers (John Bull and Ronald Hayman) to exactly opposite conclusions. According to Bull, ‘The single most significant fact about Nichols’ writing career is that he [...] was entirely reliant on television as a medium for his early work; a medium that both encouraged and nurtured the naturalism that is almost inescapably associated with the writer.’70 Hayman, on the other hand, believes that ‘the playwright who, while writing for the screen, has been deprived of a live audience, is more likely to respond directly to its presence in the theatre.’ He adds that ‘Once he lets a character talk straight out to it, a whole new vista of possibilities opens up, as it did for Peter Nichols in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.’71 In Bull’s assessment, television was an apprenticeship that burdened Nichols with certain ‘inescapable’ habits. In Hayman’s, it was a discipline that allowed Nichols enough distance from the stage that he could recognise its contours and conventions without taking them for granted. Ronald Hayman’s first book to mention Nichols was published two years after The Second Wave. The book, entitled Playback, is a series of theatrical profiles.72 His profile of Nichols is essentially an interview with extensive background research, and most of the commentary on Nichols’ work comes from the playwright himself, rather than from Hayman. It includes information about Nichols’ writing method (including some of the ways in which he uses his diary as a reference for his characters) and about his collaboration with Blakemore. Nichols’ career is discussed at several points in Hayman’s ‘anatomy’ of contemporary ‘English’ theatre, The Set-Up, published in the same year as Playback.’73 This book devotes chapters to detailed assessments of the roles played by directors, actors. agents, producers, playwrights, and audiences


John Bull, Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1994), p. 112. 71 Ronald Hayman, The Set-Up: An Anatomy of the English Theatre Today (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973), pp. 64-65 72 Ronald Hayman, Playback (New York: Horizon, 1973) 73 Ronald Hayman, The Set-Up: An Anatomy of the English Theatre Today (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973)


within the theatre. In a passage that is indicative of the book’s scope, Hayman lists some of the components of a ‘typical’ London theatre: A London theatre is a tremendously complex machine, which needs to be staffed by managers, secretaries, book-keepers, usherettes, box-office managers and assistants, barmaids, electricians, carpenters and stage hands. Many of these individuals may never even meet the actor, but the fact that they have to be there affects both his relationship with the audience and the conditions of his employment.74 Hayman’s wide-ranging account of the theatre is an excellent prototype for what I have termed the ‘ecology’ of the theatre, emphasising the theatre’s interconnectedness and resisting division into apparently antithetical categories. Hayman’s greatest objection is to the dichotomy between subsidised and commercial theatre. He writes that ‘the whole of our present subsidy system rests on the almost meaningless distinction that is drawn legally between companies which distribute their profits and companies which do not,’ explaining that profit-distributing companies can never qualify for subsidy.75 As Hayman demonstrates, subsidised and commercial theatres rely heavily on each other, in an essentially ad-hoc arrangement that is sometimes mutually beneficial and sometimes dysfunctional. During the course of his book, Hayman addresses Nichols’ difficulties with the NT over The National Health’s place in the repertory, examines the financial figures for one week in the run of Nichols’ Forget-me-not Lane, and compares the profits from the British and American productions of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.76 The Set-Up is the only work to subject Nichols’ career to this kind of scrutiny, and as such, it is an invaluable resource. At the end of the 1970s, Nichols was one of the writers profiled in Oleg Kerensky’s The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter,77 a work whose title aligns it firmly within the narrative established by John Russell Taylor. Kerensky is attuned to the ambivalence within Nichols’

74 75

Hayman, The Set-Up, p. 35 Hayman, The Set-Up, p. 118 76 Hayman, The Set-Up, p. 93, pp. 126-127, p. 286 77 Oleg Kerensky, The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979)


plays, and, interestingly, finds Nichols ‘more sympathetic to the past, and to the human foibles of the present, than many of his contemporaries [...].’78 Kerensky provides a succinct description of Privates on Parade that acknowledges Nichols’ sympathy for his characters as well as the ambiguity of his work: ‘To some extent Privates on Parade is a nostalgic evocation of a lost world; to a greater extent it is a condemnation of past attitudes and life-styles.’79 The structure adhered to by Taylor and Kerensky – a chronological analysis of the plays (or scripts, since performances are rarely discussed) connected by a few thematic or stylistic threads that are said to run through all of them – is the predominant mode of analysis in books that have mentioned Nichols. It reaches its apotheosis in compendia such as K. A. Berney’s Contemporary British Dramatists80 and Kimball King’s Twenty Modern British Playwrights: A Bibliography, 1956-1976,81 but several other critical surveys follow this template as well. One example is Richard Allen Cave’s rather misleadingly titled New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage 1970-1985.82 There is very little discussion of specific performances in the book, though Cave’s remarks on Nichols’ use of theatrical conventions are interesting. Of The National Health, Privates on Parade, and Poppy, he writes that ‘In all three plays the aim of the satire is political: to expose the conventions, the theatrical artifice of the form of popular theatre being parodied as so much capitalist propaganda inducing an uncritical acceptance of values that are inhumane.’83 Elsewhere, he describes Nichols’ pastiche as ’destructive

78 79

Kerensky, Drama, p. 67 Kerensky, Drama, p. 75 80 K.A. Berney, ed. Contemporary British Dramatists. (London: St. James Press, 1994). The biographical essay on Peter Nichols, by Garry O’Connor (pp. 529-532) is generally vague, but contains an unforgettable description of Passion Play as depicting ‘lost apes in pursuit of ultimate sexiness’ (p. 532). Hersh Zeifman’s essay on Joe Egg (pp. 766-768) is more interesting. 81 Kimball King, Twenty Modern British Playwrights: A Bibliography, 1956-1976 (New York: Garland, 1977), pp. 69-75 82 Richard Allen Cave, New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage 1970-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988) 83 Cave, New British Drama, p. 58


burlesque, a debunking [...] of a form of theatre he finds morally questionable.’84 While this does not account for Nichols’ almost palpable enjoyment of many of the genres that he ‘burlesques’, it is a perceptive critique of the playwright’s relationship to his plays. Susan Rusinko’s British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History85is similarly concerned with Nichols’ use (and subversion) of theatrical conventions, comparing his plays to those of both Bertolt Brecht and Thornton Wilder. Ruby Cohn’s Retreats from Realism in Recent English Drama86 focuses almost entirely on Nichols’ work with conventions and framing devices. Peter Davison’s Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England87 also addresses Nichols’ employment of conventions. Davison’s is an ambitious and often fascinating study that stretches from Elizabethan theatre to (his) present day, at the beginning of the 1980s. Though the ‘singular’ form of his title (‘dramatic tradition’ rather than ‘dramatic traditions’) is somewhat limiting, the book offers a refreshing challenge to the complacent notion that ‘naturalism’ is theatre’s dominant mode, and anything else, however diverting, is basically an aberration. Davison’s assessment of Nichols is unequivocal: Peter Nichols has used the techniques of popular drama – direct address, concert party, army show and television soap opera – more frequently and variously than any other contemporary writer, and with great success. [...] There is no question of Nichols simply imitating. He is using traditions, traditions long established, and which have been reformed relatively recently.88 The idea put forward here, of theatrical traditions as tools to be ‘used’ by a dramatist, is useful to keep in mind when studying Nichols. Christopher Innes extends Davison’s attention to Nichols’ use of theatrical conventions and popular theatre forms by pairing Nichols with Joan Littlewood in a chapter entitled ‘Music-hall Parallels’ in his Modern British
84 85

Cave, New British Drama, p. 61 Susan Rusinko, British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989) 86 Ruby Cohn, Retreats from Realism in Recent English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) 87 Peter Davison, Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England (London: Macmillan, 1982) 88 Davison, Contemporary Drama, p. 127


Drama.89 Innes perceives a line of continuity between the director and the playwright: The playwright who picked up most directly on the potential of Oh, What a Lovely War was Peter Nichols. His work has alternated between naturalistic domestic drama, such as Chez Nous (1974) [...] and didactic comedies that use epic techniques to portray historical or social themes, such as The National Health (1969).90 I will return to the connection between Littlewood and Nichols within the main body of the thesis. Much of the most interesting work that has been written about theatre in the 1970s has dealt with politically ‘committed’ theatre. One of the most thorough studies is Catherine Itzin’s Stages in the Revolution,91 which deserves a mention here not for any analysis of Nichols’ work (he is not mentioned in it) but for Itzin’s concern with the ‘ecology’ of theatre. Rather than focussing exclusively on playwrights and their scripts, Itzin devotes sections to groups as diverse as The Association of Community Theatres (TACT), Actors’ Equity, and the Theatre Writer’s Union (TWU), as well as a variety of fringe theatres, touring companies, and the NT and RSC. To a certain extent, therefore, Stages in the Revolution and The Set-Up are written with a similar concept of what constitutes ‘the theatre’ as a field of study. Dominic Shellard’s British Theatre Since the War92 also pays much-needed attention to theatrical institutions (both state and private), means of production, and the constellation of influences (critics, publicity, television dramatisations, etc.) that shape the meanings that theatrical events accrue in public discourse. This focus gives it more affinity with Hayman’s The Set-Up than with earlier surveys of post-war theatre such as Cave’s. Unfortunately, Shellard ignores Peter Nichols almost completely: the playwrights’ name appears four times, each time as one in a list of playwrights, without further comment.

89 90

Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) Innes, Modern British Drama, p. 122 91 Catherine Itzin, Stages in Revolution (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980) 92 Dominic Shellard, British Theatre Since the War (London: Yale University Press, 1999)


A much less nuanced account of theatre in the 1970s and 1980s appears in John Bull’s New British Political Dramatists93 and Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre.94 The first book, New British Political Dramatists, covers roughly the same area as Stages in the Revolution, though Bull pays less attention to theatrical structures and institutions than Itzin does. The second book, Stage Right, is a chronicle of what Bull regards as the triumph of ‘mainstream’ theatre over ‘committed’ theatre. According to Bull, a ‘wedge’ has been driven between ‘a serious drama tradition of debate and one that, more and more, retreated into the security of theatre as mere entertainment, escapism, or leisure consumption.’95 Dan Rebellato’s description of the ‘heroic’ depiction of the 1950s Royal Court can be applied here. The earlier narrative, is, Rebellato observes, ‘history as fairy tale [...] in the final showdown integrity triumphs against glitter, artistry against decoration and passion against repression.’96 Bull’s story ends in defeat rather than triumph for his heroes, but the basic contours are the same as those of the ‘fairy tale’ of the Royal Court. Bull aligns the ‘committed’ playwrights with ‘epic’ theatre. It therefore follows that the ‘mainstream’ playwrights (Nichols among them) must eschew the epic: The epic tradition proposed an opening up of the action, away from the dramas and traumas of the domestic hearth or the individual psyche and into a world of publicly disputable places. And it is to this development that the new mainstream as it emerged was most demonstrably opposed.’97 In her thesis, Jeannine Schmidt argues that ‘the more Nichols uses elements of popular genres the more “epic” his plays become.’98 Indeed with plays set in an NHS hospital (The National Health), a traffic jam (The Freeway), and an army

93 94

John Bull, New British Political Dramatists (London: Macmillan, 1984) John Bull, Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1994) 95 Bull, Stage Right, p. 22 96 Dan Rebellato, 1956 and all That (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 38 97 Bull, Stage Right, p. 51 98 Schmidt, Elemente Populärer, p. 251


barracks (Privates on Parade) , and a musical which dramatises both of the Opium Wars (Poppy), Nichols does not seem averse to setting his plays in ‘publicly disputable places.’ According to Bull, however, Nichols’ is ‘one of the most important voices of the new mainstream.’ 99 There seems to be an insoluble contradiction here, but Bull finesses it by either disregarding or dismissing every one of Nichols’ critically successful public plays, and showering attention on his flops: he dispatches The National Health (a hit) in only one short paragraph, completely ignores Privates on Parade (another hit), and then devotes several pages to Freeway (a flop) in order to demonstrate that Nichols’ attention belongs ‘in the home’. Finally, Bull comes to Poppy. Having completely misrepresented Nichols’ career up to this point, he declares it ‘sad that he should have moved so far, and so unsatisfactorily, out of his usual territory’ by writing a ‘public’ play about the Opium Wars..100 This is such a spectacularly wrong-headed analysis of Nichols’ career that it would be tempting to dismiss it. Unfortunately, as one of the few books to devote an entire chapter to Nichols’ work, its errors are substantial enough to demand response. The problem at the heart of Bull’s conception of the theatre is epitomised by a line from Howard Brenton that Bull quotes (but does not interrogate) in both New British Political Dramatists and Stage Right. The quote is from a 1975 interview in the Times. Brenton’s play Weapons of Happiness was about to become the first new play to open at the National Theatre’s new South Bank venue, and the playwright explained that he and David Hare (who directed) ‘regard ourselves and our cast and our production team as an armoured charabanc full of people parked within the National walls.’101 This claim begs a multitude of questions, none of which Bull asks: did this guerrilla platoon sell their own tickets? Did they provide their own ushers, print their own programmes, and bring in their own lighting equipment and

Bull, Stage Right, p. 105 Bull, Stage Right, p. 120 101 The line appears on p. 29 of New British Political Dramatists and on p. 20 of Stage Right.


lighting designers? These questions are only partly facetious – Bull seems content (with occasional caveats) to assume that playwrights’ means of production are less important than their good intentions, but I am not. For his part, Peter Hall (then director of the NT) seemed blissfully ignorant of the hostile forces he had invited into his theatre, as his diary entry for the opening night attests: First night of Weapons of Happiness: a wonderful performance, and I was very, very proud. The audience was full of young people clad in deliberately tattered jeans. They were amazed, said [NT casting director] Gillian Diamond, that we were doing such a play – it upset their settled response to us.102 Hall obviously thought that the NT was benefiting from Brenton as much as he was benefiting from the NT – once again, the theatre is defined much more by mutual dependence than it is by ideological conflict. Brenton’s remark about the ‘armed charabanc’, and Bull’s acceptance of it, usefully exemplify the attitude to the theatre that this thesis will attempt to avoid. Journals Nichols’ work has received very little academic criticism compared with the attention paid to it by newspaper and magazine critics. In July 2007, Nichols told a reporter that he blamed the scarcity of new production of his work on this academic neglect: The academics have an enormous influence now. They decide who will be done. They enormously influence the continuing life of playwrights and plays. It isn’t up to the audience.103 This sounds, depending on one’s perspective, like either a conspiracy theory or a wish-fulfilment fantasy. In any event, there is an inexplicable paucity of writing on Nichols in academic journals, and nearly every article that has been published about him is about either Joe Egg or Passion Play. The only two published exceptions that I have found are William Demastes’ wide-ranging

102 103

Hall, Diaries, p. 243 Peter Nichols, quoted by Kevin Berry, ‘Forget Me Not,’ The Stage (5 July 2007), p. 60


interview with Nichols in the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism,104 and G. W. Stiles’ ‘Some Thoughts on Two Modern English Comedies,’ in the South African journal UNISA English Studies.105 Demastes’ interview, conducted in 1988, focuses on Nichols’ creative process, as well as the ambiguity (particularly the political ambiguity) within his plays. Nichols tells Demastes that though he does not consider himself a ‘political’ writer, he ‘would like to be,’ adding that ‘the writer I admire most, I suppose, is Orwell.’ Orwell, Nichols explains, ‘had the rare ability to say very simply and straightforwardly what he meant.’ However, this claim leads to immediate equivocation: ‘But even then,’ Nichols adds, ‘as soon as he started to fictionalise, things went wrong for him [...] I think 1984 was flawed politically and that Orwell didn’t realise how much it would play into the hands of the enemies of socialism [...].’106 Nichols has made the same miscalculation, notably with The National Health. This is the play that G. W. Stiles considers in his essay, together with Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. The essay highlights elements of farce in both works. Henry Schvey’s unpublished essay on The National Health, ‘Danse Macabre,’107 which is included in Nichols’ papers at the British Library, is an interesting analysis of the play’s finale as a contemporary version of the medieval ‘Danse Macabre’, in which the character Barnet, who has so far served as an emcee, chatting to the crowd and narrating some scenes, is ‘revealed as a personification of Death himself.’ The other journal articles written about Nichols’ work have focussed on either A Day in the Death of Joe Egg or Passion Play. James M. Lang’s ‘Staging an Image-System: Breaking Down the Self in Peter Nichols's Joe Egg’108 draws parallels between the explicit construction of identity in Joe Egg


William Demastes, ‘Peter Nichols on His Art, Politics and Peers: An Interview,’ Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (Vol. 3, No. 1, 1988, pp. 101-11) 105 G. W. Stiles, ‘Some thoughts on Two Modern English Comedies,’ UNISA English Studies (No. 9, Sep 10-16 1971) 106 Demastes, ‘Peter Nichols’, p. 106 107 Henry Schvey, ‘The National Health: Danse Macabre’ (Nichols papers Folder 78970B, British Library, London) (unpublished) 108 James M. Lang, ‘Staging an Image-System: Breaking Down the Self in Peter Nichols's Joe


and Roland Barthes’ argument in his ‘autobiography’ Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes that the ‘self’ is in fact a series of masks, with nothing behind them except the physical body. Lang explains his premise in this way: Barthes (and Nichols as well, as I will argue) ultimately aims not merely to advance the rather conservative literary modernist notion that these selves and characters are fragmented, but to demonstrate that, despite the proliferation of fragmented images, no self [...] exists behind them.109 Lang’s observations about the prevalence of on-stage character construction are striking, and he argues convincingly that they continue into the less explicitly ‘performed’ second act. However, his case is gravely weakened by his insistence on intentionality: it is one thing to accept that James M. Lang has found, in Joe Egg, a useful allegory for Barthes’ notion of the ‘constructed’ self; it is quite another to accept the claim that Nichols intended to demonstrate that ‘constructions of selfhood can never last, and that we can establish no self beyond the apprehensions of the purely physical body.’110 Despite Lang’s dubious insistence on intentionality (especially peculiar since he is arguing against a coherent ‘self’ that could intend anything in the first place), he offers a clever and often elegant analysis of the play. Richard Foulkes’ ‘The Cure Is the Removal of Guilt': Faith, Fidelity and Fertility in the Plays of Peter Nichols’111 takes the work of maverick Christian psychologist John Layard as its point of departure. Layard knew Nichols through a mutual friend, and offered the playwright his unsolicited analysis of Joe Egg, which Nichols describes in his autobiography. Foulkes makes a dramatic leap from this evidence to an analysis of the connections between Layard’s book The Lady of the Hare (which there is no evidence of Nichols ever having read) and both Joe Egg and Passion Play. The first part of The Lady of the Hare is a case-study which includes a great deal of dream-analysis. Layard provides a list of ‘Persons appearing in the Dreams’ of his patient, which
Egg,’ Essays-in-Theatre/Etudes-Theatrales, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Nov. 1993), pp. 63-73 109 Lang, ‘Image-System’, p. 64 110 Lang, ‘Image-System’, p. 65 111 Richard Foulkes, ‘The Cure Is the Removal of Guilt': Faith, Fidelity and Fertility in the Plays of Peter Nichols’, Modern Drama, Vol. 29, No. 2 (June 1986), pp. 207-215


Foulkes claims ‘might well be the dramatis personae in a play by Nichols.’112 This claim is undeniable as far as it goes, but only to the extent that the characters named are so generalised that they could appear in a play by anybody: Mrs. Wright; Mr. Wright, her husband, a skilled cowman; Margaret, their daughter; Bertha, Mrs. Wright’s sister; Kate and Eileen, both sisters of Mr. Wright; the Vicar; the Rev. MacW, Presbyterian Minister; and some neighbours.’113 However, from this frankly flimsy pretext, Foulkes offers a perceptive comparison between Joe Egg and Passion Play which uncovers several remarkable lines of continuity that connect them. Incidentally, however farfetched the connections to Layard might appear, Nichols himself was intrigued by the article and corresponded with Foulkes about his ideas.114 Passion Play is by far Nichols’ most frequently-analysed play (at least in academic journals). June Schleuter’s ‘Adultery Is Next to Godlessness: Dramatic Juxtaposition in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’ posits that ‘adultery is Nichols’s metaphor for the essential emptiness of a godless world,’115 and considers the lyrics of the passages from Mozart and Bach’s choral works that Nichols uses to punctuate the dialogue. This proves to be a rewarding path of inquiry. William Storm’s ‘Adulteration as Clarity: Dramaturgical Strategy in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’116 makes a compelling case that Nichols uses a variety of stylistic ‘schisms’ and ‘adulterations’ throughout the play in order to provide events with a ‘clarity’ not available within more conventional dramaturgy. I discuss this essay in more detail in Chapter 6. Finally, Thomas Clayton’s ‘The Texts and Publishing Vicissitudes of Peter Nichols's Passion Play’117
112 113

Foulkes, ‘Cure’, p. 209 Foulkes, ‘Cure’, p. 209 114 Nichols papers, folder 79098, British Library 115 June Schleuter, ‘Adultery Is Next to Godlessness: Dramatic Juxtaposition in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, Modern Drama, Vol. 24 No. 4, (Dec. 1981) pp. 540-545 116 William Storm, ‘Adulteration as Clarity: Dramaturgical Strategy in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, Modern Drama, Vol. 37 No. 3 (Fall 1994), pp. 437-50 117 Thomas Clayton, ‘The Texts and Publishing Vicissitudes of Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Vol. 9 No. 4 (December 1987), pp. 365-383


approaches the play from a publishing perspective. Where the indeterminacy and ambiguity of Nichols’ play provides a fruitful line of inquiry for Storm, for Clayton it is a cause for exasperation – his essay is concerned with the tortuous publication history of the script, which is available in several versions, most of which exhibit an insouciance towards identifying their provenance that seems positively Elizabethan. Granted, they are all the work of Peter Nichols but which work, from which production, rewritten at what time, is often unclear. The ‘bibliographical’ perspective on Nichols’ work is intriguing, and provides a useful destabilisation to what we think of as the ‘text’ of a play.

Nichols’ Background
Peter Nichols was born in Bristol on 11 July 1927. As a child, his experience of theatre moved between the circus in the summer and pantomime in the winter. In 1945 he began his National Service, where he was to join the ‘Combined Services Entertainments’ (CSE) in Singapore, an experience which was to inspire Privates on Parade. When he returned to Britain in 1948 he went to the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, enrolling as an actor because, as he later told interviewer Jamie Andrews, ‘there were no courses for playwrights.’118 He then spent several years acting in repertory theatres and early television programmes. In 1959 his television play Walk on the Grass was produced after winning the BBC West of England playwrighting competition. Shortly after this, he met the Australian Michael Blakemore, then still an actor, who would direct his first three stage plays. Blakemore writes that Nichols reminded him ‘of a young Fred Astaire in library frame glasses.’119 Over the next eight years Nichols had eleven more television plays produced, and wrote two films, Catch Me if you Can and Georgy Girl (co-written
118 119

Jamie Andrews, Interview with Peter Nichols Michael Blakemore, Arguments, p. 198


with Margaret Forster). He adapted one of his television plays, The Hooded Terror (1963), for the stage, and it was given a short run at the Bristol Theatre Royal in 1964, under the direction of Christopher Denys. The critic for the Bristol Evening Post, John Coe, declared that it ‘was certainly a play with atmosphere, if nothing else,’ but finally admitted that ‘there were [...] points in this curious and at times unpleasant play that eluded me.’120 Nichols did not achieve a major theatrical success until his next play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, opened at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in 1967. Nichols’ announced retirement in 1982 (due both to immediate frustrations with Terry Hands’ production of Poppy and more general frustration with working in the theatre) was fairly short-lived. In 1985, the NT commissioned him to write a new play. This commission, however, was not fulfilled, and Nichols’ next play, A Piece of My Mind (1987), was written, rather pointedly, about a playwright with writer’s block. During the 1990s Nichols had three new plays produced in Bristol by the Show of Strength Theatre company121 Nichols’ work enjoyed a resurgence at the turn of the millennium, with Michael Grandage’s productions of Passion Play (2000) and Privates on Parade (2001) at the Donmar Warehouse, and Laurence Boswell’s production of Joe Egg at the King’s Head (which transferred to Broadway with Eddie Izzard playing the lead role). As Nichols has pointed out, Grandage was able to direct those two plays and have them produced because he was artistic director at the Donmar.122 For a short time at least, he was Nichols’ ‘friend at court’.


John Coe, ‘The Meaning is Hooded, too’, Bristol Evening Post (27 October 1964). Coe found an on-stage ‘fertility’ rite, complete with masks and hoods, particularly baffling. 121 These were Nicholodeon (2000), an anthology of his work; So Long Life (2000), a play about an elderly woman’s 85th birthday party; and Blue Murder (1995), a heavily meta-theatrical farce about theatre censorship. 122 Nichols, discussion with Grandage, NT platform


Chapter 1 A Sensation in Glasgow: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the Citizens’ Theatre In 2005 I spoke to Nichols about the first production of Joe Egg, which opened at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in May, 1967. The playwright was still amazed by its success: When it went on in Glasgow we thought ‘well that’s very nice, nobody wants it, so three weeks in Glasgow, fine.’ We signed this contract that said ‘in the event of this play transferring to the West End it should play in a first-class theatre, blah blah blah, in the event that this play should go to Broadway in the city of New York it should be presented in a first-class way in a first-class theatre, in the event that this should be turned into a motion picture...’ And we just laughed, but they all happened! That’s the funny thing – they all happened. You think ‘what a preposterous bloody fantasy,’ but you know, that’s the way things are. Nobody could’ve thought that thirty five years later it could be playing on Broadway again.1 Joe Egg offers an alarmingly comic view of a young couple whose ten-year-old daughter is so severely brain-damaged that she cannot move her limbs, sit up without support, or interact with the outside world in any way. The most remarkable fact about this remarkable play is how little offence it caused when it opened in Glasgow. One local critic predicted ‘a long and controversial career’ for the piece,2 but until it reached London it was greeted with unanimous critical acclaim. The play’s director, Michael Blakemore, had assured the understandably nervous Lord Chamberlain that ‘the presentation of the child on stage’ would be ‘far less terrible to see than it is to read about on the page’3 – a difficult claim to believe, but Blakemore was right. At the end of the play’s threeweek run at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, he was able to report to the Lord


Peter Nichols, personal nterview, 1 December 2005. In 2003, Laurence Boswell’s revival of Joe Egg transferred from the West End to Broadway. The production won Tony awards for best revival, best actor (Eddie Izzard), best actress (Victoria Hamilton), and best director. 2 Allen Wright, ‘Stimulating Assault on Inhibitions,’ The Scotsman, 10 May 1967, p. 4 3 Michael Blakemore to Lord Chamberlain, 22 March 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s Correspondence 1967/1507, British Library)


Chamberlain that the company had not received ‘a single complaint or expression of shock.’4 The production relied on the audience’s acceptance that what they see is unremarkable to the people onstage – that it is a routine for them, rather than a catastrophe, and this stretch from sympathy to empathy is at the heart of the play’s power. Writing for the Guardian, the critic Cordelia Oliver observed that ‘the psychological problem of her parents is many folds and layers deep and these the author (who, you never need to be told, understands the thing from the inside) organises and controls so brilliantly as to leave one lost in admiration.5

Abigail By 1966 Nichols had written eleven television plays and one feature film, the Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch us if you Can (directed by John Boorman). In December, 1960, Peter Nichols and his wife Thelma had their first child, Abigail. Thelma was in labour for six days before the doctor delivered the baby with forceps. The child’s brain was so damaged that, as Nichols recorded in his diary, ‘she cries only under great strain, never smiles or reacts and cannot order her perceptions.’6 She also had epileptic seizures. After two years, Nichols wrote that she could still ‘do nothing more than swallow food we place on her tongue.’’7 At a party, he remarked to fellow playwright Robert Bolt that ‘As far as playwriting goes, this kind of accident’s useless. There’s nothing to be done with it.’8 Viewed backwards from the present, the events that led from Nichols’ bitter and erroneous prediction to A Day in the Death of Joe Egg fall into place with a satisfying inevitability. But the appearance of orderly progression is an illusion of hindsight – like most creative work, it seems to have been a process of blind

Blakemore to Lord Chamberlain, 29 May 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s Correspondence 1967/1507, British Library) 5 Cordelia Oliver, Review of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Guardian, 11 May 1967, p. 6 6 Peter Nichols, Feeling You’re Behind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984), p. 207 7 Nichols, Feeling, p. 211 8 Nichols, Feeling, p. 213


fumbling punctuated by sudden insights, which only looks like a clear progression in retrospect.

Subsidised by the Dave Clark Five In order to fumble blindly towards a play, an author must take time away from income-generating work. This demands some sort of subsidy, whether it be money the author has saved or inherited, money their spouse or partner earns, or money from a commission. Nichols effectively subsidised himself by becoming a secondary-school teacher in the mid-1950s. He did not enjoy the work, but it provided him with two months’ annual holiday during which he could write. In his words, ‘my reasons for being a teacher were vacational rather than vocational.’9 Nichols quit teaching after only a few years and supported his family with his income from writing for television, where he was increasingly well-known but not well paid. He was therefore was deeply in debt – chiefly to his agent Margaret Ramsay (commonly referred to as ‘Peggy’) and to the playwright Charles Wood.10 In 1965 the director John Boorman convinced Nichols to write the screenplay to Catch Us If You Can, which was the Dave Clark Five’s response to A Hard Day’s Night. Boorman was directing it so that he could get to Hollywood, and he told Nichols that if he wrote the script, he would get enough royalties to take a year off from writing for television and devote himself to writing for the stage.11 The plan worked: Boorman went to Hollywood, and Nichols started writing a play. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Nichols received no such lucrative commission (the film remains an anomaly in Nichols’ oeuvre), and the playwright has remained conscious of the profession’s financial insecurity. In a speech on public subsidy that Nichols gave at the Institute for Contemporary Art, he proposed that playwrights should be put on the payroll of theatre


Kevin Berry, ‘Forget Me Not’, The Stage, 5 July 2007, p. 60 Nichols, Feeling, p. 216 11 Nichols, Feeling, p. 216


companies rather than living script-to-script, trading the potential bonanza of royalties for a steady wage: I believe in a far more extreme form of public theatre than has yet been tried here. I’d like playwrights to be on the pay-roll. We should be part of the whole business of putting plays on, working with the companies, not just delivering scripts that then get processed by others in ways that suit them. No commercial system will give us a place. It can only come through companies and companies can only be publicly supported. I don’t think we should look to royalties for a living. The present system would wither away. All seats should be free. [...] That’s a long view. Here and now money has a lot to do with it and subsidy as a principle and a reality must be jealously guarded by anyone who doesn’t want lively, provocative theatre to be starved to death or – worse – into submission.12 Nichols’ unabashedly radical vision for public subsidy was the legacy of a productive, though tempestuous relationship with Britain’s still-new subsidised theatre sector. It was also, more broadly, an attempt to resolve the contradiction between the solitary work required in order to write a play, and the intense, multi-stranded collaboration required to produce it.

Gestation Nichols decided to try writing a play about his daughter after Peggy Ramsay lent him Francis King’s The Last of the Pleasure Gardens,13 a novel about a couple with an autistic child which the producer Michael Codron had passed on to her, suggesting that it could be adapted for the stage. Nichols reported back to Ramsay that he had ‘thrown it the length of the room because it was untrue.’14 Cushioned by the royalties from Catch Us If You Can, he began to write an original play about living with what one of the characters would memorably describe as ‘a human parsnip’.15

Nichols, draft of talk at ICA (undated) (Nichols papers, folder 79172). I have been in contact with the curators of the ICA archive, but have been unable to find out when this talk occurred. 13 John Russel Taylor, The Second Wave (London: Methuen, 1971), p. 23 14 Colin Chambers, Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 140 15 Quoted in Ronald Bryden, ‘Nightmare Comedy’ [Review of Joe Egg], The Observer, 21 May 1967 [the line appeared in the original production of Joe Egg, but no longer appears in published versions of the script].


He began writing the play with a mental picture of himself and his wife standing on either side of their daughter’s wheelchair and telling jokes.16 The first draft of the script opened with the lead actor storming on stage and addressing the audience as a classroom of unruly students. Nichols adapted this from a monologue he had written based on his work as a secondary school teacher, which he had performed at the artists Samuel and WIlfred Avery’s salons in the 1950s.17 After this startling opening, the teacher (Brian) returns home to his wife Sheila. Their daughter Josephine (referred to as ‘Jo’ in the script) arrives from the day nursery shortly after, slumped forward in a wheelchair. Another couple comes to visit and are horrified by Jo (who rarely moves, and never speaks except in apparently random groans), and in the first draft, the play unfolds as a conventionally-structured, naturalistic drama, throughout which arguments over euthanasia are interspersed with accusations and concealments of adultery. This juxtaposition seems incongruous, but Nichols was adamant that there should be adultery in the script, whether real or imagined: ‘the play is a description of an experience,’ he wrote at the time, ‘and even in such an experience as having a dud child you still have all the rest of it as well.’18 Nichols sent copies of the first draft to the director Michael Blakemore and the writer John Hale to get their opinions.19 Hale suggested ‘ruthless’ cutting of the play’s political commentary and local Bristol references.20 Blakemore loved the teacher’s monologue, but felt that the otherwise naturalistic script failed to fulfil the promise of this direct address to the audience.21 On 5 September 1966, Blakemore wrote to Nichols suggesting that he adopt ‘a
16 17

Peter Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005 Nichols, Feeling, p. 188 18 Nichols to John Hale, [no day or month] 1966 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers, folder 78954) 19 Nichols also sent copies to Christopher Morahan and Patrick Dromgoole, but their comments do not appear in Nichols’ collected correspondence (Nichols papers, folders 78954, 78956, B. Library) 20 Hale to Nichols, 1966 (Nichols papers, folder 78954) – his other comments are interesting as well. 21 Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 2004) p. 382.


somewhat looser and freer structure,’ adding ‘this is promised so explicitly in the first scene that I think it is a pity not to make the best of it later on.’22 On 20 September 1966, Nichols’ diary reports that Michael Blakemore offered to direct the play at Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre,23 where he was codirector with Michael Meacham.24 Nichols explained in a letter to John Hale that he hoped to re-write it: I think I may do a fortnight or so on it – perhaps later on this year – and see if it works. If so, finish it, if not, drop it quick. After all, Mike’s got the old play and he can always put that on, with the alterations that I agree are only too necessary.25 In his letter to Hale (on whose advice he reluctantly stripped away most of the play’s politics and local Bristolian references) he set down the still-embryonic ideas that turned the play into a theatrical breakthrough. The play would begin with a teacher (Bri) addressing the audience as a rowdy classroom, as in the first draft. In the following scene he would come home to his wife Sheila, and describe his day at work. Then, after they hear a knock on the door, he would return to the stage pushing Jo in her wheelchair. But here, rather than continue naturalistically, the structure would open up as Blakemore had proposed: Bri should begin to argue with the audience, trying to tell them what he has to put up with with Sheila. And with himself. Then Sheila does the same. And they tell us [...] all about Jo’s history. They act it out for us, too, as they did once or twice in the first version. [...] Then they return to the play itself, the story of the evening with [the visiting couple] Freddie and Pam.26 In the second act, he continued, actors might appear to come out of character and complain about their lines.27 In his autobiography, Blakemore suggests that his recommendations to Nichols about ‘opening up’ were inspired by Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, and Nichols’ ideas about ‘coming out of
22 23

Blakemore to Nichols, 5 September 1966 (Nichols papers, folder 78954) In his memoirs, however, Blakemore describes making this offer only after receiving Nichols’ subsequent, radically altered version (Blakemore, Arguments, p. 384). 24 Nichols papers, folder 78956, British Library 25 Nichols to John Hale, 1966 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers, folder 78954) 26 Nichols to John Hale, 1966 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers, folder 78954) 27 Nichols experimented with this idea in A Piece of My Mind (1987) and Blue Murder (1996).


character’ are very similar to Wilder’s devices.28 There is a faint trace of Nichols’ planned disruption in the final version: after Brian calls Freddie a ‘pain in the arse’, Brian’s mother Grace tells the audience ‘I hate a play with language.’29 The ‘opening-up’ of the script is generally regarded as the insight that made Joe Egg into such an extraordinary play. But reading the notes that Nichols wrote to himself at this time, what is most striking is how obviously wrongheaded most of them seem. His plan to have the actors appear to turn on the author, for example, seems hopelessly contrived (and rather obviously taken from Wilder), while his plan for Jo to ‘die’ multiple times in different styles, with commentary from the other actors, seems grotesque.30 Nichols’ ‘breakthrough’ consisted mostly of dead-ends, which is a salutary reminder about the nature of the creative process: not only is writing largely a process of blind fumbling, but writers fumble through their insights as much as they fumble through anything else. The critic Irving Wardle writes that an insight ‘is valuable only as a provisional marker,’ adding that it’s ‘better to live in a tent and move on than take refuge in a stone house that may become a tomb.’31 This is useful advice, but it is not easy to follow. Blakemore, who sympathised with Nichols’ aims but did not share his attachment to what he had written, was invaluable to shaping the final script out of Nichols’ ideas. This is not to cast any doubt on Nichols’ authorship – most, if not all, writers rely on a sympathetic but critical reader to refine their work, and directors of new work must (in addition to their other duties) fill the role that an editor would provide to a novelist.

Selling the Script When Nichols finished the first draft of the script, he took it to Peggy Ramsay, and gave her a list of the producers to whom he would like it sent: Michael Codron, Tony Garnett (at the BBC), Kenneth Tynan (at the National Theatre),


Nichols saw Olivier’s production in Bristol, while Blakemore saw it in Australia (Blakemore, Arguments, p. 383) 29 Nichols, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991) pp. 97-98 30 Nichols Papers, Folder 78956, (British Library) 31 Irving Wardle, Theatre Criticism, Theatre Concepts Series (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 93


James Roose-Evans (at the Hampstead theatre) and Brian Forbes.32 Ramsay was not happy with the script. Despite her commitment to championing controversial work (she once told the critic Harold Hobson, ‘if you read something or see something that almost repels you, that is new talent’33), she thought Joe Egg too disturbing to be staged. ‘She knew that it was an important play,’ writes her biographer, Colin Chambers, ‘but she felt that she could not send it to any potential producers, even though she risked losing Nichols as a client.’34 ‘I found it very upsetting when I read it, when I saw it – and still do,’ Ramsay told Mel Gussow in 1988, ‘It’s upsetting because it happened. Peter and Thelma lived that life. It’s not that I hate the play. I hate what they had to go through.’35 To put her discomfort into perspective, in 1965 she had championed Edward Bond’s Saved, a play in which a baby is stoned to death on stage.36 Had Ramsay not known Peter and Thelma personally, she would probably have supported the piece unswervingly. In spite of her qualms, Ramsay circulated the script. Michael Codron apparently found it ‘riveting, punishing, tantalising, highly-talented, marvellously observed,’37 and said he would like to stage it at the Hampstead theatre if James Roose-Evans were interested. He was not. The other producers rejected it outright, except for the Royal Court theatre, which offered him a Sunday night performance without scenery. This was a better offer than it sounds – the Royal Court’s so-called ‘productions without décor’ were popular, highly-regarded events which had helped launch the careers of Ann Jellicoe, N. F. Simpson and John Arden, among others.38 But Nichols seems to have been afraid to entrust the production to a company that did not make a more substantive commitment to the play. He describes the Sunday night shows as the performances ‘where they tried out plays to see if they’d work, and they didn’t want to spend any
32 33

Nichols, Feeling, p. 221 Mel Gussow, ‘Play Agent’, New Yorker, 23 May 1988 (pp. 34-60), p. 59 34 Chambers, Peggy, p. 141 35 Gussow, ‘Play Agent’, p. 39 36 Chambers, Peggy, p. 260 37 Nichols to John Hale, 1966 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers, folder 78954) 38 Dominic Shellard, British Theatre Since the War (London: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 81.


money on them,’ adding that ‘They were plays they had no confidence in, that was what it amounted to.’39 He may have passed on a good opportunity by rejecting the Royal Court’s offer, but as it turned out, he would receive a much better one. A year after Joe Egg finally opened, the critic Kenneth Tynan used the example of the production to advance the cause of state subsidy, declaring in the New Yorker magazine that it had been ‘the best new British play to hit the commercial sector of the London theatre in 1967,’ and that ‘it began its career, significantly, in a state-subsidized repertory company in Glasgow.’40 Tynan, who was then Literary Manager at the five-year-old National Theatre, argued that the play owed its very existence to theatre subsidy: ‘I don’t think it’s irrelevant to harp on the fact that the play had its first showing at the hands of a state-aided company,’ he wrote. ‘How many commercial producers would have risked their money on a comedy about a spastic?’41 But subsidised theatres were no more eager to risk their money on the play than commercial producers were – Tynan himself had turned it down when it was sent to the NT. The offer from the Royal Court – which received a state subsidy – could be interpreted as a roundabout vindication of Tynan’s claim about the subsidised theatre. On the other hand, Michael Codron was also interested, and he was a commercial producer. Tynan is right to point out that theatre subsidy can provide a safety-net for experimentation (though his attention to Joe Egg is misleading) but government subsidy can also be interpreted as a mandate for respectability. Directors have tended to treat it as a safety-net, while Boards of Governors treat it as a mandate, leading to unavoidable clashes over repertoire.


Jamie Andrews, Interview with Peter Nichols (31 August 2005), Theatre Archive project <> 40 Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Theatre Abroad: London’, New Yorker, 9 November 1968, pp. 123-159, 130 41 Tynan, ‘The Theatre’, p. 132


Michael Blakemore A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was produced not because state subsidy makes theatres more adventurous, but because Michael Blakemore was co-director of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre. In September 1966 he offered to direct the play, if he could get the Board of Governors to accept it. Nichols was not especially enthusiastic about the prospect, which seemed to be a retreat from London. As it turned out, however, Nichols was incredibly fortunate to have the play directed by Blakemore – not only was he a talented new director, but he and Nichols shared a vision of what theatre should be, and Joe Egg gave them a chance to put it onstage. ‘For me there was something almost poetically apt about this point we had both reached in our lives,’ Blakemore writes in his memoirs: two friends who had shared an idea of theatre over many years. Now one of them had written a play and the other had been able to give it a production in which we could celebrate those ideas beyond our best hopes.42 One of those ideas, as Blakemore said in our interview, was ‘of cutting down the self-importance of drama by putting in a bit of vaudeville.’43 More generally, they wanted to blur the barriers ‘between classic and boulevard theatre, between tragedy and comedy, [...] and to ambush an audience with the emotion they least expected.’44 Blakemore recognised all of these qualities in Nichols’ second draft of Joe Egg, which he remembers reading in a state of ‘staring excitement’45 in the back of a taxi. The background to Jo’s condition, which had been awkwardly explained to the guests, Pam and Freddie, was now delivered straight to the audience in comic sketches, with Sheila playing herself and Bri playing (in order of appearance) an English doctor, a Viennese doctor, and a ‘swinging’ vicar. Though these sketches mock the pretence of on-stage naturalism, they are based on the Nichols’ own home life. Critic Benedict Nightingale explains the conceit:
42 43

Blakemore, Arguments, pp. 388-389 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 44 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 252 45 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 384


Peter and Thelma had private jokes to deal with the difficulty of looking after the child, such as inventing imaginary characters, roles, lines and dialogue for her. The parents in the play do the same, creating comic effects that Nichols found cathartic and hoped would make the audience laugh and wonder why they were laughing.46 Bri and Sheila also address the audience privately during Act One, each delivering two monologues. Bri adopts a comedian’s patter during his second monologue, telling the audience ‘she’s a wonderful woman, my wife, that girl upstairs. In the bedroom, off in the wings, wherever she is.’47 Sheila ends her second monologue by confiding that ‘Bri’s mother always says, “Wouldn’t she be lovely if [Jo] was running about?” which makes Bri hoot with laughter. But I think of it too. Perhaps it’s being a woman.’ At that moment a cymbal-roll introduces Jo, who skips on stage to announce the interval. Sheila then puts her arm around her daughter, ‘tells her she spoke her lines well,’ and the two go off together as the lights come up.48 William Goldman later wrote that ‘her entrance comes as such a shock, such a heart-stopping surprise, that – I don’t know, but son of a bitch – that’s what it’s all about, right there.’49 The script was still too long, but Blakemore could see possible cuts and changes as he read, and believed he knew exactly what the play needed. ‘[O]ccasionally in a career,’ he later wrote, ‘you can be so at one on a generational level [with the playwright], so sympathetically informed about his material, that you are able to see possibilities of which the author himself is as yet unaware.’50 Nichols came to Glasgow and sat beside Blakemore (who was bed-ridden with an intestinal infection), taking notes on the director’s suggestions. He completed the play’s final draft a few weeks later. Though it may seem a sentimental point to make, the history of Joe Egg is a testament to the importance of friendship to the ecology of the theatre: it is


Benedict Nightingale, ‘The Sour Smell of Success: Peter Nichols is Not about to Surrender to Optimism’, Times, 25 September 2001 <> 47 Nichols, Joe Egg, p. 30 48 Nichols, Joe Egg, p. 56 49 William Goldman, The Season (New York: Harrows, Brace, and World, 1969), p. 304 50 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 385


thanks to Nichols’ friendship with Blakemore not only that the play was produced, but that it exists in its present form – Joe Egg is Nichols’ play, but it was shaped by Blakemore’s advice. But if this account emphasises the importance of friendships to the theatre, it must also acknowledge the pressure that professional theatre exerts against the bonds of friendship, both through jealousy and through more material concerns, such as the development of one’s career. The balance of power between Nichols and Blakemore – at least as described by the press – changed as soon as the play was successful. Within a few weeks, the story was reported in the Scotsman as if it was Blakemore who was lucky to be friends with such a rising star, rather than Nichols who was lucky to have a friend willing to stage his unappreciated script. According to journalist Allen Wright, the Citizens’ ‘had only obtained A Day in the Death of Joe Egg because of Blakemore’s personal acquaintance with the author.’51 The misleading implication of charity must have annoyed the director. The friendship was more gravely threatened as a consequence of Blakemore’s advice on the script. In Arguments With England, Blakemore describes a director’s contribution to a play’s early drafts as ‘prospecting for gold on someone else’s land,’52 but it is the prospector who actually finds the gold, and according to Blakemore, Nichols deliberately erased his contribution first by making sure Blakemore did not still have a copy of the unedited second draft, and then by making no acknowledgement of Blakemore’s help in the published script. ‘Good fortune,’ Blakemore writes of the play’s success, ‘as always double-edged, turned out to be the beginning of our long drift towards estrangement.’53 Blakemore recounts this on the second-to-last page of his memoir. In his review of the book for the Guardian, Simon Callow notes that while the account ‘is written without rancour and is perfectly justified, [...] it is oddly placed in the book, leaving the reader with an atmosphere of discontent

Allen Wright, ‘The Citizens’ Pulls its’ Weight’, Scotsman Week-end Magazine, 20 May 1967, p. 3 52 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 385 53 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 392


and disappointment just when happiness might have been expected.’54 For his part, Nichols claims that he regularly acknowledged Blakemore’s contribution in interviews, but that ‘at that time Michael’s wasn’t a current name,’ so journalists chose not to mention him in their articles.55 Blakemore disagrees, but concedes that recently, Nichols ‘has begun to speak generously about the work we did together in Glasgow so long ago.’56

‘A committee of honorary amateurs’: The Board of Governors Michael Blakemore had been made co-director of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in the summer of 1966, only months after he had directed his first play.57 The previous artistic director, David William, had invited him to join the company as an actor in 1965, and was now stepping down sooner than expected, worn down by fights with an increasingly pugnacious Board of Governors. William made the unorthodox suggestion that Blakemore and another actor from the company, Michael Meacham, should share directorial power, with Meacham as senior partner. The ‘two Michaels’, as they became known, inherited a fractious theatre, coloured by mutual distrust between the management and the Board of Governors. The Glasgow Citizens’ theatre was only twenty-three years old when the two Michaels succeeded William. In fact, the very concept of public subsidy on the scale required by the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre did not begin until World War II, with the creation of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art (CEMA) on 19 January 1940. Even this was not entirely a public venture: initial funding came from the Pilgrim Trust (a charity founded by the American millionaire Edward Harkness in 1930), with the Treasury agreeing to match the trust’s contribution up to £50,000.58 CEMA (which became the Arts Council after the war) provided supplementary funding for the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre to
54 55

Simon Callow, ‘The Wizard From Oz’, Guardian, 2 October 2004 <> Peter Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005. I have not found any respones from Nichols to the claim that Blakemore should have been acknowledged in the script. 56 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 392 57 Peter Weiss’s The Investigation at the Close Theatre, Glasgow 58 Dan Rebellato, 1956 and all That (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 39


open in 1943, under the direction of the playwright James Bridie. Public subsidy did not change the fact that the Citizens’ was run by representatives of the social elite: the original Board members included a gallery director, a cinema owner, an accountant, a successful novelist, the chairman of the Scottish orchestra, and another playwright.59 Ronald Hayman points out that this elitism is built into the very fabric of subsidy. Non-profit making theatres, he observes, ‘can qualify for subsidy if they are constituted either as charitable trusts or in such a way that no salary is paid to the Board of Directors.’ This arrangement, which has significant advantages over other modes of governance (shareholders, for example, or direct government control), requires that members be financially secure enough to take on a potentially time-consuming responsibility for no pay, a stipulation which is almost certain to exclude a substantial portion of the population from candidacy. Hayman adds that while ‘control of the company may [...] be in the hands of a paid professional, [...] he must be appointed by a committee of honorary amateurs, which may occasionally assert itself by overruling his decisions.’60 The ongoing tug-of-war between the Board and the Directorship was the defining struggle of the Glasgow Citizens’ in the 1960s.61 It was arguably the defining struggle of the National Theatre as well. In his history of the NT, Peter Lewis expresses his support for a Board as a safeguard against the director becoming an ‘absolute dictator.’62 Tynan, whose battles with the Chairman are now legendary, vehemently disagrees. He is unequivocal on this point in his New Yorker article: One problem remains to be solved before the British theatre can prosper as it should. We must make sure that the state-aided troupes are artistically autonomous, and not subject, as they are at present, to the meddling authority of governing Boards. When this reform has been

Jan McDonald, What Is A Citizens’ Theatre? (Glasgow: Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 1984), p. 9 60 Ronald Hayman, The Set-Up: An Anatomy of the English Theatre Today (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973), p. 118 61 Michael Coveney, The Citz: 21 Years of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), p. 57 62 Peter Lewis, The National: A Dream Made Concrete (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 36


carried through, there will be nothing drastically wrong with the British theatre that a few more subsidized companies – some in London, some in the regional centres – could not quite handily cure.63 The power struggle between directors and Boards was based on a contradiction which goes as far back as arts subsidy itself: government subsidy can be regarded with equal justification as a means of encouraging egalitarianism or of enforcing elitism, and can be treated as an instrument of national prestige or of artistic experimentation (these second two occasionally coincide, but generally only after an experiment has been successful). It would be over-simplistic to place Tynan and the directors on the side of egalitarianism and experimentation, and the Board on the side of elitism and prestige – the nature of the contradiction is such that everybody finds themselves fighting on both sides of both issues, depending on the circumstances.

‘A bogus type of Puritanism’ When the two Michaels took over the Citizens’, they inherited a reputation for theatrical adventurousness, but also one for local prudery. Peter Duguid had set an adventurous tone in 1957 by introducing club performances of plays banned by the Lord Chamberlain, beginning with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and followed by Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. The plays caused no public outcry, though they swelled the Citizens’ Theatre Society membership dramatically.64 However, what Tony Paterson calls ‘a bogus type of Puritanism in the air’ arrived during David William’s single-year term as director, with a production of John Arden’s Live Like Pigs in Autumn 1965.65 In one scene, a woman removes a man’s trousers. Sitting in the third row on the opening night, Paterson was unaware of any disturbance, but newspapers announced mass-walkouts the next day, and several critics expressed their solidarity with the offended parties.
63 64

Tynan, ‘The Theatre,’ p. 159 Anthony Mason Paterson, ‘Citizens' Theatre: The Years Between’, Scottish Theatre News, October 1982, p. 3 65 Anthony Mason Paterson, Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, 1957-1969: The Middle Years (Dissertation), p. 196


The Glasgow Citizens’ Board of the 1960s was as unpredictable as the audience. When Michael Blakemore made his mainstage directorial debut with David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, the Board gave its blessing despite its forbidding title. After the opening, the Board’s vice-Chairman, Lord Taylor, wrote to Blakemore personally to inform him that ‘in my experience as a member of the Board this is the first occasion that we have minuted our appreciation of an outstanding performance.’66 The Board was less amenable when Tennessee Williams offered the Citizens’ the rights to the UK premiere of Sweet Bird of Youth. Vivien Leigh told Blakemore that she would be ‘extremely interested’ in starring in the production, and a young Stephen Berkoff was recruited to play opposite her. Then word came from the Board: they had read the script, and found the play unsuitable.67 Having only recently been appointed director, Blakemore was in no position to threaten resignation, and the production was quietly dropped. It is easy to get the impression that the Board served primarily as a censor – a sort of in-house Lord Chamberlain – but its concerns were as often financial as they were moral or aesthetic. After Michael Blakemore directed the English-language premiere of Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard, the Board reprimanded him not because of the play’s content, but because box office returns had failed to justify its substantial budget.68 The 1966 season had begun with a successful production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, and Meacham directed Blakemore in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, again winning critical admiration. This strong start gave Blakemore more leverage when he and the business manager Andrew Leigh came to a meeting with the Board’s Play Selection Committee over A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. This time, Blakemore was ‘coldly resolved’ that he would resign if the play were rejected.69

66 67

Blakemore, Arguments, p. 380 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 381 68 Paterson, Middle Years, p. 218 69 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 386


Joe Egg and the Board Apart from Blakemore and Leigh, the meeting was attended by the chairman, George Singleton; the Vice Chairman, Lord Taylor (who had written Blakemore the congratulatory letter after Little Malcolm); Colin Chandler, who ran the drama school; and Michael Goldberg, who had recently resigned as chairman. Goldberg had spearheaded (and to a large extent financed) the creation of the Citizens’ new studio theatre, and Michael Blakemore owed his job to him, but it was he who had forbidden the theatre from staging Sweet Bird of Youth. Lord Taylor opened the meeting by denouncing the play, and threatened to resign before Blakemore had the opportunity to make the same threat. A rancorous debate ensued, until Michael Goldberg gave his opinion of the play with what Blakemore describes as ‘the skill of a brilliant and humane conciliator,’70 arguing eloquently on the play’s behalf. The committee voted to support the production. Afterwards, Goldberg told Blakemore ‘when you first came into this room [...] I wouldn’t have given tuppence for your chances!’, adding, ‘And believe you me A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is a much better play than Sweet Bird of Youth!’71 The outcome of this meeting is a strong argument for Michael Goldberg’s powers of persuasion, but perhaps not for allowing Boards to determine the suitability of a theatre’s repertoire: a Board should be able to act in its own best interest without being swayed by a brilliant orator. If it cannot, it may have strayed from its area of expertise. As Anthony Jackson explains in The Repertory Theatre Movement, this problem was not unique to Glasgow: ‘Between 1966 and 1969,’ Jackson writes, ‘a spate of disagreements on policy occurred between Boards and artistic directors, most notably at Stoke, Glasgow and Nottingham, leading to the resignation or sacking of the directors involved.’72 In response, the Arts Council’s Theatre Enquiry Committee clarified the separation of powers between the theatre Board and the artistic director in
70 71

Blakemore, Arguments, p. 386 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 387 72 George Rowell and Anthony Jackson, The Repertory Theater Movement: A History of Regional Theatre in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), p. 116


1970, declaring unanimously that ‘the artistic control of a theatre should be vested in the Artistic Director. As long as he keeps within his budget, and retains the confidence of the public, the choice of plays and all that is implied in the choice should be his.’73 Tynan, who served on the Enquiry committee, regarded the ruling as a victory. The Glasgow Citizens’ reconstituted its Board in 1970 to include elected representatives from the Citizens’ Theatre Society (representing the interests of the audience), and amended its constitution, relaxing the Board’s control over artistic policy.74 This change allowed artistic director Giles Havergal to preside over an ambitious and experimental company for over three decades, from 1969 to 2003, with a relatively laissez-faire Board of Governors. The National Theatre was similarly liberalised when Peter Hall succeeded Laurence Olivier as artistic director. Before accepting the position, Hall told the Board that he would warn them before producing a play that he regarded as controversial and that he appreciated that they had the right to prevent it from being staged, but that if the Board did this twice, he would resign.75 This did not completely end the tension between Board and management, but it shifted the balance of power.


Arts Council of Great Britain, The Theatre Today in England and Wales, p. 51 (quoted in Rowell and Jackson, Repertory) 74 Rowell and Jackson, Repertory, p. 141 75 Peter Hall, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983), p. 7


The Lord Chamberlain Once the Play Selection Committee had approved Joe Egg, Andrew Leigh submitted the script to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for a licence. The script arrived at St. James’ Palace with an accompanying letter from Michael Blakemore, explaining that the playwright had ‘a child similar to the one described in the play,’76 and the script was therefore ‘the first to approach a problem of this sort without any of that false gravity with which the well meaning outsider is expected to view the misfortunes of another.’ Far from wishing to disturb the audience, Blakemore promised them, Nichols hoped ‘to reduce the problem of any of its horrific or mawkish elements and site it firmly in the only area where it can properly be considered: that utterly real and unsentimental domestic environment where it has to be lived and coped with in the first instance.’ Blakemore added that the play possessed ‘an audacity which only first hand experience could support, and the extraordinary humour of the piece, far from indicating callousness, testifies to its considerable courage and tenderness.’77 The play’s future depended on the Readers accepting this premise. Blakemore knew that the Readers’ strongest objections would be over Jo’s presence on the stage, and he addressed these concerns directly, reiterating his point that ‘the last thing we want is to unduly alarm the audience, who are meant to see the child as do its parents, with the daily familiarity of ten years experience.’ Therefore, he promised, ‘a perfectly normal child actress will be asked to play being permanently asleep.’ Furthermore, ‘the fits to which the script refers are small things, immediately perceptible of course to the parents, but of little significance to an outsider.’ All in all, he assured the Readers, ‘the presentation of the child on stage will be far less terrible to see than it is to read about on the page.’78


Michael Blakemore to Comptroller, 22 March 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library) 77 Blakemore to Comptroller, 22 March 1967 78 Blakemore to Comptroller, 22 March 1967


Blakemore also tried to pre-empt objections to the dialogue’s ‘considerable sexual frankness’, arguing that he did not ‘think any of it is out of line with what you have agreed to in other plays.’79 Finally, he offered to come to St. James’ Palace with Nichols in order to discuss the script with the Readers in person. The initial Reader’s report, by Charles D. Heriot, provides the perspective of an unsympathetic reader with no access to external production information. From these unpromising conditions comes a remarkable critical reading which reveals a chasm between the expectations of the Readers and those of the writer. Heriot, a retired actor who joined the Lord Chamberlain’s office in 1937,80 does not seem to have been given Blakemore’s letter, but he recognises traces of lived experience in the script: it is, he writes, ‘a play about an over-sexed schoolmaster and his wife with a spastic child by, I suspect, an oversexed schoolmaster with a spastic child.’81 The juxtaposition of these two facts seems to render the first superfluous, rather like describing a writer as ‘an oversexed cancer patient.’ But Heriot refuses to grant precedence to the play’s subject over the coarseness of some of its dialogue. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg presented an interesting case to the Readers. The script that had arrived on Heriot’s desk was an unprecedented rupture in the membrane between private life and public display. Heriot could not argue that the subject was unsuitable for the stage – there is nothing immoral or subversive about having a brain-damaged child (Bri’s half-hearted attempt to kill her did not especially worry him) and there is nothing offensive about a husband and wife finding each other sexually desirable. But Heriot does not want any of this on display in a public space. Even giving birth is taboo: ‘every possible detail of post and prenatal horror is given to us,’ he shudders, as
79 80

Blakemore to Comptroller, 22 March 1967 Lord Chamberlain, Interview (1965), (Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, RA LC/GEN/440/65) [reference provided by Dr. Steve Nicholson]. 81 Charles D. Heriot, Reader’s Report for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, 25 March 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library)


if this information places an unreasonable burden on the audience. Again, there is nothing objectionable about childbirth, it is describing the experience that is offensive. Later in the report, Heriot inadvertently crystallises his objections, writing of Nichols that ‘it is as if he vomited up all his bitterness and helplessness and showed the basin (to use an inelegant metaphor) to his captive audience.’82 The image is certainly inelegant, but it is also apt – perhaps more so than Heriot intends. Nichols has shown the audience something that should have remained internal, and just as his bitterness and helplessness have refused to stay inside, the inhabitants of his living room are no longer safe behind closed doors. The script itself predicts this discomfort, and provides Freddie and Pam, the visiting couple, as an on-stage ‘audience’ for Bri, Sheila, and Jo. Freddie is eager to help what he sees (with justification) as a family in desperation: ‘I am my Brother’s Keeper,’ he tells Bri, ‘I bloody well am!’83 Pam, on the other hand, would sympathise with Heriot’s view of the proceedings. She awaits Jo’s appearance in terror: ‘I keep looking at that door,’ she admits to the audience, ‘and thinking she’s going to come through it any moment with that poor weirdie. I know it’s awful but it’s one of my – you know – THINGS. We’re none of us perfect . . . I can’t stand anything NPA. Non-Physically Attractive. Old women in bathing-suits – and skin diseases – and cripples.’84 She addresses this confession to an audience who are themselves on tenterhooks waiting to see if Jo is going to do anything that will make them look away from the stage. But she is not exactly voicing the audience’s unspoken fear: the audience has already seen Jo and knows that she is, in Blakemore’s words, ‘a perfectly normal child actress [...] permanently asleep.’85 Pam’s speech may force the audience to admit their own similarity to her, or it may allow them to do precisely the opposite: her views are extreme, and one might merely feel relief at being unimpeachably not as bad as her.
82 83

Heriot, Reader’s Report Nichols, Joe Egg, p. 72 84 Nichols, Joe Egg, p. 79 85 Blakemore to Comptroller, 22 March 1967


Freddie, on the other hand, shares Heriot’s distaste for Bri’s (and, it is safe to say, Nichols’) brand of humour. And though Freddie is insufferable, some of his observations are hard to dismiss: ‘May I say a piece about these jokes?’, he demands, ‘They’ve obviously helped you see it through. A useful anaesthetic. But. Isn’t there a point where the jokes start using you? [...] Isn’t that the whole fallacy of the sick joke? It kills the pain but leaves the situation just as it was?’86 Applied reflexively to Nichols himself, this would be a cogent criticism of his entire oeuvre. That it appears within his own play is characteristic of a playwright who would later, in A Piece of My Mind (1987), write his internal critics into the play itself, so that they appear onstage and comment unfavourably on the action. Though Heriot’s critique reflects aspects of Freddie and Pam, the only character in the play whose perspective resembles Heriot’s is Bri’s mother (her complaint, ‘I hate a play with language,’87 is almost a nod to the censor). But one imagines that Bri’s mother would at least recognise the British antecedents for Bri and Sheila’s music-hall turns and everybody’s direct addresses. Heriot, on the other hand, does not. ‘In the best Brecht tradition,’ he remarks sarcastically, ‘illusion is shattered by the actors recognising the audience and talking at length to them.’88 Heriot must have been one of the few people of his generation in Britain who was more familiar with Brecht than with the Music Hall. The assumption of foreign influence (Brecht was not generally wellreceived at St. James’ Palace) chimes with the bunker mentality that pervades Heriot’s report. He adds that in addition to their gratuitous sex-references and description of childbirth, Bri and Sheila make ‘the usual gags about God and religion.’ The adjective ‘usual’ is revealing: Heriot realises that Nichols’ style is becoming the norm, and he and the other Readers are becoming aberrations. His report appears to balance the smugness of someone who believes his

86 87

Nichols, Joe Egg, p. 71 Nichols, Joe Egg, pp. 97-98 88 Heriot, Reader’s Report


qualifications as a judge to be unassailable, and the despair of one who knows his role is being made obsolete. Despite all his reservations, Heriot recommended that the play be licensed as long as Nichols agreed to a substantial list of changes. Five days later, the Assistant Comptroller, Colonel J. F. D. Johnston, submitted a report of his own. Johnston observed that ‘The theme of the play is unusual, if not to date unique.’89 His much shorter report focussed Heriot’s barrage of objections into one fundamental issue: Jo’s presence on stage, which could upset the audience (Heriot had worried particularly that ‘any woman in the audience who is in similar circumstances [to Sheila] will be outraged’90) as well as causing mental and emotional strain to the actor playing Jo. The Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobbold, who submitted his own report six days later, confirmed that the play could be licensed subject to the required cuts and alterations, but wondered if Jo’s time onstage could be shortened, or if she could be played by ‘a dummy, except when activated.’91 Heriot had made the same suggestion, though he was confident that ‘a dummy in a wheelchair is not enough if our withers are to be wrung as the author intends.’92 In fact, Nichols intended the exact opposite, according to Blakemore’s letter: the audience should regard Jo’s condition not as horrific but as ordinary, as it is to her parents. Lord Cobbold’s assistant secretary Ronald Hill, who filed the next report six days after Cobbold’s, proposed that the play’s advance publicity should contain a warning about its subject matter. This became a condition for licence. His second suggestion, that the play be re-titled A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, or, The Tale of a Spastic Child, was not taken up.93


J.F.D Johnston, Reader’s Report for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, 30 March 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library) 90 Heriot, Reader’s Report 91 Lord Chamberlain to J.F.D Johnston, 5 April 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library) 92 Heriot, Reader’s Report 93 Ronald Hill, Reader’s Report for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, 11 April 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library)


A Meeting at St. James’ Palace On 13 April, two days after Hill’s report, Blakemore and Nichols came to St. James’ Palace to discuss the play in person – this was an extremely unusual event for the Readers, who conducted nearly all their business by post. Nichols has described the meeting in detail, and used it as the basis for his play Blue Murder (1995). In the play, an Ortonesque first act turns out, after the interval, to be a partly autobiographical script which one of the characters, a young playwright, now takes to St. James’s Palace to discuss with the Lord Chamberlain’s Readers. In real life, Nichols and Blakemore met with Johnston and another man whom Nichols identities as a retired wing commander. Blakemore, Nichols writes, ‘had none of my hostility to the upper-middle-class and asked me to let him speak for us both.’94 Class-resentment aside, Blakemore had an aptitude for diplomacy that the playwright lacked. He would continue to be an advocate for both of them in later productions. Blakemore explained to the Readers that if Jo were kept offstage, as they hoped she would be, ‘we should be back in Victorian melodrama, with something nasty locked up in the west wing, when our aim was to present the case as part of the everyday life of those who live it.’95 To Nichols’ astonishment, they went on to suggest that a puppet or marionette be used instead of an actor. Fortunately, Blakemore was there precisely so that Nichols would not need to respond to suggestions like this, and the director patiently explained that ‘this would be a crueller joke than anything in the play.’96 At last, the Readers conceded the point: Jo would be portrayed by an actor who would be visible onstage. But this raised the problem of what a ten-year-old girl could be allowed to hear. Bri and Sheila could certainly not talk about sex in her presence, as was in the script.97 Nichols broke his silence to observe that Jo was too severely mentally handicapped to be able to understand anything

94 95

Nichols, Feeling, p. 223 Nichols, Feeling, p. 223 96 Nichols, Feeling, p. 224 97 Nichols, Joe Egg, pp. 26-29


anybody said, sexual or otherwise. But Johnston was prepared for this excuse, as Nichols recounts in his autobiography: ‘The character, yes,’ said the Comptroller, ‘but not the child actress. The audience will know she’s not really handicapped.’ ‘But she won’t be a child either. She’ll be at least fourteen,’ said Michael, ‘that’s the youngest age the GLC allows.’ ‘But the audience won’t know that.’ ‘Even though they’ll know she’s not a spastic?’ I asked. ‘We could not licence a scene in which an ostensible child apparently heard one adult proposing sex to another.’ ‘I wonder would it be possible,’ suggested the wing-co., ‘for the child to be pushed off in her wheelchair just before the conversation and brought back on again afterwards?’ ‘But,’ said Michael, ‘she’d be sitting in the wings behind a canvas flat. She’d hear every word.’ ‘Yes, but she wouldn’t be seen to!’98 Accordingly. the first published edition of the script specified that Jo should be wheeled offstage for this conversation and then back on again, with no explanation given. It was often difficult to discern whom the Lord Chamberlain was trying to protect, and from what. In this case, it seems that the audience was being shielded from the trauma of believing (albeit erroneously) that sex was being discussed in the presence of a ten-year-old actor. The absurdity of the meeting was not lost on anybody in the room. In fact, the wing commander had greeted Nichols and Blakemore with a firm declaration of support for the abolition of censorship.99 The position of the Lord Chamberlain had been clear since 1966, when he told a House of Lords joint select committee that he did not wish to continue as a theatre censor.100 In fact, the only organisation that wanted the Lord Chamberlain to continue acting as a censor was the Society of West End Theatre Managers, who found it financially prudent to programme ‘safe’ plays and appreciated the Lord Chamberlain’s role as a lightning rod for criticism that would otherwise focus on them. In June 1967, only two months after Nichols’ and Blakemore’s meeting at St. James’
98 99

Nichols, Feeling, p. 224 Nichols, Feeling, p. 223 100 Dominic Shellard and Steve Nicholson, with Miriam Handley, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets...: A History of British Theatre Censorship (London: British Library, 2004), pp. 172-173


Palace, the Joint Select Committee concluded that ‘pre-censorship and licensing of plays should cease.’ But the prime minister, Harold Wilson, withdrew his support for the proposal in November after learning that Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop planned to stage a satire of his government entitled Mrs. Wilson’s Diary.101 Despite this (unwanted) reprieve, theatre censorship was clearly in its final throes. The following week Blakemore wrote to St. James’ Palace explaining that the Citizens’ had ‘made a point of advertising the fact that the subject of this play is a chronically retarded child.’ Additionally, Nichols volunteered that for all future productions ‘he will include a paragraph in his contract requiring the management concerned to similarly publicise the nature and subject of the play.’102 The Nichols archive only contains one piece of promotional material – a flier announcing the Citizens’ final two plays of its 1966-67 season (the other is Stuart Conn’s I Didn’t Always Live Here) which describes Joe Egg as ‘a problem play written from the inside without any of the sentimental gravity with which the well-meaning outsider is customarily expected to view another’s misfortune.’103 Had the Lord Chamberlain seen this advertisement, he would not have been favourably impressed by the Citizens’ assiduousness in warning parents. He did not complain about the publicity, however (the play’s theme may have been more clearly stated elsewhere) and two days after the Glasgow production closed, Blakemore sent a triumphant letter to Colonel Johnston, enclosing reviews from the Times, the Guardian, and the Observer. ‘As you will see,’ he wrote, ‘it has worked out rather as both you and ourselves hoped it would.’104 The show would now transfer to London, and Blakemore had a request to make. He directed the Readers’ attention to the Times review, in which the critic remarked that ‘the audience is protected – too carefully, I

101 102

Shellard, Nicholson, and Handley, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets..., p. 173 Blakemore to Lord Chamberlain, 18 April 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507) 103 Flier, 1967 (Peter Nichols papers folder 79179, British Library) 104 Blakemore to Johnston, 29 May 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library)


thought – from any sense of physical shock; epileptic seizures, for example, are hidden by the back of the sofa.’105 Blakemore explained that Nichols was upset at taking the blame for the Lord Chamberlain’s prudery, and asked if a cut speech of Bri’s in which he described applying a suppository in order to relieve Jo’s constipation106 could be reinstated. Blakemore made a simple and direct case for its inclusion: He [Nichols] feels that though in another context this speech might be unnecessary, in the case of this child it is central to her condition and the daily routines that surround her existence. As I rather hoped, in performance the play is far less shocking than it appears on the page. Its honesty and lack of obliqueness are respected by audiences (especially by people who have had first hand experience of the subject themselves), and we have not had a single complaint or expression of shock. In this particular speech the author feels his subject needs stating in a factual and unswerving way.107 One of the readers (probably Heriot) jotted a note at the bottom of Blakemore’s letter: ‘No. We’ve let them have quite enough as it is.’108 This schoolmasterish judgment was far outside the Lord Chamberlain’s remit. But Ronald Hill thought that the passage should be reinstated in light of the play’s reception, and the Lord Chamberlain agreed with him. The lines were then included for the London production.109 The haemorrhage of banned lines out of St. James’ Palace and onto the stage continued: in April 1968 Johnston wrote to the Lord Chamberlain regarding a request to be allowed the words ‘piss’ and ‘fart’ from Tony Colegate, who was directing a new production of Joe Egg at the Manchester Library Theatre. ‘Since this play was licensed a year ago,’ Johnston observed, ‘we have been more liberal over the use of the word “piss” and I suggest we allow the use of it here.’ But even in this more liberal climate, there had to be limits, and
105 106

E.M. [Author’s name given as initials] ‘A play worth seeing’, Times, 23 May 1967 Nichols, Joe Egg, pp. 75-76 107 Blakemore to Johnston, 29 May 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507) 108 The note is dated 31 May 1967. The evidence for it being Heriot’s is a memorandum to Lord Cobbold from Ronald Hill dated 1 June 1967 informing him that ‘my inclination is to allow this passage, although Mr. Heriot thinks not.’ 109 Hill to Lord Chamberlain, 1 June 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507)


Johnston knew where to place them: ‘“Farting”’ he continued, ‘I think we should ban – breaking wind is a perfectly good alternative, which was the one they submitted at the time.’110 The Lord Chamberlain followed Johnston’s advice: two ‘pisses’ were allowed, but ‘farting’ was forbidden. As it happened, this was one of the last theatrical decisions the Lord Chamberlain ever made: five months later, the ‘Third Theatres Act’ came into effect, relieving him of his duties as a licensee of plays.111

Revue in the Living Room The omnivorous theatricality of Joe Egg grew even further during rehearsals than it had through its successive drafts. First of all, Joe Melia was recruited to play Brian. Melia had been in the Footlights company at Cambridge University, and began performing in West End revues as soon as he graduated. As a result, Melia says, he took to Nichols’ direct addresses to the audience and revue-style sketches ‘like a duck to water.’112 This was not to say that he improvised any of his lines: ‘When you are doing one of Peter’s plays,’ Melia explains, ‘if you put a word in the wrong place, it won’t work as well, because like with all comic writers it’s not just the vocabulary and the gag that’s important, it’s the rhythm. If you learn it off by rote you can never go wrong, it works a treat.’113 For his part, Nichols says that when Melia is performing, ‘you feel he’s also with you saying “Look at this”. He’s got a sort of objectivity about his acting – he doesn’t identify with his character.’114 The company rehearsed for less than three weeks. During that time, the local jazz musician Andy Park gave a concert at the Close theatre, and Blakemore commissioned him and his band (an unusual line-up of flute, piano, bass, and percussion) to perform during the show. They shared the stage with the actors, and played snatches of music to introduce the ‘music-hall’ sketches.

Johnston to Lord Chamberlain, 30 April 1968 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507) 111 Shellard, Nicholson, and Handley, Lord Chamberlain, pp. 172-173 112 Joe Melia, personal interview, 6 March 2006 113 Joe Melia, personal interview, 6 March 2006 114 Nichols, quoted in Ronald Hayman, Playback (New York: Horizon, 1973), p. 155.


Melia occasionally broke out of character to walk across the stage and chat with them. The Citizens’ resident designer Robin Pidcock designed the set, a sitting room ‘furnished with a gallant collection of junk-shop bargains and H. P. [hirepurchase] modern,’115 which various critics described as ‘gorgeous’, ‘splendid’, and ‘magnificent’. These elements, which were critical to the reception of the play, had developed almost haphazardly during rehearsals. For the director, as well as for the playwright, creativity is a process of fumbling, and an artist (or artists) must be able to judge which inspirations to retain and expand, and which to discard. This does not mean that Nichols was now to play the ‘editorial’ role that Blakemore had played during the writing of the script. In fact, during later productions Blakemore would find the playwright’s presence at rehearsals increasingly frustrating.

The Opening Night The play opened on 9 May 1967. The tension backstage must have been extraordinary: nobody had seen a play which portrayed the home life of two parents with a brain-damaged child, and nobody could guess how the audience would respond. So far, the script had horrified the hitherto-unshockable Peggy Ramsay, while the Lord Chamberlain had been concerned not that it would offend audiences, but that they would find it unbearably upsetting. The Board of Governors, who were at best ambivalent about the show, were sitting in the stalls waiting to see what Blakemore was about to do to the reputation of their theatre. Joe Melia had predicted that they would get lots of laughs for the first ten minutes until Brian wheeled Jo on in her wheelchair, and that the rest of the play would pass in dead silence. Sure enough, the first ten minutes were scored by a constant rumble of laughter. Then, when Jo appeared onstage the audience seemed to freeze in their seats, and Blakemore recalls feeling as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. Several minutes passed before a few courageous souls began to chuckle, and soon the theatre was ringing with

Nichols, Joe Egg, p. 11


laughter. ‘A microscopic moment of history had passed,’ Nichols writes in his autobiography, ‘a taboo had been broken.’116 The next day, the critics were unanimous: the previous evening’s performance had not merely been a great play, it had been an historic occasion. Allen Wright predicted that Joe Egg, the last play of the season, would ‘survive as a stimulating topic of conversation until the curtain rises again in September.’117 Paul Foster’s review in the Evening Times was headlined ‘Citizens’ Play Brings Taboo Into the Open’118 In the Glasgow Herald, Christopher Small displayed a sensitivity both to the play and to the audience: it was a ‘highly stimulating and (to judge by the ready acceptance of Mr Nichols’s tormented jests) diverting evening,’ he wrote, ‘and the Citizens are to be congratulated for putting it on.’ He also gave his assurance that ‘It is not, one should point out, in any way an offensive one, at least not in the sense that might be expected.’119 However, these reviews were not read outside Glasgow, and Nichols and Blakemore knew that the play needed to be reviewed in a London newspaper if it was to have a life after its three-week run. Nichols did not think they carried much weight in Glasgow either – according to him, the show did not begin selling well until it was reviewed in London.120

London review, London Transfer The day after the opening, Nichols and Blakemore nearly had the review they needed: Cordelia Oliver gave the show a sterling write-up for the Guardian, but it was only printed in the northern edition. Knowing that a reprint in the London edition could make the show into a national hit, Michael Blakemore called the newspaper and, ‘feeling sick with apprehension’, suggested to the Arts Editor
116 117

Nichols, Feeling, p. 227 Allen Wright, ‘Stimulating’, p. 4 118 Paul H. Foster, ‘Citizens’ Play Brings Taboo Into the Open’, Evening Times (Glasgow) 10 May 1967, p. 9 119 Christopher Small, ‘Savage Flashes of Caricature’, Glasgow Herald, 10 May 1967, p. 8 120 Jamie Andrews, Interview with Peter Nichols (31 August 2005), Theatre Archive project <>


that he print Oliver’s review in the London edition. The Arts Editor’s decision to print the piece may have made Blakemore and Nichols’ careers. Irving Wardle regards Oliver’s review as one of the great ‘lone stands’ on behalf of a new play, on a level with Harold Hobson’s championship of The Birthday Party.121 But unlike Hobson, Oliver’s was not the only voice in favour of the play. She was expressing a unanimous opinion, but hers was the only voice to be heard outside Glasgow. After Oliver’s review reached London, Ronald Bryden reviewed the play for the Observer, declaring that ‘Civic fathers pondering the use of a theatre might start here.’ Bryden’s ‘use’ for the theatre is as a means of coming to terms with pain, and he finds this in the juxtaposition of style and theme in Joe Egg. ‘The bridge between its form and content,’ he writes, ‘is a simple but brilliant stroke of theatre’: Over the years, the author implies, explaining to others, how one lives with such a situation becomes a kind of set party piece. This, savagely exaggerated, is what he has written – a recital, interspersed with jazz, imitations, and tap-dances, about life with Joe Egg.122 Nichols makes this connection explicitly in his memoirs: he describes recognising the audience’s hush on the opening night as ‘the same awkward silence that we’d sometimes met from visitors when we had done our “act” for them.’123 The play pulls the audience across the threshold from sympathy to empathy. Blakemore writes that the audience ‘began to comprehend that what was foreign and perhaps a little frightening for them was perfectly ordinary to these on-stage parents.124 This is the alarming fact at the heart of the play: the unthinkable is not only liveable, it not even very unusual. The play seemed ripe for a transfer, but Peggy Ramsay was unmoved by the critics’ adulation: she still thought it was too disturbing to stage. She flew up to Glasgow with Michael Codron to see it, and spent the return flight persuading
121 122

Wardle, Theatre Criticism, p. 12 Ronald Bryden, ‘Nightmare Comedy’ [Review of Joe Egg], The Observer, 21 May 1967 123 Nichols, Feeling, p. 227 124 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 389


him not to transfer it to London. ‘This speaks well for the integrity with which she held to her opinions,’ Blakemore remarks drily, ‘but not to her efficacy as an agent.’125 It did not matter: within eleven days after the play opened, Albert Finney and Michael Medwin’s Memorial Productions had purchased the London transfer rights for the show,126 while Kenneth Tynan, who had previously rejected the script, bid for a transfer to the National Theatre. Blakemore describes the situation in his memoirs: Kenneth Tynan rang me one morning to say he’d seen the review and could the National Theatre have a look at the script? He was back on the line within days to say he thought the play was wonderful, and so did Sir Laurence, who had read it in his dressing room as a matter of urgency between a matinee and an evening performance. The National wanted to do a production cast from their own company. By that time we’d already had two other offers, the one I favoured being from Albert Finney’s Memorial Enterprises. It was ultimately the author’s decision but Peter agreed with me, thus ensuring the continued involvement of our leading actors and, not least, the play’s director.127 In my interview with Nichols and Blakemore, Nichols elaborated on his reasons for declining Tynan’s offer: Ken Tynan wanted it, but we all decided mutually that we wanted the Glasgow production to move, not to hand it over to [the NT company]. So we decided on that, and we were right to – except, of course, that if Joe Egg had gone to the National it would have been nursed through its difficult period whereas it was thrown into the West End and it had to survive, sink-or-swim. The great thing about the National and those subsidised theatres is that they can nurse the play along.128 Artistically, the play was unarguably a triumph. However, a look at the production in financial terms gives a different picture: it closed in Glasgow with a gross deficit of £3,358. In London it ran for four months, which John Russell Taylor conceded ‘seems to be about the maximum for such a play in a West

125 126

Blakemore, Arguments, p. 253 Allen Wright, ‘Citizens’, p. 3 127 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 390 128 Michael Blakemore and Peter Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005


End theatre.’129 Blakemore and Nichols both believe that the London transfer was underpromoted. In any case, it only played to one full house,130 and it had already closed when Joe Egg won the Evening Standard best play award for 1967. Still, the West End run gave the play credibility. Nichols regards this as an odd paradox: as he puts it, ‘audiences want plays with a West End Seal of Success on them, even if audiences in the West End are made up mostly of boneheads.’131 The show did not start selling out regularly until it transferred to New York with Albert Finney playing the lead. Nichols resented the swift transfer: The subtext was that [Finney] wanted to promote himself in New York in order to launch his film of Charlie Bubbles, which had just come out. So he went, but only gave us three months, and I mean it was booked up before we opened, because of his name, nothing to do with us.132 The Nichols’ were able to buy a house in Blackheath from the Broadway royalties – they called it the Albert Hall. In 1972, Nichols’ total earnings from Joe Egg in the United States were £19,624.42. By contrast, the West End run had only earned him £3,732.70. Ronald Hayman uses these figures in his book, The Set-Up, to illustrate his point that for a British playwright, ‘apart from the cinema, the biggest potential source of income is America’133 (The poorly-reviewed Joe Egg film earned Nichols £79,170.58). The British subsidised theatre cannot (and probably should not) provide a comparable income. As a result, it has become a sort of incubator or nursery for new plays: those that thrive under the controlled environment of subsidy then may be deemed safe investments for the West End and Broadway. Writing for the Times in 1987, Nichols compared the West End’s reliance on transfers from the subsidised sector to ‘BUPA with NHS nurses and doctors.’134 Nichols recognised the subsidised theatre as an arm of the welfare state, much like the NHS, and though he supported both
129 130

Taylor, Second Wave, p. 27 Nichols, Feeling, p. 230 131 Nichols, draft programme notes for Derby Playhouse (Nichols papers folder 78956, British Library) 132 Peter Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 133 Hayman, The Set-Up, p. 127 134 Nichols, ‘A way out of the dark: The West End's current plight’, Times, 13 June 1987


institutions (he has called the NHS ‘an aspect of public life for which every British person could feel some pride’135) he criticised them so freely and so publicly that he sometimes seemed to be more a detractor than an advocate. In fact, Nichols’ next play, which he entitled The National Health (and which is addressed in the following chapter), was widely regarded as ‘a reactionary attack on the health service.’136

135 136

Nichols, ‘In Stitches but not laughing at the Casbah of Cures’, Times, 13 August 1983, p. 8 Nichols, ‘Stitches’, p. 8


Chapter 2 How The National Health improved the National’s Health: Nichols and Blakemore arrive at the National Theatre Company

Part One: The NT’s inconvenient hit
The National Theatre became very interested in Peter Nichols after the success of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in Glasgow, and when Laurence Olivier learned that Nichols had rejected his bid for the play’s London transfer, he wrote the playwright a brief letter: Of course we are terribly sorry at the National to have missed out on your lovely play. I am only really trying to write to tell you how very much I admired it and also to say that if you could find time or opportunities to have a look at the work of this Company and let gently germinate possibly the idea for another play for us here, we would be overjoyed.1 Nichols’ reply was fulsome: ‘Thank you for your most kind and encouraging letter,’ he wrote: I agreed to the transfer of the original Citizens’ Theatre production only out of loyalty to the director and actors. Michael Blakemore pushed the play through committee when no other manager would consider it. I know you will understand that only under such circumstances would I consider missing a production at the National. Two plays for the stage have been knocking about in my head for some years now and your kind interest is all I need to push me into starting on one as soon as the opportunity arises. This may, it appears, be in the autumn.2 With the National Theatre Company in mind, Nichols began to rewrite a television play entitled The End Beds which he had based on his visits to the hospital in the early 1960s after his right lung collapsed. Nichols had been a successful television writer since the BBC produced his play Walk on the Grass in 1959, but he was unable to sell End Beds, a play which he later described as ‘a dramatic collage of what I’d seen and heard in the public wards and [...] a
1 2

Laurence Olivier to Peter Nichols, 24 May 1967 (Olivier Papers Folder 646, British Library) Peter Nichols to Laurence Olivier, 31 May 1967 (Olivier Papers Folder 646, British Library)


positive advance on anything I’d done so far.’3 The National Theatre offered a large cast and the Old Vic stage could accommodate an entire hospital ward, providing a panoramic view that suited Nichols’ portrait of a cross-section of British society. The staging also emphasised the play’s conceit that ‘every time anyone sits with eyes closed they may be dead,’ a device that Nichols compares to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.4

Nurse Norton’s Affair Nichols interpolated a plot-strand about a wealthy Labour MP who has chosen NHS treatment as a matter of principle,5 a storyline which he later dropped at Blakemore’s suggestion. He also included two additions that were more durable: a series of sketches which parodied contemporary medical soapoperas (notably the American Dr. Kildare and British Dr. Finlay’s Casebook), and an orderly named Barnet who serves as an intermediary between the soap opera and the ‘real ward’ as well as between the stage and the audience.6 The soap opera (entitled Nurse Norton’s Affair) follows a romance between a West Indian staff nurse, Cleo Norton, and a Scottish doctor, Neil Boyd. The romance is opposed by Neil’s father, a surgeon, who wants Neil to marry his childhood sweetheart, Sister Mcphee. Neil Boyd was modelled on Dr. Kildare, while his father was based on Dr. Finlay. According to Blakemore, the soap opera scenes had begun as a single sketch that parodied Dr. Kildare. ‘As a theatrical device it was absolutely brilliant,’ Blakemore explains, ‘because this sentimental perfectionism of a fictional hospital compared to the really observed running of a National Health hospital was hilarious, and potent.’7 This process resembles Alan Bennett’s description of his own theatrical metaphor for Britain, Forty Years On (1968),

Peter Nichols, Introduction to The National Health, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 115 4 Peter Nichols, Note for staging, undated (Nichols Papers Folder 78970B, British Library) 5 Peter Nichols, The Hysterical Fugue, (Nichols papers, folder 78970A, British Library) 6 I take the term ‘intermediary’ from Henry Schvey’s essay ‘Danse Macabre’ (Nichols papers Folder 78970B, British Library) 7 Michael Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


which began as a collection of unconnected pastiche sketches along the lines of the pieces he wrote for Beyond the Fringe.8

‘Off after eight performances’ Nichols’ play, now a compound of realistic ward scenes with soap opera pastiche, was entitled The National Health, or, Nurse Norton’s Affair. It had become a deliberate, if didactically inconclusive, ‘history play’9: ‘I renamed it The National Health,’ Nichols later wrote, ‘a title that helped me understand what [it] was about.’10 He submitted the manuscript to Kenneth Tynan in autumn 1968. Tynan ‘thought it fuller and richer than Joe Egg,’ according to Nichols’ agent Peggy Ramsay. She added, ‘He’s passed it on to Sir Laurence, who of course is the laziest bastard in the world when it comes to reading anything so let’s hope he gets around to it before Christmas.’11 Nichols did not hear any more until after Christmas, when Blakemore called to tell him that ‘Tynan does like the play but Sir Larynx Delivery [Olivier] thinks it only so-so and has no strong feelings either way.’12 This was a familiar pattern at the National Theatre. The National Health was one of many productions that Tynan championed in the face of nearunanimous opposition.13 Olivier disliked it (though he felt obliged to Nichols, having promised to produce his next play); Lord Chandos, the chairman of the Board, hated it; Anthony Easterbrooke, the NT’s general manager, expected it to close within weeks.14 Michael Blakemore recalls When [composer] Marc Wilkinson went along to see Anthony Easterbrooke to say, ‘could I have a little bit bigger budget for the music? Because it looks as though it’s going to be expensive,’ Anthony

Alan Bennett, ‘Introduction’, Forty Years On and Other Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1991) p. 7 9 I use Loren Kruger’s definition of ‘history plays’ (see Introduction, pp. 18-19) 10 Nichols, Introduction to The National Health, p. 115 11 Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000), p. 18 12 Nichols, Diaries, p. 19 13 On 16 February 1972, Olivier sent Tynan a private letter in which he assigned credit for every National Theatre production to one or the other of them. The National Health was listed as one of ‘K.T.’s Originals’ (Tynan papers, British Library) 14 Nichols and Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


Easterbrooke said ‘look, why bother? It’s going to be off after eight performances.’15 This pessimism would be reflected in the play’s scheduling within the National Theatre programme. In spite of this, the play would prove, according to company manager Michael Hallifax, to be the NT’s only popular success in 1969.16 On 24 January 1969 Anthony Easterbrooke sent a memo to Olivier and Frank Dunlop, asking whether the National would be producing the show: I was asked recently by Peggy Ramsay if you wanted to do this play and gave a somewhat evasive answer. I gather from her Michael Codron is after it. We have no option to do it and, so far, I have not discussed any contract whatsoever. What should I do please?17 The National Theatre chose to stall. Tynan had already included the play on a tentative schedule that he drafted on the 6th of January, which had Health opening in either October 1969 or February 1970 (it was vying with a new Peter Shaffer play, as yet untitled). But as late as the 27th of January, Tynan told Olivier Nichols’ agent says we needn’t buy an option. She’ll let us have another few weeks to make up our minds. I told her (it’s Peggy Ramsay, of course) that there’s another play contending for the autumn slot, and we had to talk to its author before deciding. I didn’t of course tell her who it was.18 It seems as if Tynan must be referring to the Shaffer play that he listed in his tentative schedule, but Peter Nichols heard differently at the time. The playwright complained in his diary: Tynan says they have another play that’s been with them for some time [...] Mike [Blakemore] tells me the other is a Pinter double-bill, one of
15 16

Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005. Also recounted in Nichols, Diaries, p. 101 Michael Hallifax, Let Me Set the Scene (Manchester, NH, USA: Smith and Kraus, 2004), p. 246 17 Anthony Easterbrooke, Memorandum to Olivier and Frank Dunlop, 24 January 1969 (Olivier papers folder 646, British Library) 18 Tynan, memo to Olivier, (Olivier papers folder 646, British Library)


which is Landscape, the radio play with two people sitting absolutely still for an hour. And it’s with the RSC but Harold’s sick of waiting and is using it to bully the NT. For this they’d drop mine, written for the company and using its full resources, for the snob appeal of the Pinter name.19 Nichols wrote this entry in February 1969, just after he saw the National Theatre’s lavish premiere of “H” or Monologues at front of Burning Cities (dir. Geoffrey Reeves) by his friend Charles Wood. The production fired his imagination: ‘Some of the acting’s barely adequate,’ he admitted, ‘but the resources of cash and stage skill are terrific.’20 The National Theatre actually encouraged playwrights to create scripts that would never have been written otherwise. While novelists can mobilise as many characters and locations as they can keep track of, playwrights must always write with a budget in mind. Tynan addressed this distinction in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts in 1964, in which he told the audience that ‘a wellknown English novelist, who shall be Amis’ had tried to convince him that government subsidy was anathema to art. ‘Suddenly,’ Tynan said, ‘I realised we were arguing from different premises’: He was talking as a novelist, who needs only time, talent and a typewriter to produce a work of art. I, on the other hand, was concerned with the theatre, where, apart from this trio of prerequisites, a writer needs actors, directors, designers, carpenters, costumiers, wigmakers, stagehands, electricians and possibly singers, dancers and musicians as well, before his work can take on life and present itself for critical assessment.21 Subsidy would be a cushion for disaster as well as a ladder for ambition. Joan Plowright proposed that companies deserved a ‘right to fail,’22 as an alternative to what Nichols calls the ‘sink-or-swim’ policy of the West End.

19 20

Nichols, Diaries, p. 22 Nichols, Diaries, p. 22. “H” opened on 13 February 1969. 21 Tynan, ‘The National Theatre: A Speech to the Royal Society of Arts’, A View of the English Stage, 1944-1965 (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 353-354 22 Tynan, Tynan Right and Left, p. 146. Quoted in Dominic Shellard, Kenneth Tynan: A Life (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale UP, 2003), p. 281


Olivier’s doubts The National Health demanded a well-funded company with a mandate for risktaking. It focused on a hospital, an institution that most people prefer to view – if at all – from the perspective of the staff, rather than the patients. It was profane, it was medically explicit, and it was very funny. It also required lavish, detailed scenery and a 30-person cast.23 It would be an expensive and uncomfortable production that offered what Tynan later called ‘an anatomy of England.’24 This was the kind of project that the National Theatre was made for. But while Nichols’ play could only have been produced by the NT or the RSC, the production would suffer from the hierarchical power-structure that was held in tension with the company’s socialist ideals. In this way the National Theatre resembled Nichols’ subject, the National Health Service. Olivier himself embodied this tension: at the top of the theatre’s hierarchy but accountable to its Board, out of sympathy with the theatre’s socialist goals but inescapably identified with them, Olivier was the embattled figurehead of the National Theatre and himself driven by a mixture of hierarchical and egalitarian impulses. Blakemore admires his decision to take on John Dexter and Bill Gaskill as his associate directors. ‘He could’ve gone with his old pack of classical actors into that building,’ Blakemore told me: but because of Joan Plowright’s influence he took on two young men he didn’t really get along with as his associate directors [...] and it was very lonely for him, because he didn’t really have around him all the people that he liked, he had all these Young Turks. And we admired him, to the point of adoration, but because of that we were terribly prickly and difficult to work with; we never agreed with anything he said, because we were so frightened of saying ‘Oh yes, Sir Laurence, Oh yes Sir Laurence.’ So he made life very difficult for himself.25 The National Health presented a challenge to Olivier’s sensibilities. Far from ‘having no strong feelings either way’, as Nichols had reported in his diary, he was extremely uncomfortable with the script. In his history of the National

23 24

Nichols, Diaries, p. 42 Kenneth Tynan to Laurence Olivier, 24 October 1972 (Tynan papers, British Library) 25 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


Theatre, Peter Lewis writes that ‘Olivier, who had suffered much hospital care, disliked the play and prophesied disaster.’26 Michael Blakemore adds that ‘Olivier at that time was a great believer in medicine, and in doctors [...] and he didn’t like the disrespect to the medical profession that was shown in the play.’27 The actor suffered his first breakdown in health at the end of January 1964, when he spent ten days in bed with a viral infection. In 1967 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, as well as being hospitalised with pneumonia later in the year. In the hospital, he persuaded the surgeons to let him visit the operating theatre and watch an open-heart surgery. Later in the same year he was diagnosed with appendicitis, then learned that his cancer had cleared, then that an old problem with gout had resurfaced. He would be regularly hospitalised until his death in 1989. In his biography, Terry Coleman observes that Olivier ‘was ill for the last twenty-two years of his life.’28 Olivier does not seem to have been squeamish about medical procedures themselves – nobody who asked to watch a heart surgery while he was recovering from pneumonia could be accused of that. Furthermore, NT company manager Michael Hallifax recalls that when Olivier had his appendix removed in 1968 he enjoyed giving his colleagues ‘detailed descriptions of how, why, and where.’29 However Blakemore’s suggestion that Olivier was afraid that by producing the play he would appear ungrateful to his own doctors suggests an awkward proximity between Olivier’s roles as medical patient and theatre director, and brings to mind Peggy Ramsay’s reluctance to find a producer for Joe Egg. 30 Ramsay had responded to Joe Egg not only as Peter Nichols’ legal and financial representative, but as a person whose health was fallible31 and who felt guilty that she had not done more to help the Nichols family. One of the

26 27

Peter Lewis, The National: A Dream Made Concrete (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 42 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 28 Terry Coleman, Olivier (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), pp. 352, 383, 389, 497 29 Hallifax, Let Me Set the Scene, p. 206 30 See Chapter 1, p. 49, p. 73 31 Colin Chambers writes that the play ‘made her own body feel uncomfortable and vulnerable’ (Colin Chambers, Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 141)


great strengths (and a great liability) of these two early plays is that they force their spectators to become aware both of their own bodies and of those bodies’ capacity to misfire. Michael Frayn reports that he avoided going to see the first production of Joe Egg, because his wife was pregnant and a friend had warned them that they would find the play disturbing.32 For his part, Olivier later told Nichols that in the weeks before Health opened, ‘I could just see the banners across the newspapers: “Do we really want to see blood mixed with urine upon our stages?”’33 Nichols was ambivalent when he first heard that Tynan liked the script: Relieved and at the same time embarrassed to think of this faulty play, of which I am so sick, being staged with all the attendant fuss at the National Theatre. I must next write an attractive comedy about People Like Us and resist all ghoulishness.34 According to Blakemore, the arrival of the script pitted Olivier’s sense of obligation to his doctors against his sense of obligation to Nichols. Blakemore describes his internal conflict: Larry didn’t believe in class but he did believe in hierarchy, and he believed that certain people like Air Chief Marshals and leading surgeons were entitled to respect because they’d worked hard and they were very skilled men, and he felt the play didn’t show enough respect for the medical profession. Also, I don’t think he quite saw how funny it was. The black humour in it was not to his taste. But he was a great admirer of Joe Egg, and here was this rising author, who he’d offered the play, and he felt obliged to do it! But I don’t think he ever liked it.35 On the other side, Nichols’ attitude towards Olivier was no less complicated. ‘We grew up under his shadow,’ he explains, and I suppose to some extent we resented it slightly. I mean I loved him and I didn’t want to do anything to shift him, but I never called him ‘Sir’! I


Ursula Canton, interview with Michael Frayn, (27 Feb 2004), Theatre Archive Project <> 33 Laurence Olivier to Peter Nichols, 7 February 1971 (Olivier Papers, Folder 646, British Library) 34 Nichols, Diaries, p. 18 35 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


never, ever called him ‘Sir’ [...] and he probably thought ‘Why doesn’t that young fucker call me ‘Sir’? MB: That’s right, I mean we were like sons who were rebelling against their father,36 Ambivalence on both sides would continue to complicate Nichols’ and Blakemore’s relationship with Olivier. The National Health officially joined the National Theatre repertoire early in the spring of 1969, and opened during the following October. Blakemore and Olivier met in February to discuss casting, and Olivier recommended that the play’s black characters (nurses, orderlies, and a chaplain) be played by blacked-up white actors from the National Theatre company. Blakemore ignored this advice and as a result, he says, the production ‘was the first time that the National had employed a lot of black actors.’37 During the run, Olivier would continue to express his doubts about the black performers. This is explored in detail later in the chapter. Olivier also objected to the play’s crassness. In February, 1969, Nichols wrote in his diary that although though ‘Olivier liked The National Health more on his second reading,’ the director ‘doesn’t care for the rude jokes and wants the best one cut out.’38 According to Blakemore, Health has the distinction of being ‘the first play in which the work ‘fuck’ had been used on the National Theatre stage.’39 The Lord Chamberlain’s office had only lost its authority to censor plays in 1968, and Health was one of the very first modern British plays on any stage in which characters were allowed to swear.

Unparalleled Excellence Intended for Everybody Vulgarity was at the centre of Nichols’ and Blakemore’s conception for the theatre, not merely in the sense of obscenity, but also in the older sense of

36 37

Nichols and Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 38 Nichols, Diaries, p. 22 39 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


‘belonging to the common people.’40 After watching a performance of Health, Nichols wrote in his diary: Theatre’s a vulgar form by definition. Hundreds of spectators coughing like seals, some bellowing with laughter, others wondering out loud why they’ve come, all seriously affecting one another’s enjoyment, these are the conditions under which even the most austere text is acted. I’m happy to be counted among the champions of a more popular, less high-altar, form of theatre.41 Interestingly, Denis Quilley writes that what he loved most about Olivier was his ‘broad streak of vulgarity [...] vulgar in the sense that a great comedian like Frankie Howerd was vulgar – he was in touch with the common man.’42 This ‘vulgarity’ unfortunately did not stretch to an appreciation of The National Health. For his part, Blakemore (whom Quilley calls ‘the best director of them all’43) writes in his memoir that he imagined the National Theatre as an institution that would provide ‘uncompromised excellence intended for everybody.’44 This was at the heart of his dramatic vision: When the aspiration and exclusiveness of high art were countered with the vigour and craft of entertainment, then the pretensions of the one and the sentimentality of the other were both under mutual surveillance, and it was somewhere there, in the middle of this collision that you were likely to find a healthy – a Shakespearean – kind of theatre.45 Blakemore says that he and Nichols ‘were coming from the idea of taking the energy of “entertainment” theatre, and applying it to subjects where you wouldn’t expect to see it.’46 Their first experiments in this dramatic fusion had been Joe Egg, with its ‘music-hall’ sequences. A few critics found these scenes laboured, but in the New Yorker Tynan praised the production as ‘an essentially theatrical experience, in that many of its best effects occur when one of the actors steps out of the scene and directly addresses the audience.’ He added,

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992), p. 2005 41 Nichols, Diaries, p. 70 42 Denis Quilley, Happiness Indeed (London: Oberon, 2004), p. 146 43 Quilley, Happiness, p. 162 44 Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), p. 292 45 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 293 46 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


‘This is a trick that never really works in movies or in television drama, where we know that the actors are addressing a single, impassive, robot spectator – the camera.’47 Nichols himself has written that in all his plays, ‘some thought has always been given to casting the audience, a method that works best when they’re not allowed to settle comfortably into any one role.’ He adds, ‘It’s one way of accepting, while at the same time exploiting, the limits of the form.’48 On 4 August 1969 The National Health had its first reading ‘in a dusty rehearsal room in the Old Vic,’ according to Nichols’ diary, ‘a space very much like the hospital ward in which it’s set.’49 Blakemore immediately began to organise the manoeuvres that would shift thirty actors, a full battery of hospital paraphernalia, and two sets (the ‘soap opera’ set rose up on lifts) on and off the stage during the play. Rehearsal photos show the wings filled with medical trolleys. Nichols was pleasantly surprised by Jim Dale’s skill in the part of Barnet the orderly/emcee, so much so that he wrote closing lines for him, written in pantomime doggerel (an anomaly in the context of the play, which has no earlier references to pantomime). In his diary he explained This will give everyone a chance to bow (as in a panto finale) while rubbing in the meaning a bit: the fictional people living happy ever after, Matron as the Queen depending on her darkies and the patients loyally waving their Union Jacks. Crude perhaps but true in its broad outlines. The play doesn’t commit to being an exact metaphor or siding with one point of view.50 The playwright was less pleased when Charles Kay asked him if he could play the drifter, Loach, in a Birmingham accent. ‘He played it very well,’ Nichols admits, but there was an element lost, because I wrote it as a cockney, and I wrote it as a Kiplingesque old soldier who’d been out in the east, and I’d wanted that echo of Kipling, and the old barrack-room ballads. And there would’ve been a chirpiness about him, a sort of false bravery, whereas [...] it was lugubrious.51
47 48

Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Theatre Abroad: London’ (The New Yorker, 9 Nov 1968) p. 132 Nichols, ‘Introduction: Casting the Audience’, Plays: One, p. xiii 49 Nichols, Diaries, p. 42 50 Nichols, Diaries, p. 43 51 Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005


Nichols’ diary expands the criticism: ‘A wrong accent can ruin dialogue as properly heard as this was: where Cockney would be funny, pathetic and boisterous, Brummagem’s depressing. There seems to be no fight in the man, only a sinister resentment.’52 Most of the play’s characters were explicitly drawn from life. In an early rehearsal Nichols went so far as to describe the originals to the actors who would be portraying them.53

Tynan and The Lord Chandos Nichols and Blakemore began rehearsals for The National Health completely unaware that the Chairman of the National Theatre Board, Oliver Lyttelton (Lord Chandos) was encouraging Olivier to cancel the production.54 Not for the first time, Olivier was defending a play that he personally disliked against the threat of a ban by the Chairman. The production threatened to become a new proxywar in the ongoing dispute between the National Theatre’s Board, its Director, and its Literary Manager, Kenneth Tynan. The roots of this struggle went back to the National’s inception. As a condition of the National Theatre’s charter, the ten-person National Theatre Board (which included such figures as Binkie Beaumont, Kenneth Clark, John Mortimer, and Henry Moore) ran the National Theatre in an enforced coalition with Olivier. The separation of powers between director and Board was not clearly defined, a fundamental ambiguity which was guaranteed to provoke discord. In the absence of clearly defined roles, authority was established through force of personality. This arrangement initially favoured Tynan, who interpreted the unpromising title of ‘literary manager’ as making him second only to Olivier, but his lack of official status would leave him vulnerable to attacks on his position from Lord Chandos and the Board.

52 53

Nichols, Diaries, p. 43 Nichols, Diaries, p. 42 54 Nichols, Introduction to The National Health, Plays: One, p. 116


Tynan may have been the first to recognise the threat that the Board posed to Olivier’s autonomy as director. In a 1963 letter to George Devine about Devine’s production of Beckett’s Play, he warned that ‘‘If it fails to get over the maximum impact [...] [i]t may even provoke the more conservative members of the NT. Board to start interfering in the choice of plays – which would be disastrous!55 Devine testily replied, ‘I find your suggestion that a visiting director should be menaced with conservative members of the National Theatre Board quite preposterous,’56 but Tynan’s suspicions would be vindicated. Though often regarded by his detractors as a ‘romantic and a dilettante, with little practical experience of daily political effort’57, Tynan was a careful negotiator whose reputation as a firebrand usefully drew criticism away from Olivier. He was, in Dominic Shellard’s words, a ‘lightning conductor for Olivier.’58 In 1965, the Board behaved just as Tynan had predicted it would, forbidding a production of Frank Wedekind’s coming-of-age story Spring Awakening (written in 1891) in spite of the Lord Chamberlain’s approval.59 The original script included a scene in which two boys kissed each other, and one which was mildly suggestive of group masturbation. Tynan had secured the Lord Chamberlain’s permission by excising the kiss and modifying the ‘masturbation’ scene, but Lord Chandos abruptly widened the Board’s remit by announcing that Spring Awakening would not be staged by the National Theatre. This was unambiguously intended to set a precedent: from now on the National Theatre Board would ‘supervise all repertoire decisions.’ As Shellard explains, A compromise was reached whereby if there was a disagreement between the Drama advisory panel and the Board, the matter would be quietly resolved by a chat between Olivier and Chandos. It was a very British arrangement, but it was also a messy, unsatisfactory compromise,

Tynan to Devine, 31 March 1964 (Tynan papers, British Library) Quoted in Shellard, Tynan, p. 291. 56 Devine to Tynan, 9 April 1964 (Tynan papers, B. Lib.) Quoted in Shellard, Tynan, p. 292 57 Kathleen Tynan, The Life of Kenneth Tynan (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987), p. 229 58 Shellard, Tynan, p. 293 59 In 1974, Bill Bryden finally directed a production of Spring Awakening at the National.


limiting Tynan’s freedom of operation and storing up trouble for the future. [...] For all the brilliance on stage, the lack of clarity of structures behind the scenes would prove the NT’s Achilles’ heel.’60 Lord Chandos was an avid but conservative devotee of the theatre, firmly ensconced in the pre-war establishment and friendly with the Lord Chamberlain. Chandos and Tynan each regarded the other as a malign influence on the NT, and in 1967 Tynan forced a crisis with Soldiers, a play by Rolf Hochhuth which accused Churchill of complicity in the assassination of General Sikorski, head of the Polish government-in-exile. Far from being able to prove Churchill’s involvement in the supposed crime, Tynan could not even produce evidence that Sikorski (who died in a plane crash) had been assassinated. Hochhuth explained unhelpfully that due to the sensitive nature of his evidence, it would be locked in a Swiss bank for fifty years. Chandos, who as Oliver Lyttelton had served on Churchill’s war-cabinet, regarded the play as a personal slander, and the Board declared unanimously that it was unsuitable for the National Theatre. Their sole concession was that Olivier be allowed to declare himself ‘unhappy’ with the decision and have this view recorded in the minutes.61 The row left the National Theatre more in thrall to its Board than ever before. It also made Tynan’s role increasingly precarious. In April 1969, Tynan requested a six-month leave of absence, admitting for the first time that he had been diagnosed with emphysema. Chandos prepared to use the request as an excuse to remove his adversary from the theatre. In an act of self-preservation, Tynan appealed to Board-member John Mortimer that he hoped for ‘peaceful coexistence’62 with the Chairman. At the Board meeting on 9 June 1969 a compromise was reached: Tynan would leave the theatre until December, and upon his return he would be demoted to ‘literary consultant’ and share his new post with a not-yet-identified colleague.63 Tynan’s absence left The National

60 61

Shellard, Tynan, p. 298 Dominic Shellard, British Theatre Since the War (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1999) p. 158 62 Tynan to Mortimer 28 May 1969 (Tynan Archive, Br. Lib.) Quoted in Shellard, Tynan, p. 320 63 Shellard, Tynan, pp. 319-320. Derek Granger was selected during Tynan’s sabbatical


Health (which would open in four months) without its champion. Despite his own dislike of the play, Olivier was left alone to stand up on Nichols’ and Blakemore’s behalf to the increasingly powerful Board.

A Hit For the National On 17 September, a month before opening, a memo from the NT press office gave an early warning of the logistical challenges that the embattled production would face: the cast would be unable to assemble for press photos on the scheduled date because several of them were touring in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.64 Overcommitted actors would continue to jeopardise the show’s place in the repertory, sometimes forcing it to close for months at a time. October was a chaos of small adjustments, and, for Nichols, accumulating despair as opening night approached. Olivier attended the first dress rehearsal. According to observers, he barely smiled. ‘He sat there with those hooded eyes, glowering’ Nichols says: and all the actors were like kids trying to pass their exams, because according to what Larry said they would either be engaged for the next season or not! So they were virtually doing an audition – they all overacted, they all gave the worst performance they ever gave in their lives. And I went home and said to Thelma, ‘We’ve got to leave town; it’s my second play in London and it’s going to be a debacle.’65 Blakemore soothed the playwright and told him to come to the public dress rehearsal with an open mind. ‘And it was extraordinary,’ Nichols says, ‘because it took off like a rocket!’ In our interview, Blakemore and Nichols recreated the scene: PN: The actors were onstage for half an hour while the audience came in. An actress would come on and walk across, and people would shout out in the sleep. And then there’s a dawn light, and a bird chorus – a dawn chorus. The audience laughed!

John Carlsen, memo to Olivier, 17 September 1969 (Olivier papers, Folder 646, British Library) 65 Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005


MB: The audience laughed. PN: Buckets offstage and bedpans, the audience laughed! MB: That was a huge laugh. PN: I mean by the time they began to speak the audience was like ‘Aaaahh!!!’ MB: It was absolute gangbusters. The atmosphere in the theatre was enhanced because Blakemore had arranged for the smell of ether to be sprayed into the auditorium. Anticipation built through the previews, though an unexpected complication nearly brought the opening night to a premature conclusion. Blakemore related the story in our interview: MB: There is a scene where [Barnet] shaves somebody’s pubic hairs in preparation for an operation.66 And Jim [Dale] didn’t tell me, and he’d got crêpe hair – I mean the thing that was nice about it was that it was a shocking moment, but it wasn’t literal. Making it literal, so that when the razor went across, a mass of crêpe hair came out, was a terrible idea! And I sat there on the first night with my jaw hanging open. And then he went off, and there was an assembly exit on the stage left, with a very low thing like that [holds hand up at headlevel], and in his excitement he didn’t duck coming through, hit his head there, and nearly knocked himself out. PN: No! MB: Yes, on the first night. Nearly did himself quite serious damage. But it still went very well. In fact, the play’s success was extraordinary. Not only were the daily newspapers unanimously positive, on the morning after the opening Sunday Times critic John Peter wrote to Nichols personally to tell him that ‘The National Health is the most moving, humane and intelligent play I’ve seen for a very long


This occurs in Act I, Scene 10 (Nichols, The National Health, Plays: One, p. 171-173).


time.’ Peter added ‘I hope everyone whose opinion is worth having will think it a great play (I choose the word with care) – which it is.’67 A month later, Blakemore received an even more surprising letter of congratulation. When it was apparent that Health had become the theatre’s most successful new play since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1966, Lord Chandos revealed his business acumen by writing a message of ‘extravagant praise’68 to the director, which Blakemore received in Tel Aviv where he was directing a play at Israel’s national theatre. ‘When I get back,’ he crowed to Nichols (who was already anxious about cuts that Olivier had suggested for his play’s re-opening), ‘I might show you Lord Chandos’s letter to me congratulating me on my BRILLIANT PRODUCTION and the shock will cure you.’69 The play’s success appears to have dampened Chandos’ objections, at least temporarily. For his part, Olivier seemed elated to have a hit at the National. While Tynan was on sabbatical, Olivier sent him occasional updates, and following the opening of The National Health the director wrote a letter which contained a tacit admission that Tynan had been right to support the play: ‘I’m enclosing a representative sampling of THE NATIONAL HEALTH notices – the dailies and evenings were all good, mostly raves: the Sundays variable.’ Olivier had underlined the two words in blue ink, indicating a hand-written footnote: Only Hobson really shitty: The 1st place in his column [...] turned out to be Brian Rix. I don’t really think any critic should ever have been guilty of saying that.70 As Olivier indicates, Hobson had given The National Health a damning review and declared that the ‘Play of the Week’ was Rix’s farce, She’s Done it Again. According to Nichols, this play ‘was full of men stuffing biscuit tins down their bellies to pretend to be pregnant women – it was much more shocking than The
67 68

John Peter to Peter Nichols, 17 October 1969 (Nichols papers folder 78970B, British Library) Blakemore to Nichols, 3 December 1969 (Nichols papers Folder 79119, British Library) 69 Blakemore to Nichols, 10 December 1969 (Nichols papers Folder 79119, British Library) 70 Olivier to Tynan, 20 October 1969 (Tynan papers, British Library)


National Health!’71 The playwright wondered if Hobson was prejudiced by his connection with Lord Chandos: Hobson’s daughter was married to Chandos’ son.72 Olivier also used the letter to break the news to Tynan that he would be sharing his new position as ‘literary consultant’ with Derek Granger. Tynan was livid – not about the Board’s choice, but about its timing: I’d always understood that if you decided to appoint another Lit. adviser it would happen during my leave of absence, thus forestalling any tricky queries from the press. I was going away, you needed a stand-in, and it was agreed to keep him on to work with me, etc., etc. But now? If Granger comes in, he’ll be starting about the same time I get back. My heart sinks as I foresee the questions from the papers: 1) Isn’t the National Theatre happy with your advice, Mr. T? 2) Why have you been demoted? Has there been a quarrel with Sir Laurence or Lord Chandos? 3) Why does the National need two literary advisers when other theatres don’t need one? 4) Where is the money coming from to pay his salary? Will he be paid the same as Tynan? (You’ll remember that Lord Willis attacked the NT. in the Lords for paying even one Literary Manager’s salary.)73 Chandos was deliberately forcing the publicity that Tynan was trying to avoid (a reversal of their usual roles). This was to be a public dressing-down: when a reporter asked Chandos if Tynan might be removed permanently, the Chairman replied ‘I could give a schoolboy answer to that and say that it would help if he behaved himself.’74 Under the circumstances, as Tynan pointed out in his letter, Health’s success should have embarrassed Chandos: Ironically, things would be a little easier if The National Health had been a flop. As it is, I smell trouble, which is something of which we have all had enough to last us for a long time. I was perfectly content to let Lord C. get away with his little plan to downgrade me so long as it didn’t look like a deliberate rebuff. If the second consultant had moved in to cover my absence, there would have been no problem. Now, however, it can only

71 72

Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005 Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1978), p. 242 73 Tynan to Olivier, 21 October 1969 (Tynan papers, British Library) 74 Kathleen Tynan, Tynan, p. 276


look (to mix a couple of metaphors) as if I’ve been reduced to the ranks immediately after picking a winner.75 The success of Health was a clear victory for Tynan, and a vindication of his vision for the National Theatre. It is unfortunate that most histories of the National Theatre have emphasised the grand folly of Soldiers at the expense of the fight over The National Health, to the detriment of Tynan’s reputation. Interestingly, when Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler interviewed Tynan for Theatre Quarterly, he told them he believed the NT was ‘best at certain sorts of humane, ironic comedy.’ He expanded on the point, explaining that he felt the NT was reflecting the current ‘zeitgeist’: the commonest intelligent response to the age in which we live seems to be an ironic one, since it is consonant with some sort of civilised poise. And the sort of talents we’ve nourished have tended to make a joke of it [...] whether it’s the intellectual irony of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or the rather more emotional ironies of The National Health, or comedy like The Recruiting Officer or The Beaux’ Stratagem.76 These selections were a long distance from the polemics for which Tynan is famous. In spite of packed houses and general (though, after Sunday, not universal) critical adulation, Nichols himself wrote a sober assessment of the play’s reception in a letter to Olivier a week after the opening: The show, at least, seems successful, even if the play is being misunderstood by Left and Right, as an advertisement for BUPA. As a Socialist, I suppose I should find this amusing, but really it must point to some wrong emphasis either in play or production that Michael [Blakemore] and I might think about quite seriously. Have you made any plans for the play’s future? I am, at any rate, most grateful for the chance to be at Waterloo Road and have enormously enjoyed working with the company.77 Nichols may have regretted criticising the play so candidly to Olivier. In any case, his subsequent letters would never assume, as this one does, that the two

Tynan to Olivier, 21 October 1969 (Tynan papers, British Library) Simon Trussler, ed. New Theatre Voices of the Seventies (London: Methuen 1981), pp. 21-22 77 Nichols to Olivier, 23 October 1969 (Olivier papers Folder 646, British Library)


men were on the same side. Nichols’ misbegotten assumption that Olivier would empathise with his socialism reflected the same self-confidence that led Tynan to compare himself to a Labour MP in what he intended to be conciliatory letter to Lord Chandos78. As a former Conservative MP, the Chairman could not have been mollified by Tynan’s analogy. It may be that Tynan and Nichols were both so swept up in their vision of the National Theatre (as a socialist experiment) that their imaginations balked at conceiving of anybody NOT agreeing with the broad aims of the Left.

In and Out of Repertory By mid-December The National Health had already closed, and would not reopen until the following March. It had seen twenty-seven performances.79 Already the NT’s repertory system revealed a grievous structural flaw: with programming set at least eighteen weeks in advance, it could not accommodate a surprise hit. Meanwhile, Nichols’ relationship with Olivier soured briskly. Olivier wrote to Michael Blakemore to suggest drastic script cuts. Blakemore replied to Olivier that he and Nichols had already made cuts to the original script; ‘less radical than your own, but [they] have the advantage of clearance with the author.’80 To Nichols, who had also suggested drastic cuts, Blakemore counselled moderation: My feeling is stop reading the carps in your notices, stop asking your friends’ advice about the play, settle down to accepting Chekhov’s mantle, agree with the Evening Standard selection panel (lovely Lady Antonia Fraser) AND LEAVE WELL ALONE. Except for any suggestions I might have.81 As this letter indicates, The National Health had just been chosen as the Best New Play of 1969 by the Evening Standard Drama Award Panel, a development which strengthened Blakemore’s case with the playwright and, more importantly, with Olivier. Nichols had been given the same award in 1967 for A
78 79

Kathleen Tynan, Tynan, p. 276 Stage Manager’s notes, NT Archive 80 Blakemore to Olivier, 11 December 1969 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) 81 Blakemore to Nichols, 10 December 1969 (Nichols papers, folder 79119, British Library)


Day in the Death of Joe Egg, but had missed the ceremony because he was on a ship bound for New York, where Joe Egg was about to open. With this in mind, Tynan (newly returned from his sabbatical) contacted him to make sure he would be attending at the ceremony on 14 January. ‘Tynan rang,’ Nichols’ diary records, ‘to say that, whatever happens, I must be there this time to receive the statuette, otherwise Olivier will, and he couldn’t bear that, given his persistent opposition.’ Tynan went on to explain that the play was still controversial within the theatre: Ken says the old man’s told him he hopes he’s ashamed to have championed such a nasty piece of work. Lord Chandos is having a rough time being snubbed or berated by members of his club.82 ‘I’d never realised any of that sort went to the National,’ Nichols mused, ‘Aren’t they more often at the opera or Brian Rix?’83 A few weeks earlier, Nichols admitted in his diary that ‘Since our first meeting, I’ve lost the admiration – no, hero-worship – I’ve always felt for Olivier,’84 adding ‘my immediate task is to stop [him] cutting my play to suit himself and Chandos and also to keep it in the repertoire.’85 Blakemore tried to play down his anxiety, telling him ‘this is the sort of intimate warning that should only come from your psychiatrist or perhaps Thelma but I think you’re becoming PARANOID about Sir Laurence Olivier.’86 Perhaps he was, but at the Evening Standard awards ceremony, Tynan told him he had just noticed that Health was not in the current programme. ‘”I’ll have something to say, let me tell you,”’ Tynan promised. ‘“It’s the only one not in the Christmas season as well as being the most successful show since Tom’s [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead].”’87 This set the tone for the next two years. Nichols and Blakemore were forced to fight, plead, and on one occasion to appeal to the Times theatre critic
82 83

Nichols, Diaries, p. 58 Nichols, Diaries, p. 58 84 In fact, his attitude to Olivier remained complicated, and in 1991 he wrote a tribute to Olivier’s Henry V for Sight and Sound (October, p. 33) 85 Nichols, Diaries, p. 57 86 Blakemore to Nichols, 10 December 1969 (Nichols papers, folder 79119, British Library) 87 Nichols, Diaries, p. 64


in order to keep the play from closing – a peculiar state of affairs for the author and director of the ‘Best New Play of 1969.’ Despite his antipathy towards the play, Olivier remained interested in the minutiae of its casting. Just before its re-opening in March he sent a letter to Blakemore (temporarily back in Tel Aviv), proudly announcing ‘I have really done you the most splendid dirt I have done anybody in a long time, and I am very pleased with myself.’88 In this instance, Olivier was referring not to taking the play out of the repertoire but to convincing Nichols, in Blakemore’s absence, that an actor who would be leaving the cast should be replaced by Olivier’s’ choice for the role rather than by Blakemore’s. The role in question was the exteacher Ash; Olivier wanted to make sure that the audience would be surprised by the second-act discovery that he was gay. For once, Olivier’s casting suggestion – perceptively argued in his letter – won out.89 It seems bizarre that an artistic director who hated a play at his theatre would take such an interest in tweaking the cast in order to do the script justice. This concern speaks to the ecology of a theatre company, in which the fate of actors and the fate of plays are inextricably bound. In fact, Olivier admitted to Blakemore that he had an ulterior motive: There is another reason yet and that is we require the other actor, who up to now has been nameless and shall remain so in this letter since we both know what we are talking about, for an opportunity that I feel will be more to his advantage than taking over Ash.90 The paragraph had an ominous tone (Ash is one of the lead roles, so how could the part not be ‘advantageous’ unless the show was coming off?), but the play’s success was explosive, and by March 1970 plans were afoot for a feature film to be produced by Columbia pictures. Meanwhile, the play’s domestic business remained formidable, despite its infelicitous scheduling.

88 89

Olivier to Blakemore, 4 March 1970 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) see Donald MacKechnie, internal memo, 20 March 1970 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) 90 Olivier to Blakemore, 4 March 1970 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library)


The scheduling was, in fact, so perverse that it appeared almost malicious: From March-July 1970 the show never had more than five performances in a row, and these short bursts were separated by gaps of seven to fourteen days. Also, it was given a disproportionate number of matinees. During the worst stretch, from 9 May 1970 to the Cambridge transfer on 25 September 1970, five of Health’s ten allotted performances were matinees.91 With the play advertised as ‘unsuitable for children’92 due to strong language, these afternoon performances had a noticeable cooling effect on sales. But the production seemed indestructible: when it closed in early July it was playing to 101% capacity.93 The reliable influx of tourists into London means that summer is high season for its theatres, and the disappearance of the National Theatre’s most successful play was perverse. In an appeasing letter to Nichols the following winter, Olivier admitted ‘I know that you and Michael are both disappointed in the way we handled this presentation during the summer’ and went on to offer an explanation: Please believe me that this was quite deliberate and I thought, in combination with the most respected opinions expressed by most eminent West End managers, that it would be wiser to mise it up so that it would be more than ever welcome in the autumn when we really needed it. I would blame myself for this much more than I do were it not for the fact that I had the support of these eminent opinions. History has now shown that this programme was psychologically ill-considered or mistaken.94 Nichols was not convinced. He told Olivier I am interested to learn that you acted here on advice from West End managers but must say it seems odd counsel to take off a play that was doing 101 per cent in July. This was the start of the American invasion, which packed even the tattiest shows [...] By the time National Health was on again, the Americans had all gone home (and Clive Barnes with them).95
91 92

Stage manager’s notes, NT archive Irving Wardle to Olivier, 1 February 1971 93 Olivier papers folder 646 (British Library, London) 94 Olivier to Nichols, 2 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) 95 Nichols to Olivier, 10 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library)


It was indeed ‘odd counsel’. It is interesting that Olivier appealed to the authority of ‘West End managers’, which seems like a tacit admission that their business practices (or at least expertise) were more sound than the National Theatre’s. Nevertheless, it was a dubious alibi. Michael Blakemore has a simpler explanation: ‘When the summer came, and [Olivier] knew the Americans would be coming over, he did not want the Americans to see The National Health as representative of the National’s work.’ Not censorship, exactly, more a matter of tidying up the house before company arrives. In September, when the play re-opened at the Cambridge theatre (the National’s temporary West End venue), houses dropped to 31%. Steep decline was typical of transfers to the Cambridge (with stunning indelicacy, Nichols attributed this to Olivier’s poor health, in a letter to Olivier himself96), but the National Theatre took the opportunity to announce in October that the play would be closing. Nichols recorded the news in his diary: A sustained campaign against the play carried on by enemies within the company has at last succeeded and the show’s been withdrawn. I’ve told everyone we can; [...] Mike naively plots to reveal all in the Evening Standard; Peggy counsels caution, as always, except when she’s bitching somebody behind their back; formal complaints lead only to formal rebuttals and we’re left to hear the news through Jim Dale, after LO announced it to the company, adding that he’s too ill to act for a year and will hand over to Scofield.97 The play seems to have been given a short reprieve, but on 5 December Nichols received a phone call from Michael Hallifax, the NT’s executive company manager, complimenting him on his new television play, Hearts and Flowers. After a polite chat, Hallifax told him that The National Health would be closing permanently in February. Because of the strictures of repertory, this meant there would be only six more performances over the following two months. ‘What shits these people are,’ Nichols wrote, ‘to ring under cover of

96 97

Nichols to Olivier, 10 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) Nichols, Diaries, p. 102 (11 October 1970)


praising one play to tell you they’re scrapping another!’98 In fact, Hallifax himself was an admirer of Health, which he refers to as ‘Peter Nichols’ wonderful play’ in his memoirs. Hallifax points out that among its other attributes, it was ‘an excellent example of senior actors, who would normally expect to support those to whom the plum parts had gone, being given really good leading roles.’99

Irving Wardle News that the show was closing was too much for Blakemore to bear, and when he ran into Times theatre critic Irving Wardle in an underground train on the Piccadilly line, he persuaded the writer (an early supporter of the show) to come to the theatre and re-review it. Wardle began his review by comparing the show to Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theatre and concluded with a provocative swipe at the NT: I can think of no justification for killing this obvious success when two of the theatre’s generally acknowledged duds are being held over well into the next booking period.100 Olivier was furious. Blakemore describes the meeting that followed the review: There was a planning meeting with Olivier there, and Olivier said ‘I hear you sat next door to Irving Wardle when he came to see the show.’ And I said ‘I did not sit next-door to him, but I was at the same performance.’ He said ‘the box-office manager said you were sitting next to him.’ And I said ‘I wasn’t sitting next to him!’ And he reached for the phone [Blakemore demonstrates], put his hand on the phone as if to ring up the box-office manager and I said ‘Go ahead, ring him up.’ [Blakemore draws back] ‘All right, I won’t.’101 Olivier then rounded on Wardle, writing the critic a cordial but stern letter. The first paragraph set the tone: I don’t want to make any fuss about your article yesterday, and write a great pompous letter to the Editor or anything, but I would like it if you could be understanding about our problem, and generally speaking it would be very helpful if you could check on the facts with us before
98 99

Nichols, Diaries, p. 114 (5 December 1970) Hallifax, Let Me Set the Scene, p. 246 100 Irving Wardle, ‘Web of Changing Relationships’, The Times 20 January 1971 101 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


chastising us for doing such things as removing THE NATIONAL HEALTH from the National Theatre repertoire.102 Olivier quoted box-office statistics, going so far as to include a document listing the house figures for the play’s entire run. ‘Perhaps you would be so very kind when you have read it to return it to me,’ he requested, ‘then we can both rest easy from the fear of prying eyes it was not intended for.’ He argued, as he argued to Nichols, that the summer closure had been sound financial strategy: In order to hot up the interest for its appearance at the Cambridge I deliberately left it out of the preceding booking period so that it should appear at the West End as an awaited event, but as you will see this did not happen. He also responded to Wardle’s concluding salvo: When you tactfully refrain from naming the two “acknowledged duds” I should ask you to consider that the public in this country does not always slavishly follow the line which the critics have thrown out for them and the two “duds”, which I can obviously guess at, have in fact – or were at the time of going to press with the present programme – looking a great deal more promising by comparison, than the one under discussion. CYRANO, for instance, at one dizzy moment started to do better than BEAUX STRATAGEM, and THE IDIOT has proved to be something that people obviously want to see. Wardle refused to be intimidated. Though he began his reply to Olivier by confessing that ‘I’d started thinking that it might have been better all round if I’d put my point about the withdrawal of THE NATIONAL HEALTH into the form of an appeal rather than an attack,’103 he quickly took the director to task for the preponderance of matinees and shrewdly observed that while you very kindly allow me to see the house figures, these would be a lot more informative if I were comparing them against those for the rest of the repertory. There is a steep drop at the Cambridge, for example: but as I’m told this was typical of the Cambridge season, it hardly counts as a mark against any single production. All I’m saying is that, as the full story is unobtainable, a reviewer’s best course is to rely on published information and the evidence of his senses.
102 103

Olivier to Wardle, 21 January 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) Wardle to Olivier, 1 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British library)


The last performance I saw of THE NATIONAL HEALTH may have brought in only 80% of the Vic’s financial capacity, but it seemed a large, intelligent, and responsive audience to me. No doubt, as you say, CYRANO and THE IDIOT are now attracting similar houses. If that is so then I’m glad they are being preserved. Any show that can do that seems to be well worth saving.104 The subtly barbed final sentence proved that Wardle was equal to the task of defending the production. But regardless of how ably the battle was being fought, it seemed unimaginable that there should be a battle at all. For Blakemore, this made his stand-off with Olivier especially frustrating: This was insane, because I was trying to protect – first of all the play – but also to protect the National! They had a hit on their hands! And here was a new play, and unless he was seen to be encouraging new work, other playwrights wouldn’t give their plays to the National Theatre!105 Tynan recognised this threat to the NT’s relationship with new writers and suggested that the company make an offer to Nichols through Blakemore, who had been made an associate director in December, 1970. ‘Tynan proposed commissioning new plays by current playwrights, including me,’ Nichols wrote in his diary after Blakemore called him to discuss the proposition, ‘and [Olivier] asked whether I’d still be interested.’ ‘So I’m ringing,’ [Michael] said, ‘to ask if you would.’ ‘It’s not a dazzling prospect for an author, is it? If I ever want to write a large-cast play again, I’ll go to the other lot, the RSC. If it’s a smaller play, the West End’s best, running every night and bringing in a decent wage. Why would one want to leave it to the management to decide how often a play goes on, regardless of its audience?’ ‘I agree. Both companies must sort out better contracts.’106 At the same time, Nichols’ relationship with Blakemore was becoming more difficult. Later in the conversation they discussed Nichols’ new play, Forget-menot Lane, and Nichols detected an unaccustomed vagueness in Blakemore’s response to the idea of directing. But for the time being, Wardle’s review had saved the play. Michael Hallifax sent a memorandum announcing that ‘although
104 105

Wardle to Olivier, 1 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British library) Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 106 Nichols, Diaries, p. 116


“The National Health” is shown with an “L” against the performance on Thursday, 25th February 1971, which indicates that this will be the last performance of the production, “The National Health” will be played again in the next booking period.’ Because of the constraints of the NT’s repertory, this meant only that the play would ‘be given five or six performances during the month of May 1971’107 Olivier wrote personally to Nichols to tell him the news and defend the National Theatre’s programming of the play (he also forwarded a copy to Peggy Ramsay with its own covering letter). In his letter to the playwright, he admitted that the play’s subject-matter had been a consideration when he programmed the season: Let me first explain that though I adored the play myself, still do and always will, I was not unworried by its prospects owing probably chiefly to its subject matter which might conceivably prove a little much for the stomachs of some [...] This seemed to be borne out on the first night by our Chairman, who really behaved very badly to me indeed on that occasion. I was absolutely thrilled for its success, and needless to say over the moon over the prizes.108 He added that because the opening run had to be scheduled ‘many weeks before its fate was known from critical circles,’ he had decided to play it safe and under-do it rather than over-do it. Unfortunately this consideration was speedily followed by a Los Angeles engagement,109 for which I have had to have enough important members of your cast to deplete it rather seriously for your play. Apart from anxiety over foul language and body fluids, the play was a victim of the architectonics of theatre-management. In this instance, the transfer of two earlier successes to America was smothering a newer success before it could come into its own. It was a mundane matter of troop movements: with an important campaign in America, the company was thin on the ground at home. This rankled especially because The National Health itself never went on tour.
107 108

Hallifax, internal memo, 11 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) Olivier to Nichols, 2 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) 109 The NT sent two plays to Los Angeles in spring, 1970 (Coleman, Olivier, p. 395)


‘If any play in the National’s repertoire should have gone on tour and been seen by a wide audience, it was ours,’ Nichols told me: That was the thing I’ve never got over. It was a popular sort of play, had a warm, popular response. It wasn’t a classy work of art, it was a popular entertainment. And if any play should have gone out, it was that! But Larry was always ashamed of it!110 Under current circumstances, the theatre’s system of programming seemed unworkable. Olivier (sounding incredulous himself) told Nichols ‘At this time [...] we are actually planning for a repertory which will not be before the public for more than twenty weeks – including three plays which have not even opened yet.’ He explained that this was financially necessary ‘to reduce booking periods to the minimum amount of occasions,’ but in the case of a surprise hit, this rigid system was capable of inflicting grievous financial harm. Despite these unpromising conditions, and Nichols’ obvious dissatisfaction, Olivier concluded the letter by reiterating the offer that Blakemore delivered in December: ‘Your telly play the other night [Hearts and Flowers] made me long for another work from you,’ he wrote. ‘I do beg that your feelings for the National are not so coloured against it that this will never be possible.’ It is a testament to the drawing-power of the National Theatre that in his reply, Nichols accepted the offer despite expressing serious reservations: Somebody [...] might have had the imagination to see that an author, collecting his pamphlet from the box office to find out when his play is on, wouldn’t be all that bucked to discover two three-month absences in the first year! Playwrights do forego the possibility of larger rewards by writing for the National or RSC and this could be acknowledged by letting them know the fate of their work in the current season. Of course, the high standards of your troupe more than make up for this hypothetical sacrifice and, needless to say, I am delighted that you have renewed your invitation to work with the company. I’m sure that, in the coming season, the new directors will help you take the company from strength to strength and I’d like nothing more than to share a little of that success.111

110 111

Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005 Nichols to Olivier, 10 February 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library)


Nichols would soon be commissioned to write two more plays for the NT Beasts of England and The Freeway, which are discussed in the following two chapters.

In a company like this, the writers should be considered members Until this point, Nichols’ agent Peggy Ramsay had been an ancillary player in the strange struggle over The National Health, counselling ‘caution’, according to Nichols’ diary. But almost a month after Nichols wrote his letter to Olivier, she wrote a letter of her own which suggests that, as in the case of Joe Egg, she may have been a dubious ally to her client. The letter is written in the tone of an adult discussing a child. Regarding the letter that Olivier had forwarded her, she wrote that Nichols ‘told me he had replied, and I do hope he replied with the grace you displayed when you wrote to him.’112 Despite Nichols’ generally cogent critique of the National Theatre’s programming, she proposed her own explanation for the writer’s dissatisfaction: I hope you won’t mind me telling you what I think is the basic reason for Peter’s anxiety about his play. He didn’t break through as a playwright until he was forty, and he feels that he is ‘behind’ the other playwrights, particularly the playwrights we represent. I know this is foolish, but you, who blazed to glory in the full bloom of your youth, will understand how Peter feels that the fruits of success are eluding him, so that he must compensate by an intensification of effort.113 This was probably a tactical manoeuvre designed to mollify Olivier, but it cannot have increased Nichols’ credibility as a critic of the National Theatre’s structural faults, and indeed when the theatre’s business manager Anthony Easterbrook wrote to Ramsay about Nichols’ next commission, he suggested that the new contract ‘be based very closely upon the NATIONAL HEALTH contract.’114 On the other hand, in September 1971 Ramsay forwarded a letter that Nichols had sent her in which he offered a list of recommendations ‘for

112 113

Ramsay to Olivier, 5 March 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) Ramsay to Olivier, 5 March 1971 (Olivier papers, folder 646, British Library) 114 Anthony Easterbrook to Ramsay, 4 February 1972 (Nichols papers, folder 78944, Br. library)


improving authors’ conditions with the National Theatre.’ It is a thoughtful and illuminating document, and worth quoting in full: 1) Programming new plays so that they occur and can be assessed before the next booking period is fixed. This would obviate the ‘Nat Health’ situation of a play being well received and, soon after its appearance, vanishing for three months because this was planned before the play’s first night. It is not fair to an author. Can you imagine a situation in the West End where Codron or someone said ‘Well, this is going to flop so let’s book another play in to follow three weeks later.’ I’m afraid I couldn’t do a play for the new theatre if those conditions were to prevail and I hope I could persuade other playwrights to join me in a boycott if that were necessary. Ken ought to be as keen as I am to put this right. As long as this possibility exists, playwrights are at the mercy of the ruling junta or the current Chairman of the Board. 2) A provision that, if the author thinks the play has been unfairly left out for some time, he can take it away and present the piece commercially. Even if ‘Forget-me-not Lane’ comes off soon, it’s done far more performances in one summer than ‘Health’ has done since October 1969. I am not saying one should expect this many at the National but that they must face the fact that, in writing for the National, an author makes a calculated decision. The word ‘sacrifice’ seems melodramatic but it is closer to the truth. 3) The courtesy of knowing when his play is being presented. I have to call at the b.o. for pamphlets. The public knows before I find out. I’m not even on the mailing list. The only time I was informed about the future of my play was when one of the Presidium called on the phone, ostensibly to compliment me on ‘Forget-me-not Lane’115 but actually to say the play was being finally removed. It was this that prompted us to contact Irving. After a lot of personal prodding from Blakemore, Sir Laurence did write to me but you know about Charles [Wood]’s experience: a telegram on the last night saying ‘thank you’ and that was the first he knew. But the main reform would be arranging the programme to consider living playwrights as well as the acting members of the company. In a company like this, the writers should be considered members too.116 Olivier himself had expressed a vision for a company in which the writers ‘should be considered members’ in 1946, when he and Ralph Richardson were directing the Old Vic: ‘We must not forget new plays,’ he wrote, ‘and I should like to see special playwrights’ schools attached to theatres in much the same

115 116

Actually, it was Hearts and Flowers (see Nichols, Diaries, pp. 113-114) Nichols to Ramsay, forwarded to NT 31 August 1971 (Olivier Archive folder 646, British Library)


way that some theatres possess drama academies for their acting students.’117 But no programme for integrating writers was forthcoming at the National.

126 shows in two-and-a-half years The National Health had its final performance on 18 March 1972, with the cast coming out for six extra curtain calls. The stage manager reported a ‘wonderful reception.’118 Nichols, on the other hand, described it as ‘a self-indulgent performance.’119 In two and a half years, the play had only seen 126 performances. In seven months Forget-me-not Lane had seen 225. On the other hand, as he later appended to his published diaries, ‘at the Vic, most houses were full and there was the sort of loyal following only a “company” attracts, not the passing trade of the West End.’120 He would continue to find his work in subsidised theatre immensely rewarding, and immensely frustrating. Twenty-three years later, the NT had still not solved the problem of the surprise hit. David Hare’s extremely topical, extremely successful play Stuff Happens was taken off after only sixty performances in order to make way for the already-scheduled Christmas play, His Dark Materials. Hare was promised an imminent revival, but it never materialised. Michael Billington’s comments in the Guardian in 2006 echo Irving Wardle’s defence of Health in 1971: I understand the National's problem. It has to plan in advance. It has to rotate 14 productions a year. It has commitments to a wide range of writers. But it still seems to me insane that a palpable hit such as Stuff Happens disappears from public view at the peak of its popularity.121 This problem may be intractable in any theatre of the NT’s size, which must not only produce a large number of productions, but must also fit them into three stages (and at the Old Vic, only one) and set the schedule eighteen months in


Simon Callow, The National: The Theatre and its Work, 1963-1997 (London: Nick Hern Books, 1998) 118 Stage Manager’s reports, The National Health, (NT Archive) 119 Nichols, Diaries, p. 229 120 Nichols, Diaries, p. 230 121 Michael Billington, ‘Drama at the National’, Guardian 24 March 2006 <>


advance. But The National Health suffered not only because of the impersonal dictates of scheduling, but because of its content. At least, that is what the correspondence suggests. But by October, 1972, Olivier seems to have re-imagined history. Tynan wrote him a letter arguing on behalf of a didactic play about the General Strike, concluding it by writing When Peter Nichols wrote us an anatomy of England called ‘The National Health’ you were unenthusiastic. I beg you to consider that now, as then, you may possibly be wrong.122 Olivier’s reply must have surprised him: Funny, I don’t remember being cool about NATIONAL HEALTH – I thought I was always absolutely crazy about it. Are you sure you aren’t muddling it up with TYGER? Perhaps my nervousness about the farts tended to set the expression on my face!123

122 123

Kenneth Tynan to Laurence Olivier, 24 October 1972 (Kenneth Tynan Papers, Br. Library) Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Tynan, 25 October 1972 (Tynan papers, Br. Library))


Part Two: ‘A chunk of modern British life’
When The National Health opened in 1969 it became the NT’s most successful new play since Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1966. In one respect, it was even more significant than Stoppard’s play: it put an image of contemporary Britain on the National Theatre stage. This fact is not always remembered by historians (John Bull, for example, claims that ‘the first account of contemporary English society to be seen at the National’ was Howard Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness, which did not open until 1976124 ) but contemporary critics recognised its significance. Writing for Tatler, Sheridan Morley welcomed it with a sense of relief: There has been one notable gap in the National Theatre’s repertoire over the past six years. We’ve seen classics of ever kind but hardly ever a fulllength play in which a living British author explored the possibilities of a present-day setting. All the more reason then to welcome Peter Nichols’s The National Health which is not only a dazzlingly good play but also one which sets a sizeable chunk of modern British life down on the Old Vic stage.125 In the Observer, Ronald Bryden drew a connection between The National Health and Alan Bennett’s vision of Britain, Forty Years On, which had opened in 1968. Bryden enthused that Health was ‘not a play but an extravaganza: a documentary revue, in the manner of Forty Years On,’ adding that Nichols’ play was ‘a finer show of fireworks that Alan Bennett’s – sharper, truer, funnier, even more theatrical.’126 In August 2006, Michael Billington made the same connection when he included both plays in his account of the last fifty years of British theatre, observing that ‘Peter Nichols's The National Health (due for revival?) and Alan Bennett's Forty Years On were state-of-the-nation plays dissecting the conflict between the old order and the new.’127 The two plays are structurally similar: a characteristically British institution becomes a metaphor for the nation itself, while the symbolism is
124 125

John Bull, New British Political Dramatists (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 102 Sheridan Morley, ‘On the Theatre’ Tatler December 1969 126 Ronald Bryden, ‘Having an Extravaganza on the National Health’, Observer, 19 October 1969 127 Michael Billington, ‘All Our Yesterdays’, Guardian, 3 August 2006 <>


expanded and complicated by a play-within-play.128 The difference lies in the institution that each playwright uses as his metaphor. Forty Years On takes place in a public school called ‘Albion House’ where the students are performing a play about British history: everybody is white, nearly everybody is male, and nobody is poor. The National Health, on the other hand, is set in the ‘Sir Stafford Cripps Ward,’129 a hospital ward whose inmates are shown an image of their own surroundings in a clumsily Americanised Soap Opera. Bryden calls it ‘a bleak microcosm of Welfare State Britain,’ adding that ‘every stratum of our society in the sixties is there [...]’. While Bennett’s vision of the nation only encompasses the upper classes and their servants, The National Health dramatises not only a multi-class nation, but a multicultural nation where class is both challenged and reinforced by the institutions of the welfare state. The ward itself is Victorian Gothic, but its inhabitants belong to the late 1960s. Nichols’ play offers an alternative idea, if not of whom the theatre should be speaking to, at least of who should be speaking in the theatre.

The Inclusiveness of the Hospital Ward Michael Billington’s 1969 review encapsulates both the play’s setting and its significance: ‘a hospital ward, desperately overstretched and kept functioning largely by immigrant staff, becomes a metaphor for modern Britain.’130 Billington’s observation about ‘immigrant staff’ indicates that the play is an unacknowledged landmark in the history of post-war British theatre: the first play at the National Theatre with black actors in significant roles, as well as the first to portray contemporary Britain as a multicultural nation. When I asked Nichols what led him to write the first play for the National Theatre that required several black actors, he explained: [I] was just reporting from life, because the Caribbeans who came over in the fifties ran the transport system and the hospitals, and they largely still

128 129

Alan Bennett, ‘Introduction’, p. 7 Nichols, Health, p. 210 130 Michael Billington, ‘Critical Comment’, Theatregoer Magazine, December, 2005, p. 46


are. The National Health would pack up tomorrow if they went home. So it was just a question of having a fair sampling of black nurses.131 This does not do justice to the inclusiveness of Nichols’ ‘metaphor for modern Britain’: the cultural range in Health does not simply divide between white and black, any more than it does in the nation itself. The white characters are all British, but they are not all English: Rees is Welsh, and Neil and Dr. Boyd are Scottish. Among the English characters, Ash speaks with a strong Bristol accent and Loach (in the first production) with a Birmingham accent, leading one critic to remark that he could not understand ‘why all the patients in this specifically North London hospital have provincial accents of one kind or another.’132 Among the black characters, the two nurses and the Chaplain are West Indian, while the orderly is an African prince. ‘Worming their way in,’ Loach remarks upon seeing him, but Barnet assures him that ‘when he’s carried the bedpans for a couple of weeks, he’s going back to Timbuktu and run this brand new hospital they’re building.’133 This remark contains an implied retort to Enoch Powell’s exceptionalism in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech: while Powell would like most immigrants to be deported, he expresses his approval of ‘the Commonwealth doctors who, to the advantage of their own countries, have enabled our hospital service to be expanded faster than would otherwise have been possible.’134 Barnet’s image of a temporary labourer brought in to carry bedpans contrasts starkly with Powell’s vision of British munificence. Nichols picks up this theme again in The Freeway (1974),135 where the trade-unionist Les Lorimer, who works at an automobile factory, boasts that the production line is now staffed entirely by ‘transients’: ‘No white European has worked on the line for nearly ten years. That was a big step forward for the British working man.’136 The script specifies that two stretcher-bearers who carry a wounded
131 132

Peter Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 B.A. Young, ‘The National Health’, The Financial Times, 17 October 1969 133 Nichols, Health, p. 223 134 Enoch Powell, ‘I seem to see ‘The River [...]’, Brian MacArthur, ed. The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 386 135 See Chapter 4 136 Nichols, The Freeway, Plays: One, p. 501


protester onto the stage should be ‘Indian or North African,’ while ‘watermen’ passing out rationed water are West Indian.137 It is not clear from my research whether Jonathan Miller’s casting reflected these instructions. During The National Health, Nichols plays with the balance of racedifferentiation and class-differentiation, as when the ‘Kiplingesque’ Loach complains to the ex-teacher Ash about the British civilians in Khartoum: LOACH: [...] Educated people treating us no better than blacks ASH: We’re all brothers under the skin, friend. LOACH: That’s what I said. I said, we’re all British and the British ought to stand together against the wogs.138 The social geography of colonialism was thrown into disarray by independence and immigration, even as Britain’s class-structure was compromised by the welfare state. Dilip Hiro observes that those who had lived in the colonies found the racial landscape especially difficult to negotiate: ‘It was particularly galling for the Briton who had enjoyed the “white man boss” position in the coloured colonies to treat the dark “natives” as equals in the metropolitan country,’ Hiro writes, adding ‘He found it hard to reconcile the practice of racial apartheid in the coloured colonies with the concept of racial equality for all those resident in Britain.’139

The multicultural empire The conception of Britain as a predominantly ‘white’ nation which only became ‘multicultural’140 in the immigration boom of the 1950s is based on the false premise that the British nation extended no further than the British Isles. In fact, as an imperial nation it had been ‘multicultural’ for centuries before the post-war immigration boom. I am not referring to the different cultures which were indigenous to the British isles, though they are significant in their own right, but

137 138

Nichols, The Freeway, p. 463, p. 477 Nichols, Health, p. 187 139 Dilip Hiro, ‘Introduction’, Black British, White British, (Middlesex: Penguin, 1971), p. xx 140 I am using multiculturalism to refer to multiple cultures living in the same nation, rather than to refer to a specific policy – when I refer to multiculturalism as ‘policy’ it will be indicated as such.


to what could be called Britain’s ‘external’ multiculturalism. At the height of empire the British monarch had millions of black and Asian subjects, but most of them did not impinge upon the island itself. Or rather, their presence on the island was almost exclusively financial – their work formed the ever-expanding foundation of the British economy. In the eighteenth century, Britain became the leading slave-trading nation in the world,141 though for most of the residents of the British Isles, black slaves were a financial presence rather than a physical one. Nichols’ birthplace, Bristol, owed its prosperity to the slave trade, but most of the Africans who were kidnapped never came near it. Orwell expressed the tension between the legal unity of the British empire and its geographical fragmentation by remarking that ‘what we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa.’142 For centuries, Britain succeeded in externalising its ‘race issues’ – its multiculturalism was confined to its imperial holdings. The segregation between Britain’s metropolitan centre and imperial holdings broke down during World War Two. Being British subjects, hundreds of West Indian men served in the military. But after the war was won, they were expected, as a matter of course, to leave the British Isles. This epitomizes the schizophrenic citizenship of the British empire: Britain’s imperial subjects were ‘of’ Britain, but not allowed to remain in Britain. However, although most of them returned home at first, the presence of West Indian soldiers and officers during World War II changed the rules of passage in the British Empire. The barrier between the centre and the periphery was no longer only permeable for those moving outwards towards the edges. This became clear in 1947 when the HMS Windrush docked in Jamaica to pick up troops and airmen who were on leave. The ship sold tickets to its spare berths in order to make more money on the voyage, so a couple hundred extra men came with the soldiers to Britain. This began a wave of immigration which
141 142

Dilip Hiro, ‘Introduction’, Black British,, p. x. George Orwell, ‘Not Counting Niggers’, Adelphi, July 1939, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1 An Age Like This, 1920-1940, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), p. 397.


intensified in 1952 when the US limited West Indian immigration, and again in 1960 in order to ‘Beat the Ban’ when the British government announced that it would be limiting immigration as well.143 Having been taught British history in British schools, often forced to buy only British products, and drafted to fight (and die in disproportionate numbers) for Britain, the first West Indian immigrants thought of themselves as ‘overseas British’. The increase in racist violence throughout the 1950s, and the proliferation of ‘Europeans Only’ signs in hotels and boarding-houses, disabused them of this idea. As Dilip Hiro writes, ‘they were now made to realise that they were not “overseas British” now living in Britain, but were black men and women living in a white society.’’144 Initially, the government declined to acknowledge the discrimination against non-white immigrants. The logic was that, as Hiro writes, ‘once Commonwealth citizens or overseas British subjects entered Britain they became indistinguishable from the nativeborn: hence, the question of relations between the two, or lack of them, simply did not arise.’145 The official political discourse of multiculturalism did not begin until 23 May 1966, when the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, announced in a speech to the fledgling National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, or NCCI, that he defined integration ‘not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.’146 From that time on, according to Jenkins, the government would no longer assume that all British citizens would gravitate towards a single cultural norm. Instead, the cultural landscape would be multi-polar, held together by shared legal requirements and a basic ethical code implied by the law.


Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (London: Harpercollins, 1998) 144 Dilip Hiro, Black British, p. 41 145 Hiro, Black British, p. 57 146 Roy Jenkins, ‘This is the Goal’, The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches, ed. Brian Macarthur (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 363


At this time a new paradigm began to develop, according to which integration could only be achieved if immigration was curbed. This led to a series of trade-offs: for every new piece of anti-discrimination legislation, there was a corresponding piece of anti-immigration legislation. So when a new Race Relations Bill banned housing discrimination and employer discrimination in 1967,147 it was followed by a new Commonwealth Immigrants act which, for the first time, distinguished between British citizens who were ‘patrials’, i.e. possessed identifiable ancestors within the British Isles, and those who were not.’148 Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell shattered this fragile compromise with a series of speeches denouncing immigration, much of whose ‘evidence’ was allegedly drawn from National Front propaganda.149 Edward Heath, head of the Conservative party, immediately removed Powell from the Opposition Front Bench. However, Powell’s literally antiquated vision of ‘the River Tiber flowing with much blood’150 had struck a chord and by the beginning of 1969, Heath began to urge the government to stop all immigration. By this time Powell was urging the government to offer cash incentives for the repatriation of immigrants, which was generally taken to mean ‘people who aren’t white.’ One of the lead actors in The National Health, Cleo Sylvestre, a black woman who had been born in England, told Barry Norman (then a Daily Mail reporter) that she would be delighted if Enoch Powell paid her to go back to where she came from. ‘I could get a smashing place in Hitchen for that,’ she explained.151


Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (London: Harpercollins, 1998), p. 245 148 Mike Phillips, Windrush, p. 245 149 Phillips, Windrush, p. 245 150 Enoch Powell, 20 April 1968, Brian Macarthur, ed., The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 391 151 Barry Norman, ‘Miss Cleo Sylvestre from Hitchin makes a remarkable new attraction at the National Theatre’, Daily Mail, 17 October 1969, p. 7


Immigration and the NHS The chief reason for the immigration boom was not the legal right of British subjects to live in Britain, but the fact that British industry was desperate for immigrants to fill out the labour force. World War II had been followed by an unprecedented stretch of economic growth in Western Europe. Britain experienced full employment for the first time, and employers were desperate for workers. None other than Enoch Powell’s local newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express and Star, published a feature in 1956 which observed that ‘If Britain’s present boom is to be maintained, more workers must be found’ and concluded that ‘The new recruits to British industry must come, it would seem, from abroad, from the colonies, Eire [Ireland] and from the continent.’152 The newly-founded National Health Service was one of the early beneficiaries of Commonwealth immigration: a poll taken in Birmingham in 1966 showed that 46% of West Indian women went into nursing as a profession, compared with 3% of white women. In his 1966 speech to the NCCI, Roy Jenkins argued that without immigrant labour: Our doctor shortage would become still more chronic; many of our hospitals and institutions, particularly those performing tasks (like the care of the aged) which are medically unglamorous but socially essential, would have to close down.153 Many white British people met people of other races for the first time during visits to the hospital, making Nichols’ ‘Sir Stafford Cripps Ward’ a point of intersection for people who were otherwise segregated by race (and by class).

Cleo Sylvestre Cleo Sylvestre played Staff Nurse Cleo Norton in Health, becoming the first black actor to play a lead role at the NT. She was twenty-two years old at the time, and it was her second major production in London. When the show opened, she had already joined the cast of the soap opera Crossroads as


Express and Star 19 January 1956, quoted in Paul Foot, The Rise of Enoch Powell (London: Cornmarket Press, 1969), p. 46 153 Jenkins, ‘Goal’, 364


‘Melanie’, the adopted daughter of Meg Richardson. Stephen Bourne writes that ‘Cleo’s appearance in Crossroads in the late 1960s was a breakthrough, for at that time roles for black actresses in British television were almost nonexistent.’154 Sylvestre grew up on a Council estate in London, and was the only black student at her grammar school. Her teachers told her that she could not become an actor, explaining that ‘there are no parts for coloured actors in Britain.’155 After enrolling in a teacher training college, Sylvestre signed with a theatrical agent to try to find work over the holidays, and was asked to audition for the premiere of Simon Gray’s Wise Child (1967). She was cast as a naïve West Indian chambermaid who can barely speak coherent English, and who blurts out the combination to a safe when a disguised thief asks her if she knows it. But despite the role’s limitations, the show raised her stature: she was performing opposite Alec Guinness, and when Olivier attended a matinee performance, he congratulated her personally after the show. Sylvestre soon heard from her agent that the National Theatre wanted her to audition for The National Health. In total, there are four parts for black actors in The National Health: Cleo Sylvestre played Staff Nurse Cleo Norton, George Browne played a black Chaplain, Isabelle Lucas played Nurse Lake, and George Hamilton played the non-speaking role of a hospital orderly who is revealed to be an African prince. For a theatre that had made its reputation with Laurence Olivier’s ‘Othello’, this was a breakthrough, or at least a fluke. If, as is the case in America, recent British history were marked off with a series of landmark events in the fight for racial equality, then Cleo Sylvestre and the other black actors who appeared in The National Health would be regarded as pioneers, and the production would be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of British theatre. As it is, the event is nearly invisible.

Stephen Bourne, ‘Introduction: Soap Opera’, The Colour Black: Black Images in British Television, ed. Therese Daniels and Jane Gerson (London: British Film Institute, 1989) p. 124 155 Cleo Sylvestre, personal interview, 20 January 2006


Not coincidentally, its effect on Cleo Sylvestre’s career was almost invisible as well. Despite the huge success of The National Health, and despite her own success in her role, the National Theatre did not invite her to audition for the regular company. ‘Most of us were just used in that one play,’ she explains, but I’m sure nowadays that if a play like that was put on at the National the black actors in it would be involved in many other productions, and not just called in to one or two productions, or one and a half in my case [she briefly appeared in Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1969, dir. Clifford Williams with Donald MacKechnie)].156 Frank Dunlop, an associate director at the NT, had wanted to cast Sylvestre in The White Devil, but rehearsals clashed with The National Health. So she decided to pursue a familiar route for actors who achieved early success in London: leave it in order to work in a regional repertory theatre. This venture was not a success: I wrote to virtually every rep in the country saying “I’m currently at the National Theatre playing a leading role, blah blah blah, and if there’s any chance of coming to audition...” And those that bothered to reply, which were very few, said ‘if we’re putting on The Crucible we will get in touch.’ So that’s how people perceived black actors in those days.157 This was the employment prospect for a black actor in the early 1970s: a few substantial roles in certain productions, but no possibility of steady work. A ‘black theatre’ scene was emerging, but as Sylvestre told me when I interviewed her, ‘I didn’t belong to that either, because the black theatre scene was West Indian, and I’d been born and brought up over here.’158 However, an opportunity came when Frank Dunlop founded the Young Vic theatre company in 1970. Sylvestre joined shortly after it opened. She told me that Dunlop was ‘the forerunner of integrated casting,’ placing black and Asian actors in traditionally white roles.

156 157

Sylvestre, personal interview, 20 January 2006 Sylvestre, personal interview, 20 January 2006 158 Sylvestre, personal interview, 20 January 2006


‘Their histrionic abilities.’ If Laurence Olivier had had his way there would have been no black actors in The National Health at all. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Olivier suggested to Michael Blakemore that the play be cast from within the (all-white) company. His proposal and his reasoning were both surprising: Much as I admire the negro races, I’m no great admirer of their histrionic abilities. This play has a number of coloured characters. D’you think the regular girls in the company should black up? Joan [Plowright], for instance?”159 Blakemore declined to follow the suggestion, and Olivier did not press the point, though he did later suggest replacements for all the black actors in the cast except Isabelle Lucas. ‘He often did things [that went] against his instinctive prejudices, but he did them,’ Blakemore explained to me, ‘he did put the play on. But he couldn’t resist carping about it.’160 What is most striking about Olivier’s suggestion is that he assumed that white actors would be able to portray black people more skilfully than black actors would be able to. This is a self-evidently racist assumption, but it also has roots in more complex issues of representation in British theatre. When Olivier began his career in the 1920s, there were very few black people on the British Isles. As Orwell had written, most of Britain’s ‘proletariat’ lived in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies.161 Most British people did not visit the colonies, and very few people from the colonies came to Britain, so the British impression of the empire was essentially an imaginary landscape formed from newspapers, novels, studio photographs, and the theatre. Black characters were present in British theatre throughout the 19th century, but with a few notable exceptions they were played by white actors. The imagined characterisation of black people that developed in Britain over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was bound to conflict with the impression made upon meeting an actual black person, and when the two collided, the imagined conception of
159 160

Nichols, Diaries, p. 22 Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 161 George Orwell, ‘Not Counting’,


black people would probably have seemed more authentic – the way that film stars seem less like themselves in person than they do on screen. In his essay, ‘The Blackface Atlantic’, Simon Featherstone describes an American minstrel show composed entirely of former slaves which toured Britain between 1866 and 1869. Over the course of the tour, the original cast was gradually replaced by white performers in blackface.162 In the 1920s the historian Harry Reynolds wrote that ‘the public seemed to prefer the imitation nigger.’163 I am not entirely convinced by Reynolds’ assessment, as related by Featherstone – there are many reasons that the original cast might drop out of a show and be replaced. In fact, Jacky Bratton draws an exactly opposite conclusion about nineteenthcentury minstrelsy in Britain, arguing that ‘while the more sophisticated at least of the White American audiences knew perfectly well that they were watching a set of white men parodying blacks for their amusement, the English were inclined to be critical and disappointed if the minstrels were shown to be inauthentic.’164 Bratton cites an American blackface company called the Ethiopian Serenaders who were baffled by accusations that they were not really black, since they did not realise anyone expected them to be anything other than white performers in makeup. However, regardless of the prevailing attitudes toward minstrelsy in the mid-nineteenth century, Harry Reynolds’ assessment that audiences preferred ‘imitation’ black performers is interesting. He made it at the same time that Olivier was beginning his career, and while one cannot extrapolate a zeitgeist from a single phrase, it chimes with Olivier’s attitude towards black actors. When Olivier thought of a black character being played on stage, his imagination would probably have substituted a white actor. Since World War II, however, a substantial increase in immigration meant that the now-defunct British Empire no longer divided Britain’s white and non-white subjects so neatly, and the imaginative conception of black and Asian people

Simon Featherstone, ‘The Blackface Atlantic: Interpreting British Minstrelsy’, Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Autumn 1998), pp. 234-250, p. 240 163 quoted in Featherstone, p. 240 164 J. S. Bratton, ‘English Ethiopians: British Audiences and Black-Face acts, 1835-1865’ (Yearbook of English Studies Vo. 2 (1981) pp. 127-142 (p. 131)


was being challenged by the presence of actual black and Asian people in Britain. Before World War II, and even into the 1960s, the notion of preference for white actors over black actors was obscured by the fact that there were not very many professional black actors in Britain, or at least not many that mainstream casting directors were paying attention to. In 1963 the Royal Court Theatre told the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord that his play Skyvers would be performed by an all-white cast because they ‘could not find any black actors.’165 Olivier, on the other hand, argued not that the National Theatre would be unable to hire black actors, but specifically that white actors would be better at portraying black characters. The remark acknowledged a change in Britain’s social landscape but attempted to nullify it. Thus, it was as much a sign of social progress as of personal prejudice.

Olivier’s Othello By 1969 blacking-up onstage was old fashioned in Britain, but not unthinkable. The Campaign against Racial Discrimination had petitioned the BBC to discontinue The Black and White Minstrels in 1967, but the show stayed on the air until 1978. In 1964 Olivier himself had blacked-up to play Othello in what became the National Theatre’s most successful show up to that point. Critical response to Oliver’s performance was sharply divided, though there was a consensus that it was an Othello created in, and created for, a nation in the midst of a shift into multiculturalism. The tone of the reviews depended, to put it crudely, on whether the critic thought that black people were required in these new cultural negotiations, or whether they felt that white people – such as Olivier – could speak for them. Harold Hobson epitomised the latter view, writing that ‘There is a concern with the relations between the black and white races which gives to this production a contemporary urgency lacking in its predecessors. With a curl of the lips, a catlike movement of the body, a roll of the staring eyes, an uncomfortable mixture of arrogance of inferiority, Sir

Roland Rees, ‘Black Theatre I, Fringe First: Pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record (London: Oberon, 1992), p. 101


Laurence makes this “Othello” a world-drama as well as a tale of individual poignancy.’166 Philip Hope-Wallace wrote that ‘this Othello compels you to accept him, not merely as a coloured man, but as a Negro, with a negro speech, [...] easily articulated gait and physically imposed authority.’167 Why Hope-Wallace thought that a fifteenth-century Venetian general would behave like a 1960’s Londoner is an interesting question – certainly, a transhistorical idea of ‘blackness’ is frequently a symptom of blackface performance. Alan Brien was more sceptical than Hobson and Hope-Wallace about Olivier’s ability to convincingly impersonate a black man, and his description of Olivier’s performance directly contradicts Olivier’s belief that white actors in black roles are preferable to black actors. Brien called his performance ‘an impersonation which might have seemed more convincing in the days when Negroes of all shades and backgrounds were less commonly observed in London streets. Now the combination of Louis Armstrong guttural voice and a Stepin Fetchit sway and shuffle appears rather perfunctory.’168 Robert Kee’s review in the New Statesman was the most sensitive to the contemporary social landscape. He praised Olivier for ‘exploiting a modern audience’s sensitised and partially confused state of mind on the subject of colour,’ but cautioned that Olivier’s Othello was ‘someone who could only be the figment of a white man’s imagination.’169 The nation was in the process of redefining itself, and the National Theatre was living up to its title by addressing issues of national importance, though its forum excluded all voices except those of the elite.


Harold Hobson, Review of Othello, Sunday Times (reprinted in Othello, The National Theatre Production, ed. Kenneth Tynan (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1966), p. 105) 167 Philip Hope-Wallace, Review of Othello, Guardian (reprinted in Othello, The National Theatre Production, p. 101) 168 Alan Brien, Review of Othello, Sunday Telegraph (reprinted in Othello, The National Theatre Production, p. 104) 169 Robert Kee, Review of Othello, New Statesman, (reprinted in Othello, The National Theatre Production, p. 106)


Blackface Minstrelsy In both Britain and America, ‘blacking up’ is intimately connected with the minstrel show, or ‘minstrelsy’ tradition, which began in America in the nineteenth century and was imported to Britain, where it became extremely popular and evolved its own distinct style. British performers had been blacking their faces with burnt cork for centuries, though this was usually meant as clown makeup rather than for racial impersonation.170 To this day, blackface in Britain continues to be held in tension between signifying racial impersonation and invoking general misrule – hence the character Papa Lazarou in the TV programme League of Gentleman, an evil gypsy who is never seen without blackface. The National Health itself reflects this tension between racial transgression and general transgressiveness, particularly in the pantomime finale in which an elaborate double-wedding turns into a full-cast cakewalk171 accompanied by what the script describes as ‘a nigger minstrel band,’172 while Barnet appears in blackface to give the play’s last lines. This eruption of blackface minstrelsy is, to say the least, a disconcerting ending to a production whose director had consciously rejected blackface in the rest of the play. When I interviewed Peter Nichols and Michael Blakemore they both assured me, in no uncertain terms, that whatever the script said, Barnet never wore blackface on stage. However both D. A. N. Jones173 and Irving Wardle174 indicate in their reviews that Barnet appears in blackface in the play’s finale. Part of the inspiration for this must be pure stagecraft: the script has Barnet appearing as the Chaplain’s acolyte, back to the audience, and turning suddenly to reveal his


Michael Pickering, ‘White Skin, Black Masks: “Nigger” Minstrelsy in Victorian England’, Music Hall: Performance and Style, ed. J.S. Bratton (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986), p. 70 171 The cakewalk is a dance, originally created by American slaves, which burlesqued European dance steps. In the late nineteenth century it became a staple of minstrel-shows – a burlesque of a burlesque. 172 Nichols, Health, p. 235 173 D.A.N. Jones, ‘Mercy Killing’ , The Listener, 23 October 1969 174 Irving Wardle, ‘Organisation versus the individual’, Times, 17 October 1969


blacked-up face to the crowd.175 This would certainly be visually dramatic. It is also an exemplary case of the tension in Britain between the ‘burnt cork’ tradition and the minstrelsy tradition. On the one hand, the scene feels almost atavistic: Henry I. Schvey describes it as a modern danse macabre ‘in which Barnet is finally revealed as a personification of Death himself.’176 On the other hand, it would be absurd, in a play which has placed racial difference at the heart of the plot, to ignore the racial – and racist – implications of Barnet’s sudden ‘transformation.’ This brings up an intriguing, and hitherto unexplored aspect of the play: the debt, conscious or unconscious, that it owes to the British minstrelsy tradition. First of all, the ‘cakewalk’ finale itself comes from the minstrelsy tradition. Michael Pickering writes in ‘White Skin, Black Masks’ that ‘ as minstrel shows developed, a walkaround finale was often added, and this usually consisted of solo and choral song, and dancing to instrumental ‘symphonies’.’ Pickering adds that ‘In general terms the walkaround was very much the antecedent of the finale associated with later vaudeville and revue productions.’177 Nichols chose to present a cakewalk in the grand finale partly because, he says, it ‘is a dance in which black people made fun of white people.’178 Critics did not notice this reference: most felt that the ending was well-staged but confusing, and Nichols himself told me that in his opinion, ‘too many forces came together in it.’179

The Chaplain The connection between The National Health and minstrel shows is differently embodied in the character of the Chaplain, a ‘West Indian Clergyman’ played by George Browne. The Chaplain sweeps into the ward wearing ‘the most

175 176

Nichols, Health, p. 235 Henry I. Schvey, ‘The National Health: Danse Macabre’ (Nichols papers Folder 78970B, British Library, London) (unpublished). 177 Michael Pickering, ‘White Skin’, p. 76 178 Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005 179 Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005


gorgeous vestments the Anglican church will allow for the Last Unction,’180 and speaks in a string of what Nichols describes as ‘that imitation old English thing [...] clichés that jocular Englishmen of the time would use.’ So, says Nichols, ‘when this big black African actor did it, it was very funny, because you could see how he was assuming the manners of the colonial class.’181 In one instance, the Chaplain gives his opinion of the English cricket team: England are going to have to pull their socks up to make a hundred between them. Bad generalship. Same old story. They used to say the British Army in Fourteen Eighteen were lions led by lambs and it’s the same story at Lords.182 The Chaplain was based on a man whom Nichols had met when he was staying in hospital with a collapsed lung, but he also closely resembles a stock minstrelshow character that Michael Pickering describes as unique to British minstrelsy, the ‘negro’ dandy with his constantly unrealised pretension to grandiloquence.’183 This is not to condemn the character of the Chaplain as a racist caricature – to do so would be to annihilate the character’s individuality as surely as any blackface minstrel show. He is subject to the compressions of nuance that black characters often suffer on stage, but he is, nonetheless, an interesting, multi-faceted figure. For example, he is the only authority figure in the play who takes time to talk to the patients, treating them respectfully as human beings rather than embodied medical conditions, and he is the only authority figure, other than Barnet, who is deliberately funny. Olivier objected to George Browne, the performer who played the Chaplain. He also objected to the Chaplain’s first entrance, which he found blasphemous (while looking for the cigarette lighter, the Chaplain lays a bottle of sacramental wine and altar-cloth on the floor). In a letter to Blakemore during

180 181

Nichols, Health, p. 210 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 182 Nichols, Health, p. 211 183 Pickering, ‘White Skin,’, p. 76


the run, he recommended that this scene and the ‘balcony scene’184 be cut, and concluded the letter with one final suggestion: ‘I would, if possible, like to find improvements for the other black girls with the exception of Isabelle Lucas who is not only much better than the rest but has improved herself immeasurably.’185 Upon receiving Olivier’s letter, Blakemore wrote to Nichols in order to warn him that ‘he’s irrationally hostile to the Chaplain and will press for the whole scene to be cut. Even if George was bad (which he’s not) this would be disastrous, because we’d have no lead into Foster’s death.’186 Apart from its necessity to the plot, the scene is one of two parallel interracial encounters at the centre of its portrait of the ‘state of the nation.’ The scene’s counterpart is the soap opera’s climactic scene: the black Staff Nurse Cleo Norton proves her love by donating her kidney to save the white Dr. Neil Boyd’s life, and in an onstage transplant scene, Cleo’s organ goes inside Neil. The racially prejudiced Dr. Boyd himself performs this grand miscegenation, thus tying up any loose ends in the symbolism. The chaplain’s scene is a corresponding scene of racial harmony within the ward itself, but its achievement is more modest than the ‘transplant’: Four men – a black Church of England chaplain, a racist ex-colonial soldier, a homosexual teacher and a right-wing parks department employee – succeed in having a civil conversation together. Tension mounts as the audience waits for the racist to insult the chaplain, as he has every black character so far. He never does (he calls the Chaplain ‘Johnny’, but the Chaplain tactfully ignores this187) and the characters chat about cricket and share the Chaplain’s cigarettes.188 It is a modest but distinctive image of the citizens of a multicultural nation getting to know each other. Very late in the play’s run, Olivier tried again to remove George Browne from the cast. ‘In case you may not think it would be read as a deliberate insult
184 185

The ‘balcony scene is Act II, Scene One. Olivier to Blakemore, 24 Nov 1969 (Olivier papers folder 646, British library) 186 Blakemore to Nichols, 3 December 1969 (Nichols papers, Folder 79119, British Library) 187 Nichols, Health, p. 211 188 Nichols, Health, p. 210-214


to Black Power,’ he proposed to Blakemore, ‘don’t you think that [David] Belcher could play the Chaplain better than our really rather weak George Browne?’ Belcher, who was white, had played a ‘coloured’ role in John Lennon’s In His Own Write, as well as an Indian Sepoy in Charles Wood’s H. ‘He is not a lad of terrific potential,’ Olivier admitted to Blakemore, ‘but he is too good to be allowed to starve, and I understand he is having to sell up his house in which he has a wife and family.’189 Like most of Olivier’s advice on casting the play, this idea was not taken up, and Belcher did not take over the role from Browne (though Norman Beaton – then relatively unknown – played the role for one performance190 ). Peter Hall did not take such a personal approach to managing the actors when he succeeded Olivier, and in the case of David Belcher one can see the disadvantage of Olivier’s method: by doing one actor a favour, he was damaging the career of another. ‘Blackface’ vs. racial impersonation Olivier also proposed, as an alternative to firing George Browne, that Belcher might take over the role of the Indian medical student if Malcolm Reid did not return. This raises an interesting point: Cleo Sylvestre pointed out to me that Malcolm Reid, a white actor, played the Indian student.191 It seems to have been ‘blackface’ itself, rather than racial impersonation, that Blakemore and Nichols wished to avoid until they used it as a calculated effect in the finale. Blackface is not offensive only because it prevents black actors from obtaining employment: just as the minstrel-show character Jim Crow became associated with the discriminatory laws that were passed in the American South after emancipation (they are known as ‘Jim Crow laws’), blackface has become a metonymy for segregation, lynching, corrupt police, and bigoted judges. The blacked-up face, like the swastika, is an image that reminds us of what people were doing at the time that it was popular; therefore, the meaning of blackface is amplified beyond the issue of what actor should play what race. Such is the

Olivier to Blakemore, 24 September 1971 (Olivier papers folder 646, British Library) He played the role on 30 November, 1971 (Stage Manager’s notes, NT Archive). 191 Cleo Sylvestre, Personal interview, 20 January 2006 ‘


power of the ‘blackface’ association, that the act of darkening one’s features in order to imitate a black person has become nearly synonymous with Al Jolson’s clown makeup, with its three white halos like fried egg-whites. Because Britain’s rule of the Indian subcontinent did not inspire any internationally popular ‘minstrel shows’, impersonations of Indian characters by white actors do not carry the same stigma. Also, when Blakemore directed Nichols’ Privates on Parade (which takes place in British-controlled Malaya) eight years later they had no concerns about casting white actors as Asian characters. Nichols explained to me that the half-Indian, half-Welsh dancer Sylvia Morgan ‘was played by a Welsh girl who looked Indian.’ One of the two actors who played the Chinese servants Lee and Cheng may have been Asian, as Nichols recalls, but in any case, he says, ‘they were both Asian-looking people.’ He adds that ‘of course as the productions have gone on they’ve tended to cast more properly.’192 When casting Poppy (five years after Privates), Nichols was bemused by Terry Hands’ attempts to find Asian actors to play the Chinese characters, which he thought was ‘like looking for a long-nosed actor for Cyrano.’193 For the 1988 revival of Poppy at the Half Moon theatre, Ayub KhanDin (who would go on to write East is East) played one of the main Chinese characters. Khan-Din, whose father is Pakistani, looks ‘Asian’, but not at all ‘Chinese’. There seems to have been a widespread sense, even among people who would shun blackface, that white actors could ‘pass’ as Asian characters, which may have existed within a general willingness to indulge stereotypes in mainstream theatre: historian Sally Beaumann quotes, without comment, a director who claimed that RSC artistic director Trevor Nunn resembled ‘every Vietnamese waiter in the world,’ a remark which not only implies that comparison with a ‘Vietnamese waiter’ is insulting, but also suggests that all

192 193

Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 Nichols to Hands, 25 Sep 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library)


Vietnamese waiters look identical.194 For his part, in his 1989 diary Nichols nicknames Peter Hall ‘Fu Manchu’.195

The contract between actors and audience A question remains: did employing black actors for The National Health constitute a substantive, or only superficial change? Since the playwright was white, the director was white, and the National Theatre’s Board and management were predominantly white, the actors are only a small, though highly visible, part of the structure. It is obvious that blackface effaces black identity, ensuring that black characters onstage are reduced to what white people think of them, compressing black identities into stereotypes. The effect is ongoing and cumulative, as other blackface performances become actors’ main points of reference. As Jonathan Miller writes of productions of Othello, ‘the blacking up of white actors and the crude stereotype of the lithe black body [...] reflects racism rather than race.’196 However, the corollary that the problem is solved by employing black actors, is misbegotten and dangerous. The problem is not solved, it is merely disguised. Actors do not, in mainstream theatre, have the opportunity to state their case onstage – they are beholden to the script. There are a wealth of European and American films which demonstrate that depictions of black people can be reductive, humiliating and stereotyped even when there are black actors in the film. In basic economic terms, actors need to get whatever work is available. Cleo Sylvestre’s role in Wise Child is a good example of this. The presence of black actors onstage does not, in itself, qualify The National Health as a landmark event in British theatre. But Nichols and Blakemore’s’ decision to employ black actors, against Olivier’s advice, reflected both men’s awareness that Britain was changing, and that their production


Sally Beaumann, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1982) p. 284. 195 Peter Nichols, ‘Diaries: 1989’ (Areté, No. 15, Autumn 2004), p. 96 [Nichols may have picked this nickname up from John Osborne (Peter Lewis, The National, p. 188) 196 Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (London: Faber and Faber, 1986) p. 157


should reflect that. In fact, they used the play to satirise the very convention of including a black actor in order to certify a production’s liberal values. In the onstage soap opera, Staff Nurse Cleo Norton is a self-conscious caricature along soap-opera conventions. In an early note on the script, Peter Nichols wrote that within the onstage TV show, Nurse Norton ‘cannot say a great deal because it is bold enough of the producers to allow her in at all.’197 Nichols was satirising the racist assumptions of a ‘liberal’ television show, but he was doing so within a theatre company whose director, Olivier, had remarked that he did not think much of the ‘histrionic abilities’ of black actors. This symmetry between the play and the circumstances of the production breaks a term of the contract between actors and audience. When a play-within-play (or in this case ‘soapwithin-play’) is fettered by institutional racism, it implies that the actual production must itself be utterly free from racism. This follows the reasoning that actors can only get away with deliberate on-stage ‘mistakes’ if their performance is absolutely flawless. Just as it can be difficult to discern whether it is a character or an actor who has forgotten their lines, audiences cannot easily sort out when on-stage institutions are being racist from when the playwright, director, or governing institutions are being racist. This is further complicated by the fact that to reproduce a stereotyped representation, even satirically, is to reinforce it. Nichols would confront this problem directly in an excoriation of the comic Bernard Manning that he wrote for the Independent’s ‘Heroes and Villains’ feature in 1993. Nichols’ piece contrasts Manning’s undisguised, unironic bigotry with the racist speech deployed by Lenny Bruce and Warren Mitchell (who played Alf Garnett in Till Death Do Us Part), and gradually drifts away from Manning in order to reflect on the danger that ‘ironic racism’ will be interpreted as sincere racism. Nichols reports that when performing as Alf Garnett in clubs around Britain, Warren Mitchell ‘found his spiel being so warmly welcomed that he sometimes broke off to explain that they’d missed the point,


early notes for script, undated, (Nichols papers, folder 78969, British Library)


that Alf was wrong.’198 The widely disparate audience responses to Till Death Do Us Part have often been used to illustrate the unpredictability of reception, as in this analysis by the critic Sarita Malik: Meaning is not simply enclosed within the text itself, but is actively produced outside it, in the way an audience reads it and within the context of reception and transmission. Ambiguity is further contained within us, as individual readers, so that programmes can appeal to mixed sensibilities and contradictory subjectivities at the same time (we could therefore see the programme as racist, anti-racist and/or something confusedly in-between). In fact, [creator] Speight’s liberal intentions were not really the defining factor, since audiences – as well as being hugely unpredictable – are not driven by the will of good intentions or preferred meanings alone.199 Nichols (like Speight) has been chronically vulnerable to counter-interpretation, because his plays’ arguments rely so heavily on irony. In fact, irony has been Nichols’ primary mode of political argument, which has made him a much more ambiguous political figure than many of his contemporaries. He has been a committed socialist and anti-racist throughout his career, but one might not recognise this from his plays. Even some of Nichols’ most direct political action has been couched in irony: when Arnold Wesker was attacked in the Spectator for leaving the playwrights’ boycott of South Africa on the grounds that it was counter-productive, Nichols ‘wrote a heavily ironic letter ostensibly agreeing’ with Wesker’s opponents, ‘while actually defending the right of any author to think twice or however often he wanted to.’200 Wesker thanked Nichols for his support, but admitted that ‘it took me till two-thirds of your letter before my dumb, numbed brain realised you were attacking “them”.’201

The audience to whom they are speaking With The National Health Nichols had added to the voices speaking on the stage of the National Theatre, though his play did not alter the audiences to whom they were speaking. This has been one of the most vexed problems of
198 199

Nichols, ‘Bernard Manning’, The Independent Magazine, 1 Sep. 1990, p. 54 Sarita Malik, Representing Black Britain (London: Open University, 1998), p. 94 200 Nichols, Diaries, p. 192 201 Arnold Wesker to Nichols, 22 October 1971 (Nichols papers folder 79127, British Library)


theatre, at least European and American theatre, throughout all of the last century and into this one. The play’s failure to expand or realign the National Theatre’s audience may be fatal, smothering its social significance, no matter how incisive or inclusive its anatomy of contemporary Britain. Nichols resents the fact that The National Health never went on tour. He believes it would have received a warm, popular reception all over the country, and that it was denied this opportunity, despite being a popular and critical success, and winning the Evening Standard Best Play award, because the management thought it was too vulgar and offensive to be displayed all over Britain as representative of their work. Cleo Sylvestre, on the other hand, believes that as a stage show, The National Health could never have had the social impact available to a television show. It is worth pointing out that Sylvestre was in the cast of Cathy Come Home, which may have had the greatest social impact of any British television drama in history. But she also cites the social impact of the lessexalted Crossroads, in which she played what may have been the first black soap opera character who, in her words, ‘was just there as a character and not because they happened to be black.’ She adds, ‘the issues that I had in that soap were issues which any young person growing up in Britain at my age would have had,’ and points out that Crossroads was filmed in Birmingham, only a few miles from Wolverhampton, where Enoch Powell was galvanising the British anti-immigrant movement.202 Sylvestre makes a good point: regardless of who was onstage, the audience for a play at the Old Vic in 1969 would have been almost exclusively white and middle-class. This exclusivity was brought to the fore in July 2005 when a black man, O’Neill Crookes, was accosted by police outside the Apollo Theatre in Soho and wrongfully accused of selling drugs after he attended a performance of the musical Big Life. Bill Kenwright, the show’s producer, funded the Crookes’ family’s legal team after learning that the British government would


Sylvestre, personal interview, 20 January 2006


not offer legal counsel due to the nature of the charges.203 The incident is a striking reminder that when people say they do not feel at ease in the theatre, their objections may not be purely aesthetic. In their efforts towards widening audiences, often rather patronisingly called ‘outreach’, the NT and RSC have lagged behind smaller theatres. This may be an inevitable result of being cast as a ‘centre of excellence’: if a theatre is situated at a vaguely-conceived pinnacle of its profession, it is difficult for it to simultaneously exist comfortably within a particular community. Nevertheless both theatres have, with variable success, attempted to reach wider audiences, especially through touring. The following chapter describes one such attempt which has been virtually forgotten, because it never reached any theatre anywhere.


Hugh Muir, ‘Yard accused as case collapses over a family night out at the theatre that ended in arrest, Guardian, 23 March 2006


Chapter 3 ‘The Widow’s Whims’: Beasts of England On 20 May, 1971, Nichols reported in his diary that Michael Blakemore and Kenneth Tynan had asked him to write a play about George Orwell that could tour the country with very little scenery. Only five months had elapsed since Nichols had rejected the NT’s informal offer – made through Blakemore – of another commission1, but in that time Nichols’ semi-autobiographical play Forget-me-not Lane (1971, dir. Michael Blakemore) had opened at the Greenwich theatre to excellent reviews and good houses, which must have eased his frustration with the NT’s treatment of The National Health. It may also be that a production at a smaller theatre had reminded him of the advantages of a large subsidised theatre. Nichols had several plays produced by the Greenwich, and served on the Board from 1970 to 19762 (he also lived a short walk away from the theatre), but he could sometimes become frustrated with what he described as the ‘hippie goodwill’ of ‘the willing and underpaid volunteers of Greenwich.’3 Tynan wrote to him in the summer of 1971 to discuss the ‘Orwell evening’ and ask the playwright if he would like to write a play for the NT’s new building on the South Bank. ‘Too tasty a chance to miss,’ Nichols wrote in his diary about the South Bank commission.4 As for the Orwell project, he was intrigued but pessimistic. Within a single paragraph, his first diary entry on the subject reported the proposal and predicted its failure: Blakemore and Tynan have asked me to do an Orwell programme for the National, which could also be a road show and some sort of answer to the RSC’s four-hander on Royals Down the Ages.5 I’d jump at this invitation but can’t see how it can be done. There’d have to be an impersonation, as the work so much depends on his personal ‘voice’, and

1 2

see Chapter 2, p. 102 He left amicably in 1976 (Ewan Hooper to Nichols, 8 January 1976 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library)) 3 Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000), p. 203 4 Nichols, Diaries, p. 176 5 He is referring to John Barton’s The Hollow Crown (1961).


here the widow Sonia would be a handicap. Chris Morahan had dealings with her over his TV versions of the novels and found her poisonous.6 Morahan had directed six of Nichols’ television plays, beginning with Continuity Man in 1963. In 1967 Morahan made his debut as a theatre-director with Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders at the Aldwych for the RSC.7 Peter Hall made him an associate director at the National Theatre in 1976.8

Early days of the Orwell Evening The NT had not yet officially commissioned the Orwell project, and Nichols wanted to know more about both the Orwell estate and the possibility of interference from studios that owned film rights before he committed to it. Blakemore had told him that he might not be able to quote from Animal Farm and 1984, since their film rights had already been sold,’9 and Nichols was rightly hesitant to continue with the project until he knew what he would be able to use. Nichols also suspected that Sonia Orwell did not approve of him as a writer. A week after The National Health opened, he recorded in his diary that she had found the play ‘reactionary.’10 At the time, he mentioned it merely as evidence that Health was ‘being misunderstood by Left and Right, as an advertisement for BUPA.’11 Now, her objection to the play had material implications. In an interview with William Demastes, Nichols drew a connection between Sonia Orwell’s response to Health and the popular response to Orwell’s 1984: 1984 is the most disastrous, awry novel as far as intentions are concerned because it was seized upon by the Right. [...] Orwell didn’t realise how much it would play into the hands of the enemies of socialism, because he was actually criticizing the totalitarian extremes to which socialism could fall – or rise. But he wasn’t saying, “We mustn’t

6 7

Nichols, DIaries, p. 152 Peter Hall, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983), p. 241 8 Peter Hall, Diaries, p. 291 9 Mentioned in Nichols’ letter to Tynan, 10 August 1971 (Tynan papers, Brit. Library) 10 Nichols, Diaries, p. 50 11 Nichols to Olivier, 23 October 1969 (Olivier papers Folder 646, British Library)


have it.” He was saying, “We must have it, but we must make sure it doesn’t get to this.” Which I suppose in a way is what I’m saying.12 Nichols and Orwell share a tendency to be most fiercely critical of the causes that they support (particularly socialism, in both cases). While Nichols suspects that the two of them would not ‘hit it off’ if they had met (‘[Orwell] was too prudish, too bossy and in his day quite a bully,’ Nichols writes), he declares that he values him ‘above all writers of modern times for setting the English experience within the main course of European history, while other writers of his class were being snobbish, hiding their eyes or retreating into some golden age.’13 In spite of his fears about the estate, Nichols was becoming excited about the show as he read more of Orwell’s work. In his letter to Tynan on 10 August he cautioned ‘I shan’t go on with it unless it seems to be a promising stage show.’ A week later, having re-read 1984, he had decided how to stage it: ‘It should be set in a sound studio of the kind he knew,’ Nichols wrote in his diary, ‘with a cast of radio actors doing a reappraisal programme.’14

Origins The origins of the Orwell project are murky. According to Michael Blakemore, Nichols was already writing a piece about Orwell when he and Tynan suggested that the National produce it.15 Nichols disputes this, and his memory is more authoritative since it would have been he who was (or was not) writing it. In my joint interview with Nichols and Blakemore, Nichols set out the following chronology to Blakemore: You, or Ken, said “we ought to have a road show with a few actors, no scenery, a couple of lecterns or something.” And I think it was you then, who said “Why don’t we do Orwell? Peter’s already rather taken with Orwell.” I hadn’t done anything about it, I hadn’t done an adaptation.16

William Demastes, ‘Peter Nichols on His Art, Politics and Peers: An Interview,’ Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. 3 No. 1 (1988), p. 106 13 Peter Nichols, ‘Tracing Orwell to the Source’, Times, 3 Sep 1983, p. 6 14 Nichols, Diaries, p. 176 15 Nichols and Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005 16 Nichols and Blakemore, personal interview, 1 December 2005


In May 1971, when they proposed the project to Nichols, Tynan and Blakemore were working closely together on Adrian Mitchell’s Tyger, a celebration of William Blake’s life and work.17 Blakemore was directing the play in collaboration with John Dexter, while Tynan had instigated the project and was overseeing it closely. He was also, once again, fighting on the author’s behalf against cuts and emendations to the script. In January 1971 the Conservative Minister for the Arts Lord Eccles had announced that he was working with the Arts Council on a plan to ensure that subsidised theatres could not stage ‘blasphemous’ or ‘pornographic’ plays. ‘Thus,’ Tynan fumed, ‘in a typical Tory move, censorship – abolished under the Labour Government – is to be restored, but not for the commercial theatre.’18 In May, Tynan seemed to lose an ally in his fight against censorship. His diary reveals what must have seemed a personal betrayal over Tyger: Larry [Olivier] expressed early on his horrified qualms about four-letter words, scatology and randy references in the text; but he has postponed issuing an ultimatum on the subject until now, when the production has been announced and advertised. He is counting on the directors [...] and the author being willing to compromise rather than have a public row. Further, he says he must get Lord Chandos’ approval of the text.19 Not only did Olivier seem to be intriguing against Tynan, he was apparently ready to give up the power that he had been fighting to win from the NT Board. ‘It was,’ as Dominic Shellard writes, ‘as if the Soldiers episode had never happened.’20 Tynan would not allow Olivier to make Chandos responsible for the play: I spent two years on an Arts Council inquiry which unanimously asserted the right of the Artistic Director – not the Board – to have a final say on choice of plays in subsidised theatres. The Arts Council endorsed this recommendation and it’s now official policy.21

Tyger opened on 20 July 1971 (Kathleen Tynan, The Life of Kenneth Tynan (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987), p. 303). 18 Kenneth Tynan, The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, ed. John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 22 19 Tynan, Diaries, p. 45 20 Dominic Shellard, Kenneth Tynan: A Life (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale UP, 2003), p. 326 21 Tynan, Diaries, p. 45


Thus challenged, Olivier took a personal stand against a line in the play, uttered by the actor playing William Blake: ‘God damn the Queen.’ The alliance between Olivier and Tynan seemed to be crumbling. With the battle over Tyger becoming so heated that Blakemore and Dexter were ready to threaten resignation,22 the prospect of an evening based on George Orwell’s writings would have offered a welcome contrast: a dramatisation of Orwell’s essays would be politically trenchant, but such was the writer’s reputation that the script would be invulnerable to censorship from either Olivier or the Board. By commissioning Nichols, Tynan (generally more pragmatic than he chose to appear) was spearheading a nationally-touring production that would advertise both the National Theatre and the message of British socialism, without further dividing either the National Theatre’s management or its Board of Directors.

Orwell and the New Left Orwell had returned to national prominence in 1968, when Secker & Warburg published Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (reprinted by Penguin in 1970), a four-volume anthology co-edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. The timing was exquisite: as the ‘New Left’ appeared in America and the 1968 revolution exploded in Paris, Orwell re-emerged as if to advise the British Left on the eve of what many believed would be a full-scale socialist revolution. Nichols’ friend Bill Stair, who was unofficially advising him on the Orwell project, bought the collection at Foyles23 and told the playwright ‘I was reading The Collected Essay etc. Volume One, and a few things fell into place which revealed G. O. as a man of contemporary relevance on a number of counts.’24 Stair had isolated four points, which he explained at length: 1 The thing about him was that he was a member of the ‘new’ middle class [...] he recognises it, he admits it, and says he can be a socialist
22 23

Nichols, Diaries p. 166 Bill Stair to Peter Nichols, 7 August 1971 (Nichols papers, folder 78944, British Library) 24 Bill Stair to Peter Nichols, 16 Aug. 1971 (Nichols papers, folder 78944, British Library)


while remaining middle class or rather while holding on to these funny square views. [...] He said really that although he could never have anything in common with the workers he could be allied with them. Not in a patronising way either. Or a sentimental one. To make the point simply, he was a member of the new middle class whose interests are the same as the proletariat—AND HE RECOGNISED IT. [...] A lot of English people are put off socialism because they know that they aren’t manual workers and feel that, therefore, they can’t join. He made the jump and remained intact. 2 Today there is a great revival of ‘socialism as theology’ discussion just as there was in the 30s. G. O. was one of the few people ever to live in a genuinely socialist revolutionary situation, i.e. he was a member of a real revolutionary army where they argued about the right and wrongs of orders etc AND HE PREFERS that method. He saw that it can work. A lot of people talk about “being honest and free” etc. Others say that an army can’t be revolutionary and work. Others say ‘Power to the people’ will work. He saw ‘today’s’ theories in action. 3 He is neither anarchist or Trotskyite BUT leans a bit towards Trotsky in his sympathies. Trotskyism is nearly a political reality in England. [...] 4 He is always a non party man. Even though he joined the ILP it was largely because he felt he had to be an active Socialist who wasn’t going to get swallowed up in the war effort. [...] ‘So,’ Stair concluded, ‘he’s a clear headed, middle class, revolutionary socialist (and we can prove it from his work).’ Just before the Orwell project, Stair had been a designer and ‘ideas-man’ for John Boorman’s film noir, Point Blank (1967). He and Nichols had been friends since the mid-1960s, when they were neighbours in Bristol, and Nichols based Bri and Sheila, the parents in Joe Egg, on Bill Stair and his wife.25 According to Nichols’ diary, Bill Stair was ‘an exploited, unrecognised original.’26 Stair and Nichols both occupied a distinct generational niche: too young to fight in World War Two and too old to be swept up in the new political project

25 26

Nichols, Diaries, p. 197 Nichols, Diaries, p. 197


of spontaneously conceived ‘disruption of bourgeois ideology’27 typified by the American New Left and the French Situationist movement. This niche was perhaps defined by the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, events which took place within two weeks of each other, and which seem to have pushed many on the left into a state of permanent disillusionment. In more personal terms, the sexual revolution (deeply but problematically stitched into the reputation of the New Left)28 amplified a sense of missing out which Philip Larkin famously describes in the opening lines of ‘Annus Mirabilis’: Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)29 Many of Nichols’ protagonists suffer from a sense of their own political and sexual obsolescence, with no clear sense of where one ends and the other begins. Orwell provided a revolutionary context for Nichols and his milieu, with what Stair calls their ‘funny square views’. In the New Yorker, George Steiner declared that the Collected Essays were ‘a place of renewal for the moral imagination.’30 ‘Moreover,’ he added, its present relevance is [...] inescapable. The failure of the ‘new left’ (why ‘new’?) to link its critique of the Vietnam war with any responsible plan for an alternative policy would have drawn Orwell’s fire.31 Kenneth Tynan’s description of Clive Goodwin’s party for Daniel Cohn-Bendit (a leader of the 1968 Paris revolution) echoes Steiner’s scepticism: The barricades were up in Paris; everybody was talking about ‘instant revolution’; and when Cohn-Bendit held a question-and-answer session with the guests, I made myself immediately unpopular by asking: ‘What’s your strategy? What is the next step the students will take?’ C. B. said impatiently: ‘The whole point of our revolution is that we do not follow plans. It is a spontaneous permanent revolution. We improvise. It is like jazz.’ Everybody applauded and reproved my carping. I went on to ask:

David Edgar, quoted in John Bull, New British Political Dramatists (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 13 28 This abruptly-cut generation gap is examined beautifully in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places, for which Peter Nichols wrote the screenplay (the film fell through before production). 29 Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 146 30 George Steiner, ‘True to Life’, The New Yorker, 29 March 1969, p. 139 31 Steiner, ‘True’, p. 144


‘Nobody ever had a successful revolution without the support of the army – are you trying to form any links with the military?’ C. B. again brushed the question aside as an irrelevance: ‘The army is no problem. Many young officers agree with us.’ At the very moment, as we discovered later, de Gaulle was quietly testing the army’s loyalty; assured that he had it, he knew that he was sitting pretty and that the revolution, for all its tumult and euphoria, was a paper tiger.32 Tynan wrote this account three years after the fact, and it has about it a hint of self-mythologising. Still, it is revealing that in this climate of ‘spontaneous revolution’ Tynan found himself in the unaccustomed role of the conservative. Orwell would have seemed a timely corrective to the ‘improvisational’ vision of socialism. Unlike many of the new agitators, Orwell’s revolutionary credentials were sterling (he had been shot through the neck while fighting in the Spanish Civil War) as was his opposition to Stalinist communism (it was almost certainly a Soviet assassin that had shot him). It seemed certain that if Orwell were still alive, his would be an important political voice. Nichols planned to resurrect him.

A Response to the RSC An early beneficiary of Orwell’s Collected Essays was The National Health’s official programme, which opens with an extract from The Collected Essays, headed ‘George Orwell on the English Character’. The extract begins with the observation that ‘The gentleness of the English civilisation is perhaps its most marked characteristic,’ and concludes with the claim that ‘by revolution we become more ourselves, not less.’ The programme concludes with another passage from Orwell, an extract from a critical essay on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in which Orwell argues that ‘Swift falsifies his picture of the whole world by refusing to see anything in human life except dirt, folly and wickedness [...] Swift is not actually inventing anything, he is merely leaving something out.’ According to Kathleen Tynan, Kenneth Tynan helped to write


Tynan, Diaries, p. 74


and design the NT’s programmes, so it seems likely that he suggested the passages from Orwell.33 In addition to Orwell’s attractions as a writer and a political voice, there was a further incentive for the NT to develop a touring production with few actors and no scenery: at the RSC, John Barton had developed an anthology of scenes from Shakespeare’s history plays entitled The Hollow Crown which required only a small cast and no set. Since the play had opened in 1961, the company had achieved tremendous success by performing it in schools all over the country and touring internationally. Nichols describes a characteristic decision by Tynan to respond to the success of The Hollow Crown while distinguishing the NT from the Shakespeare-focused RSC: Tynan decided “let’s do something modern. Let’s not do Shakespeare, let’s do something by Orwell.” So he spoke to Blakemore, and Blakemore said “well, I know Peter likes Orwell,” I think that was the impulse that led to it.34 If Nichols’ interpretation is correct, it was a belated response from the NT: The Hollow Crown had opened a decade earlier.35 Touring has always been a weak point for both the NT and RSC, because the Arts Council has historically not regarded it as among their central responsibilities. The Arts Council made it explicit in the 1970s that it did not regard the RSC’s touring group, ‘Theatre-goround’, as intrinsic to the company, and refused to provide any money for it.36 Peter Hall complains of the same blinkered attitude towards the NT: I wanted the National Theatre to be truly national; to be available to regional theatre companies and to exchange productions with them. I believed that it should be more than a company of actors doing plays; it should be a centre available to the whole of the country’s theatre. But the Arts Council refused to view it like that, and so threw away the greatest opportunity in its history.37

33 34

Kathleen Tynan, Tynan, p. 227 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 35 Colin Chambers, Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 175 36 Chambers, Inside, p. 61 37 Peter Hall, Making an Exhibition of Myself (London: Oberon, 2000), p. 268


Hall, at least, was getting funding from the Arts Council. Outside of so-called ‘centres of excellence’ like the NT and RSC, the consequences of Arts Council neglect were much more severe.38

The First Meeting with Sonia Orwell On 13 August 1971, Tynan wrote to Nichols, telling him ‘I think it would be best to postpone any further actions until we have found out more about Sonia Orwell’s attitude.’ Tynan added that, as Nichols already knew, ‘she guards her husband’s reputation very jealously and might well exert a constricting influence. In any case,’ he concluded, ‘I can’t see her giving us carte blanche.’39 He went on to explain that he was going on holiday until 19 September, but that he, Orwell, and Nichols should ‘meet as soon as possible after that date.’ As it happened, the subject did not resurface until the following January, when Nichols, Tynan, and Orwell met at Tynan’s house. Nichols found the occasion difficult: I tried to convey my enthusiasm and ideas in an opening statement but Mrs O seemed set on putting the worst construction on all I said. When I tried, for example, to say that the decay of language in 1984 was one of his lifelong concerns, she insisted – tangentially, I thought – that it was a purely intellectual book.40 Sonia Orwell put Nichols off-balance: ‘It was a sticky encounter,’ he wrote, ‘with Ken [Tynan] playing Mountbatten to our Nehru and Jinnah.’41 It was agreed that Nichols would write a twenty-page outline, which he would then submit for S. Orwell’s approval. If she accepted it, he would need to stay rigidly within its bounds throughout the process of writing the full-length play. These were not favourable terms for the playwright: he would need to construct this synopsis with as much care as he would a final draft of one of his own plays, and S. Orwell would be free to reject it out of hand. But George Orwell exerted a

Dan Rebellato addresses the origins of the the centripetal tug of Arts Council funding in his book 1956 and All That.(London: Routledge, 1999). 39 Kenneth Tynan to Peter Nichols, 13 August 1971, (Tynan papers, British Library) 40 Nichols, Diaries, p. 217 41 Nichols, Diaries, p. 217


considerable attraction: ‘I relish the prospect of doing him justice on the stage,’ Nichols admitted in his diary after the meeting.42

‘The arrangement and choice would be everything’ In January 1972, Ed Berman’s Almost Free theatre produced Nichols’ short play Neither Up Nor Down, a comic sketch about a married couple unsuccessfully trying out sexual positions from a book that has recently arrived in the post. Tynan had commissioned the sketch for Oh, Calcutta! but the director, Clifford Williams, did not use it. On 4 February, 1972, Anthony Easterbrooke proposed to Peggy Ramsay that the National Theatre pay Nichols £100 to write the full synopsis of the Orwell play, with another £100 if they decided to commission the full work (after a twelve-week period for deliberation).43 Nichols found this unacceptable. In a letter to Ramsay he pointed out the proposal’s principal flaw: the synopsis would be almost all the work, since the actual text would be Orwell extracts. The arrangement and choice would be everything and I should have to be absolutely clear in the first stage about what I intended using, otherwise she could presently prohibit any new material I tried to incorporate in the later stages.44 Despite his misgivings, Nichols continued to trawl through Orwell’s writings in order to create the play. On 30 March Tynan called Nichols to tell him that, as Nichols reports ‘I should send a note stating my intentions for the Orwell evening and so on the strength of that, the dread Sonia would give written permission.’45 Tynan had telephoned just as Nichols was just leaving with his family for a holiday in France. When he returned two weeks later, the National Theatre had been thrown into chaos. On 9 April the Observer published the news (leaked by someone from the Board – Terry Coleman suggests that it was ‘probably Lord Goodman’46) that Peter Hall would be succeeding Olivier as the

42 43

Nichols, Diaries, p. 218 Anthony Easterbrook to Ramsay, 4 Feb 1972, (Nichols papers folder 78944, Br. Library) 44 Nichols to Ramsay, 13 Feb 1972 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78944, Br. Library) 45 Nichols, Diaries, p. 233 46 Terry Coleman, Olivier (London: Bloomsbury, 2005) p. 410


Director of the NT. When the leak was published, Hall was in New York and Tynan was in France. Tynan had known nothing about it, but Hall’s contract was already being negotiated.

Hall’s Accession In July 1971, Hall had resigned from his post as Director of Productions at the Royal Opera, and said as much to Lord Goodman, chairman of the Arts Council, when they ran into each other at Glyndebourne.47 Shortly after, Hall had lunch with Goodman and the newly-appointed chairman of the NT Board, Max Rayne, who had occupied his position for less than a month. They asked Hall if he would be interested in succeeding Olivier, and he replied that he would only consider it if Olivier himself were planning to resign. Olivier was not told about this until 24 March 1972, and was then sworn to secrecy. Tynan and the NT’s associate directors learned the news from the Observer. The directors of the RSC, on the other hand, had known about the possibility for months – Hall had discussed it with them in confidence almost as soon as Rayne and Goodman suggested it to him. Tynan had proposed Michael Blakemore to Olivier as a successor, and Olivier had in turn proposed him to Max Rayne – but by that time Rayne had already begun his secret negotiations.48 Tynan was shocked to learn afterwards that Rayne had never even met Blakemore.49 Tynan felt, with some justification, that the National Theatre had been sold out by the Nation’s elite: ‘I hate,’ he wrote, ‘the most important decision in the administrative history of the English theatre being taken by a property tycoon (Rayne) and a lawyer (Goodman), without any word from the people who planned, created and evolved the National Theatre.’50 Months of intriguing followed the leak, and when Hall officially succeeded Olivier in November, 1973, he was greeted with suspicion.

47 48

Peter Hall, Making, p. 269 Coleman, Olivier, p. 409 49 Tynan, Diaries, p. 90 50 Tynan, Diaries, p. 90


Blakemore himself did not know that Olivier had proposed him as a successor until a decade later, when he read about the meeting in Olivier’s memoirs.51 At the time of the Observer leak, Nichols found him ‘being cool and courteous, accepting that Hall’s appointment and Olivier’s dismissal are faits accomplis.’52 Blakemore said that he would like to direct the Orwell project, ‘if it ever gets that far,’53 but this must have seemed like an afterthought in light of the upheaval at the NT.

The Shape of the Play On 24 April 1972, fifteen days after the Observer leak, Nichols wrote ‘a letter of intent’ to Tynan, which indicated all the selections that he would be using, in the order in which they would appear. He had abandoned the idea of locating the action in a broadcasting studio, he explained, ‘simply because such a method tends to be more hindrance than it’s worth in the long run.’54 Instead, the play would take place on a nearly bare stage: the setting would be as simple as possible and would include an inner stage or platform for the acting of scenes, with perhaps a projector for backdrops and for stills of contemporary figures and events. [...] Costumes and props might be on tables in view and used when needed. There would be no pretence at anything but a formal (though not stuffy) performance of the selected material.55 Nichols had conceived of a non-space where nothing would distract from the words themselves, a limbo outside of life similar to the setting for Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998, dir. Michael Blakemore), in which Niels Bohr, Margrethe Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg reappraise a key, but mysterious, moment in their lives. Forget-me-not Lane occupies a similar limbo, in this case the narrator’s memory (the play’s set consists only of a semicircular screen with six inconspicuous doors56). Just as the characters in Forget-me-not Lane are a
51 52

Coleman, Olivier, p. 409 Nichols, DIaries, p. 235 53 Nichols, DIaries, p. 235 54 Nichols to Tynan, 24 April 1972 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78944, British Library) 55 Nichols to Tynan, 24 April 1972 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78944, British Library) 56 Nichols, Forget-me-not Lane, Plays: One, p. 243


part of the narrator, existing only in his memory, so would these characters be parts of Orwell, existing only in his writing. Even Orwell himself has never existed off the page—he is a persona fashioned by Eric Blair. As for Copenhagen, though Frayn and Nichols were good friends (and neighbours on Blackheath Row from 1968 to 1975) there is no reason to think that Frayn had anything but a slight awareness of the Orwell play. However, Frayn says that while they were neighbours he ‘began to see the theatre through [Nichols’] eyes,’ adding generously that ‘in so far as I managed to learn anything about the theatre [...] I learned it from Peter.’57 Nichols himself was not impressed by Copenhagen as a piece of theatre, and apparently told Frayn as much in a letter. Frayn replied that while he could not argue with Nichols’ reaction (‘things in the theatre either work for you or they don’t’58) he wanted to answer his criticism: ‘I should have thought the play was a descendent of Joe Egg, and that I am indebted to your ideas in the very way you mention: the characters all do at various points share their thoughts directly with the audience.’ Both Joe Egg and Copenhagen were directed by Michael Blakemore, who had by 1998 become as closely associated with Frayn as he had once been with Nichols. The connections between the work of these two playwrights has not yet been investigated. For the Orwell play, Nichols wanted a cast of five or six, with one actor impersonating Orwell and the rest shifting roles as the text demanded. At this point, Nichols planned to make the director responsible for dividing the speeches between the actors, and intended that every time a new actor began to speak, it would mean that a new piece was being recited. Nichols explained that ‘the material is not in order of composition but is grouped around the events of his life.’ ‘In fact,’ he added, ‘this does tend to present the works somewhat in the order in which they were written, with some striking exceptions.’ He promised that the selection ‘will give a story of his life and his development as a writer and
57 58

Ursula Canton, interivew with Michael Frayn <> Frayn to Nichols, 26 July 1998 (Peter Nichols papers, folder 79121, British Library)


won’t need a word to be added by me or anyone else.’ Finally, he had given the play a name: ‘I first wanted to call [it] The Lion and the Unicorn,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘but second thoughts have thrown up Beasts of England, the revolutionary song in Animal Farm.’59 This outline suggests an exceptionally austere evening at the theatre. When Nichols wrote the full draft, he maintained the spare staging, but decided to allocate the parts to three men and one woman, identified as ‘Orwell’, ‘First’, ‘Second’, and ‘Actress’. He also broke up the text of the pieces between the voices, transforming Beasts of England from a staged ‘Collected Works’ into a distinctive arrangement for four voices. In the best scenes, Nichols teases out the separate voices within a single essay, turning monologue into mellifluous dialogue. He has an eye for the fault-lines in Orwell’s writing, and the scenes gain momentum, shape, and rhythm as the actors pass Orwell’s voice between them.

The ‘Biography’ Problem When Tynan wrote a production schedule for the National Theatre’s 1972-1973 season on 12 May, 1972, he had the ‘New’ company beginning rehearsals for Beasts of England on 1 April 1973, and opening on 9 May.60 Nichols, Tynan, and Sonia Orwell met again on 24 May 1972, this time at her home, with an agent for the Orwell estate in attendance. Tynan arrived late, leaving Nichols to fend for himself. The agent told him ‘at once’ that the selection of pieces ‘was more biographical than they’d been given to expect.’ Nonplussed, Nichols replied that ‘this hadn’t been the idea from the start but turned out to be the best way.’61 When Tynan arrived, he assured Orwell and the agent that the piece ‘wasn’t to be seen as definitive,’ but, as Nichols puts it, ‘a personal view of a writer I admired.’62

59 60

Nichols, Diaries, p. 236 Kenneth Tynan, production schedule, 12 May 1972 (Tynan Archive, British Library) 61 Nichols, Diaries, p. 240 62 Nichols, Diaries, p. 240


George Orwell had demanded in his will that no biography be written of him. Sonia Orwell’s biographer Hilary Spurling explains that Orwell ‘gave her no warning beforehand about this provision, which would cause more trouble than anything else in the whole document.’63 The reasons for Orwell’s injunction remain mysterious. It quickly proved untenable, and Sonia Orwell appointed Malcolm Muggeridge to be Orwell’s official biographer, apparently on the assumption that as a full-time editor and television presenter, he would not have time to complete the project. Sure enough, he quickly gave up. Two would-be biographers, Peter Stansky, a history professor at Stanford University, and Michael Abrahams, the west coast editor of the Atlantic Monthly, were forbidden by the estate from quoting any of Orwell’s work in their two-volume life, The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation. Meanwhile, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus edited the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, presenting the writing chronologically so that his reviews and longer essays were interspersed with the letters. Sonia Orwell intended the collection ‘to read like a novel’ and forestall demand for a biography.64 Instead, the excitement that greeted publication of the Collected Essays made the demand for a biography even more pressing. At the beginning of the 1970s, with The Unknown Orwell about to be published, there no longer seemed to be any point in adhering to the terms of the will. So, just as Nichols was beginning research for Beasts of England, Sonia Orwell decided to appoint a second official biographer. She commissioned Bernard Crick after he reviewed Miriam Gross’s The World of George Orwell in The New Statesman in October 1971.65 Crick liked the book (a collection of essays on Orwell by different writers) but lambasted what he referred to as the ‘so-called Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of


Hilary Spurling, The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 100 64 Gordon Bowker, George Orwell, (London: Little Brown, 2003), p. 427 65 Bernard Crick, ‘On the Orwell Trail’, Essays on Politics and Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1989), p. 213


George Orwell’.66 According to Crick’s assessment, ‘the best one can say is that it is a good amateur job, but incomplete, and is now an obstacle to a genuine collected works.’67 However, he concluded optimistically that ‘the time may not be far off when there can be a full biography and a proper critical appraisal.’68 Sonia Orwell, who had never met Crick or read any of his other work, commissioned him to write the biography that he was hoping for. Sonia Orwell discovered Crick in October 1971 and signed the contract for the biography in 1973, meaning that the Orwell estate’s negotiations with Crick were almost exactly concurrent with their negotiations with Nichols and the National Theatre. When Crick finished the draft of his manuscript in 1978, Sonia Orwell tried unsuccessfully to withdraw the commission. Crick’s biography, George Orwell: A Life was published in 1980. His relationship with Sonia Orwell had disintegrated: ‘By the time the book was being printed,’ Crick writes, ‘she was dying from cancer, and obsessed with dislike of the book and with self-reproach for breaking Orwell’s expressed wish. And she and I had not spoken for eighteen months. It all went very sad and sour.’69

Impersonation Nichols’ play, an arrangement of already-published material, could not possibly have turned up the kind of compromising information that a biography might. In fact, Nichols argued in a 1983 Times article that ‘in cobbling together my Orwell show, Beasts of England, I honoured the wish expressed in his will that he wanted no biographies,’ adding ‘it seemed to me that none was needed, that his life story character and opinions were to be found in what he had written.’70 If the Collected Essays were intended to ‘stand in’ for a biography, then Nichols’ play, a ‘sedulous anthology’71 drawn solely from the four-volume set and
66 67

quoted in Bernard Crick, ‘On the Orwell Trail’, p. 214 Crick, ‘Orwell Trail’, p. 214 68 Crick, ‘Orwell Trail’, p. 214 69 Crick, ‘Orwell Trail’, p. 217 70 Nichols, ‘Tracing Orwell’, p. 6 71 Nichols, ‘Tracing Orwell’, p. 6


Orwell’s two novels, should have received the Orwell estate’s blessing, but for the problem of impersonation. Unlike a book, whose contents the Orwell estate could either approve or disapprove, a play contains the unpredictable elements of performance. A script is no guarantee of what will take place on stage, as Sonia Orwell would have realised. Her situation was similar to that of one of the Lord Chamberlain’s censors: she needed to anticipate all the possibilities that might be implied by the script. The paucity of stage directions in Nichols’ austere piece would have raised her suspicions: she would have inferred that most of the blocking would be left to the director’s discretion, at which point she would have already signed away her veto. The question of how a historical figure will be portrayed is a justifiable concern for the executors of their estate. When the actor and writer Antony Sher adapted Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (about Levi’s imprisonment in Auschwitz) for the stage, he was told that the executors of Levi’s estate were ‘difficult’. ‘Well, my feeling is good,’ Sher wrote, they’re right to be very, very protective of his work. The flesh crawls at the thought of what some people might do with the material, particularly in terms of ‘dramatisations’.72 Obviously, Nichols and Sher were in radically different situations: Beasts of England is in no way comparable to the staging of a Holocaust narrative. Even so, the impersonation of Orwell onstage was almost guaranteed to offend somebody, and a National Theatre production (opening at the Old Vic before it toured, according to Tynan’s schedule) could have made national news if even a few critics decided that it denigrated Orwell’s memory. Bernard Crick describes coming under criticism from many who knew Orwell for not capturing the man’s ‘character’ in his biography, though the ‘characters’ that his critics ascribed to Orwell were mutually contradictory.73 For his part, Crick himself later complained about the director Nigel Williams’ ‘inexcusable’ decision to read

72 73

Anthony Sher, Primo Time (London: Nick Hern Books, 2005), p. 20 Crick, ‘Orwell and the Business of Biography’, British Studies Distinguished lecture, University of Texas at Austin. (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, 1996), p. 13


extracts from Orwell’s writing in his television programme, ‘Orwell Remembered’: ‘Williams has the would-be classless, flat-vowelled, modern South London accent, invented by Paul Scofield,’ Crick wrote. ‘Orwell spoke in an upper-class military accent.’74 If Nichols’ play were perceived to tarnish, sensationalise, or cheapen Orwell’s writing, Sonia Orwell would be held responsible, and it would be generally assumed that she had sold out her husband’s reputation for material gain (when there is suspicion of profiteering, literary widows are invariably treated as guilty until proven innocent). Sonia Orwell was therefore faced with what may be the quintessential choice of the literary executor: whether to risk the anger of (possibly) the entire nation by supporting a work that might be declared a travesty (and this is always a risk in biography of the recently-dead), or to antagonise a relatively small group of professionals (in this case, Peter Nichols and the National Theatre staff). When Sonia Orwell raised her concerns about the impersonation at her meeting with Tynan and Nichols, Tynan shrewdly asked her what actor she would cast as Orwell. She proposed Paul Scofield, ‘which hadn’t occurred to either of us,’ Nichols confessed in his diary, ‘but seemed good casting’75 (though it might have upset Bernard Crick). It seemed to Nichols that there had been a breakthrough in negotiations. ‘This possibility of seeing him embody her husband seemed to wash away most of her objections,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and she agreed not to interfere any more.’76 According to a bizarre rumour, recounted in Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper?, the CIA had a similar experience with Sonia Orwell in the 1950s when they acquired the film rights to Animal Farm by promising that she could meet Clark Gable.77 Gordon Bowker points out that the anecdote is unverifiable, and believes it may have come from a joke by Sonia Orwell. She
74 75

Crick, ‘Orwell Trail’, p. 213 Nichols, Diaries, p. 240 76 Nichols, Diaries, p. 240 77 Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta, 1999) pp. 293-294. Saunders’ account of the adaptation of the script is chilling.


was appalled by the film and prevented it from being distributed to schools and colleges.78 Animal Farm and the film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (also supported by the CIA) had been the only major Orwell adaptations when Nichols was writing Beasts of England.79 These films could not have prejudiced her in favour of any further adaptations of her late husband’s work. Nevertheless, five days after their meeting, Sonia Orwell wrote a short note to Nichols thanking him for his ‘incredible patience’ with her.80 She assured him that she was ‘frightfully pleased at the idea of having a theatrical arrangement of George’s work,’ and, having aired her concerns at the meeting, appeared to endorse the play without reservation: I’m sure you did realise that the one thing I could never have done would be to veto work into which someone had put a huge amount of effort, which was why I felt I had to express any doubts first, and I do now consider it your Orwell evening, and shouldn’t dream of interfering. Sonia Orwell’s informal approval was corroborated by a letter to Tynan from Mark Hamilton, agent for the Orwell estate. The letter seems like a straightforward agreement, but for a few faint equivocations: Peter Nichols, with the reservations we discussed between us, does have the Orwell Estate’s approval to go ahead with THE WORLD OF GEORGE ORWELL [the play’s working title]. The reservations for the most part concerned the concentration on the personal element in the outline which Peter had prepared. We do realise that Orwell has got to be personalised in such a show, but it was good of Peter to agree to do without one or two personal letters which we felt unnecessary.81 He added a comment that could be interpreted as either encouraging or threatening: While Sonia has absolutely no intention of reserving for herself the right of veto from now onwards, she was very appreciative of Peter offering to

78 79

Bowker, Orwell, p. 423 the Royal Shakespeare Company had acquired the rights to Animal Farm but had not produced it. The NT eventually produced a successful adaptation of Animal Farm directed by Peter Hall in 1984 (Peter Lewis, The National: A Dream Made Concrete (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 169) 80 Orwell to Nichols, 30 May 1972 (Nichols papers, folder 78944, British Library) 81 Mark Hamilton to Kenneth Tynan (undated) (Nichols papers, folder 78944, Br. Library)


keep in touch with her to let her know how things are going, and perhaps to seek her advice.82 The NT’s general manager, Anthony Easterbrook, forwarded Hamilton’s letter to Peggy Ramsay on 16 June 1972. His covering letter indicates that the NT understood the matter of Sonia Orwell’s ‘veto’ to have been settled: I had hoped quite quickly after that to have had a letter establishing that Mrs Orwell did not any longer intend to exercise any veto on anything that Peter might write. It has just come to hand, and I send you a photocopy herewith.83 Easterbrook recommended that Ramsay arrange a contract with the Orwell estate. Contract negotiations focused on two issues: there was the matter of what portion of the royalties should go to Orwell (whom one could regard as the ‘composer’), and what should go to Nichols (the ‘arranger’); and there was the task of unravelling the tendrils that fastened the rights to Orwell’s individual works to an assortment of people and organisations. According to Hamilton’s recommendation, Ramsay negotiated the contract with Robin Dalton, proposing that Nichols arrange a ‘straight contract’ with the NT, based on the contract for The National Health. This would separate the matter of individual copyrights from the contract itself. She proposed that Nichols and the Orwell estate split the royalties evenly.84 As Ramsay told Nichols, ‘I think this 50/50 is fair, because you have to do all the work and Orwell doesn’t have to move a finger.’85 Faced with the task of negotiating for her client against a dead literary giant, Ramsay chose to regard the already-iconic Orwell merely as a rival agent’s client: ‘This is in no way to underestimate Orwell, who is a major talent,’ she explained to Dalton. ‘But no literary talent draws in the theatre, as you know

82 83

Mark Hamilton to Tynan (undated) (Nichols papers, folder 78944, Br. Library) Anthony Easterbrook to Ramsay, 16 June 1972 (Nichols papers folder 79107 Br. Library) 84 Ramsay to Robin Dalton 29 June 1972 (Nichols papers, folder 79107, Br. Library) 85 Ramsay to Robin Dalton 11 July 1972 (Nichols papers, folder 79107, Br. Library)


– I wish they did.’86 Furthermore, she argued that holding Nichols to using only Orwell’s words made his task more difficult, not less: I purposely told you beforehand that Peter is using only Orwell’s words, which I’m sure you’ll agree gives one an exceedingly difficult task of how this can be done. Orwell will speak from the stage, not Peter. This may superficially sound as if Orwell was doing all the work, but in fact Peter is doing it all but allowing Orwell only to speak.87 She also emphasised the (perhaps more persuasive) point that the show offered publicity as well as profit to the Orwell estate. When the contract was signed, the royalties were split 50-50 between Nichols and the Orwell estate.88 Copyright proved surprisingly easy to acquire. Ronald Bryden, now at the Royal Shakespeare Company, felt that the production could only increase demand for the Animal Farm musical that the company was planning.89 In fact, he was so excited about Beasts of England that he tried to arrange a meeting between Nichols and Stansky and Abrahams.90 The other holders of film and theatre rights to individual works seem to have agreed with Bryden that an ‘anthology’ would, if anything, whet audiences’ appetites for individual works. After several revisions, Tom Erhardt sent four copies of the contract to Peter Nichols on 6 October 1972.91 That evening, Nichols and his wife Thelma went to a party at the home of William Mostyn-Owen and Gaia Servadio. Among the guests were Alistair Burnett, Robert Lowell, and Sonia Orwell. Just before leaving his house, Nichols had watched a TV documentary about Edward Heath and was surprised to learn that the Prime Minister had fought in the Spanish Civil War on the ‘Loyalist’ side. At the party, Nichols found himself hovering around the inner circle of celebrity, ‘like some rugby-player waiting at a

86 87

Ramsay to Robin Dalton, 11 July 1972 (Nichols papers, folder 79107, Br. Library) Ramsay to Robin Dalton, 11 July 1972 (Nichols papers, folder 79107, Br. Library) 88 Contract between Peter Nichols and Estate of Geoge Orwell, September 1972 (Nichols papers folder 79191, British Library) 89 Ramsay to Robin Dalton 29 June 1972, (Nichols papers, folder 79107, Br. Library) 90 Ronald Bryden to Nichols, 11 September 1972 (Nichols papers folder 78944, Br. Library) 91 Tom Erhardt to Peter Nichols, 6 October 1972 (Nichols papers folder 79098, Br. Library)


scrum for the ball to emerge.’92 By a stroke of luck, the conversation turned to a subject about which he had recently acquired some expertise: “[I] thought I


Nichols, Diaries, p. 267


heard a hostile remark about Heath and tried to get a foothold,” his diary reports: ‘I was surprised to find he was on the Loyalist side,’ I said. ‘What?’ snapped Sonia, turning to look at me. ‘Well, I mean, fighting for Franco.’ ‘No, dear, she explained, ‘the Loyalists were against Franco.’ Having revealed my confused grasp of the Civil War [...] I should have retired from the field without digging an even deeper hole. Instead I tried to explain that I thought it meant they were loyal to the throne, not Caballero’s government [...] I was about to creep away when Thelma shouted, ‘So whose side was Orwell on?’93 Thelma Nichols had never met Sonia Orwell and did not realise she was attending the party. With the Beasts of England contract sent to the Orwell estate just that day, their timing could not have been worse. The contract was finalised on 16 October94 but Sonia Orwell decided to unofficially revoke her “no-veto” promise. On 20 October she wrote to Nichols: I look forward to seeing the script and just hope we won’t have tearful “words” about it !! But the fact is that I’m not in any way satisfied in fact I’m incapable of judging how a written text actually plays! One of the biggest shocks of my life was the first time I actually saw a Shakespeare play! So you are warned!95 At the bottom of the letter she added: “Nonetheless I shall of course comment vigorously!!” Nichols’ next move was extraordinary. When Peggy Ramsay mailed the first and only draft of his script to Sonia Orwell, Nichols apparently sent an accompanying letter which contained the following proposition: The next stage of the game would involve us in placing the play with a company. The National people are known for blowing hot and cold, so one might try the Aldwych or the Royal Court. In my opinion, the last would be the best for an evening of this kind [...] But this is only if you approve in general terms. In any case, I look forward to hearing your comments, although there’s no rush.96
93 94

Nichols, Diaries, pp. 267-268 Easterbrooke to Margaret Ramsay, 11 Apr. 1973 (Nichols papers folder 79107, British Library) 95 Orwell to Nichols, 20 Oct. 1972 (Nichols papers folder 78944, British Library) 96 Nichols to Orwell, 1 Feb 1973 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78944, British Library)


Beasts of England had been a National Theatre venture since Tynan proposed it in 1971. It does not seem credible that Nichols would have attempted to double-cross the company that had commissioned the piece or that he would have tried to ally himself with the Orwell estate. The letter in the Nichols archive is only a draft, so he may never have sent it. If Nichols did send it, it failed to win Orwell over. A week later she sent a confidential letter to Peggy Ramsay in which, according to Ramsay, she explained that ‘she doesn’t like the way it’s been adapted and asks me to tell her what she should do.’97 Nichols decided to give up the project, writing ‘I’m relieved not to have to pander any more to the widow’s whims.’98 At the time, Ramsay said she could not say anything specific about the letter, since it was confidential. In our interview, Nichols told me that Sonia Orwell rejected the script instantly, saying ‘I couldn’t read any further once I’d seen the stage direction in which you had George coming on saying he was wearing a Viyella shirt. I mean George was a DANDY!’99 Nichols took Orwell’s costume from George Woodcock’s George Orwell: The Crystal Spirit.100 Orwell is not widely remembered as a ‘dandy’, but the particular description was probably less alarming than the fact of its specificity: once again, it was the idea of impersonation itself that made Sonia Orwell wary. Ramsay did not appear to have a great deal of respect for Sonia Orwell (she memorably refers to her as ‘Tugboat Sonia’ in a letter to Nichols101 ) but a few years after Beasts of England she was able to use their acquaintance to help another of her clients, Robert Holman, who wrote a play about Orwell entitled Outside the Whale, which opened at the Traverse Theatre in 1976. According to Colin Chambers, Ramsay ‘introduced him to Sonia Orwell, who made the play possible.’102
97 98

Nichols, Diaries, p. 294 Nichols, Diaries, p. 294 99 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 100 Nichols, ‘Tracing Orwell to the Source’. See George Woodcock, The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (1966, reprinted London: Fourth Estate, 1984), pp. 25-26 101 Peggy Ramsay to Peter Nichols, 16 April 1973 (Nichols papers folder 79098, British Library) 102 Colin Chambers, Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay... (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 218


‘A wine-soaked lunch’ Incredibly, Beasts of England was still not quite dead after Sonia Orwell’s ‘veto’. Peter Hall discovered the manuscript among the scripts in the National Theatre at the beginning of 1973, and wrote to Anthony Easterbrook in February to see if it could be staged. ‘I like it very much, Hall wrote: ‘The shape is not fulfilled and a director needs to work with Nichols. But I believe it could be very fine.’103 Hall wrote to Nichols encouraging him to take up the project again, assuring the playwright that he would speak to Sonia Orwell and convince her to let the NT produce it. Nichols was not hopeful, and had told Ramsay that he was sick of the whole business. But the thought of an Orwell play had the same intoxicating effect on Hall as it initially had on Nichols and Tynan. ‘The extraordinary thing about Orwell was that he had a journalist’s ability to be in the place where history was happening,’ Hall recorded in his diary: As the Empire was collapsing he was in Burma. [...] At the time of the Civil War, he was in Spain. He was an Etonian socialist who hated authority. He wanted there to be a revolution, yet hated the totalitarian government which was apparently the only way of maintaining it.104 Hall observed that ‘all this is tremendous stuff for a play,’ and added, ‘My point with Peter Nichols was that Sonia Orwell will be offended whatever he does. And I believe she is less likely to object if the play is Peter Nichols’s view of Orwell and does not masquerade as a documentary.’105 Three days later he wrote to Nichols to tell him that he had checked the contract with the Orwell estate: ‘As far as I see it,’ he said, ‘there is nothing to stop you using any of the Orwell material in any way that you think fit.’106 He added, however, that since it would be better ‘to have her approval rather than her disapproval’, he would meet with her the following week. The meeting, on 4 April, was not a success. On 11 April 1973 Anthony Easterbrook wrote to Peggy Ramsay to say that the NT formally relinquished its

103 104

Peter Hall to Anthony Easterbrook, 12 Feb 1973 (NT archive, folder D16) Peter Hall, Diaries , p. 36 105 Peter Hall, Diaries, p. 36 106 Peter Hall to Peter Nichols, 20 March 1973 (Nichols papers 78944 British Library, London)


rights to the play.107 On 26 April Hall wrote to Nichols to tell him that ‘Sonia was so worried and so full of doubts, that I judge it better that we forget the whole thing – at least for the moment. She does not want to proceed with it.’108 He added that if Nichols wanted to return to it in a few months, he would support him. Hall’s diary reports the meeting more colourfully: A wine-soaked lunch with Sonia Orwell on the subject of Peter Nichols’s play. It is clear she is miserable about the draft. She kept acidly referring to Nichols as a middlebrow playwright. [...] I was so rapidly bored by Sonia Orwell that on impulse I agreed with her that we shouldn’t go on with the play.109 However, Hall’s letter to Nichols ended by reiterating the request that Tynan had made in 1971: ‘is there something you would like to write for the South Bank opening? You should be in the repertory there.’110 Nichols replied enthusiastically to Hall’s suggestion: ‘I hope that some time soon we may have a more successful idea,’ he wrote, and added ‘I am keen on my traffic play and shall go ahead with it.’111

107 108

Anthony Easterbrook to Peggy Ramsay 11 April 1973, (PN papers 79107) Peter Hall to Peter Nichols, 26 April 1973 (PN Papers 78944, British Library, London) 109 Peter Hall, Diaries, p. 39 110 Peter Hall to Peter Nichols, 26 April 1973 (PN Papers 78944, British Library, London) 111 Nichols to Hall, 24 April 1973 (NT Archive folder D16)


Chapter 4 Traffic Jam: The Freeway Peter Nichols’ ‘traffic idea’ became The Freeway, his second and final play to be produced by the National Theatre, and his first critical and box-office failure to be produced anywhere (after a four-play streak of hits beginning with A Day in the Death of Joe Egg). In his collected plays, Nichols remarks that as far as he knows, The Freeway was the first play written about a traffic jam.1 ‘In view of its critical reception,’ he adds, ‘[it] may well be the last.’2 The play did not fail for lack of relevance: between 1955 and 1965 the number of cars in Britain increased from 3.6 million to nearly 9 million,3 and according to the programme that the NT produced for the show, by the end of 1973 Britain had 19 ½ million licensed drivers.4 Dominic Sandbrook reports that concern about traffic was so widespread that when Penguin published Colin Buchanan’s government report Traffic in Towns, ‘which called for the restructuring of city centres to cope with the enormous growth of car ownership,’ it became a bestseller.5 In 1969 Michael Blakemore addressed the theme in his novel, Next Season: in the final chapter, the protagonist returns to London after six months performing in a small seaside town, to find that ‘the traffic seemed to have become more noisy, clogged and noxious than ever’: He watched the vehicles stream past, unable to resist the feeling that something dreadful was happening to this city, something which all the people in it had agreed to overlook, and for no better reason than that each of them owned or aspired to own what collectively was the cause of it: the motorcar.6


It was not actually the first: it was preceded by Roger Cardiff’s Canned Humans (and possibly by others as well). Cardiff complained to Peter Hall when The Freeway opened (see Peter Hall to Roger Cardiff, 9 October 1974, NT archive folder D7). 2 Peter Nichols, The Freeway, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 409. 3 Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had it so Good (London: Little Brown, 2005), p. 114. 4 The Freeway programme, (NT archive). Statistics attributed to the Departmet of the Environment. 5 Sandbrook, Never Had it so Good , p. 687. In The Freeway, a massive traffic jam which has been blamed on industrial action turns out to be the result of the inability of Britain’s road network to support the growing number of cars. 6 Michael Blakemore, Next Season (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969), p. 359


But despite sharing Nichols’ anxiety about the proliferation of cars, Blakemore decided not to direct The Freeway, citing the strain that past productions had put on his friendship with the playwright.’7 The Freeway was more didactic than any of Nichols’ earlier plays. While his previous scripts had developed from single images or fragments of memory, The Freeway was, from the beginning, an exploration of the ideal of ‘freedom’. Among Nichols’ preliminary notes for the script is a sheet of paper with a handwritten quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn which encapsulates his theme: Yes, of course, freedom is moral. But only if it keeps within certain bounds, beyond which it degenerates into complacency and licentiousness. And order is not immoral, if it means a calm and stable system. But order too has its limits, beyond which it degenerates into arbitrariness and tyranny.8 The Freeway is an exploration of these twin ideas, which Nichols would return to in 1979 with Born in the Gardens. However these ideas are all that the two plays have in common: The Freeway is a dystopian fantasy with a 33-person cast, while Born in the Gardens is a four-person play set in a sitting room in Bristol. The ‘freeway’ of the title is the ‘F1’, a superhighway that stretches from southern England to northern Scotland, and the play takes place in the midst of a traffic jam which lasts for three days before the minister of transport orders everybody to leave their keys in their cars and evacuate, a plan given the official title ‘Operation Dunkirk’.9 Though Nichols sets the play in an indeterminate future (indicated chiefly by a few unfamiliar slang terms, and costumes which ‘are imaginative developments of present styles’10), the political context is that of the mid-1970s: early in the play, an ‘Autoguard’ assures the trapped motorists that ‘over the past few years the British motorist has weathered a
7 8

Blakemore to Ramsay, 30 December 1973 (Nichols papers folder 79107, British Library) Nichols papers, folder 78963, British Library 9 Nichols, Freeway, p. 498 10 Nichols, Freeway, p. 414


good few crises, what with our Arab friends; and the unions [...] but one way or another he’s kept on the move.’11 Both of these references would have been familiar in 1974, when the production opened. In October 1973, OPEC imposed an oil embargo during the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt, quadrupling the price of oil in Britain.12 The following January coal miners went on strike for the second winter in a row, cutting off the coal supply with Britain’s oil pipelines still empty. When the script arrived at the NT, Peter Hall recognised the play’s topicality and recommended that it be performed at the Old Vic rather than wait for the National Theatre’s South Bank venue to open.13 Nichols seems to have been sceptical about established unions. Responding to a power cut resulting from an electrical workers’ strike in 1970, Nichols wrote ‘I don’t blame them if they’re trying to bring down the Tories but I’m almost certain they aren’t.’’14 In The Freeway, after an (off-stage) strike for a wage increase is settled, an ex-shop steward complains ‘they’ll get their money and buy all manner of crap and wreck the place they live and buy some goddam car and drive off and wreck some other place. [...] I watched the greedy bastards run the world,’ he concludes, ‘and I watched them turn the rest into greedy bastards too.’15 The name of the union that is blamed for the traffic jam – the ‘wreckers’ and breakers union’ – is itself a reference to an economy based on disposable goods. As a more radical alternative to the unions, Nichols offers the ‘Scrubbers’, a neo-Luddite group whose direct action is blamed for the traffic jam. A newsreader delivers the official explanation: The incident began with two ordinary collisions, each involving less than thirty vehicles, but rescuers arrived to find the terrorists already occupying the wreckage. Mobile mercy teams were given access to clear the dead and wounded, although the Scrubbers have remained in

11 12

Nichols, Freeway, p. 433 Kenneth O. Morgan, Britain Since 1945..., 3rd ed. ( Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), p. 346 13 Margaret Ramsay to Peter Nichols, 19 April 1974 (Margaret Ramsay Papers, British Library) 14 Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000), p. 114 15 Nichols, Freeway, p. 505


position, blocking the Northbound Freeway, chanting slogans and [...] exposing their private parts to the watching newsmen.16 The newsreader’s apparently automatic use of the word ‘terrorist’ and the matter-of-fact description of police violence are perhaps more resonant today than they would have been in 1974. Later in the play, a nurse who is escorting a wounded Scrubber explains how he was injured: this fellow was in a group that started taking off their clothes and walking out to embrace the guards and offering posies of wayside flowers. One of the patrolmen panicked and fired three times in self-defence.’17 Rather than setting the play among the Scrubbers, Nichols shows how a group of relatively un-committed civilians respond to them. Les Lorimer, a die-hard trade unionist, fumes that ‘they’re no better than the A-rabs,’18 while the elderly, ultra-upper class, ultra-right wing Nancy insists ‘I deplore the Scrubbers’ methods, but their message makes sense. They want a return to a hardier, simpler way of life.’19 But her son James, a conservative peer who goes hunting with the Prime Minister, dismisses them with a cynical but convincing argument: Their puritanical performances on television, together with some fashionable indecency, have won them a measure of popular support. But I have always maintained that if the electorate heard their argument, they would see that it demands self-sacrifice. And seeing that, they would reject it.20 It is this conception of the body politic that tips the play from being a portrait to being a prognostication. Over a decade before Margaret Thatcher told Britain that there was no such thing as ‘society’, Nichols realised that the solidarity required for the welfare state was being undermined by a vision of everexpanding freedom of consumer choice, courtesy of liberal capitalism. ‘What is the essence of a first-rate civilisation?’ James asks, and then answers his own question:

16 17

Nichols, Freeway, p. 440 Nichols, Freeway, p. 464 18 Nichols, Freeway, p. 465 19 Nichols, Freeway, p. 466 20 Nichols, Freeway, p. 465


Surely it is that the greatest number of choices is given to the greatest number of citizens. Ever-proliferating democratic profusion. In other words, the free way.21 Within this doctrine, the car is ‘the most powerful democratic instrument yet conceived,’22 public transport is a violation of personal freedom, and accordingly, the government cuts off funding for social services. When the characters learn that the wounded scrubber is being taken to an NHS hospital, one exclaims ‘Poor bastard!’23 James calls the Freeway ‘the only single issue on which all parties are prepared to sacrifice every principle.’24 On the eve of the first Gulf War in 1990, Nichols observed how destructive this doctrine had become: ‘Britain is about to join a crusade,’ he wrote, ‘to save the holy oil that America and the rest of us burn day and night in a sort of ecstasy of destruction.’25

A Static Play about cars Neither the play’s attractiveness as a cultural artefact nor its prescience necessarily made it a stimulating evening at the theatre. Many plays are politically interesting but dramatically dull, and The Freeway seems to be one of them. In an interview with William Demastes in 1974, Nichols offered the following explanation for its failure: The Freeway is the most overtly political play I wrote, and it was a flop. Though I like it very much, it didn’t settle with the public or the critics. It was a flawed effort, but it wasn’t to do with the political message. It was about the car, and the car is an instrument of mobility. And what I had to do to get it on stage was make it static. I should have had one static act. One would have done, and the next should’ve been mobile. They should’ve left the freeway jam and gone away and tried to make their way through the countryside [...] Instead I set it and left it there, and the play died of inertia, as a traffic jam would!’26
21 22

Nichols, Freeway, p. 502 Nichols, Freeway, p. 469 23 Nichols, Freeway, p. 464 24 Nichols, Freeway, p. 491 25 Nichols, ‘Introduction’, The Freeway, p. 410 26 William Demastes, ‘Peter Nichols on His Art, Politics and Peers: An Interview,’ Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. 3 No. 1 (1988), pp. 101-11, p. 107


Adding to this sense of unfulfilled potential, Nichols’ ‘futuristic’ devices are unwieldy: a trendy young couple, for example, uses ‘Krishna’ as a light expletive, and people send each other ‘interbuzzes’, which seems to be Nichols’ term for ‘mobile phone’.27 There is a palpable lack of continuity in the script, explained in part by the fact that the Lorimer family come directly from Nichols’ television play The Gorge, as does their relationship with the patrician Nancy and James. A substantial portion of the dialogue was lifted directly from The Gorge. Understandably this incensed one viewer, who wrote to Nichols, complaining ‘I went to the Old Vic to see a new play called “The Freeway”. Not a reworking (and a distortion) of a previous play.’28 Nichols replied, admitting that ‘certainly, there are scenes from ‘The Gorge’ in ‘The Freeway’ and I would, if you twisted my arm, admit that they’re the least successful on the stage.’29 Nichols was glad to have such a straightforward criticism to answer, and he responded at length: I have obviously thought a lot about the reasons for our bad press and poor response. I believe it may be that the play makes gloomy predictions in a cheerful way. People prefer their futurism to be more like “1984”. They don’t want social comedy to be hereafter. But why not? People change slower than techniques. The people in my play are of today, their attitudes are today’s, while they are being overwhelmed by tomorrow’s junk.30 Nichols touches on an interesting point: the play is a peculiar hybrid of apocalyptic politics with comedy. It is surely one of the only futuristic dystopias to indulge in recurring toilet jokes. Though the distinction between the so-called ‘committed’ and ‘mainstream’ theatres in the 1970s has been grossly overstated, the combination of social commentary and social comedy may in this instance have seemed unacceptable. Generic transgressiveness is characteristic of all Nichols’ most interesting plays but it is especially
27 28

Nichols, The Freeway, p. 421 Andrew Ellis to Peter Nichols, 13 Nov. 1974 (Nichols papers, folder 78964, Br. Library) 29 Nichols to Andrew Ellis, 19 Nov. 1974 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers, folder 78964, Br. Library) 30 Nichols to Andrew Ellis, 19 Nov. 1974 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers, folder 78964, Br. Library)


disconcerting in The Freeway because it is unmarked. When A Day in the Death of Joe Egg explodes out from the confines of a realistic play set in a sitting room into a series of music-hall style set-pieces, the transformation is obvious and startling. Similarly, the soap opera scenes in The National Health and pastiche Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, and Carmen Miranda songs in Privates on Parade are self-consciously transgressive (in at least two senses of the word). The Freeway, on the other hand, plays subtly with generic conventions. By refusing to call attention to the play’s hybridity, Nichols exacerbates its disruptive power without turning it into an asset. In his Sunday Telegraph review, Frank Marcus said he had expected ‘the characters to be mouthpieces of conflicting points of view,’ as in the work of George Bernard Shaw, but instead found Nichols attempting ‘to resolve his dilemma in terms of naturalistic domestic comedy: two mutually exclusive forms of drama forced into the same frame.’ According to Marcus, the playwright had ‘shed his customary ploys – direct address to the audience and interpolated fantasy sequences – in the very play that needs them.’31 Irving Wardle later praised Privates on Parade as ‘altogether the kind of piece George Orwell might have turned out for the Carry On team,’32 but The Freeway, which might be described as ‘Carry On up Airstrip One’, seems to have transgressed too far (or not far enough).

Nichols and Blakemore In August 1973, the NT tentatively scheduled The Freeway to open in November 1974.33 They had not yet seen the script, but the actual opening of the play only shifted by one month, to October 1974. Nichols gave Blakemore a draft to read, which Blakemore passed on to John Russell Brown, who thought that though the script needed work, ‘its basic idea, its characters and its

31 32

Frank Marcus, Review of The Freeway, Sunday Telegraph, 6 October 1974, p. 16 Irving Wardle, Review of Privates on Parade,Times, 23 February 1977, p. 12 33 Michael Blakemore to Peter Nichols, 20 August 1973 (Nichols papers folder 79119, British Library)


abundant flow of wit promise very well.’34 He commented thoroughly on the play and told Blakemore to pass along any suggestions that he might find helpful, though, he cautioned, ‘I have written for your eye rather than for his.’ Blakemore ignored this, and sent the full letter to Nichols along with the script.35 On 30 December, Blakemore wrote to Ramsay to say that he did not want to direct The Freeway. ‘This decision doesn’t spring from any sense of grievance,’ he assured her, ‘all that is happily asleep and I’d rather that it remain so. I just don’t feel strongly enough about the play to risk further collaboration.’36 He wrote to Ramsay rather than Nichols because he did not want to show ‘illwill as CHEZ NOUS goes into rehearsal.’ He added, ‘you will know better than I the right time to talk to him.’ Blakemore’s decision shocked Nichols, who had assumed he would direct it. His letter, like Blakemore’s, refers vaguely to an earlier feud: I [...] thought that by working apart we’d proved our independence and could now happily resume a partnership that really worked and came up with the goods. I wrote to you last year, if you remember, saying I thought we ought to swallow our differences and try to work together again because we were able to produce work of value that was both intelligent and entertaining.37 This feud had been developing for some time: what Blakemore calls his and Nichols’ ‘long drift towards estrangement’38 began with Blakemore’s resentment at not being credited with his contributions to the script of Joe Egg. Blakemore also felt that when the director for the Joe Egg film was being chosen, Nichols affixed his loyalties elsewhere: ‘my complaint is not that I am not making the film,’ Blakemore said, ‘though I believe I could have done it well. It is that your attitude towards my abilities has in a number of small ways been curiously ungenerous and forgetful.’ He felt that their relationship was unequal:

John Russell Brown to Michael Blakemore, 11 Oct 1973 (Nichols papers folder 78963, British Library) 35 Michael Blakemore to Peter Nichols, 29 November 1973 (Nichols papers folder 78964, British Library) 36 Blakemore to Ramsay, 30 December 1973 (Nichols papers folder 79107, British Library) 37 Nichols to Blakemore, 10 January 1974 (draft) (Nichols papers, folder 78964, British Library) 38 Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), p. 392


you are a person who expects and takes for granted a great deal in the way of interest, encouragement and occasionally practical help, and it astonishes me that you don’t consider other people might need a little of the same, too.39 He finished the letter by saying ‘I’m not writing to you to destroy a friendship. Rather, hopefully, to protect it.’ Nichols and Blakemore worked closely together during the run of The National Health, presenting a united front against constant pressure to close the play, and Blakemore agreed to direct Nichols’ next play, Forget-me-not Lane, at the Greenwich Theatre. By now, Nichols was beginning to fear that Blakemore was neglecting their collaborative work in order to advance his career at the NT.40 Matters came to a head in rehearsals for Forget-me-not Lane, where Blakemore felt Nichols was interfering too much. In an interview, Nichols told me his side of the story: He tried to keep me out of rehearsal and finally said to me in rehearsal one day, ‘this is my part of the show. You’ve written it, now I direct it.’ [...] My view of that was ‘that’s all very well but I’m a playwright. I’m not just a writer who writes something and then says ‘goodbye you go and do it,’ [...] and I often find them arguing about some point and think ‘well is nobody going to turn to me and ask me what I meant?’ [...] But Michael began to feel resentful of my presence and actually asked if I would not come in. [...] Contractually the director can’t keep us out, but in fact, of course, it doesn’t work out like that. If the director says ‘look, I’d like a couple of days without you,’ I always go away. [...] But it seems silly to me to go away and say ‘I’ll come back when it’s just about to go on’ because then it’s too late, they’ve done it.41 Playwrights (and screenwriters) face a contradiction unique among writers: the work that they produce is not a finished product, and (unlike, for example, a novel) is subject to interpretation before it reaches an audience. Nichols feels strongly that the purpose of any new production is to fulfil the author’s intentions (which can best be achieved by asking the author what they are). When Poppy

39 40

Blakemore to Nichols, 30 June 1968 ((Nichols papers, folder 79119, British Library) Nichols, Diaries, p. 116 41 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005


was in pre-production in 1982, Nichols instructed the director, Terry Hands, that ‘the first production of a play is not the occasion for a ‘version’ of the play. It should be the plainest statement possible.’42 After a traumatic rehearsal process (with Nichols frequently in attendance), Hands asked Peggy Ramsay ‘why oh why didn’t I keep him out like Blakemore?’43 Two of Nichols’ later plays, A Piece of My Mind and Blue Murder, address the problem of collaboration by putting it onstage, with the ‘actors’ arguing with the ‘playwright’ during the course of the play. In the second act of Blue Murder (in which a playwright and director have a meeting with the Lord Chamberlain’s readers, as Nichols and Blakemore did for Joe Egg) the director turns on the writer and delivers a tirade that fulfils Nichols’ anxiety about the relationship between writers and directors: ‘You need us more than we need you,’ he tells the playwright. ‘We’ve got two thousand years of dead playwrights to choose from. And those buggers don’t come to rehearsals’44 (Nichols directed Blue Murder himself). The director who says this line (named ‘Randy’) is a detestable character, and it is difficult not to connect him to Blakemore. There is also a character connected to Blakemore in Chez Nous, the first Nichols play that he did not direct. In this play, the character turns out to have committed statutory rape. Chez Nous is a pun on ‘Chez Magnou’, the French farmhouse that the Nichols’ bought in 1970 as a holiday home. In his introduction to the version published in his collected works, Nichols writes that visitors ‘came, tense from their journeys, aggressive and demanding, but after a few hours succumbed to the simple charms of the place, and to the cheap wine and Thelma’s food.’ He goes on: This process came slowest to directors. They found it hard to stop directing. In their company I was no better and power struggles soon spoilt the rugged calm. Out of these contests emerged the first draft of a play in August 1971.45
42 43

Nichols to Hands, 17 Jul 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Hands to Ramsay, 17 Jan 1983 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 44 Nichols, Blue Murder (London: Methuen 1996), p. 86 45 Nichols, Introduction to Chez Nous, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 4


During August 1971, Chez Magnou hosted the Blakemores and the Morahans in rapid succession. Nichols finished the first act while the Morahans were visiting,46 so it appears that Michael Blakemore and Christopher Morahan are the ‘directors’ to whom he refers. One of the key scenes in the play, in which three of the members of the party decide spontaneously to go skinny-dipping while the fourth (a writer) stays in the house to work, is an almost exact recreation of 4 August, 1971, when Blakemore, his wife Shirley, and Thelma returned to the house from a stroll and told him that they had been skinnydipping. ‘If they’d judged my mood better,’ Nichols’ diary records, ‘they’d have seen that the last news I wanted at that moment was that my wife had been nude bathing with a notorious voyeur.’47 The following day, on the other hand, when Blakemore received a telegram concerning Forget-me-not Lane, Nichols observed that ‘it was too late that night [to call] but he fretted all the same and perhaps it’s as well for me he does, as he’s in my corner, fighting to give the plays a fair chance in the dogfight that is showbiz.’48 There is a hint of sexual jealousy woven throughout Nichols’ and Blakemore’s relationship. Nichols was upset to learn in 1965 that Blakemore had kept a lengthy affair secret from him. Blakemore explained in a letter that he concealed it ‘not because I wanted it to remain a secret, but because, with you knowing Shirley so well, it seemed kind of disloyal.’49 Meanwhile, Blakemore was extremely attracted to Nichols’ wife Thelma: ‘as the new wife of a good friend she was surely out of bounds (and in this case would remain so),’ he writes in his autobiography, ‘but the problem of desire was one to which I could see no solution.’50 Reporting on one of the many Nichols-Blakemore rapprochements, Nichols describes receiving a card from the Blakemores in January 1975, which proposed that ‘those of us who are over the hill and failing

46 47

Nichols, Diaries, p. 174 Nichols, Diaries, p. 171 48 Nichols, Diaries, p. 172 49 Blakemore to Nichols, 6 September 1965 (Nichols papers, folder 79119, British Library) 50 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 243


fast need to stick together.’ ‘Thelma’s answer was better than mine,’ Nichols admits: ‘I invited him to dinner but she told him of her new nightdress that splits up the sides as far as her breasts.‘51 This helps explain the severity of Nichols’ reaction to the skinny-dipping incident, though his comment that ‘every time [Thelma] betrays me, however slightly, I feel a little more free’ seems excessive.52 In Chez Nous, he has his revenge on Blakemore at the end of the first act, when the visiting husband – who leads the skinny-dipping – turns out to have been having an affair with the other couple’s 13-year-old daughter. It is not surprising that, in Peggy Ramsay’s words, Blakemore was ‘a shade less enthusiastic about this play than the others.’53 This is not to reduce Blakemore’s response to exclusively personal terms, but one cannot disregard his personal relationship to the play. At the same time, Ramsay’s letter suggests that Blakemore wanted to continue their collaboration and, more specifically, their method of working: ‘he thought you could greatly improve it,’ Ramsay says, ‘first by doing a general second-draft, and then sitting down with him and tackling each scene as you went through.’54 Also, when I interviewed Nichols he told me that Blakemore chose not to direct Chez Nous not because of the script, but because Albert Finney (who starred in the play as well as produced it) ‘was a bit rude to him.’55 Three months after Ramsay’s letter, Nichols’ diary reports a telephone conversation with Blakemore: he had not yet read Beasts of England, he did not want to direct Forget-Me-Not Lane in America, and he was not enthusiastic about Chez Nous. ‘In other words,’ Nichols concluded, he feels no obligation to go on with our partnership or, as I’d put it, to help me when I need it [...] He claims rightly to have been more than a director

51 52

Nichols, Diaries, p. 393 Nichols, Diaries, p. 172 53 Peggy Ramsay to Peter Nichols, 21 August 1972 (Nichols papers folder 79098, British Library) 54 Peggy Ramsay to Peter Nichols, 21 August 1972 (Nichols papers folder 79098, British Library) 55 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005


of those plays, so if the result is a joint effort, and I acknowledge that, why quit when I’m going through these doldrums?’56 The following February Nichols decided to ‘break off’ from Blakemore, after Sonia Orwell rejected Beasts of England. ‘We do need a friend at court,’ Ramsay cautioned him.’57 In a note added to the published diaries, Nichols reflects that he should have paid her more heed: I needed someone in my corner who enjoyed pacing the corridors of power. Anyone who lacks this aptitude should find a partner who has it, a lesson painfully learnt by me over the last fifteen years. The work itself comes at best a poor second to strategy. The wastage of gifted people in various trades is due more to this than any falling-off in achievement.58 Nichols sent Blakemore the script for The Freeway in August, 1973, five months after he spoke to Ramsay about ‘breaking off’. After Blakemore replied to Ramsay, and Nichols wrote him a reply, he wrote a more personal letter to Nichols. ‘I think its better to preserve a friendship than maintain a professional collaboration,’ he told him, and explained that ‘this, rather more than my response to the play, is at the root of my not wanting to direct The Freeway. Too much has happened, that’s all. I’m pretty sure the friendship need not be affected by it, but it will be if we persist in the working relationship.’59

Peter Hall The day after Blakemore’s letter, Peter Hall sent Nichols a short note saying Blakemore’s decision not to direct The Freeway did not affect his ‘eagerness to see it.’60 By the end of the month Nichols had inadvertently upset Hall by giving an interview in which he was quoted (inaccurately, he said) as objecting to the NT’s slowness in responding to The Freeway. Since the playwright had not sent them the finished script, Hall was understandably annoyed. ‘I’m sorry if my remarks caused unintentional offence,’ he wrote in an explanatory letter to Hall,
56 57

Nichols, Diaries, p. 278 Nichols, Diaries, p. 294 58 Nichols, Diaries, p. 294 59 Michael Blakemore to Peter Nichols, 13 January 1974 (Nichols papers folder 78964, British Library) 60 Peter Hall to Peter Nichols, 14 January 1974, (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library)


‘especially as I’m a company theatre man at heart.’61 On 3 April Peggy Ramsay’s assistant Tom Erhardt sent the finished script to the NT.62 John Russell Brown was less impressed than he had been by the first draft: PRO: The incidental business and dialogue is funny, and most of the time it is sharply revealing of social life today. The four main characters ring true and bold. The fantasy about pollution and the ‘consumer’s world’ is entertaining (although it is an easy wicket.) CON: The strictly political aspects seem neither very believable nor very interesting. The action doesn’t get the characters very far nor into surprising or newly revealing situations (except for Les and that seems forced). The minor characters are mostly dull and obvious (given the basic premise) and not rewarding to play.63 He wanted the rest of the associates to read it before they made a final decision. ‘I think we should remember that it is early days for the new play season,’ he cautioned, ‘and that an Ayckbourn would overlap on the social satire. Also we should recognise that this will be expensive.’64 Eleven days later, the NT decided to produce it. Hall, mindful of the play’s felicitous link to the fuel embargo, wanted a production as quickly as possible, and needed a director.65 He sent the script to Ronald Eyre, who congratulated Nichols on having written an ‘amazing apocalypse,’ but would be directing a play for the RSC in October 1974, when The Freeway was to open, and therefore would be unavailable.66 Hall approached Blakemore yet again, but reported in an internal memo that he ‘definitely does not want to do The Freeway – relationships are too complicated with Nichols. Although he thinks we are quite right to do it.’67 On 29 April, Hall sent the NT’s company manager Michael Hallifax a list of potential directors that he and Nichols had drawn up together: 1. Ron Eyre
61 62

Nichols to Hall, 30 Jan 1974 (NT archive Folder D16) Tom Erhardt to Peter Hall, 3 April 1974 (NT archive, folder D16] 63 John Russell Brown to Peter Hall, 8 April 1974 (NT archive Folder D7) 64 John Russell Brown to Peter Hall, 8 April 1974 (NT archive Folder D7) 65 Peggy Ramsay to Peter Nichols, 19 April 1974 (Ramsay papers, British Library) 66 Ronald Eyre to Peter Nichols, 20th April 1974 (Nichols papers folder 79120, British Library) 67 Peter Hall to Patrick Donnell, Michael Hallifax, Peter Stevens. 29 April 1974 (NT archive, folder D7)


2. Chris Morahan 3. Bill Gaskill 4. David Hare 5. Michael Rudman 6. Peter Wood ‘We really have to ask everybody to read it and react very quickly,’ Hall warned, ‘otherwise we shall not be able to do the play.’68 The play’s eventual director, Jonathan Miller, did not even appear on the list. Miller had joined the NT as an associate director in the summer of 1972, while Blakemore, who had been made a director in 1970, stayed on when Hall took over the company.69 Hall would later declare that hiring Blakemore and Miller was ‘one of the greatest mistakes’ he made as artistic director.70 Peter Hall had become sole director of the National Theatre on 1 November 1973, after a protracted stretch of power-sharing with Olivier. Both directors had hoped that Olivier would preside over the company’s arrival into its South Bank home, but the gradual accretion of building delays, Olivier’s failing health, and the strains of joint leadership made this impossible. The management had been fractious under Olivier, and tensions were now exacerbated by resentment over the circumstances of Hall’s appointment. Jonathan Miller became uncomfortable with Hall’s directorship almost immediately, which Hall attributes to an associates’ meeting in which Pinter attacked him for proposing an all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest.71 John Dexter left the company in July 1974, warning Hall that ‘there was a degree of disloyalty up and down the corridors which he had never met in the theatre in his life.’ Hall was unimpressed: ‘I respect his talent,’ he wrote, ‘but not his sighing for the good old days with Larry. He used to bitch in exactly the same way then.’72. On 3 October 1974 Hall reported that at an associates’

68 69

Peter Hall to Michael Hallifax 29 April (NT archive, folder D7) Peter Hall, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983), pp. 1415 70 Peter Lewis, The National: A Dream Made Concrete (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 108 71 Hall, Diaries, p. 80 72 Hall, Diaries, p. 109


meeting, ‘Blakemore and Miller began to be critical of the administration, but were not specific.’73

Blakemore and Hall Miller resigned in February, 1975. Meanwhile Blakemore was becoming increasingly frustrated with Hall’s management. Hall had initially been enthusiastic about having Blakemore as an associate director: in July 1972, he wrote that ‘Blakemore wants to stay, and having seen Front Page (Ben Hecht, dir. Blakemore), I certainly want him to.’ But even then, Hall was slightly suspicious of him, knowing that Olivier had proposed him as his successor. ‘He referred to this obliquely,’ Hall wrote in his diary, ‘and said what he wanted out of life was to direct plays and films, not run theatres. I wonder.’74 Hall’s suspicions may have led him to imagine the supposed ‘oblique’ reference, since Blakemore does not seem to have known that his name had been put forward to direct the NT. Hall and Blakemore had first worked together at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (SMT) in 1959. Blakemore was hired as an actor, while Hall was already directing the company. A year later, the company would be given a royal charter and rechristened ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’. ‘Was I envious of Peter?’ Blakemore asks himself in his autobiography, ‘Most certainly,’ he admits. ‘Was I suspicious of him? I was indeed, to the extend that he was a prime representative of an expanding elite in the world of British arts – young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge.’75 A decade later, Blakemore would create an unflattering portrait of a young artistic director in his novel, Next Season, about a season at a fictional repertory theatre.76 The character’s resemblance to Hall is unmistakable, and Blakemore’s assessment of him is damning:

73 74

Hall, Diaries, p. 121 Hall, Diaries, p. 15 75 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 213 76 Michael Blakemore, Next Season (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969)


for all [his] brilliance as a convenor of spectacular talent, as a policymaker, as a man of some taste, in that area which the layman might reasonably assume to be central to his job, namely, the ability to make something happen in rehearsal, he was quite simply without talent.77 The only extant account of Blakemore’s SMT season is in Blakemore’s autobiography, so Blakemore’s perspective is pre-eminent here just as Hall’s is (thanks to the publication of his diaries) in the 1970s. At the SMT, Blakemore questioned Hall’s theatrical instincts, distrusted his academic background, and felt that the director was too deferential to stars and dismissive of the actors still listed on SMT posters as ‘Middle Billing’ and ‘Bottom Billing’. ‘I wanted to like Peter,’ Blakemore claims in his autobiography, ‘I wanted to believe in him. [...] But it was sometimes difficult.’78 By the middle of the season, Blakemore was beginning to wonder ‘if Peter was not a man I actually hated.’79 He was especially rankled after a matinee performance of Coriolanus, performed by the understudies (Albert Finney played Coriolanus). The show had been prepared in only four days of furious rehearsal, and afterwards Blakemore recalls ‘passing a succession of those surprised smiles that break out in a theatre when a run-through has unexpectedly come to life.’80 Entering the rehearsal room in a state of exhilaration, Blakemore was taken aback by Hall’s notes. According to Blakemore, he told the cast that ‘Considering the three great geniuses who perform in this production in the evenings you all did very well. No honestly, you really did.’81 As Blakemore comments, ‘All of us admired the performers he had just extolled [...] but they were irrelevant to what had just taken place.’82 Much worse was still to come. Midway through the season, Blakemore and Vanessa Redgrave had begun an affair which ended near the end of the

77 78

Blakemore, Next Season p. 256 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 214 79 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 231 80 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 230 81 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 230 82 Blakemore, Arguments, pp. 230-231


season, when she told him she had begun seeing someone else. Soon, he discovered that the new man was Peter Hall.83 After learning that Hall did not want him in the company for a second season, Blakemore asked for a meeting. Hall ended it on a cheerful note: ‘Don’t worry, Michael,’ Blakemore has him saying, ‘I’m sure we’ll work together one day. People change. You’ll change!’ ‘This,’ Blakemore remarks, ‘was a proposition both of us would make the mistake of believing thirteen years later at the National Theatre.’84 By 1976, Blakemore was the only one of Olivier’s associate directors still at the theatre, and the strain between him and Hall was worsening. In January, Hall wrote in his diary ‘I see no point in making efforts to work with somebody who has no desire to work with me,’ adding that Blakemore ‘gets stuck in a dogmatic theory about the way to do a play and doesn’t seem to realise it could be wrong – or needs development.’85 On 17 March, the two men’s’ relationship reached its crisis. At the end of an associates’ dinner (the first in the company’s new executive offices) Blakemore delivered a broadside against Hall’s regime, focussing mainly on what Blakemore regarded as autocratic decision-making, but also raising concerns about Hall’s profits from commercial transfers of National Theatre productions, and the widening gap between the highest and lowest salaries for actors.86 In April the Evening Standard published an article by Gaia Servadio (a friend of Blakemore’s) entitled ‘Is Peter Hall Now Stretching too Far?’. Hall believed it was ‘so like Blakemore’s paper that for him to disclaim any connection seems absurd,’ adding ‘it’s inaccurate, and, I would say, defamatory.’87 At this time, Blakemore’s contract was shifting from a fixed salary to a retainer plus production fees. In April he did not receive a cheque, and learned when he enquired about it that the NT had instructed that he receive no

83 84

Blakemore, Arguments, p. 233 Blakemore, Arguments, p. 234 85 Hall, Diaries, p. 205 86 John Elsom and Nicholas Tomalin, The History of the National Theatre (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), pp. 311-312. 87 Hall, Diaries, p. 228


further payment. Blakemore resigned as associate director on 11 May, though he planned to continue to direct plays for the NT. On 26 May it was decided at an associate director’s meeting (in Blakemore’s absence) that he should direct Harley Granville Barker’s The Madras House, though if any unfavourable comment from him about the NT appeared in the press he would have the production taken away from him. This sounded like blackmail, and Blakemore accordingly severed his association with the NT altogether.88

Miller and Nichols Hall admitted in the summer of 1974 that he considered Jonathan Miller ‘an enigma, whose work I like and dislike in equal measure,’89 and this ambivalence seemed to be keeping Miller out of the repertory: his only production at the NT in 1973 was a touring production of Measure for Measure set in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud, which cost only £500 to stage and was critically admired, but which never reached the stage of the Old Vic (Miller publicly attributed this to the lack of stars in the cast).90 When delays to the South Bank venue forced Hall to cut the repertoire, he cancelled all the shows that Miller had wanted to direct in the coming season,91 leaving him with Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro and Nichols’ The Freeway. Miller was approached after Nichols’ and Hall’s list of potential directors was exhausted. Nichols’ diary reports that ‘some chicanery went on while Peter Hall pushed Jonathan Miller into directing it and me into agreeing. We were both persuaded by this amazing man whose political hunger is as huge as his artistic energy.’92 Then on 11 October, ten days after The Freeway opened, Hall told Miller that his proposed production of The Importance of Being Earnest and his production of Measure For Measure had been cut from the following season.93 Two years later, Hall apologised to Nichols:
88 89

Elsom and Tomalin, History, p. 319 Hall, Diaries, p.107 90 Peter Lewis, The National, p. 105 91 Peter Lewis, The National, p. 105 92 Nichols, Diaries, p. 377 93 Hall, Diaries, p.123


I wanted – as I think you did – Michael Blakemore to do THE FREEWAY. He didn’t like the play and wouldn’t do it. Fair enough. It is his prerogative. I persuaded you that Jonathan Miller was the man. And frankly I was wrong; it didn’t work.94 Miller and Nichols had been friends since they met at a dinner at Michael Frayn’s house in 1969, but neither thought they would make good collaborators. Nichols writes that Miller’s ‘strength is in reappraising the classics but new plays don’t need interpretation, they simply have to be got right and that’s a process that, to use his sort of metaphor, begins early in the pregnancy with ante-natal care and goes on right up to delivery.’ In other words, Nichols believed that though his plays did not need interpretation, they benefited from script changes before and during rehearsal. Nichols feels his work requires ‘a lot of preproduction argument about the text itself, leading probably to several different drafts, as a mutual process of discovery both for me and the director.95 It was this process that had led to Nichols’ and Blakemore’s bruising battles during their collaborations as well as their subsequent disputes over attribution, the very reasons that Blakemore did not want to ‘risk’ another collaboration. Though Miller tactically avoided such confrontations, he clearly felt restricted by Nichols’ abrasive style of working. He later described the playwright as one of ‘those who are intolerant of interpretations other than the ones that originate from them explicitly,’96 contrasting him with the more open-minded Robert Lowell. This, Miller explains, informed his approach to directing The Freeway: I detected this early on, and worked with him carefully on the script, listening scrupulously to everything he said, and trying wherever possible to reproduce his intentions onstage. [...] He was present at almost every rehearsal so that whatever I introduced was subject to his criticism and I was very careful in this particular case not to let my imagination run riot.97

94 95

Hall to Nichols, 15 April 1976 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) Nichols, Diaries, p. 376 96 Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (London: Faber and Faber, 1986) p. 84 97 Jonathan Miller, Subsequent, p. 84


It is perhaps telling that Peggy Ramsay told an American producer that Nichols was ‘co-directing’ The Freeway. ‘The National are finding him quite invaluable,’ she added, news which might have surprised Miller.98 Meanwhile, Nichols was unhappy with the set that John Bury had designed. As John Russell Brown had predicted, the play was proving very expensive for the theatre, and Bury had been told to keep the total cost under £10,000. After Nichols was shown the models, Simon Relph wrote to Hall to report ‘some small escalations in the cost of “The Freeway”, mainly to accommodate Peter Nichols, and as a result of problems encountered in preparing the special effects for a climactic escape by helicopter.’99

Bad reviews, and more trouble When The Freeway opened, the almost universally bad reviews100 usually blamed the script and the production in equal measure. Jason Hillgate’s review in What’s On summarised the prevailing view: ‘A firmer hand from the director, Jonathan Miller, seems called for,’ he wrote, ‘but even as I suggest it, I wonder whether it would be worth the trouble.’101 Harold Hobson compared the play unfavourably to a lecture on trains that he had attended the week before,102 while Robert Cushman proposed that Nichols’ commentary on the class-system ‘needs perhaps to be rewritten by Edward Bond.’103 To add to Nichols’ problems, the novelist James Hanley threatened legal action, claiming not only that Nichols’ play closely resembled his 1946 novel What Farrar Saw (about an apocalyptic traffic jam), but that Nichols had written him a letter praising the book (which he had read while he was in the National Service) and Ramsay had even contacted his agent to ‘suggest that we might get together to discuss the matter of [...] a new TV play embodying something of

Margaret Ramsay to Edgar Rosenblum, 30 August 1974 (Nichols papers, folder 79108, Br. Library) 99 Simon Relph to Peter Hall, 27 Aug 1974 (NT archive, folder D7) 100 Milton Schulman’s review for the Evening Standard was cautiously positive. 101 Jason Hillgate, ‘The National in a Jam’ [Review of The Freeway], What’s On, 11 October 1974 102 Harold Hobson, Review of The Freeway, Sunday Times, 6 Oct 1974 103 Robert Cushman, ‘Running into Roadblocks,’ Observer, 6 Oct 1974


The Gorge with the What Farrar Saw idea.’104 Rather than take the matter to court, Nichols gave Hanley 10% of his earnings for the play.105 A week after the opening, the NT’s casting director, Gillian Diamond, wrote to Peter Hall with a remarkably blunt request: What I know is required (and by no means am I suggesting that the outcome would be perfect) is a touch of “panache”, a confidence boost, and a superficial polish. [...] These particular actors, who totally believed in the play, are now feeling desperately insecure. Please could you (and it could only be you) do a PR ‘con’ job on Freeway. A bit of rehearsal and a great deal of ‘gosh, you’re wonderful’ would – I know – change the whole atmosphere, attitude, and audience reaction. She finished by saying, somewhat plaintively, ‘Please don’t let it dribble to an insignificant end.’106 If Hall did intervene, he was not successful, and the play closed on 26 December, after thirty-two performances.

The disappearing Jubilee Despite the disappointments of Beasts of England and The Freeway, Nichols had not yet abandoned the National Theatre at the end of 1974, and Peter Hall was doing his best to keep him. On the eve of The Freeway’s opening, the director wrote the playwright a brief but intriguing good luck note. He began by thanking Nichols for the play and expressing his hope that it would go well, then added ‘Among your many virtues, can I also thank you for your utter professionalism?’107 To put this note in context, Hall wrote it a day after learning that construction of the South Bank theatre had been delayed yet again.108 After The Freeway had closed, Hall – ever the diplomat – wrote to thank Nichols again for letting the National stage his play. ‘I am,’ he wrote, ‘as you know, very sorry that it didn’t work better, and hope that you will remember us again for a play in the future.’109
104 105

James Hanley to Peter Hall 8 October 1974 (NT archive, folder D7) Margaret Ramsay to Harvey Unna, 15 October 1974 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) 106 Gillian Diamond to Peter Hall, 10 Oct 1974 (NT archive, folder D7) 107 Hall to Nichols, 1 October 1974 (Nichols papers folder 78964, Br. Library) 108 Hall, Diaries, p. 120 109 Hall to Nichols, 30 December 1974 (Nichols papers folder 79108, Br. Library)


‘I was sorry too about The Freeway,’ Nichols replied, ‘but am even sorrier about the confusion reigning just now in our business.’ The rest of the short note was conciliatory but cryptic: I hope you have a successful year and get that theatre open, despite the cries of woe. We’ve waited long enough for it. For me perhaps a change is needed – other voices, other rooms.110 Hall responded in mid-January, repeating his apologies and reiterating his hope that Nichols would be returning: As to your letter: I hope your need for a change will not exclude the NT. Once the SBank is there, other rooms will be available. And as to other voices, I made a mistake and can only admit it. But I do want to present your work.111 In fact, a commission from the National was forthcoming. It began with a confidential letter from Peter Hall in August 1974, two months before The Freeway would open. Hall informed Nichols that the National’s new South Bank home was expected to open on 23 April 1975.112 Rather than opening with a production of a single play, the National would mark the occasion with ‘a celebration with a great deal of music, dancing, eating and drinking for all those who have helped to make the new National Theatre possible.’ As part of the festivities, the National’s three new theatres would be used to stage premieres of short plays, farces, or comedies, running no more than twenty minutes, by ‘three or four eminent writers’ (Hall did not give Nichols the names of the other playwrights). A year later (almost to the day) John Russell Brown wrote to Nichols with a similar proposal. April had come and gone, and the new building was still not ready. Brown was accordingly much less specific about the opening than Hall had been, writing ‘we are now assured that the Lyttelton Theatre and then the Olivier will open sometime in 1976.’ This, at least, turned out to be accurate. The plans for the opening had changed, but they retained the spirit of the older proposal:
110 111

Nichols to Hall, 5 Jan 1975, (NT archive, folder D16) Hall to Nichols, 15 Jan 1975 (Nichols papers folder 79108, Br. Library) 112 Hall to Nichols, 29 August 1974 (Nichols papers folder 79108, Br. Library)


We want to celebrate the opening of the Olivier by commissioning five or six eminent dramatists to write one-act plays that would use the casts of the full length productions in repertoire in Olivier at the same time. This proposal is a development of the idea of commissioning three or four very short farces for the Grand Opening Day celebration about which Peter Hall wrote to you in August 1974.113 Again, Nichols was asked to keep the information secret. He accepted the commission, and a letter from Brown sent on 8 September 1975 indicates that the National was drawing up a contract for him.114 On 29 September Hall announced at a press conference that the National Theatre company would be moving into the South Bank complex one theatre at a time, as each was completed. They would move first into the Lyttelton in March, 1976, and into the Olivier once it was ready115. In such uncertainty, the logistical challenge of producing ‘five or six’ one act plays might have seemed prohibitive, but in December, Brown wrote again to ask how the play was ‘coming along’.116 In the end, the series of one-act plays never materialised: the South Bank venue opened gradually, one theatre at a time, with very little ceremony of any kind. The commissions transformed once again, now into five full-length plays to open at different points in the season. These were Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, John Osborne’s Watch it Come Down, Howard Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness, Robert Bolt’s State of Revolution, and Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce.117 On the surface, it seems that this must have been a disappointment for Nichols, except that there is no evidence either in his published diaries or his surviving professional correspondence that he had written anything at all towards the play. It is possible that in the matter of this commission Nichols was either remarkably prescient, or very lucky. In any case, he would not have


John Russell Brown to Peter Nichols, 22 August 1975, (Nichols Papers folder 79108 Br. Library) 114 John Russell Brown to Peter Nichols, 8 Sep. 1975, (Nichols Papers folder 79108 Br. Library) 115 Hall, Diaries, p. 186 116 John Russell Brown to Peter Nichols, 18 Dec. 1975, (Nichols Papers folder 79108 Br. Library) 117 Peter Lewis, The National, p. 120


another play produced at the NT. After the success of The National Health in the face of Olivier’s dislike, the unrealised possibilities of Beasts of England, and the disaster of The Freeway, Nichols was seeking, as he told Hall, ‘other voices, other rooms.’118 This search would lead him (inadvertently) straight to the NT’s arch-rival, the RSC.


Nichols to Hall, 5 Jan 1975, (NT archive, folder D16)


Chapter 5 Theatres of War: Privates on Parade On 9 December 1974 Nichols reported in his diary that he ‘struggled with the synopsis of a play about Combined Services Entertainments [CSE], workingtitled Malayan Moonshine.’1 The title soon changed to Jungle Jamboree2 (a name which survives as the title of a play-within-a-play), before becoming Privates on Parade. Privates takes place in British-controlled Malaya in 1948, where ‘Acting Captain’ Terri Dennis, an actor specialising in female impersonation, leads a company of soldiers and National Service conscripts called ‘Song-and-Dance Unit, South East Asia’ (SADUSEA ). Nichols originally intended to only write one song for the play, an ‘opening chorus’ to set the scene, but Privates on Parade developed into a musical (or ‘play with songs’, as Nichols describes it) with songs composed by Denis King.3 Throughout the play, the company are rehearsing a revue entitled ‘Jungle Jamboree’, and most of the play’s songs are both part of the revue, and separate from it, to the extent that while they often appear within a rehearsal or performance, their lyrics are too self-consciously satirical and didactic to have ‘actually’ been performed by SADUSEA. The most memorable numbers are Terri’s impersonations of (in order) Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, Noel Coward and Carmen Miranda, which occur both within and outside the narrative, serving as commentaries on the Malayan emergency, the play’s plot, Terri’s character and the performance itself. Terri’s impersonations have clear antecedents in Bri and Sheila’s ‘turns’ in Joe Egg.4 The distinction is that while in Joe Egg Nichols manipulates theatrical conventions, in Privates he turns the audience’s attention to the conventions themselves: Privates on Parade is Nichols’ first play about theatre.5
1 2

Peter Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000), p. 387 Nichols, Diaries, p. 409 3 Nichols, Diaries, p. 410 4 See Chapter 1, pp. 51-52 5 For analysis of self-conscious theatricality and ‘popular theatre’ in Privates, see Jeannine Schmidt, Elemente Populärer Genres in den Dramen von Peter Nichols (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990)


The play begins with the arrival of Private Steven Flowers, a National Service conscript, to SADUSEA. The first person he meets is Sergeant Len Bonny, who issues him sergeant’s stripes and a new uniform. ‘You mean we’re all sergeants?’ Steven asks, ‘just like that?’ to which Len replies: ‘temporary, acting, unpaid. Just so we can use the messes when we go away.’6 The performers are ‘acting sergeants’ and Terri Dennis is an ‘acting captain,’ titles which remind the audience that the people onstage are actually actors playing soldiers and officers. Len issues Steven his equipment, identifying each item as he hands it over: Shoes, black patent, dancing, tap. Type Astaire, Fred. Pairs, one. Sticks, greasepaint, assorted, six. Putty, nose, portions one. Shadow, eye, jars one. Puffs, powder, other ranks, one.7 The scene is an inventory of the tools that will be used to create the show that the audience is watching. Steven will, in fact, use the Fred Astaire shoes to dance an Astaire-Rogers pastiche with his girlfriend Sylvia later in the play.8 Soon Len and Steven are interrupted by Terri Dennis, who has arrived to lead a rehearsal of the show’s opening number.

The Opening Number Terri ceremoniously introduces Steven (as well as the entire audience) to his domain: ‘Those are the wings,’ he indicates, ‘that is the front-of-house, up there are the flies and the whole bag of tricks is known as The Theatre.’9 Within the play, this description of SADUSEA’s rehearsal space demands an elastic imagination. But directed to the audience, the lines are simple statements of fact: they are more accurate outside the frame of the play than they are within it. The governing conceit of ‘Jungle Jamboree’s’ opening is that a poorly-organised troupe of performers is beginning a rehearsal. The transition from the play’s

6 7

Nichols, Privates on Parade, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 109 Nichols, Privates, p. 110 8 in Act One, Scene 9 (pp. 156-158) 9 Nichols, Privates, p. 113


‘real’ rehearsal to the song’s staged rehearsal is almost seamless, beginning when Terri dispatches Len to work the lights: House lights up. TERRI: It’s fabulous! Goes off, immediately comes back acting. He’s a stilted performer, always playing out front, even when speaking to someone on stage. TERRI: Great heavens, look at this! Rehearsals due and no one here. I’ve never seen such amateurs.10 The play’s opening number, entitled ‘S.A.D.U.S.E.A’, is therefore a rehearsal of an opening number whose conceit is that it is a rehearsal. Jim Hiley observes that in this scene ‘the play proper and the element of play-within-play slide together’. He continues: Each performer is introduced to the imaginary audience by way of a little repartee in which he makes his excuse for arriving late to an imaginary rehearsal. By this ruse, the characters are introduced to the real audience. For the real audience, too, the song has served the purpose intended for it in the play-within-play: it has warmed us up, and given us that ‘lift’ required at the outset of any musical show.11 In a confident-enough performance, this scene will, for all its energy, feel stilted and heavy, as rehearsals of musical numbers usually do. In the 2002 Washington, DC Studio Theatre production (which has been preserved on video) the soldiers seemed to be counting in their heads as they stomped out each beat. They bumped into each other and started verses early, while Terri brusquely counted out the rhythm.12 In Nichols’ own words, the songs ‘should be breathtakingly bad but wonderfully done.’13

10 11

Nichols, Privates, p. 113 Jim Hiley, ‘Liberating Laughter’ [interview with Peter Nichols and Peter Barnes], Plays and Players, March 1978, pp. 14-17, p. 15 12 Privates on Parade dir. Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre (video). Recorded 26 October 2002. Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA), Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Washington, DC 13 Nichols to to Jim Dale, 8 July 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols Papers, folder 78988, British Library)


Conventions rather than rules Nichols takes the conceit of the variety show, on which Privates is modelled, to a dizzying extreme. The Studio Theatre’s program notes describe Privates as ‘at once a backstage play, musical revue, subversive military play and classic revival.’ The notes add that ‘by mixing camp entertainment with cultural critique, Nichols creates a bawdy comedy full of social and political satire where theatrics and off-stage lives flow seamlessly into each other.’14 Like most of Nichol’s plays, Privates follows theatrical conventions rather than theatrical rules. That is to say, the dramaturgical structures, or ‘conventions’, that separate the ‘play’ from the ‘play-within-play’ are present, but they are also permeable, and they are not governed by any consistent guidelines determining when they may be transgressed, or by whom. In Nichols’ own words, ‘You’re never quite sure when you’re on stage and when you’re “real life”.’15 As I have mentioned,16 Terri Dennis’s drag numbers enjoy an ambiguous relationship to the rest of the play. They are self-contained commentaries on historical events of the time, but there are traces of continuity between some of the songs and the scenes which follow them. The Marlene Dietrich pastiche, ‘Danke Schon’, for example, is followed by a conversation between Terri and Steven in Terri’s dressing room, during which Terri changes out of his Dietrich costume and into the uniform of a naval rating. He announces the next number, a ‘dance fantasia’, to the audience (as in a revue), but the dance is interrupted by Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond, and it becomes clear that it is taking place as a rehearsal within the plot of the play-proper. Nichols does not assign the musical numbers a privileged place outside the action, but they do not exactly occur within the action either, though they sometimes bleed through into the rest of the text. An instance of this ‘bleeding’ into the text occurs at the end of the Noel Coward pastiche. As Coward, Terri laments that ‘Bevin only knows how

Programme notes to Privates on Parade. dir. Joy Zinoman. Studio Theatre, Washington, DC. 2002 15 Peter Davison, Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England (Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982), p. 36 (the quote comes from a Guardian interview from 22 February 1977) 16 see above, p. 185


Britain came to lose the peace,’17 but when the song finishes the curtain raises behind him to reveal Major Giles Flack, the play’s other authority figure and Terri Dennis’s diametric opposite, standing in front of a map of Malaya. ‘Why did we lose the peace?’ Flack barks, ‘I can answer that question. There was never a peace to lose. There was only a temporary truce and a slight change of enemy.’18 There is no indication that Flack has heard Terri’s song, but nevertheless, he is clearly replying to it. This is a characteristic example of the songs’ unstable position within the narrative.

‘Six-four to us’ During the first act, Steven and the half-Indian half-Welsh dancer Sylvia Morgan fall in love and decide to get married. Meanwhile Sylvia’s former lover, the corrupt and sadistic Sergeant-Major Reg Drummond, becomes convinced that Steven has been sent by Military Intelligence to investigate his crimes (which include selling arms to communist guerrillas and pimping young boys). He tries to murder Steven, enlisting the help of the unit’s Chinese servants, Lee and Cheng – who are both communist spies, and whose loyalty and subordination Reg believes he has secured by torturing them.19 However Lee and Cheng (the only competent soldiers in the play) seize the opportunity presented by the assassination attempt and kill Drummond, leaving Steven unharmed.20 In the second act, SADUSEA’s commanding officer Major Giles Flack decides to take the tour directly into parts of the jungle controlled by communist guerrillas in order to use the performers as decoys. In one scene, Major Flack explains his strategy in detail to Steven at a meeting in his office. Though Flack behaves as if they are alone, it is not a private meeting: Lee and Cheng are both on hand to provide tea. Flack barely registers their presence – he only acknowledges them when he wants more tea, and addresses them
17 18

Nichols, Privates, pp. 166-67 Nichols, Privates, p. 167 19 Nichols, Privates, p. 119 20 In the original production Drummond turned out not to have died, and reappeared (without explanation) in the final shootout. Critics and audiences found this baffling, and it was eventually dropped.


interchangeably as ‘Ming’ and ‘Wong’.21 Meanwhile, he details secret military plans to Stephen while they stand back and listen.22 When communist guerrillas ambush the company during a show that they are performing for a unit of Ghurkhas, Len is killed, and the rest of the company (except Sylvia and, predictably, Flack) are wounded. According to Flack’s triumphant description of the carnage, ‘the terrorists got a total bag of four: three Ghurkhas and one BOR. Making a final score of six-four to us.’23 In the original production, Steven and the now-pregnant Sylvia get married and she returns with him to England, a conclusion which Nichols says he never wanted: I wanted the boy not to marry the girl and I wanted Terri Dennis to marry her in order to take her over to England, as people do. Michael Blakemore [...] said the idea of the heroine marrying a raving queen wouldn’t go down too well, and it would leave the wrong kind of flavour in the mouth. I thought he was wrong, and as soon as we got a chance to do it the other way, I rewrote it, and it’s much better that way. But originally it was a patched-up happy ending where the boy suddenly has a change of heart and takes her home, which may have provided a slight lift to some members of the audience but not to all.24 After giving her money to have an abortion, Steven wanly tells Sylvia ‘it’s not what I want. Only that society’s such a mess.’25 Reviewing Michael Grandage’s production in 2001, Rhoda Koenig writes that ‘the young man’s swift “maturity” – dropping “Power to the People” for “I’m all right, Jack” – neatly sums up the post-war betrayal of temporarily useful ideals.’26 Terri, who has never invoked any moral law throughout the play, is the only man to behave morally towards Sylvia. Flack, who piously reminds his troops that ‘we defend a righteous flag and we bring the news of Christ’s mercy to peoples who have never known it,’27
21 22

Nichols, Privates, pp. 167-173 Nichols, Privates, p. 172 23 Nichols, Privates, p. 196 24 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005 25 Nichols, Privates, p. 198 26 Rhoda Koenig, ‘The Donmar’s latest all-singing, all-dancing offering is all rouge, ruffles and rifles’, Independent, 12 December 2001 <> 27 Peter Nichols. Privates on Parade (Birmingham Rep. version, 1988, p. 28) (Nichols papers folder 78986, British Library)


is the man who convinces Steven to abandon Sylvia. Terri is not merely a stereotypical old queen with a ‘heart of gold’: his marriage to Sylvia is a rebuttal to any doctrine, Christian or socialist, that does not stand up to the actual demands of one’s own life. Terri may preside over a land of misrule, but he lives by a workable set of values which Flack, for all his incessant moralising, has abandoned.

Nichols’ National Service: An Innocent Abroad Privates on Parade is loosely based on Peter Nichols’ time in the National Service in the late 1940s, during which he was stationed in an Entertainments unit in Malaya. Other members of the company included John Schlesinger, Kenneth Williams, and Stanley Baxter. Terri Dennis28 is closely based on the performer Barri Chatt, who reportedly arrived in Singapore wearing a silk-scarf and brandishing a cigarette holder, and shouted to a astonished cluster of generals and air-marshals ‘tell them to put the kettle on, loves, your aunty’s arrived!’29 Nichols reported for National Service duty on 16 August 1945 – one day after Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending World War Two. He trained in a billet near Kettering, and recalls going to the cinema in Corby with the camp’s three other ‘aesthetes’ to watch Olivier’s film of Henry V on one of their nights off.30 In December he was flown to Egypt,31 and made his way through a series


There was, in fact, a real-life British drag performer named Terri Dennis, whose highly sexualised performance was recorded in detail by one of the Lord Chamberlain’s ‘spies’ (who attended the show incognito). Though this particular production was illegal, many drag revues that had originally been performed for soldiers overseas enjoyed successful tours in Britain after the war, where they proved popular with civilian audiences. (Dan Rebellato, 1956 And All That (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 185, p. 160) 29 Peter Nichols, Feeling You’re Behind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984), p. 106 30 Nichols, ‘A Classy Tale’ (Sight-and-Sound, October 1991), p. 33 31 On the day of his arrival in North Africa he began to keep a diary. He has continued to keep it (with occasional lapses) ever since (Nichols, platform discussion with Michael Grandage, National Theatre, 3 August 2007).


of transit camps to a year-long posting five miles north of Calcutta.32 It was the first time he had ever left Britain.33 Nichols arrived at the camp to discover that the wartime volunteers and conscripts, tired of waiting to be sent home, had gone on strike – a rarelyreported industrial action coordinated by wireless operators, which stretched from Egypt to Burma.34 Nichols and his fellow conscripts had not been briefed about the countries where they were stationed, and most of them had not even a rudimentary understanding of Indian politics. After Nichols had been in India for a few months, he visited Calcutta and found himself in the midst of a massive, and increasingly violent pro-Muslim demonstration. He was rescued by a Scottish engineer who was astonished to learn that not only did the young conscript not know what the demonstration was for, he had barely even heard of Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and soon-to-be founder of Pakistan.35 Nichols’ insulation was extraordinary: he reports that he spent the entire year without once tasting Indian food.36

Nichols’ university Around the time of the demonstrations in Calcutta, Nichols travelled to New Delhi to audition for an Entertainments Unit. He was unsuccessful, but not long after this, he was given a role in a touring production of a West End drama about RAF airmen stranded in occupied France.37 He also wrote his first play, Francis is My Brother, a drawing-room comedy set in Surrey, a county which he knew only from other plays.38 After his year in India, Nichols was sent by ship to Singapore, where he joined the Combined Services Entertainments unit (CSE) in Nee Soon. He was greeted upon arrival by John Schlesinger, then performing a conjuring act in a
32 33

Nichols, Feeling, pp. 65-72 Nichols, Peter, ‘Introduction to Privates on Parade’, Plays: Two, p. 104 34 Nichols, Feeling, p. 74 35 Nichols, Feeling, p. 79 36 Nichols, Feeling, p. 78 37 Nichols, Feeling, pp. 81-82 38 Nichols, Feeling, p. 82


touring revue called Thru’ the Hoop.39 Nichols was to perform in a show entitled Not So Much the Heat, which also featured Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter in the cast. Williams later provided Nichols with several anecdotes which appear in Privates, and Williams’ diary reports that when Nichols handed him an early draft of the play, he told him ‘this is the piece you helped me to write.’ After reading the script, Williams reported ‘He’s done some clever and adroit things with it but the obscenity and the blasphemy are unwarranted,’ adding ‘He’s got a capacity for creating an evil and corrupt atmosphere of astonishing nastiness, with amazing economy.’40 Nichols had both Williams and Baxter in mind to play Terri Dennis, though Blakemore disagreed. Baxter later told Nichols it was just as well he wasn’t cast, since his Dietrich impersonation ‘would have been too good.’41 In Nichols’ autobiography, the chapter on his time in Malaya and Singapore is entitled ‘My University’, though very little of his education there could be called formal. ‘None of us knew anything about the local politics or culture of Singapore when we arrived,’ Nichols later explained in an interview for the Independent, ‘and nobody told us anything – there wasn't even an official booklet giving basic information.’ But, he continues, his fellow-performers had more to offer him than his government did: I was a Tory until I was in CSE, where I was tutored by chaps who were more intelligent than I was. They got me to read Bernard Shaw and HG Wells and I became a sort of fin-de-siècle idealist, a stance that I don't think I've ever abandoned. But now I'm a disillusioned utopian.42 But before his political awakening, he had to learn a new dialect. ‘The vocabulary was mostly familiar words with new meanings – camp, drag, queen, queer, chopper, cottage, gay and auntie. Some [words] were from Romany or

39 40

Nichols, Feeling, p. 98 Kenneth Williams, The Kenneth Williams Diaries, Russel Davies, ed. (London: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 511-512 41 Baxter to Nichols, 12 February 1996. (Nichols papers folder 79119, British Library) 42 Daniel Rosenthal, ‘Peter Nichols and Peter Whelan: Playwrights on Parade’, Independent, 15 January 2002


Parlyaree – vada, bona, roba.’43 A letter that Nichols sent to his parents from Nee Soon provides a specimen of the jargon: I’m quite the idol of the intellectuals in my dragon dressing-gown, which I’m wearing as I write. I have vague dreams of filling this room with all manner of dragon things. It would be too, too utter.44 The dialogue in Privates is a celebration of this distinctive language, which captured the young conscript’s imagination.’45 Not long after Nichols arrived at the CSE, a cable from the War Office informed them that the author of Not So Much the Heat had sold his West End option, and they would therefore be in violation of copyright if they performed it.46 The company replaced it with a show called At Your Service, but before it opened Nichols was hospitalised with amoebic dysentery.47 Nichols spent most of the next year alternating between CSE tours throughout Southeast Asia and stays in hospital for repeated bouts of dysentery. On Christmas day 1947, four months before the full company would return to Britain, Nichols and his friends joined an improvised parade of soldiers around the town square in Nee Soon and then back through the camp. A few of them raided the CSE wardrobe and emerged either in drag, or, in Nichols’ case, wearing a miniature trilby hat and carrying a blunderbuss. Led now by an extremely drunk jeep driver, the procession greeted a cluster of newly-arrived recruits, just finished with their basic training. ‘Here we are,’ Nichols records Stanley Baxter shouting to the new arrivals, ‘the sergeants of the Far East – anti-social, anti-British, anti-colonial red perils. What d’you make of us?’48 It was, Nichols writes, ‘a fitting finale for CSE.’49

43 44

Nichols, Feeling, p. 101 Nichols, Feeling, p. 103 45 Nichols, Feeling, p. 101 46 Nichols, Feeling, p. 105 47 Nichols, Feeling, p. 111 48 Nichols, Feeling, p. 125 49 Nichols, Feeling, p. 126


The ‘Emergency’ Privates on Parade takes place several months after Nichols left Malaya, so that it coincides with the beginning of the so-called Malayan Emergency – a 12-year guerrilla war between Britain and a group of Chinese communists. The conflict was called ‘Emergency’ rather than ‘War’ so that planters could collect on their insurance claims.50 The Malayan ‘Emergency’ was not only cloaked in euphemism: for the most part, it was ignored altogether in Britain. While making the Privates film, Nichols went to London’s Movietone studios to review the entire newsreel coverage of the 12-year Malayan Emergency. The total footage lasted ‘five minutes at the most.’51 ‘You needn’t think you are going to impress people with your uniforms,’ one of the soldiers in Privates reads aloud from a letter, ‘they couldn’t care less. They don’t even know there is an army in Malaya.’52 The Emergency was fought between the British – who effectively controlled Malaya from the late nineteenth century until independence on 31 August 1957 – and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), which had risen to prominence as a resistance force during the Japanese occupation (1942-45). The MCP’s membership was almost exclusively ethnically Chinese, but though it never enjoyed widespread support from the people of Malaya (Chinese or otherwise), it was by no means a ‘foreign’ import53 – permanent settlements of so-called ‘Overseas Chinese’ have lived on the Malayan peninsula since at least the 14th century.54 In 1947 the MCP controlled 200 of Malaya’s 277 registered trade unions, and was managing an effective campaign of strikes. When moderate forces within the unions began to negotiate with the Department of Labour, the MCP shifted its tactics to the guerrilla warfare that had successfully ousted the

This linguistic sleight-of-hand set a trend that was followed in all the subsequent cold war proxy wars and which continues today: Parliament has not officially declared war since 1942, while the United States has not declared war since 1941 (Stephen Poole, Unspeak (London: Abacus, 2006), p. 158). 51 Nichols, Feeling, p. 95 52 Nichols, Privates, p. 147 53 Hooker, History, p. 26 54 Hooker, History, p. 26


Japanese occupation.55 In the late 1940s, Malaya’s rubber plantation and tin mines made it Britain’s most profitable colony in terms of US dollars, making it critical to Britain’s balance of payments after World War Two.56 The communist guerrillas, who understood this situation as well as anybody did, deliberately targeted British enterprises. These enterprises were guarded, in many instances, by British conscripts, whom Nichols describes as ‘eighteen-year-old boys flung to this far corner of the world to protect commercial interests and subtle political ends.’57 According to Nichols, they were poorly-paid and poorly informed: The pay wasn’t much more than a pound a week and a good few of them lost limbs or lives in a jungle full of leeches, malaria, dysentery and a determined enemy. The British were called running dogs, the Communists were bandits. But at least the bandits knew what they were fighting for, which may be why they did so well for so long, outnumbered fifty to one. The dogs – or pups in most cases – neither knew nor asked the reason why.’58 In the play’s final scene, the young Flight Sergeant Kevin Cartwright, who has been castrated by machine-gun fire in an ambush, attempts to valorise what has been a horrific fiasco against resistance by the better-informed Lance Corporal Charles Bishop: KEVIN: I mean, it was all in a good cause. We kept the old flag flying, eh? Helped save a bit of the empire from the Chinese, eh? CHARLES: Having brought them here in the first place to work our tinmines. KEVIN: We may be a tiny little island, Charlie, but nobody pushes us about. CHARLES: My dear, keeping rubber for democracy won’t give you back your balls.59

Virginia Matheson Hooker, A Short History of Malaysia: Linking East and West (Crows Nest, Australia: 2003), p. 193 56 Hooker, History, p. 193 57 Peter Nichols, ‘The Day Emergency Broke Out,’ Program notes to Privates on Parade, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 1988 (Nichols Papers, folder 78988, British Library) 58 Nichols, ‘The Day Emergency Broke Out.’ 59 Nichols, Privates, p. 201


By holding Britain solely responsible for Chinese immigration to Malaya, Charles aggrandises the empire even as he deflates Kevin’s jingoism. While it is true that the greatest number of Chinese immigrants came to Malaya in the nineteenth century as indentured labourers, the first Chinese settlements predated this rush by at least five hundred years. For centuries, Malaya has been one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world, thanks to the Straits of Malacca, a critical trading route that runs between the peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. By the 1st century AD, it was part of a trade network connecting China to the Mediterranean, and it is estimated that forty percent of the world’s trade still passes through there today.60 Such a critical shipping hub was commercially attractive and (almost by definition) vulnerable to attack, so control of the peninsula regularly shifted between Asian empires. In the early 16th century the Portuguese traveller Tome Pires wrote to his government that ‘whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.’61 The British first gained a foothold in the area when Francis Light acquired the island of Penang on behalf of the British East India Company (the institution at the centre of Nichols’ next ‘play with songs’, Poppy). Light was only granted the right to occupy Penang temporarily, but nevertheless, in breach of international law he formally took possession of the island in the name of King George III on 11 August 1786.62 There followed a tortuous series of agreements, treaties, intrigues, and betrayals, at the end of which, in 1824, Britain and the Netherlands formally divided the territory surrounding the straits of Malacca between them. Though up until this point both parties had at least nominally negotiated directly with local rulers, this treaty was drafted without any local input at all. In the 1840s the colonial administrator James Low would ask ‘what right in an era of international justice

60 61

Hooker, History, p. 40, 58 Hooker, History, p. 59 62 Hooker, History, p. 92


can any nation possibly have to thus barter away extensive countries, with their independent populations?’63 Despite objections like these, by the end of the nineteenth century Britain controlled a substantial portion of the Malayan peninsula (including Kuala Lumpur, now capital of Malaysia), as well as the island of Singapore. The discovery of substantial deposits of tin and forests of wild rubber trees demanded the influx of labour that brought thousands of immigrants from China and India, dividing much of the already-cosmopolitan country into a collection of discrete, competing social groups.64 The Chinese immigrants set up efficient networks of mutual-aid associations, and quickly came to dominate the commercial sector of the economy.65 The uncertain position of the Chinese in Malaya added to the peculiarity of the Malayan Emergency (and made it easier for British propagandists to portray the guerrillas as essentially ‘foreign’). The sense that two groups of immigrants were fighting each other on land that neither could claim as their own is repeated in Privates on Parade: the characters include eight white British men, two Chinese men, and one mixed-race woman (her mother was from India, her father was a Welsh fusilier). None of the characters are ethnically ‘Malayan’, and the play’s meta-theatrical culture-war that Nichols calls ‘a symbolic confrontation like the Malayan war itself’66 takes place between British variety theatre and Peking Opera. The critic Peter Davison finds it bizarre that, in his words, ‘the Malays who, in my modest service in Singapore a year or two before Nichols’, figured significantly, are ignored.’67 This omission can perhaps be explained (if not excused) by the fact that the majority of Singapore’s population is Chinese, and the only scenes on the Malayan peninsula take place first on board a train, and
63 64

Hooker, History, pp. 106-07 In the programme notes to the 1988 revival of Privates at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Nichols declares that ‘the seeds of the Malayan war were those of the rubber tree.’ (Nichols, ‘The Day Emergency Broke Out.’) 65 Hooker, History, pp. 26-27 66 Nichols, Feeling, p. 94 67 Davison, Contemporary Drama and the Popular Tradition, p. 119


then in an improvised theatre in the jungle (the audience for this show is a unit of Ghurkhas, which is ‘played’ by the audience). Even so, the absence of any Malayan characters from the play is striking.

Peking Opera As a conscript in Singapore Nichols visited local theatres where, as he writes, ‘I sat among audiences of Chinese to watch the popular versions of Peking Opera.’68 He was especially impressed by the black-clad stagehands who hovered around the action: Accompanied by the crash of cymbals, the dramas were keened more than sung by gorgeously dressed principals while prompters in black pyjamas moved through the action supplying and removing scenery and props. If a heroine decided to end it all, she’d sing about it at great length, the man in black would step from the wings and slip a dagger into her outstretched hand. He’d wait while she performed some ritual gesture of suicide. She’d return him the dagger and go off. While the band screeched and crashed, he’d calmly set up the next scene.69 Techniques borrowed from Peking Opera appear occasionally in British plays. For example, Joan Littlewood interpolated the ‘Fight in the Dark’ scene from The Inn at the Cross-roads into the Theatre Workshop’s production of Arden of Faversham (1954).70 The central conceit of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy was inspired by the same scene, in which the two combatants, performing on a fullylit stage, behave as though they are in pitch darkness. In Privates on Parade, Nichols specifies that the props are brought on- and off-stage by the actors (dressed in black) who play Lee and Cheng. Nichols explains in his autobiography that he deliberately set the conventions of Peking Opera ‘against the equally artificial British variety theatre of my childhood, a symbolic confrontation like the Malayan war itself,’ adding ‘Our failure to achieve this in

68 69

Nichols, Feeling, p. 94 Nichols, Feeling, p. 94 70 Alison Hodge, ed., Twentieth Century Actor Training (pp. 116-17), quoted in Robert Leach, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005) p. 176.


production sold the play short.’71 The conflict is encapsulated by the very first stage directions in the Privates on Parade script: The sets more or less alternate front-cloth and full stage, in the manner of the variety theatre. Lee and Cheng sometimes move furniture and props, to the accompaniment of percussion, thus suggesting the popular Chinese opera.72 The ‘variety show’ is the officially-sanctioned performance, and it is always at the centre of the action. The Peking opera is subtle and silent, carried out by two actors who appear to be serving the British (and indeed are indispensable to the show, supplying props and executing scene-changes) while actually undermining them. In the play’s climactic scene Lee and Cheng decisively rupture the ‘variety show’, bursting onstage during a performance of ‘Jungle Jamboree’ and firing machine guns at the audience.73 In the play’s original production, Lee and Cheng were nearly invisible to the audience as well as to the soldiers. The critic who comes closest to mentioning them is Irving Wardle, in his review of the transfer to the Piccadilly theatre in 1978. Scanning the cast-list for the transfer, he is relieved ‘to find that there are only four changes, two of them in nonspeaking roles.’74 Of course, the ‘nonspeaking roles’ are Lee and Cheng. This is not a surprising oversight — critics are not in the habit of mentioning stagehands in their reviews — but Nichols intended much more for these men in black. In a letter to Jim Dale (who played Terri at the Long Wharf theatre in Connecticut, and later at the Roundabout Theatre in New York) the playwright explained what he had hoped to achieve: I think the play suffered by being heavily staged and not making use of my idea about using the Chinese as ‘prompters’ in the sense they use it in their popular theatre. That’s really the theme of the show: a group of tatty British soldiers and entertainers invade a Chinese colony with their

71 72

Nichols, Feeling, p. 94 Nichols, Privates, p. 107 73 Nichols, Privates, p. 195 74 Irving Wardle, ‘Farcical Little World,’ [Review of Privates on Parade], Times, 9 February 1978, p. 13


awful culture but in the end they leave the Chinese prompters in control of their own destiny, their own patch, which is the stage.75 Michael Grandage took the prompters seriously in his 2001 Donmar Warehouse and critics, perhaps now more adept at deciphering images of colonialism, paid closer attention to Lee and Cheng. Charles Spencer observed that ‘despite having no words, Wai-Keat Lau and Carl Wu are a potent presence as the silent Chinese ‘prompters’ who represent everything the bumbling Brits so dismally fail to understand.’76 Nicolas De Jongh, on the other hand, remarked that regardless of his intentions, ‘the playwright tells us little about what they thought in Singapore and Malaya when watching these typically British shows,’ adding ‘the only two Chinese characters are mute.’77 In the context of De Jongh’s generally glowing review this observation is not a damning criticism, just a reminder that however expansive their intentions, all writers privilege some voices over others. More serious is Yellow Earth Theatre Company director David Tse’s blunt assessment of the roles available to Asian actors: More often than not, one is there to give a white-led project an international feel. Consider plays such as Privates on Parade or The Letter and in the film world, James Bond, Tomb Raider, Spy Game.78 This may seem unfair company for Privates to keep, but a playwright’s intentions have no bearing on the role itself: being silent and inscrutable is as unrewarding in Privates as it is in Tomb Raider. Also, within the variety of ‘roles’ that Lee and Cheng play during the course of the show, and the instability of their identities (it is never clear whether it is REALLY Lee and Cheng who burst onstage with machine guns, or whether they are representative figures), there is a disturbing, though presumably unintentional echo of the stereotype that Chinese people ‘all look the same.’

Nichols to Jim Dale, [no date or month] 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78988, Br. Lib.) 76 Charles Spencer, ‘A Parade of astounding richness’, [Review of Privates on Parade], Daily Telegraph, 12 December 2001 <> 77 Nicholas De Jongh, ‘Military camp supplies irresistible comic treat’ [Review of Privates], Evening Standard, 11 December 2001 <> 78 David Tse, Artistic Director, Yellow Earth, Eclipse Report: Developing strategies to combat racism in theatre, pp. 55-59


The crux of the issue is that one cannot dramatise marginalisation by marginalising a character: this only repeats the marginalisation without calling attention to it, which is the opposite of dramaticising it. Whatever Nichols’ intentions, Lee and Cheng are very small, non-speaking roles, and in the script they are easy to overlook. This does not need to be the case on stage, however. Joy Zinoman’s 2002 Studio Theatre production, for example, begins with Lee and Cheng sitting on either side of a wooden crate that they are using as a desk and talking to each other animatedly, though their conversation is drowned out by the sound of Chinese percussion. At the end of the first act (which concludes with Maj. Drummond’s funeral), Lee and Cheng carry off his coffin— again to the sound of Chinese percussion – providing an aural and visual echo of the opening (the coffin closely resembles the crate from the first scene). In the second act, there is an even more striking occurrence: after the soldiers finish singing the title number, ‘Privates on Parade’, they drop the rifles that they have been carrying and leave the stage. Just before the lights dim, Lee and Cheng dart onstage and scoop up the discarded weapons.79 Through moments like these, Zinoman’s staging makes Lee and Cheng’s ‘invisibility’ visible: though the soldiers ignore them, the audience can be made alert to their presence.

‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’ In 1974, the comedy writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft (who had created Dad’s Army in 1968) premiered a new sitcom called It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, about an army entertainments unit stationed in Deolali, India in 1946. Perry and Croft had both served in entertainments units in India – Perry himself had run a concert party for five years. Michael Bates (who had played the father, Charles, in Forget-me-not Lane) gave a famous performance as the Indian servant Ranghi Ram, who self-identifies as British. The performance by a white British actor as an Indian person who feels ‘British’ was repeated (less crudely) in


Privates on Parade dir. Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre (video)


Emma William’s performance as the Welsh-Indian Sylvia Morgan.80 Windsor Davies played the racist, homophobic, sadistic Sergeant Major Williams, while Melvyn Hayes played his sparring partner, the drag performer Bombardier ‘Gloria’ Beaumont. Understandably, Nichols found the show’s increasing popularity disquieting, but Albert Finney told him not to give up his script: ‘However similar the subject, yours will be your own thing,’ Finney promised, ‘you can’t prevent that.’81 Comparison between the two was inevitable, but it did not seem to damage the play’s reception. In 1978 Warner Brothers even raised the possibility of a Privates on Parade television series if the film adaptation turned out to be successful.82 Michael Billington’s remarks about the distinction between sitcom and play seem to be representative: Briefly synopsised, it sounds like an up-market version of television’s It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. But what this leaves out of account is Nichols’s marvellous ability to combine political theme with a rich sense of absurdity.83 For Billington, the ‘political theme’ and ‘sense of absurdity’ coalesced in the person of Major Giles Flack, the Unit’s commanding officer, who became a critical counter-balance to the camp-vs.-macho dichotomy of Terri Dennis and Reg Drummond. In April 1975, Nichols chose Private’s on Parade’s less eyecatching but more widely repeatable intermediate working title, Jungle Jamboree, explaining that it ‘suggests a cheap show and carries undertones of [Boy Scouts founder] Baden-Powell.’ ‘The Boy Scout tinges, Nichols adds, ‘are right for my view of the Malayan “war” as described in such accounts as Jungle Green by Arthur Campbell, MC, an officer with the Suffolk [regiment] who


Though the delineations are not straightforward: Bates was born in India and grew up there, and so arguably was not simplistically ‘British’ while Ranghi Ram is a British colonial subject, and therefore is as British as Michael Bates. The distinction (and therefore the comedy) is based not on nationality but on race. 81 Nichols, Diaries, p. 410, and personal interview with Nichols, 14 March 2005 82 Betty Archer (Story Editor, Warner Brothers) to Ramsay, 13 Sep 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 83 Michael Billington, ‘Peter Nichols’s new jungle-bashing comedy’, Guardian 23 February 1977


operated in the Kuala Lumpur region [...].’84 Campbell’s prose style inspired the almost surreal patter of Maj. Giles Flack, who reaches his grandest heights of absurdity when attempting to speak to the enlisted men ‘at their level’: Now some of you may be saying ‘yes, that’s all very well, but law luv a duck, we’re only peacetime conscripts waiting for the boat back to dear old Blighty.’ And others may say ‘But cor stone the crows, this is a non combatant unit after all.’ But, as we see from last night’s episode, we are a military target. [...] Singing and dancing’s all very well but it won’t stop Communistic Chinamen.85 In this scene, Flack details his plans for guard duty while Cheng is clearing away glasses, obviously listening to every word. Both Flack and the corrupt Sergeant Major Reg Drummond underestimate their adversaries, and, blinkered by a belief in their racial superiority, blunder directly into traps set up by Lee and Cheng, who take full advantage of their near-invisibility as servants. As a highly generalised allegory for colonialism, this is apt and dramatically very effective. As a microcosm of the Malayan Emergency, however, it is misleading. Far from being a late-colonial anachronism, the British military, particularly under Gerald Templar (who served as both High Commissioner and Field-marshal in Malaya from 1952-57) waged what is now regarded as the first modern counterinsurgency campaign.86 Britain’s propaganda and psychological warfare was run by the Malayan Chinese Too Chee Chew (better known as C.C. Too), who reportedly captured the attention of his superiors as a young officer by convincing a high-ranking communist operative to defect after a single evening of polite conversation.87 Too and Templar ran a sophisticated propaganda campaign, sometimes dropping leaflets addressing a single operative by name and recommending that he or she defect. Their counter-insurgency campaign in
84 85

Nichols, Diaries, p. 409 Nichols, Privates, p. 151 86 From George Packer in the New Yorker: ‘the Malayan Emergency—the twelve-year Communist revolt against British rule, which was finally put down in 1960, [...] has become a major point of reference in the military doctrine of counterinsurgency.’ (George Packer, ‘Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “War on Terror”’?, New Yorker, 18 December 2006, p. 60) 87 SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.), ‘Psychological Warfare of the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960’ <>


Malaya introduced the phrase ‘Hearts and Minds’ to military jargon. Propaganda was the benign aspect of the counter-insurgency: Too and Templar also forced over half a million rural Chinese villagers out of their homes and moved them into purpose-built ‘villages’ surrounded by barbed wire and spotlight towers.88 The Malayan Emergency was also the first war in which defoliants were widely used. John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk regarded the British employment of crop-sprayers as a legal precedent for the use of defoliants (including the now-infamous Agent Orange) in Vietnam.89

Finding a Theatre On 20 November 1975 Peggy Ramsay wrote to Richard Cottrell, Artistic director at the Bristol Old Vic (and himself a client of Ramsay’s, as an adaptor/translator90), to ask if he would like to read a copy of the play, at this time still called Jungle Jamboree.91 Cottrell had attracted Nichols’ attention by directing a successful revival of The National Health at the Bristol Old Vic in 1974, and Nichols (who had attended the Bristol Old Vic theatre school) probably enjoyed the prospect of opening a new play in his native city. Ramsay’s letter was heavy with caveats, chief among them that Blakemore wanted to direct, but was involved with a film that Nichols was writing (an adaptation of David Lodge’s novel Changing Places which was never produced, though the project stayed alive until the early 1980s). ‘The two of them would certainly not fall out if Michael was not available,’92 Ramsay assured Cottrell (with remarkable optimism considering that the two men had only been on friendly terms for ten months since their previous falling-out, precipitated by

88 89

Hooker, History, p. 195 Dean Rusk to John F. Kennedy, 24 November 1961 (document 275 from the website 90 Colin Chambers, Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 55 91 According to the postscript to Nichols’ published diaries, he decided to change the title to Privates on Parade after asking Antonia Fraser whether she preferred it to Jungle Jamboree (p. 426). 92 Ramsay to Cottrell, 20 November 1975 (Nichols Papers folder 79108, British Library)


Chez Nous93). But she explained candidly that it would help the play if the two men collaborated: ‘Peter wants to do some more work on the text and Blakemore is exceptionally good at clarifying Peter’s texts and was the greatest help over Joe Egg and The National Health.’94 Ramsay also told Cottrell that she had sent a copy of the script to Michael Medwin, whose Memorial Productions had produced Chez Nous and the London transfer of Joe Egg. He liked the script, but there was no commitment, and in any case Ramsay was sure he would welcome a try-out in Bristol. Cottrell replied to Ramsay only a day after her letter to him, saying ‘I would very much like to do Peter’s new play if I like it,’ and asking her to send him a copy.95 Her response was not entirely encouraging: ‘I hope you read my letter carefully,’ she cautioned, then paraphrased everything she had explained in her previous letter, and told him ‘Your approval or not, in principle, for the play to be done at Bristol would be wonderfully helpful, but you don’t need to rush your reading as I imagine you are dreadfully busy.’96 This sounds like a polite brush-off, which must have bewildered Cottrell since she had told him only four days before that ‘What we really want to know is whether at this stage you could find time to read the script and whether you think it is something you would really like to present at Bristol.’97 Nonetheless, she did send him the script, and he replied to thank her, saying ‘Yes, of course I read your letter carefully. I always read your letters carefully,’ and proceeding to itemise the points that she had made in the letters. But Cottrell’s verdict, delivered in January 1976, was disappointing: I think it’s hugely entertaining and I laughed a great deal, and I am sure it will be a great success in the more sophisticated atmosphere of the West End, but the only one of our theatres which is right for it is the Theatre Royal and the Theatre Royal audience would hate it. They’d hate the bad language, the camp, the homosexuality, the sexual references. It would empty the theatre. I’d love to do the play but I daren’t.
93 94

Nichols, Diaries, p. 393 Ramsay to Cottrell, 20 November 1975 (Nichols Papers folder 79108, British Library) 95 Cottrell to Ramsay, 21 November 1975 (Nichols Papers folder 79108) 96 Ramsay to Cottrell, 24 November 1975 (Nichols Papers folder 79108) 97 Ramsay to Cottrell, 20 November 1975 (Nichols Papers folder 79108)


He added that ‘Peter, knowing the Bristol scene will, I hope, understand this.’98 Cottrell later commissioned Nichols’ next play, Born in the Gardens, for the Bristol Old Vic.99 This turned out to be no great setback: by the end of February, the RSC was planning to produce Privates. Blakemore was the first choice for director, but would not be able to direct until the following year.100 RSC associate director David Jones told Nichols that Blakemore would ‘have some commitments to the National early next year, but says they’ve messed about with his dates so much already that he feels he can call the tune to a certain extent.’101 In early March, Jones wrote to Michael Birkett at the National Theatre to let him know that Blakemore would be directing Privates at the Aldwych theatre for the RSC, and to find out what Blakemore’s specific commitments were to the NT, ‘so that we can try and fit in with these without any bloodshed on either side.’102 Peter Hall did not share Blakemore’s understanding of his commitments to the NT, and seems to have told him so. Nichols wrote to him to explain that he had hoped to premiere it outside of London and then transfer, as he had (though not by choice) with Joe Egg. After Cottrell turned it down at Bristol, Nichols wanted to propose it to Nottingham. ‘But,’ he told Hall, ‘people said it would be better mounted at the Aldwych and I took the point.’ Nichols invoked Hall’s own choice to ‘avoid the jamboree opening and move in quietly with tried productions.’103 This was a well-chosen example, since Nichols had been commissioned to write a play for the Jamboree opening, and lost this extremely prestigious spot when the plan was scrapped. He told Hall that ‘rather than
98 99

Cottrell to Ramsay, 14 January 1976 (Nichols Papers folder 79108) Cottrell to Nichols, 23 August 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79108, Br. Library). The play was intended to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Old Vic’s Royal Charted (granted in 1778) but the production did not open until 1979. 100 The RSC also considered Christopher Morahan, Richard Eyre, and Ronald Eyre as directors (David Jones to Nichols, 25 February 1976 (Nichols Papers folder 79108)). 101 David Jones to Nichols, 25 February 1976 (Nichols Papers folder 79108) 102 David Jones to Nichols, 4 March 1976 (Nichols Papers folder 79108) 103 Nichols to Peter Hall, 31 March 1976 (P. Hall Correspondence, NT archive, folder D16)


continue causing bad blood’ he would leave the RSC and propose the play to Nottingham or the Royal Court, though under the circumstances it seems he must have expected to be dissuaded. Hall replied, thanking Nichols for his letter and explaining his displeasure: Michael hadn’t told me about it or asked me if he could go to the RSC. What upset me was that he, as an Associate Director of the National Theatre, would be going off to do a Michael Blakemore production with another company. So the inference seemed to me obvious. You wanted Michael Blakemore, but not at the National Theatre. Hall added ‘I’m sure you’ll understand that if Michael has a year away from here in order to do a film, it’s not really very happy for us if he returns to the theatre via the RSC.’104 Since the two companies began, the NT and RSC had shared both a friendly aesthetic rivalry, and a much more fearsome financial rivalry. They were the two main recipients of theatre subsidy in Britain, and though the NT was the more lavishly funded, in the 1970s the South Bank building absorbed a substantial (and chronically unpredictable) portion of its money. Squabbles broke out sporadically throughout the 1970s, especially over personnel. For example, Peter Hall’s diaries record RSC director Trevor Nunn accusing him of ‘poaching’ the RSC’s head of publicity John Goodwin in September 1973 (Hall argues that the NT was only paying him £300 more a year), and later in the year, Hall writes that Nunn has objected to the NT approaching the RSC company-member Susan Fleetwood for a production without first informing the directors.105

‘With open arms, and a lot more besides’ Privates on Parade, on the other hand, gave the RSC nothing to complain about. Not only did Blakemore defect from the NT (and Hall clearly realised the move would look like a defection, though in fact Blakemore did not go on to direct any more plays at the RSC), he brought Denis Quilley with him to play

104 105

Peter Hall to Nichols, 15 April 1976 (Nichols Papers folder 79108, British Library) Peter Hall, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983), pp. 52, 65-66


Terri Dennis. Between 1971 and 1977 Quilley had performed in a total of 17 productions, all but three of them for the NT (and one of the three was at the Young Vic, which was founded as an offshoot from the NT). After Privates he did not return to the National Theatre until 1990. But as with Blakemore, this ‘defection’ did not lead to more work with the RSC either – Quilley did not perform with the RSC again until 1995.106 Until Privates, Quilley was understood to be a ‘National Theatre’ actor. Jack Tinker’s review of the play begins ‘With open arms, and a lot more besides, the RSC welcomes that wildly talented actor Denis Quilley from across the water.’107 While the uninitiated might have assumed he was referring to the Atlantic ocean, or possibly the English channel, he was in fact referring to the Thames, and the NT’s South Bank home. ‘As well as earning me an Olivier award,’ Quilley writes in his autobiography, his performance as Terri Dennis also earned him ‘the distinction of being, so far as I am aware, the first actor ever to work simultaneously for the National and the RSC, as I was still playing in Hamlet and Tamburlaine while rehearsing Privates on Parade.’108 Quilley may have been a pioneer – Peter Hall believes that the distinction between the two companies has disappeared, and mourns its loss in his autobiography: Now, of course, the notion that there is such a thing as an RSC actor or a National actor on an exclusive basis seems odd, even unhealthy – which means, sadly I think, that neither is a clearly defined company. By the mid eighties, actors, directors, and designers were moving freely from one to the other.109 What is perhaps most striking about Privates, however, is how little affiliation it had with the RSC ‘company’. As indicated above, Blakemore never directed at the RSC again, and Quilley did not perform with them again for eighteen years. Nigel Hawthorne, who played Major Giles Flack, epitomises the show’s ambivalent relationship with the RSC. On the very same day that he was offered the role of Flack, he was offered a part in Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce
106 107

Denis Quilley, appendix, Happiness Indeed (London: Oberon, 2004) Jack Tinker, ‘Service with a smile... ‘ [Review of Privates], Daily Mail, 23 February 1977 108 Quilley, Happiness, p. 162 109 Peter Hall, Making an Exhibition of Myself (London: Oberon, 2000), p. 271


by the NT. Hawthorne happened to be staying with his friend Michael Gwilym, an actor in the RSC, in the Stratford cottage that Gwylim rented from the company. Hawthorne decided to go to the NT, and told Gwylim as much. ‘At breakfast the following morning,’ Hawthorne recalls, I was confronted by surprise visitors – Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, who were enjoying a triumph in Trevor Nunn’s ‘chamber’ production of Macbeth. I suspected that they were there at Mike’s instigation. They all protested that they wouldn’t hear of my joining the National, and between them, over the toast and marmalade, succeeded in persuading me to change my mind.110 Hawthorne reports that after a performance of Privates, RSC director Trevor Nunn ‘threw his arms around me [...] saying, “Promise me. Promise me you’ll come to Stratford!’111 As it happened, Hawthorne did not perform at Stratford until 1999, though he appeared in Norman Fenton’s A Miserable and Lonely Death at the Warehouse and Aldwych in 1978, and performed at the Barbican throughout the 1980s. Privates did not lead any other actors immediately into further work with the RSC, except for Ian Gelder, who appeared in three other plays during the 1977-1978 season. Joe Melia and Emma Williams had worked regularly with the company before Privates, and continued to do so afterwards. Simon Jones and Ben Cross both appeared in Wild Oats, which opened before Privates, but in no other RSC shows for at least twenty years. The other four actors never worked with the RSC again after Privates. One of them, Tim Wylton, had appeared in many productions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but Privates was his final show with the company. In fact, Peter Nichols may be the one to have come closest to becoming a ‘member’ of the RSC, since the company produced two of his next three plays.

Rehearsals: ‘rebellious elements’ Early in the summer of 1976 Nichols and his family flew to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was to be Visiting Playwright at the Guthrie Theatre,

110 111

Nigel Hawthorne, Straight Face (London: Hodder and Staughton, 2002), p. 237 Hawthorne, Straight Face, p. 240


appointed by its British artistic director Michael Langham (Blakemore, an admirer of the theatre’s founder Tyrone Guthrie, was tipped to be Langham’s successor, though this did not come about112 ). He spent a few months in Minneapolis, briefly visited London in mid-autumn, and returned to the Guthrie in the winter to co-direct The National Health with Langham. Ramsay later used this experience as leverage in order to make sure that Nichols was involved in arranging the American transfer of Privates, assuring David Jones that Nichols ‘has just returned from directing THE NATIONAL HEALTH in Minneapolis, and probably of all our directors113 he is the most skilled at the executive side of the theatre.’114 By the time Nichols reached London again, he found what his diary describes as ‘open mutiny’ in rehearsals against the choreographer, Eleanor Fazan115 (in a letter to Blakemore following the Aldwych production, Nichols complained about what he called her ‘slow, time-wasting and finally inflammatory way of working’116 ). The mutiny that Nichols witnessed may have been typical: Privates does not seem to have enjoyed a smooth rehearsal process. Michael Blakemore, who was ill, directed most of the play while lying on a chaise-longue, while several ‘rebellious elements’117 in the cast routinely turned rehearsals into chaos. Hawthorne writes ‘I was very shocked by this anarchy. In a way, I believe it helped the spirit of the show because it was contagious, added a masculine challenge to the behaviour of the characters, but I do know that I found it difficult to operate under such conditions, despite my experience with Theatre Workshop.’118 Hawthorne had so much difficulty with his role that he considered dropping out of the production, and said as much to Nichols when he visited a
112 113

Nichols, Diaries p. 429 It seems she must have meant ‘playwrights’, unless she was trying to emphasise Nichols’ potential as a director. 114 Margaret Ramsay to David Jones, 15 March 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) 115 Nichols, Diaries, p. 439 116 Nichols to Blakemore [draft], c. August 1977 (Nichols papers, folder 78985, British Library) 117 Hawthorne, Straight Face, p. 240 118 Hawthorne, Straight Face, p. 240


rehearsal,119 but he persevered, developing his performance from a misprint in his first copy of the script that suggested an intriguing verbal tic.120 The show opened on 22 February. It was an instant critical and popular success (‘Our show got a kinder press than we could have written ourselves,’ Nichols later wrote to a friend in America121) and won three Olivier awards (Best New Comedy, Best Supporting Actor for Nigel Hawthorne, and Best Comedy Performance for Denis Quilley), the Evening Standard award for Best Comedy, and the Ivor Novello award for Best Musical. Unfortunately, it only ran for fifty performances before it had to be taken off to make room for the unexpectedly successful Wild Oats, which had opened originally in December 1976. Privates would not be able to re-open until 1978 because Denis Quilley would be starring in Candida at the Albery for most of 1977 (a production directed by Michael Blakemore and produced by Eddie Kulukundis, who was to co-produce Privates’ West End transfer). For Nichols, the situation was uncomfortably reminiscent of Albert Finney’s departure from the Broadway cast of Joe Egg, which Nichols would continue to resent for years,122 as well as of the troubled run of The National Health. ‘I’ve already waited since 1975 to get the play on,’ he observed in a letter to David Jones and Trevor Nunn, ‘and now that it’s successful I’m having to wait for 1978 for a decent run.’123 He went on to explicitly compare the company to the NT: ‘Till the play opened I had been so pleased with the way everything had been handled at the RSC. There was a lack of conspiracy, expedience and the crashing bad manners of that lot on the other side and nothing was spared to make the show as good as it could be.

119 120

Nichols, Diaries, p. 439 Hawthorne, Straight Face, p. 238 121 Nichols to Mark Lamas, 8 June 1978 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79123, British Library) 122 See Chapter 1, p. 74 123 Nichols to David Jones and Trevor Nunn, 12 March 1977 [draft or copy] (Nichols papers, folder 79108, British Library)


But, he added, at least at the NT ‘success is rewarded by more performances.’124 Nichols was being disingenuous: this had not, in fact, been his experience with The National Health. Nevertheless, Nunn’s reply was deeply apologetic: I am mortified and sick. You know my view of the transfer situation on Privates. For your sake and for ours, I wanted the show to go immediately to the West End. I begged Eddie [Kulukundis] and Michael [Blakemore] to replace Denis [Quilley] in Candida. I made (probably pathetic) alternative casting suggestions. I used any special relationship I might enjoy with Eddie to change his mind. [...] The production of Wild Oats, he explained, was not an insurmountable obstacle because those in the Privates cast were not integral to the Wild Oats cast and could be released for a West End transfer. In his opinion, the chief problem was Candida: The whole thing revolved around the future of Denis, as I knew it would when I first talked to Eddie and Michael. I have to admit to some surprise that Michael was backing Eddie’s view that Denis was indispensable to Candida. Two against one would have made all the difference. But it’s brown and dirty water under the bridge.125 On 4 April 1977 Nunn wrote a letter to the cast of Privates explaining that rerehearsals for the transfer would begin on 3 January 1978, and the show would re-open in the West End three weeks later. The transfer was to be co-managed by Kulukundis and Michael Medwin. The new production ran until August 1978, but did not attract the audiences that the producers expected. Nunn concluded that ‘the greater part of the theatre going public, British or visiting, is still not ready for the explicitness and directness of a play like Privates, despite the fun.’126 Hawthorne’s assessment was more direct:


Nichols to David Jones and Trevor Nunn, 12 March 1977 [draft or copy] (Nichols papers, folder 79108, British Library) 125 Trevor Nunn to Nichols, 24 March 1977 (Nichols folder 79108, British Library) 126 Nunn to Nichols, 7 August 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library)


The run began well enough, but there was some outrage at the bad language, and that seemed to be instrumental in business falling off until finally the notice went up that we were to close.127 It seemed that the West End of 1977 was not quite ready for a war play with full male nudity, whose second line was ‘Where d’you fucking come from?’128

‘Shostakovich’s Apology to Stalin’ During the nine-month hiatus between Privates’ Aldwych run and its transfer to the Piccadilly, Nichols freely expressed his frustration with the production in his correspondence with Michael Blakemore. His main complaint was that ‘the show came out more as a musical than a play and the story suffered as a result.’129 In a letter written just before the play re-opened, Nichols singled out Joe Melia’s performance as a backing singer in the Carmen Miranda pastiche ‘Latin American Way’, saying that he made too much noise, rendering the song’s lyrics inaudible. Within the play, ‘Latin American Way’ is the opening song of the climactic performance of ‘Jungle Jamboree’ deep in the Malayan jungle, which will be interrupted by Communist guerrillas. The scene that precedes the song ends with Major Flack delivering a rapturous speech about entering the jungle and feeling a ‘familiar but almost forgotten tightening of the stomach,’ concluding with the sanctimonious words: ‘I prayed for our safety and thanked Almighty God that at last the real show was beginning.’ In response, God sends Terri Dennis, wearing ‘a grocery bag’s worth of fruit on his head’130 and flanked by backing singers ‘in frilly shirts,’ armed with a ukulele and maracas.131 This, it seems, is ‘the real show’. The song’s first two verses bubble along innocuously, with ludicrous rhymes such as ‘Come and have a gala/down in Guatemala,’ and ‘Kill a nice

127 128

Hawthorne, Straight Face, p. 242 Nichols, Privates, p. 108 129 Nichols to Blakemore, August 1978, (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78988, British Library) 130 Peter Marks, ‘Stiff Upper Quip: The Empire’s Last Laugh’, Washington Post, 17 September, 2002, p. C1 131 Nichols, Privates, p. 186


vicuna, underneath the moon-a.’132 But in the third verse Carmen becomes an ironic cheerleader for the USA’s cold-war intervention in Latin America: Every señorita Welcome in the fleet-a And she pray her favourite saint to bless. Guys who rock the boat-a, they won’t get my vote-a, I prefer American Express. Down in old Havana, Life is all mañana, No-one work and everybody play, How could you resist a Weekend with Batista? The Latin American way.133 Nichols’ suggestions to Blakemore for staging the number reveal his concern for the song’s political message: Sing the first two verses and exit, Joe [Melia] and Simon [Jones] mugging for all their worth, not a word heard. Then re-enter and keep them upstage, allowing Denis to come down and deliver one more verse, the one with the most point, going off as before, stageright. Worth a try at a preview.134 In an interview, Nichols told me what happened when he confronted Melia about the song. “‘I do want you to make something of that line about Batista,’” he recalled telling the actor: and he said ‘Aauuooooohhhhh, this is like Shostakovich’s apology to Stalin!’ He said I was paying undue attention to the seriousness of it, he said ‘they’re going to just enjoy it as a Carmen Miranda song!’ And he’s right, in a way. That’s how it does come over. He was making an artistic statement, really. He wasn’t saying ‘don’t let’s have any politics’ he was saying ‘this is not the place for politics, this is not the moment for politics.’ [...] Shostakovich wrote an apology to Stalin, or to the central committee, apologising for his symphony and trying to justify it on socialist grounds, and that’s what Joe was saying I was doing: I was being over-explanatory. He said ‘if they pick it up they pick it up, there’s no time for us to be able to do anything about it.135
132 133

Nichols, Privates, p. 187 Nichols, Privates, p. 187 134 Nichols to Blakemore, August 1978, (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78988, British Library). 135 Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005


It is difficult to imagine very many spectators noticing the ‘political’ third verse of ‘Latin American Way’, simply because the song moves too quickly. When I asked the director Joy Zinoman (who directed the play at the Studio Theatre, Washington DC, in 2002) if she had been concerned about the play’s seriousness being overwhelmed by its musical numbers, she replied that ‘there’s not enough good social comment in the play that you would have much of a show without the other stuff.’136 According to her, the play’s strength resides in its ambiguity: I think that for Peter Nichols—who is clearly a left wing writer, but who also has a very nostalgic connection to his own time in National Service—both things exist, and to make it either/or is not getting closest to the truth, because the truth is it’s both. I think he wrote it out of some anti-Vietnam feelings, but I think it’s also a nostalgia trip. I don’t think it’s entirely frivolous, but it’s also not the most serious social comment in the world. It’s a mixed style: it isn’t docudrama, it isn’t a call to arms. and that might be part of its problem for the audience, for people who want the play to be one thing or the other.137 The ambiguity within the play, which is formal as well as ideological (the relationship between the songs and the surrounding play is never entirely reconciled), is one of its great strengths. As Zinoman observes, it is also its greatest liability.

‘Unadulterated Bunkum’ Just as the ambiguity and heavily-applied irony of The National Health had led some critics to describe it as a ‘right wing’ play, some spectators greeted Privates on Parade as a veritable hymn to imperialism. The actor Simon Jones reports that during at least one performance of Privates on Parade, the Noel Coward satire ‘Could You Please Inform us Who it Was that Won the War’ was greeted with spontaneous applause, while the jingoistic pontification of Major Giles Flack was greeted with cries of ‘Bravo!’138 And it was not only the
136 137

Joy Zinoman, personal interview, 4 January 2005 Joy Zinoman, Personal interview, 4 January 2005 138 Simon Jones to Nichols, 1 April 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79123, British Library)


‘audience’ that forcefully imposed their own counter-interpretation onto Nichols’ critique of British imperialism. Reviewing the play for Plays and Players, the avant-garde director Charles Marowitz declared that to argue that the play was ‘questioning the British presence in South East Asia or delving into the deeper issues of the emergency years is unadulterated bunkum. It isn’t, nor does it need to.’139 Marowitz could not have been more wrong: it did need to, and it did. In this case, there may have been more at work than simple misinterpretation: it would have suited Marowitz as a director for Privates to be part of an unambiguous ‘mainstream’ against which he could set his own experimental work. Perhaps the most extraordinary response to Privates on Parade that has ever been recorded is described in the critic Harold Hobson’s autobiography, Indirect Journey. Hobson admits that Privates on Parade is one of the two modern plays that ‘most deeply stirred’ him as a Christian (the other is James Bridie’s Marriage is No Joke). Hobson refers to a particular moment during the funeral for Len Bonny, who has been killed because of Major Flack’s lethally illconceived plan to use the concert party as bait for a guerrilla attack. Eulogising Bonny, Flack quotes from John Bunyan, and it is here that Hobson was stirred by Nigel Hawthorne’s performance as Flack: At that moment one of those miracles of the theatre happened when in an instant the whole mood of a play and of its audience becomes transformed. The change does not come gradually, like the bud of the spring, nor the dawning of the day. Suddenly where all was barren the harvest shines with gold; where was total darkness there is the blaze of eternal light; where, in Major Flack, there had hitherto been nothing but folly, there came over him, as he spoke the magnificent and wildly incongruous words, something very like sublimity. Nigel Hawthorne, who played the Major, spoke them with such certainty and commitment that the spirit of jeering was silenced in our realization that, whatever might be the case with us, this ridiculous officer could actually hear the triumphant peal of the ringing trumpets which are in heaven. I have known people, a theatrical manager of long experience among them, who at this moment


Charles Marowitz, Review of Privates on Parade, Plays and Players, April 1977, p. 22


in the play, such being the grandeur of Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, could not restrain their tears.140 This is an excellent example of the unpredictable alchemy that occurs between the work of the author, director, actors, and finally, the audience. Nichols himself describes these strange moments as the only great consolation for the myriad frustrations of the theatre: ‘all that can make up for the bother and discomfort and high prices are the rare, small miracles and they will only happen when an event is caused that can’t happen anywhere else. When our side of it meets theirs.’141 However this fails to acknowledge that there are at least three ‘sides’: the playwright, the producing institution, and the audience. He was soon to decide that the indeterminacy forced onto the playwright’s intentions by this three-way collaboration was untenable, and the resulting battle would mark the end of his work with the NT and RSC.


Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1978), pp. 235-36 141 Nichols, ‘Introduction: Casting the Audience,’ Plays: One, p. xiv


Chapter 6 A Company Theatre Man at Heart: Passion Play and Poppy After Privates on Parade, Nichols found himself in even greater demand than he had been before. His next play, Born in the Gardens, was commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic in August 1977, between the two runs of Privates. Richard Cottrell wrote to tell Nichols that for the 1978 season, in order to mark the bicentenary of the Bristol Old Vic’s royal charter, the company wanted to commission plays from him and from Tom Stoppard, the two ‘most notable playwrights to have fled from Bristol.’1 Stoppard declined, but Nichols accepted, and wrote a play for four actors in which a mother and son who live in nearseclusion in Bristol are visited by the mother’s other two children, a daughter who has gone to America and a son who is now a Labour MP. It opened in August 1979 (missing the bicentenary year), directed by Nichols himself. The production transferred to London, now under the direction of Clifford Williams, and played at the Globe Theatre for nine months, Nichols’ longest run in the West End up to that time.2 Around the same time that Cottrell contacted Nichols from Bristol, Christopher Morahan wrote to ask if he would like to write anything for the National Theatre. Morahan, a former head of television drama for the BBC who had directed several of Nichols’ most successful television plays, had joined the NT as an associate director in 1976, in the hope that, in Peter Hall’s words, ‘he would provide a centre of sanity and knowledge.’3 Hall intended for Morahan to run the Lyttelton theatre, but when the NT’s three theatres were officially divided between the associate directors in 1977, he was put in charge of the Olivier. Michael Rudman, who had directed the Hampstead Theatre, was to run the Lyttelton, and Bill Bryden, whose career had developed at the National, was to run the Cottesloe.4 Morahan and Nichols had shared a close professional and personal relationship since Morahan had directed Nichols’ television play
1 2

Richard Cottrell to Nichols, 23rd August 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) Nichols, Introduction to Born in the Gardens, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 208 3 Peter Hall, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983), p. 241 4 Peter Lewis, The National, a Dream Made Concrete (London: Methuen, 1990), p. 132


Continuity Man in 1963. Now that Morahan was a director at the NT, Nichols once again had what Peggy Ramsay called ‘a friend at court.’5 When Morahan approached Nichols, the playwright said he was exasperated by the delayed transfer of Privates on Parade, suggested that it would have been more successful with a commercial management, and implied that he wanted his next show to be produced commercially. Morahan politely retorted that no commercial producer would have risked their money on Privates, and defended the unique merits of subsidised theatre: the things we can offer are still tangible. Scale, risk taking, a good working environment, a place within a balanced [repertoire] with good actors. We can’t offer a fortune but I believe we can offer an unrivalled platform.6 Meanwhile, the producer Michael Codron, was interested in producing a Peter Nichols-Denis King musical, to follow on the success of Privates.7 And in April 1978, Trevor Nunn told the playwright ‘you know the Aldwych is yours for whatever you write next, if, that is, you want it.’8 Later in the year, Nunn reiterated his offer: Please write us another one. I thought seriously about your suggestion of a revival of Joe Egg. I admire the play so much, and thought Joe Melia was very good in Michael’s excellent original production. However the right place for it in the repertoire hasn’t emerged this year. [...] Please keep in touch about the musical or any other unbelievably expensive ideas you might be having.9 The National Theatre would also consider a Joe Egg revival a few years later, though it has not yet been produced by either company. Nunn’s letter indicates that Nichols had told him about the musical that he and King were planning to write. Richard Cottrell also assured Nichols that the Bristol Old Vic ‘would be very interested in the large-scale play, provided that it could be ready in time [...]

5 6

Nichols, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000), p. 294 Morahan to Nichols, 27 Oct 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) 7 Michael Codron to Nichols, 15 Sep 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) 8 Trevor Nunn to Nichols, 18 April 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 9 Trevor Nunn to Nichols, 7 August 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library)


to open the spring season with it,’10 while Morahan told Nichols that ‘the Olivier would be a marvellous theatre for a big play about the East and West, so the Opium Wars idea sounds very interesting.’ Morahan also thought the Olivier would be excellent for a new play in the style of The National Health. He remembered Nichols ‘talking about Highbury Fields [...] and all the extraordinary things that happened there, fireworks, dogs, football, National Front, scouts, exposure, rape, and birdwatching too, I imagine.’ Morahan told Nichols that ‘the Olivier full of birdwatchers and rapists, is as good a use of the space as uniforms, music and gunfire.’11 Nunn, Cottrell, and Morahan all assumed that Nichols’ trajectory was towards more large-scale productions. Cottrell specifically told him that the Bristol Old Vic would be able to fund a large production, given enough advance notice, since he did not ‘think it would be in anyone’s interest to encourage you to make what would seem to you to be a backward move.’12

Three ‘nearly perfect’ plays In fact, Nichols was continuing to oscillate between large-scale and small-scale shows, and, by extension, between public and private space. In the summer, prompted by a request from the New York Times for his choice of the three most ‘nearly perfect’ plays of all time, Nichols selected an illuminating trio: N. F. Simpson’s The One-Way Pendulum, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War. Nichols explains that he chose the Simpson ‘for faithfully describing everyday life in the average British suburban family.’ Uncle Vanya, he writes, ‘shows with similar fidelity Russian country life at the turn of the century and refutes any hope that the meek shall inherit the earth.’ Nichols adds that Olivier’s production at Chichester in 1962 was ‘perfect,’ at least on the afternoon that he watched it, and has also said that this performance was one of only three times that he has cried as an adult. Finally,

10 11

Richard Cottrell to Nichols, 14 April 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) Christopher Morahan to Nichols, 12 Dec 1979 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 12 Cottrell to Nichols, 14 April 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library)


he praises Oh What A Lovely War for ‘using the tricks of show biz and at the same time showing how these tricks are available as a means of unscrupulous persuasion.’13 Oh What A Lovely War was the second time he cried in his adult life.14 Nichols had long been an admirer of Joan Littlewood. In a diary entry from 1973, he calls her ‘the most influential English theatre director since the war and creator of the best show, Oh What a Lovely War.’15 Noticeably, the characteristic optimism of her company, the Theatre Workshop, is absent even from Nichols’ description of it: ‘Now we know they were fighting a losing battle,’ he concludes, ‘but they’ve had some stirring victories.’16 Many of Nichols’ transgressive and meta-theatrical techniques are direct descendents of Littlewood’s. Christopher Innes, one of the few writers to notice this connection, calls Nichols ‘the playwright who picked up most directly on the potential of Oh, What a Lovely War.’17 Innes observes that like Oh, What a Lovely War, in which World War One is performed as a seaside pierrot show, Privates is driven by ‘the stark contrast between presentation and content, embodied in the punning title of Privates on Parade, which is characteristic of Nichols’ work.’18 However, unlike the sarcastic commentary contained within the title ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, ‘Privates on Parade’ contains nothing more incisive than a penis joke. In any case, roughly one-half of Nichols’ plays between 1967 and 1983 completely eschew the vast canvas of Oh What A Lovely War, and his choices for the New York Times encapsulate his divided theatrical preoccupations: scrutiny of families on the one hand, dramatisation of large public institutions on the other, both combined with an awareness of ‘theatricality’ itself. Born in the


Nichols to William H. Honan, 19 July 1978 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79109, Br. Lib.) 14 The first run-through he saw of Joe Egg, a few weeks before it opened in Glasgow, was the third (Nichols, platform discussion with Michael Grandage, National Theatre, 3 August 2007) 15 Nichols, Diaries, pp. 295-96 16 Nichols, Diaries, p. 296 17 Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), p. 122 18 Innes, Modern British Drama , p. 124


Gardens would be very much a ‘family’ play, set entirely in a sitting-room.19 Passion Play, his next production, honed in even more, dramatising the main characters’ inner dialogue. But the play after that, Poppy, is a pantomime about the Opium Wars, a concept with obvious roots in Oh What A Lovely War’s dramatisation of World War One as a pierrot show.20

Straining towards a musical When Nichols chose his three ‘nearly perfect’ plays, he was planning to write a musical with Denis King, and had been ‘carefully considering the relative values of a domestic versus a public story.’21 Among the possibilities were musical adaptations of his television plays The Common and Hearts and Flowers; a musical based on the marriage of the writer E. Nesbit and her husband Hubert Bland (who were associated with Shaw, HG Wells, and the early Fabians); and a show about Basil Zaharoff and Hiram Maxim, the arms dealer and inventor who brought the world the first self-powered machine gun, the Maxim Gun. In 1978 Nichols wrote to Stephen Sondheim, whom he knew slightly, after reading a magazine interview with the composer. Nichols told Sondheim that, as he phrased it, ‘the methods of the musical theatre are precisely what I hunger for’: I’ve decided that either the theatre’s collaborative or it’s agony. To write in a study for God-knows-how-long and then have a mob of other people trampling all over what you’ve done for a few months has, after twenty years, frankly lost its charm for me. Being with other people all along is what it’s all about.22


However, it has been treated by several critics as a ‘state-of-the-nation’ play. Benedict Nightingale, for example, refers to it as ‘a bleak comment on a representative sample of the derelict English.’ Nightingale, Review of Poppy, New Statesman (London Theatre Record 23 Sep-6 Oct 1982), p. 555) 20 This connection was drawn by five different critics in their reviews of Poppy: Mark Amory (Spectator), Martin Hoyle (Event), Ann McFerran (Time Out), Michael Billington (Guardian), and John Elsom (Mail on Sunday) (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-6 Oct 1982, pp. 550-55) 21 Nichols to Michael Codron, 23 December 1977 (draft) (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) 22 Nichols to Stephen Sondheim, 30 November 1978 (draft) (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library)


Directors who had collaborated with Nichols in the past may have been sceptical of the notion that Nichols would be happier with more collaboration than what was allowed by the rehearsal process for ‘straight’ plays. But it seemed clear to him that the pastiche, interpolated scenes, and meta-theatre in his earlier work pointed towards musical theatre: ‘My plays have been straining in that direction,’ he told Sondheim. Nichols had not yet seen or heard Sondheim’s newest musical, Pacific Overtures, but he had read the lyrics and book, and it seemed perfectly in tune with his desire to write musicals about the Maxim Gun and the Opium Wars: You talked in your interview about giving a history lesson as well as writing a song and that’s what seems to me so terrific about the lyrics and book – the amount of effects, opinions and sheer information that you and the other writers have packed in – and how gracefully! And through it all you’ve held the theme very firmly so that the reader/audience never loses sight of the dramatic events you’re describing, an effect achieved in a different way by Joan Littlewood in ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, which is my so far number one theatre event.23 Again, his thoughts were on Littlewood, and particularly on giving a ‘history lesson’ within a musical. This letter has the energy of a manifesto, and not merely an abstract one. After complaining about the absence from London of ‘composers, lyricists, directors and producers’ who are familiar with the conventions and logistics of musical theatre, he proposes a collaboration: ‘If you ever felt you could work with me,’ he writes, ‘or know anyone who might, please let me know.’ In reply, Sondheim told Nichols ‘I won’t waste too much time saying thank you for the compliments, except to reiterate (as I have in person) my respect for the source.’24 He was non-committal about the idea of collaboration, and warned the playwright that collaboration on musicals could be much more difficult than it appeared from outside (as Nichols was to learn from Poppy), but this exchange was the beginning of a close friendship. However, while both

Nichols to Stephen Sondheim, 30 November 1978 (draft) (Nichols papers folder 79109, Br. Library) 24 Sondheim to Nichols, 14 December 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79126, British Library)


Nichols and Sondheim would return to the idea of writing a musical together, they did not pursue it further.

A Domestic Story In 1979, with Born in the Gardens heading towards production, Peggy Ramsay proposed to Christopher Morahan that the NT commission a play from Nichols.25 This was an uncharacteristic suggestion from the agent: Colin Chambers writes that she was wary of commissions, on the grounds that ‘writers should write because they have to.’ She also feared that commissions limited an agent’s scope for negotiation on behalf of the writer.26 ‘I've never come across a commissioned play that's any good,' she declared firmly, if hyperbolically, to Mel Gussow in 1988.27 In this instance, though, it was the director, Morahan, who cautioned the agent, as he reported to Nichols: I did point out to her that the results of commissioning haven't always been happy, in my experience. Too often I have seen the ill effects of a commission on a writer, the creation of unhappy tension due to the pressure of a completion date, and guilt if the date isn’t kept to. Then when the play is delivered there is expectation of immediate approval and production to be started at once. If neither is granted there can be bitterness and a souring of relationships.28 Trevor Nunn had already offered a commission to Nichols the year before,29 but the playwright shared Morahan’s concerns, and did not take a commission from either company (though Born In The Gardens had been successfully written on commission).30 Nichols also told Morahan that he was hoping to move away from the theatre, at least temporarily, and write a novel. This was a new solution to Nichols’ ongoing difficulty with theatrical collaboration. It had been a year since he told Sondheim that he wanted to immerse himself in the more thorough

Ramsay to Christopher Morahan, 29 Nov 1979 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16) 26 Colin Chambers, Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay... (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 276 27 Mel Gussow, ‘Play Agent’ (New Yorker, 23 May 1988, pp. 34-60), p. 44 28 Morahan to Nichols, 5 Dec 1979 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 29 Nunn to Nichols, 18 April 1978 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 30 Nichols to Morahan, 7 December 1979 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16)


collaboration demanded by a musical, Now, he wanted to shut himself off and write alone: ‘The problems of co-operation bother me a lot these days and the result is always compromise. A book would at least be all my own work, with no alibis or scapegoats.’31 ‘All the same,’ Nichols explained almost fatalistically, ‘so far I haven’t settled on a story and yet have several ideas for plays and the first draft of a new one already done, so it may take a little while to stop running.’32 His ‘ideas’ were the Maxim Gun and the Opium War (Morahan warned him that Tony Harrison – who was as close to a house playwright as Hall’s NT had33 – was also writing a play about Maxim).34 The finished draft, however, had apparently come out of nowhere: ‘a domestic story for six main actors and some extras.’ This was Passion Play, a claustrophobic piece about adultery which he baed on his own marriage at the end of the 1970s, as he explains in the conclusion to his published Diaries: Success apparently lent me some quality I lacked till then. Personal fantasies, harboured for many years now – briefly – became reality and threatened to separate us and our children, events finally fictionalised in Passion Play.35 The play focuses on a middle-aged couple, Eleanor and James, who have been married and apparently monogamous (in fact Eleanor has not been entirely monogamous, but she has been entirely discreet) for twenty-seven years. James restores paintings (‘to work on a Matisse or a Picasso means I play my humble part in keeping the wolves at bay. Lighting the darkness’36), while Eleanor is a professional choral singer (‘I’m an atheist but I love church music [...] Hundreds of people singing together is the nearest we may ever come to heaven on earth).’37After the death of their friend Albert, a ‘crusading editor’,38
31 32

Nichols to Morahan, 7 December 1979 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16) Nichols to Morahan, 7 December 1979 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16) 33 In 1977 Peter Hall wrote in his diary ‘I would like to give Tony Harrison a regular salary. But how can I?’ (p. 302) This echoed Nichols’ own belief that writers should ‘be on pay-roll’ at subsidised companies (see Chapter 1, p. 45). 34 Chris Morahan [NT letterhead] to PN, 12 Dec 1979 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 35 Nichols, Diaries, p. 440 36 Nichols, Passion Play, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 324 37 Nichols, Passion Play, p. 359


Albert’s young girlfriend Kate (a photographer) seduces James, leading to an extended affair that ends with Eleanor and James’s marriage superficially intact, but internally fractured. Nichols approaches this familiar subject with an elegant theatrical device: James and Eleanor are each portrayed by two actors. Their alter-egos, ‘Jim’ and ‘Nell’, each appear at the moments of fissure: Jim when the possibility of adultery first presents itself, Nell when Eleanor learns of James’s affair. The most obvious result of this split is the ironic contrast between what characters say out loud and what they think privately (when Kate asks James if sex with her was ‘worth waiting for,’ James replies ‘I’m surprised you need to ask,’ while Jim adds ‘But since you did, it wasn’t, no’39). The alteregos also allow thought to be dramatised as dialogue, as when James and Jim compose a love-letter together.40 Additionally, this conceit literally places the two protagonists ‘beside themselves,’ visually representing what critic William Storm describes as ‘a profound state of disjunction and alienation, from one’s self as well as from others.41 In an essay on the play, Storm argues convincingly that Nichols employs a series of ‘specific and unusual dramaturgical gambits’ in order to dramatise the ‘manifestations of separateness and apartness’ experienced by the characters.42 The most obvious of these ‘gambits’ are the James/Jim and Eleanor/Nell splits. Storm also calls attention to three other ‘schisms’: the drastic shift in tone between the two acts, the ‘sequences in which action is bifurcated into separate but concurrent scenes,’43 and the loud blasts of religious music that Nichols uses to punctuate the play. A characteristic musical

38 39

Nichols, Passion Play, p. 309-10 Nichols, Passion Play, p. 321 40 Nichols, Passion Play, pp. 335-36 41 William Storm, ‘Adulteration as Clarity: Dramaturgical Strategy in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, Modern Drama, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Fall 1994), pp. 437-50, p. 437 42 Storm, ‘Adulteration’, p. 438 43 Notably, a scene in which James and Jim’s efforts at composing a love-letter to Kate are interspersed with an argument between Eleanor and Albert’s ex-wife Agnes during which Agnes produces the same love-letter, having intercepted it from Kate’s apartment (Nichols, Passion Play, pp. 335-342)


interruption occurs at the end of the first scene, when Kate is leaving Eleanor and James’s house (at this point the affair has not yet begun): ELEANOR helps KATE with outdoor clothing. They talk but their dialogue is drowned by a sudden fortissimo blast of choral music, Mozart’s Requiem: from ‘Dies Irae’ to ‘Stricte Discussurus’44 Nichols’ ‘fortissimo blasts’, which occur throughout the play (always with the choice of music precisely indicated), are not audible to the characters onstage. The ‘blasts’ play an opposite role to that played by conventional ‘incidental music’: rather than playing between scenes, they play in the midst of the action; rather than underscoring the dialogue, they overwhelm it. Though Passion Play is not the ‘musical’ that Nichols had been hoping to write, music is critical to its structure.

‘How does a suppressed thought get to go to a psychiatrist?’ Passion Play makes arduous demands on the audience’s interpretive abilities, beginning with the moment that Jim arrives onstage without explanation, dressed identically to James. His role as an alternative (and unheard) voice for James’s consciousness should be evident by the end of the scene, but this public/private division is violated in the second act, when both Jim and Nell begin to gain autonomy and usurp James and Eleanor as the ‘public’ faces of their personalities. As Storm points out, this transfer of power first occurs when James leaves the room to get a drink for Eleanor, and Jim returns carrying the drink. James and Eleanor have been arguing, and as he enters, Jim insists ‘I haven’t changed.’45 For her part, Eleanor does not notice that James has literally become ‘a new man’ since he left for the drink. Addressing this shift between the roles, the critic June Schleuter argues that ‘Dramatically and psychologically, the alter egos are far more interesting in the second act than Eleanor and James, who themselves become minor characters [...],’46 but not
44 45

Nichols, Passion Play, p. 299 Nichols, Passion Play, p. 376 46 June Schleuter, ‘Adultery Is Next to Godlessness: Dramatic Juxtaposition in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, Modern Drama, Vol. 24, No. 4, (Dec. 1981) pp. 540-545, p. 542


every viewer was as sanguine as Schleuter about this transformation. Writing for the New York TImes, Walter Kerr objected generally to the usurpation and particularly to a scene in which Nell visits a psychiatrist: ‘If the play’s alter egos do represent the characters’ suppressed thoughts,’ he asked, ‘how does a suppressed thought – with neither body nor car-fare of its own – get to go to a psychiatrist?’47 This complaint leads to a basic ethical issue concerning dramatists’ responsibilities to their audience. Kerr leaves no doubt concerning his opinion on the subject: Unreal characters, being loose as ectoplasm to begin with, must be given boundaries of some sort so that we may put a shape to them, so that we may grasp them in relation to others. We must understand what they can or can’t say, what they can or can’t do. And the boundaries, once established must be reasonably consistent.48 Nichols has never accepted this restriction, and most of his plays violate their own ‘boundaries’ as they progress. In Joe Egg the actors briefly appear to ad-lib lines and break out of character. Actor Joe Melia was once approached in the street by an admirer who told him that though he had enjoyed Melia’s performance in Joe Egg, he noticed that Melia and his fellow actor Zena Walker ‘cracked up at one point.’ ‘I didn’t say anything,’ Melia recalls, ‘but I felt very proud about that,’49 because the ‘crack-up’ had been faked. In The National Health doctors and nurses slip between their ‘real’ and ‘soap opera’ personas, while the relationship between the songs and surrounding play in Privates on Parade is never clearly delineated. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that ‘consistency’ of the kind demanded by Kerr has been the exception, rather than the rule, in Nichols’ dramaturgy.50


Walter Kerr, ‘Are These Split-Ego Trips Really Necessary?’ (New York Times, 29 May 1983, sec. 2, pp. 3, 23 (quoted in Storm, ‘Adulteration as Clarity’) 48 Kerr, ‘Split-Ego,’ p. 23 49 Joe Melia, Interview, 6 March 2006 50 This is not true of his writing for television, which has generally been much more ‘realistic’ and less experimental than his stage work.


Nichols’ ‘impure’ dramatic style has unmistakeable antecedents in the British popular theatre tradition best represented today by pantomime, where, in John McGrath’s words, ‘it is perfectly acceptable that a character should come on, introduce him or herself to the audience, outline their predicament or desire in the story, then proceed to tell a row of jokes about Irishmen.’51 He has also been influenced by Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, which Nichols describes as ‘tremendously important’ to his development as a playwright.52 The Skin of Our Teeth frequently violates the audience’s expectations. Not only do characters complain about the lines that they are forced to say, but in the third act the main character (Mr Antrobus) announces that seven of the actors in the cast have ‘taken ill’ and that their roles will be taken by volunteers, including a maid, a dresser, and the captain of the ushers.53 Apart from Wilder’s copious meta-theatrical mischief, the play’s setting remains ambiguous and unresolved. As Wilder points out, ‘the audience soon perceives that he is seeing “two times at once”. The Antrobus family is living both in prehistoric times and in a New Jersey commuters’ suburb today.’54 According to both Wilder and Nichols, a character onstage has a right to inhabit two distinct, even contradictory times, levels of ‘reality’, or even identities. Ultimately, however, the audience is the arbiter who decides the characters’ rights, not the playwright, and a given spectator’s verdict regarding a given play may change from production to production, or even from performance to performance.

‘Opinions vary at the NT’ Nichols wrote Passion Play while in the enviable position of having offers to produce his next play from both the RSC and the NT. He writes that ‘the problems of the transfer of Privates to the West End’ had made him wary of the

51 52

John McGrath, A Good Night Out (London: Nick Hern Books, 1981), p. 28 Nichols, personal interview, 1 December 2005 53 Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth, Our Town and Other Plays (London: Penguin, 1962), p. 157-58 54 Thornton Wilder, ‘Preface’, Our Town and Other Plays (London: Penguin, 1962), p. 13


RSC,55 and in any case he was friends with Christopher Morahan, so he sent the script for Passion Play to the NT. However, Nichols did not think the play would work in the Olivier, and on 4 March his new agent Michael Imison (this was one of two periods that Nichols spent away from Ramsay during the 1980s) sent copies of the script to Peter Hall and the Lyttelton’s director Michael Rudman.56 The play quickly divided the management, and by the middle of April, Harold Pinter (then an NT associate director) felt compelled to write a memo to Peter Hall in support of it: I’ve just read Peter Nichols’ play, which I think is brilliant. The end goes wrong – too long – uneasy – outstays its welcome. But apart from that I think it’s a marvellous piece of work – rich, funny, so skilled. I gather opinions vary at the NT but felt I must record my enthusiasm.57 Nichols later suggested that Pinter direct the play. Pinter declined, explaining he intended ‘to do bugger all for as long as I can.’58 Pinter had put the situation delicately by writing ‘opinions vary.’ Opinions at the NT actually were uniformly positive with the exception of one dissenter, Michael Rudman. Morahan went so far as insisting that Rudman revise a memo he sent to Hall expressing reservations about the script so that he made it clear that Morahan and Bryden were both ‘much more keen on it’ than he was.59 But Rudman’s assessment was damning: I still don’t think that we should get involved with it until/unless the second act is rewritten to a much higher standard. Having looked at it again, I have to say that I really don’t like the basic thrust of it.60 Hall himself wanted to produce the play, but under the new system Rudman had the final authority over programming for the Lyttelton (it is not clear why they did not simply offer to produce it in either the Olivier or the Cottesloe). Where The

55 56

Nichols, Plays: Two, p. 291 Michael Imison to P. Hall 4 March 1980 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16) 57 Harold Pinter to Peter Hall, 13 April 1980(NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16) 58 Harold Pinter to Nichols, 30 Apr 1980 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 59 Michael Rudman to Peter Hall, 14 April 1980 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16) 60 Michael Rudman to Peter Hall, 14 April 1980 (NT archive, P. Hall correspondence, folder D16)


National Health had survived with only one champion among the management (Kenneth Tynan), Passion Play was defeated by Rudman’s steadfastness in the face of near-universal support for the production. Rudman was blunt in his letter to Nichols explaining what had happened: As to the very important question, which I think you are asking me, namely ‘is it true that my play isn’t going on at the Lyttelton because you don’t like it enough?’, I’m afraid that the answer is yes. Peter, Bill and Chris, in various ways and to varying degrees, think that we should do the play, but I, having read it twice and discussed it at length with them, don’t want to produce or direct it. This may seem terribly confusing to you, but the Lyttelton repertoire is to a great extent my personal choice, and although I might admire a play very much for its skill and humour, as I did yours, unless I really like it and in most cases love it, then I don’t think that I should produce or direct it. Rudman recognised the danger inherent in rejecting the work of a writer as successful as Nichols: This particular play raises special problems because you are a writer with whom the National Theatre very much wants to continue its relationship. What can I say about this? Clearly not doing this play will harm that relationship, but I sincerely hope not end it. He concluded by telling Nichols ‘I can only say that I am very sorry, on many counts, that I don’t want to do this play enough to work towards a production of it.’61 When Morahan (now directing The Jewel in the Crown in New Delhi) learned that Passion Play had won the 1981 Evening Standard best play award, he wrote ‘Put that in your pipe, Michael Rudman, and smoke it.’62 In 1989 (nine years after Rudman turned the play down), Nichols wrote to him to propose that they ‘be friends.’ Rudman’s response was at least semi-penitent: Maybe if I had known more about writing plays and how much playwrights need encouragement, and more about adultery (which I have learned about by stopping the practice of it), I might have wanted to do your play and then we could have been friends years ago.63

61 62

Michael Rudman to Nichols, 8 May 1980 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) Morahan to Nichols, 13 Feb 1982 (Nichols papers folder 79124, British Library) 63 Michael Rudman to Nichols, 2 May 1989 (Nichols papers folder 79126, British Library)


Rudman’s rejection was no great setback for Nichols, who simply took the play to Trevor Nunn and the RSC. Mike Ockrent directed it at the Aldwych, where it opened on 13 January 1981. After a successful six-month run, however, two of the cast did not want to continue. Billie Whitelaw, who played Eleanor, fought for the run to be extended – she later wrote that it was ‘probably the best contemporary play I’ve ever done.’64 Passion Play was closed by the time it received the Evening Standard award (Joe Egg had suffered the same fate), and at the ceremony Nichols gave what he calls ‘a resentful speech that pleased John Osborne but upset my mother.’65 It also upset Whitelaw: I was astonished to hear him tell the assembly in so many words that his play could well have continued had the actors not wanted to take it off. One got the impression that the actors had sabotaged Passion Play.66 She adds that ‘Peter realised he had inadvertently hurt me and felt sorry about it,’ but the speech still seems a thoughtless gesture by Nichols. On the other hand, his frustration was understandable – and shared by Trevor Nunn, who wrote to Nichols to say that ‘Passion Play is not to go forward after all, entirely because of the behaviour of the leading actors.’ Nunn did not conceal his disgust: ‘This overwhelming greed from individuals has now destroyed three RSC shows,’ he complained, ‘and I am sure this is not the last time that it will happen.’67 If Nunn was referring to Privates on Parade he did not mention it by name, but it had indeed been compromised, though not ‘destroyed’, by similar circumstances when Denis Quilley left the company to appear in Candida at the Albery theatre – not wanting to continue the show without him, the RSC took it out of the repertoire for nearly a year before transferring it to the West End.68 The RSC tried to transfer Passion Play with an assortment of managements, but despite the show’s success, after its initial run it did not return to London until 1984.

64 65

Billie Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw...Who He? (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995), p. 165 Nichols, Plays: Two, p. 292 66 Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, p. 166 67 Nunn to Nichols, 2 Mar 1981 (Nichols papers folder 79109, British Library) 68 see Chapter 5, p. 212


A Company Theatre Man at Heart After the first run of Passion Play closed, Nichols wrote Nunn a letter gently criticising the RSC treatment of the show. He began with the assurance that ‘I’ll always get my coloured scarf and rattle out to support the RSC against other teams and do consider myself an RSC writer, though I’ve had the same number done at the National.’69 Taken in full, this does not seem to be a wholehearted statement of allegiance, and as the letter continues he explicitly compares the RSC to the NT, going so far as to hold up The National Health as an instance in which a repertory theatre was able to ‘react to a success’ and keep it in the repertory.70 Nichols was transparently attempting to play on the NT/RSC rivalry, and if Nunn knew about Olivier’s repeated attempts to close the play, he would have known that Nichols’ praise for the NT’s treatment of Health was laughable. Nichols was frustrated by his productions with both companies, but despite his assurances to Nunn he seems to have felt a stronger affinity towards the NT than towards the RSC, which he felt was too beholden to its namesake at the expense of new writers (Nichols once told Peter Hall that ‘Being a live writer for the RSC is like being an attendant lord, one that will do, etc.’71). Furthermore, Nichols does not seem to have shared Blakemore’s dislike for Hall himself. In fact Hall, unlike Olivier, made himself Nichols’ champion on several occasions. He had attempted literally to wine and dine Sonia Orwell into allowing the production of Beasts of England, tried to convince Blakemore to direct The Freeway, and encouraged Michael Rudman to produce Passion Play in the Lyttelton. The fact that he failed in every one of these ventures pushed Nichols towards the RSC, but all his RSC productions had ended up at the theatre almost by accident, when the company outbid its competition or offered to produce a play that had been rejected elsewhere. On the other hand, Nichols

69 70

Nichols to Nunn 7 April 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) Nichols to Nunn 7 April 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library). Nichols made the same specious comparison with Health in a 1978 letter to Nunn (see Chapter 5, p. 213) 71 Nichols to Hall, 9 June (1985?) (Hall correspondence, folder N16, NT archive)


wrote The National Health, Beasts of England, and The Freeway for the NT specifically. In 1985, three years after Nichols had announced his retirement from the theatre, Hall commissioned him to write a new play to be directed by Christopher Morahan. Excited by the prospect of writing for the South Bank venue, Nichols told Hall ‘I look forward to joining the firm.’72 The idea of ‘belonging’ to a company had appealed to Nichols since the production of The National Health, when he wrote to Ramsay that if the NT was to fulfil its potential as a stage for new work, ‘the writers should be considered members too,’73 and in 1974 he had declared to Hall ‘I’m a company theatre man at heart.’74 Looking back on his career, Nichols later offered this assessment: The company’s a marriage, the commercial theatre more like whoring. How far can that simile be sustained? Both have their points, like Socialism and Free Marketing. In the end, I suppose I plump for the marriage bed, the quiet life, but always with one greedy eye on the tart in the doorway.75 Nichols had a ‘relationship’, however dysfunctional, with the NT, but he treated his work with the RSC as a more provisional arrangement. Describing Passion Play, for example, he wrote that ‘they were kind enough to lend me their hall, at that time still the Aldwych, and asked Mike Ockrent to direct.’76 This was clearly not ‘joining the firm’ as far as Nichols was concerned.

‘Shaken and more than a little Stirred’ Passion Play seemed to catch the tone of its time when it opened at the Aldwych. Critics were effusive: Michael Billington’s remark that it ‘sent this spectator out of the theatre shaken and more than a little stirred’ was representative of the general response. But Billington saved his strongest praise for the review’s final line, an extract unlikely to make it onto a marquee:

72 73

Nichols to Hall, 18 April 1985 (Hall correspondence, folder N16, NT archive) Nichols to Ramsay, forwarded to NT 31 August 1971 (Olivier Archive folder 646, British Library) 74 Nichols to Hall, 30 Jan 1974 (P. Hall correspondence, NT archive, Folder D16) 75 Nichols, Diaries, p. 229 76 Nichols, Introduction to Passion Play, p. 292


the real test of the play’s truth is that it leaves a large part of the audience, I surmise, feeling much like Claudius after seeing that touring version of The Mousetrap.77 Adultery does not seem to have ever been far from the theatre, either on or offstage, but within British theatre between the late 1970s and early 1980s, it appeared to be having an unusually powerful effect on relationships: Peter Hall’s diary describes the dissolutions of both his and Harold Pinter’s marriages. Nichols writes in his diary that Denis King left his wife for a woman he met when he went to America for the US opening of Privates, Michael Frayn left his wife after an affair with Claire Tomalin (whom he married), and Michael Blakemore (whose affairs had been nearly constant throughout his marriage) divorced his wife Shirley. When Michael Frayn heard about the script for Passion Play, he was afraid it would seem too familiar to anybody who knew about his affair, which had been reported in newspapers: ‘If everyone at the National thinks it’s about me and Claire,’ he wrote to Nichols shortly after Nichols had submitted it, ‘I suppose other people will, too.’78 Nichols and Frayn had been close friends since Nichols moved to Blackheath in 1968,79 and they were somewhat familiar with each other’s situations: ‘I think you managed, admirably, to keep your affair (affairs?) a secret,’ Frayn told Nichols, ‘but the hypocrisy, double standards, jealousy, and insanity which such events evoke in some people are difficult to cope with.’ He therefore made an extraordinary request: Would you be very kind, and let me read the text? I shan’t try to dissuade you from going ahead with it, but I’d like to know how much we shall probably have to brace ourselves.80 Even more extraordinarily, Nichols agreed to send him the play to read. It does not appear that Frayn asked for any changes, but he was not favourably

Michael Billington, Review of Passion Play (14 Jan 1981), One-Night Stands (London: Nick Hern Books, 1993), pp. 163-164 78 Frayn to Nichols, 1 May 1980 (Nichols papers folder 79121, British Library) 79 They also looked nearly identical (see Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), p. 331) 80 Frayn to Nichols, 1 May 1980 (Nichols papers folder 79121, British Library)


impressed by the writing: after the show opened, he told Nichols ‘I can confess now that I didn’t much like Passion Play when you showed me the script.’ However, ‘Having seen it on the stage last night I realise that I was completely wrong; I think it’s one of your very best plays – perhaps the best.’81 In a striking instance of art and life travelling together, Frayn went on to tell Nichols that his soon-to-be ex-wife had thrown him out of the house. There are several instances of this blurring between the play and events around it. The first such instance is the writing of the script itself: Nichols’ diary in June 1979 reports having ‘something to hide from my wife and family,’82 and he finished his draft only six months later). Later, Zena Walker, who had played Sheila in the first production of Joe Egg and played Nell in the 1984 revival of Passion Play, wrote to thank Nichols for the part: ‘You’ve given me the two best roles of my career,’ she told him. Further along in the letter, her tone became more personal: Nell saw me through a rough time in my personal life and the discipline of holding myself together in order to do justice to her every night and to my colleagues helped me to keep my head. ‘I’m relieved to say,’ she adds, ‘that John and I seem to have survived the initial shock waves and are intent upon strengthening our relationship.’83 These confluences of life and role must happen fairly regularly, but this seems like a particularly difficult instance.

Betrayal, Passion Play, The Real Thing Whether or not the late 1970s and early 1980s truly saw an unusual amount of infidelity, it was a great time for plays anatomising the subject. At least three successful plays about adultery resulted from this period: Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (1978), Nichols’ Passion Play (1981) and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982). This sometimes led to confusion, and in 1987 an actor wrote to
81 82

Frayn to Nichols, 16 January 1981 (Nichols papers folder 79121, British Library) Nichols, Diaries, p. 427 [the context for this quote makes it clear that he is referring to an affair] 83 Walker to Nichols, 12 Aug 1984 (Nichols papers folder 79127, British Library)


Nichols apologising for getting the name of his play wrong when she was attempting to express her admiration for it: ‘I was talking about Passion Play which to me was the ‘real thing’ when it comes to drama,’ she explained, adding ‘it was so very gallant of you not to kick me downstairs.’84 Just two months before, Nichols’ A Piece of My Mind (dir. Justin Greene) had opened at the Apollo theatre. The play’s protagonist, a playwright, is consumed by envy for a more successful writer, transparently modelled on Stoppard, named ‘Miles Whittier.’ As Pinter’s, Nichols’, and Stoppard’s plays came out, reviewers compared them with their predecessors. Reviewing Passion Play, Benedict Nightingale saw Nichols building on Pinter’s achievements and taking them further: Betrayal successfully concentrated, not on the flouting of old absolutes, but on deception, suspicion, unease, internal confusion; to precisely which list Passion Play adds two vital and indisputably contemporary ingredients, namely pain and damage.85 Why Nightingale felt that pain and damage were ‘indisputably contemporary’ is not explained by the review. When The Real Thing opened, Michael Coveney lumped the plays together more dismissively, calling it ‘Stoppard’s version of Pinter’s Betrayal and, excepting that jealousy is given more of a shout than its corollary of adultery, Peter Nichols’ Passion Play.’86 But though it would have been easy to bracket the three plays together as each arrived on the stage, they are completely different as studies of adultery. Writing in the Spectator, Mark Amory commented on the attention paid to the mechanics of adultery in Passion Play, almost completely neglected in The Real Thing: ‘My uninformed and I hope not libellous guess,’ Amory wrote, ‘is that Nichols is an adulterer and

84 85

Marcela Warren to Nichols, 1 June 1987 (Nichols papers folder 79127, British Library) Benedict Nightingale, Review of Passion Play, New Statesman (London Theatre Record 1-14 Jan 1981), p. 8 86 Michael Coveney, Review of Passion Play,(Financial Times (London Theatre Record, 4-17 Nov 1982) p. 635


Stoppard is not.’87 The differences between the three plays go deeper than this: summing them up in an interview, Nichols said ‘Harold’s is about, well, betrayal, about dissolution, the inevitability of mixed experiences overall, passionate regret. [...] I suppose Tom’s was about levels of reality.’ Showing a lack of insight that was surely deliberate, he added ‘Mine is about trying to lay a girl!’88 Underneath Nichols’ flippancy is a good point. Though they employ the same dramatic means (adultery), the three plays aim towards very different ends. The plays do, however, share two points in common: they all employ a single governing stylistic conceit, and they are concerned with exactly the same social milieu – the ‘creative’ upper-middle class of London (to which all three playwrights belonged). Betrayal moves backward through a series of key scenes in an affair, opening at the end of an affair and revealing, as it backtracks, the myriad ways that the three parties, the husband, wife, and husband’s best friend, have betrayed each other. Passion Play splits the main characters into two pairs of alter-egos. Finally, The Real Thing plays with levels of ‘reality’: it begins with the scene in which a husband (an architect) discovers that his wife (an art auctioneer) is having an affair, while the next scene reveals that this is a scene from a play written by an adulterous playwright whose wife (an actor) has been playing the auctioneer. Throughout the rest of the play, the notions of realness in love and art are conflated, prised apart, and examined. But what is most striking about the plays is their shared social subset, and accordingly, points of cultural reference. John Bull observes of Passion Play and The Real Thing that ‘it would be entirely possible to imagine the two sets of characters meeting at events on the same social round,’89 and they would be likely to run into Pinter’s characters as well. Stoppard deploys a fictional architect and art auctioneer (for ‘either’ Christies or Sothebys), a


Mark Amory, Review of Passion Play Spectator, (London Theatre Record, 4-17 Nov 1982) p. 637 88 William Demastes, ‘Peter Nichols on His Art, Politics and Peers: An Interview’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 3.1 (1988) p. 109 89 John Bull, Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1994), p. 117


playwright, three actors, and (in deliberate contrast to the rest of the cast) a former soldier, now in prison for setting alight the wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Nichols’ characters include an art restorer, a professional choral singer, a (deceased) publisher, and a photographer, while Pinter’s include a publisher, a gallery owner, and a literary agent.90 This is a narrow world for three plays to inhabit, and one is reminded of Loamshire, the fictional Home County that Kenneth Tynan invented in order to satirise the drawing-room comedies of the 1940s and ‘50s. The plays’ tight focus did not escape critical reproach: reviewing Betrayal, Michael Billington expressed his disappointment in the ‘pitifully thin strip of human experience it explores and its obsession with the tiny ripples on the stagnant pond of bourgeois-affluent life.’91 Time Out critic Steve Grant pointedly described Passion Play as a show in which ‘Two well-off, white, middle-aged people are rent asunder,’ and said he would prefer to go see Romans in Britain or (in an eccentric pairing) Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version.92 It is tempting to extrapolate an emergent paradigm from these three plays, which straddle the axis between Callaghan’s late 1970s and Thatcher’s 1980s, and John Bull does exactly that in Stage Right, claiming that the ‘new mainstream’ (in which he includes Pinter, Nichols, and Stoppard) ‘must be regarded in itself as evidence of the general cultural and social move that was to facilitate the new politics [Thatcherism].’93 But this model leaves out (or at least glosses over) a critical point: the playwrights, having had their marriages either collapse or barely survive, wrote about marriages which collapsed (or barely survived). Transforming significant personal experience into theatre is, to put it simply, what playwrights do. The three plays are (perhaps more than most plays)


Harold Pinter, Betrayal, Plays: Four (London: Methuen, 1981), Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing (London: Faber, 1982) 91 Michael Billington, Review of Betrayal, One Night Stands (London: Nick Hern Books, 1993), p. 127 92 Steve Grant, Review of Passion Play, Time Out, (London Theatre Record, 1-14 Jan 1981), p. 9 93 John Bull, Stage Right, p. 83


personal statements, and transposing them out of the playwrights’ own milieu might have seemed perverse, or even evasive. Bull’s model of the expansive, publicly-minded, politically trenchant plays of the 1970s being replaced by small, inward-looking, ‘middle-class’ plays in the 1980s does not, at any rate, fit Nichols, who followed Passion Play with Poppy, his most expansive, politically trenchant play yet, staged (like Passion Play) by the RSC. In Stage Right, Bull seems to be aggrieved by Nichols’ refusal to adhere to his thesis: It is not difficult to see why Nichols should have been allowed to indulge himself on such a scale by the RSC – no more than might be thought his due by this date – but sad that he should have moved so far, and so unsatisfactorily, out of his usual territory to do so.94 A large-scale play about Britain through the lens of imperialism was not so far away from Nichols’ other work, but Bull makes it look like an aberration by focussing on Nichols’ small-scale ‘domestic’ plays. The only ‘large-scale’ play he examines in detail is The Freeway, and he does so primarily in order to demonstrate that Nichols is better suited to writing about families than exploring public places. Bull virtually ignores Nichols’ large-scale, ‘public’ plays, devoting only one short paragraph to The National Health and ignoring Privates on Parade altogether.95

‘Your English cuppa China tea is what it’s all about’ In reality, Passion Play had been the aberration, written in a matter of months in 1979. The ‘musical’, on the other hand, had been developing since 1977, and Nichols’ ideas for the play that would become Poppy had begun to crystallise when he wrote to Harold Prince about them in March 1980: I’ve been trying for a year on and off to write a play (or the book of a musical) based on the life of Hiram Maxim, who invented the Maxim Gun, perhaps the most deadly ever used. I tried it as an English pantomime, which is a form I’m going to revive one way or another, but the fifty pages

94 95

Bull, Stage Right, p. 120 Bull, Stage Right, pp. 109-112, p. 114


I wrote didn’t seem to me to be close enough to the truth of this intriguing subject. [...] The pantomime as a form has great fascination for me, being the most peculiarly British entertainment devised since the melodrama and the only stage shows I ever saw till I was about fourteen. If I don’t use it here, I have in mind to do something on the Opium Wars between [the] British and Chinese.96 In October, Nichols sent what he had written of the book and lyrics for both plays to Prince, who told him ‘I’ve read Poppy and I’m mad about it,’97 but that he did not like the lyrics for the Maxim Gun show.98 However, as Nichols had suspected, Prince did not want to get involved with the play ‘because,’ as he explained, ‘the subject matter is not that far from Pacific Overtures,’ his forthcoming production with Stephen Sondheim.99 Pacific Overtures is a kabukiinflected musical about America’s ‘gunboat’ diplomacy in Japan – opening the country up to international trade by threat of force. Poppy is a pantomime about the two wars (collapsed into one in the script) that Britain waged on China when the Chinese government attempted to ban importation of opium, which the British East India company relied on to balance its importation of Chinese tea. To some extent, the two subjects are entirely different: China and Japan are, notwithstanding any totalising conceptions of the ‘far east’, radically different countries whose relationship with each other is defined primarily by conflict (Britain and America, the aggressors in the two plays, have much more in common with each other). But the two events are closely connected in the narrative of nineteenth century imperialism: Admiral Perry, leader of the American fleet of gunboats that arrived in Japan, told the Japanese negotiators that if they did not acquiesce to his demands, the British would come and do to


Nichols to Harold Prince, 12 March 1980 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78945, Br. Library) 97 Harold Prince to Nichols, 3 Oct 1980 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 98 H. Prince to Nichols, 20 Oct 1980 (Nichols papers folder 78945, British Library) 99 Harold Prince to Nichols, 3 Oct 1980 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library)


Japan what they had done to China. Not surprisingly, Japan agreed to open up to unrestricted trade.100 The first Opium War lasted from 1839-42, and was triggered when the Chinese commissioner Lin Tse-hsu attempted to curtail the opium trade, which was devastating the country. As historian Lawrence James puts it, ‘the felicitous combination of the British taste for tea and the Chinese for opium had been exploited by the East India Company which, since 1773, had enjoyed a monopoly over the drug’s production.’101 In the words of Nichols’ ambitious trader Obadiah Upward, ‘your English cuppa China tea is what it’s all about [...] we had to discover something they wanted as much as we wanted their tea.’102 In 1839, Lin Tse-hsu appealed directly to Queen Victoria, making what seems an unanswerable argument: We have heard that in your own country opium is prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity:---this is a strong proof that you know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not permit it to injure your own country, you ought not to have the injurious drug transferred to another country.103 However by the British government’s reckoning the opium trade was simply too profitable to consider cutting it off, whatever its effect on the people of China. Accordingly, the Foreign secretary Lord Palmerston dispatched an ‘expeditionary force’ to the mouth of the Canton river. Up to this point, nobody realised how much better-armed Britain was than China. A Chinese eye-witness reports being astonished when a British rocket hit a Chinese junk which exploded, killing all its crew. Landing in Amoy, the British suffered no losses but killed at least a hundred Chinese soldiers in successive volleys of musket fire.104 During the war, Britain secured Hong Kong, which would remain under British control until 1997. In Poppy, when the Chinese sign over Hong Kong to

100 101

Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 1994), p. 237. Lawrence James, Empire, p. 235 102 Nichols, Poppy, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 446 103 Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu to Queen Victoria, 1839 <> 104 James, Empire, pp. 236-37


the British, the dame (‘Lady Dodo’) turns to the audience to say ‘And we won’t let them have it back in a hurry, will we, boys and girls?’105 In the second Opium War (1956-58) the French joined the British, using the murder of a French missionary as an excuse. This time French and British forces invaded Peking. The invasion quickly deteriorated into a free-for-all, with soldiers and officers (including at least one general) looting the city and imperial palaces, concluding by burning down the imperial summer palace, by the order of Lord Elgin.106 These events inspire the singalong that comes near the end of Poppy: the characters divide the audience into two groups and have them sing the following chorus (complete with gestures of ‘firing a machine-gun’ and ‘throwing a hand-grenade’: Rat-tat-tat-tat! Ker-pow-splatt! Rat-tat-tat-tat! Rat-tat-tat-tat! Ker-pow-splatt! Rat-tat-tat-tat! Hip-hooray, what a frabjous day – and the whites don’t have to pay. Did ever you see such a succulent dish of Chinese takeaway?107 After teaching the song to the audience, the actors urge them to ‘do what our wonderful soldiers did to the Summer Palace and take the roof off.’108 In the Evening Standard, Milton Shulman warned that Poppy would not amuse ‘those who still have fond memories of the Empire.’109 Several critics inadvertantly confirmed this by taking the same attitude to the Opium Wars that the Lord Chamberlain had taken to childbirth and marital sex in Joe Egg – that these were subjects that should not be discussed onstage. In the Telegraph John Barber thought that playwrights who addressed past British atrocities often looked ‘suspiciously complacent’110 (a charge more typically applied to those who ignore atrocities) while in the Spectator, Mark Amory complained ‘I have been told about the evils of our imperial past as often as I can bear, usually [...]
105 106

Nichols, Poppy, p. 493 James, Empire, p. 240 107 Nichols, Poppy, p. 496 108 Nichols, Poppy, p. 498 109 Milton Shulman, ‘Sweetening the bile’, Evening Standard, 6 Oct 1982, p. 27 110 John Barber, Rev. of Poppy, Daily Telegraph (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-5 Oct 1982), p. 552


with an air of discovery.’111 Amory’s dismissive remarks imply that the history of the Opium Wars was common knowledge. Writing in the Observer, Victoria Radin more bravely conceded that ‘To non-historians like me these events [...] had something to do with keeping the world safe from dope.’112 To much, if not most, of the audience, the news that Queen Victoria had run a massive drugsmuggling operation would come as a surprise, and the notion that the story had been made redundant by other anti-imperialist plays was absurd.

‘A belated revenge on those Dames and Barons’ The play is not, in any case, a simple denunciation of imperialism – or rather, the denunciation is total but the presentation does not allow the audience to remain aloof in its judgments. In particular, ‘Rat-tat-tat-tat’ demands a doubleconsciousness from the spectators: as a singalong it would be infectious and most of the audience would probably join in, while simultaneously feeling appalled by the words and gestures. This replicates Nichols’ own ambivalence towards the pantomime form (he felt no such ambivalence towards the Opium Wars). The playwright Geraldine Aron wrote to Nichols after seeing Chris Bond’s 1988 revival at the Half Moon to say that she ‘couldn’t get over being so INFORMED by so entertaining a play,’ and that she ‘even loved the singalong which normally makes me embarrassed.’113 Nichols’ response may have surprised her: ‘The singalong was meant to be embarrassing, of course,’ he admitted. ‘I hate all forms of audience participation and using them has been a sort-of masochistic exercise which I think I’ll now leave alone.’114 As Nichols had told Harold Prince, the only plays he had seen as a child were pantomimes. In Bristol, there were pantomimes at the Hippodrome, the Empire, and the Prince’s. Nichols recalls that the shows at the Princes, run by
111 112

Mark Amory, Rev. of Poppy, Spectator (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-5 Oct 1982), p. 550 Victoria Radin, Rev. of Poppy, Observer (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-5 Oct 1982), p. 554 113 Geraldine Aron to Peter Nichols, 20 September 1988 (Nichols papers folder 79119, British Library) 114 Nichols to Geraldine Aron, 3 October 1988 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79119, British Library)


the impresario Prince Littler, were the most lavish. Nichols calls the event ‘a total experience,’ beginning with the anticipation that began weeks in advance and encompassing the ritual of dressing up, the repeated suggestions from his mother that he visit the toilet before the show began, and in particular ‘the mad place itself, where cupids and gods held torches with electric bulbs inside their glass flames, the band in the pit with its amazing array of drums, the plush tabs and magical scrims and the interval drop-cloths filling the great proscenium with adverts for local shops.’115 Nichols continues: I watched everything – the man on the follow-spot spinning his colourwheel meant as much to me as Cinderella’s Shetland ponies. [...] Afterwards there was the programme to read from cover to cover and six months spent reconstructing the whole event on my toy stage or in Mum’s dressing-table looking-glass.116 This ‘total experience’ drew Nichols to the theatre, but he did not only experience these sensations in the theatre: he tells Jamie Andrews that according to his mother, he used to insist that the family went to the Odeon cinema instead of to its competitors, because the curtains at the Odeon were ‘so much nicer’.117 His appreciation of the ‘total experience’ stopped short of audience participation, however, as he had told Geraldine Aron. He writes that his refusal to sing along or shout ‘he’s behind you!’ at pantomimes was ‘an early snobbery,’ adding ‘I already sensed that I wasn’t one of that coarse mob but would in time find my proper place with Them, on the stage.’118 Poppy, therefore, was ‘a belated revenge on those dames and barons who’d tried to make me shout a response.’119 This remark is difficult to understand (surely the revenge is on the audience he forces to sing, rather than on the actors he saw as children) unless Nichols means that he is taking revenge on pantomime itself.

In Poppy the interval cloth features advertisements for ‘popular opiates of the time’ including Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup and Mrs. Winslow’s Sedative Solution (Poppy, p. 453). 116 Nichols, Feeling You’re Behind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984), p. 20 117 Jamie Andrews, Interview with Peter Nichols (31 August 2005), Theatre Archive project <> 118 Nichols, Feeling, p. 21 119 Nichols, Feeling, p. 21


He does not take his revenge by making fun of pantomime within the play, or even by overtly parodying the form (the conventions of pantomime, being consciously ridiculous, are difficult to parody). Instead, Poppy subverts the conventions of pantomime by embracing them: there is a principal boy (Dick Whittington), a dame (Dick’s mother, Lady Dodo), a principal girl (his ward, Sally Forth), a ‘Buttons’-like buffoon (Jack Idle, accompanied by his pantomime horse, Randy), a Fairy Queen (Queen Victoria, who at various points appears in disguise both as a missionary teacher and an opium auctioneer), and a villain (the Chinese Emperor, whom the audience is instructed to boo and hiss). Dick Whittington is a moderniser who leaves the failing Whittington manor to get a job in the City, where he forms a partnership with the Opiumshipping entrepreneur Obadiah Upward (basically a transplanted Gilbert and Sullivan character). The two sail to Calcutta, with the rest of the protagonists in tow, to buy Indian opium and ship it to China. Meanwhile the Emperor instructs Lin Tse-hsu to confiscate the opium and push the traders out of Canton. The first Opium War follows. The several years leading to the second Opium War are then collapsed into a single line from Upward: ‘During the next twenty years they wiped their arses on our treaty so often we finally had to march with the French army to Peking.’120 This leads into ‘Rat-tat-tat-tat,’ followed by the double wedding that ends the play. The conventional moral structure of pantomime unravels throughout the play: Sally Forth is secretly in love with Dick (there is nearly always somebody making a pun about ‘his’ name during the play), but Lady Dodo reveals he is Sally’s half-brother (Lady Dodo’s husband claimed ‘droit de seigneur’ throughout the village).121 Sally becomes addicted to laudanum and in the final scene appears in an invalid chair: ‘her face is ashen, her gums blackened,’ according to the stage directions.122 Dick marries Obadiah Upward’s daughter, a character who has only been mentioned once, during a patter-song performed
120 121

Nichols, Poppy, p. 495 Nichols, Poppy, p. 477 122 Nichols, Poppy, p. 498


by Upward and his clerks.123 When the Chinese government blockades the protagonists at Canton, Jack Idle is ordered to kill Randy for food: he shoots the horse in the head while he sleeps, after singing him a lullaby.124 Sometimes the conventions undermine themselves: for example Queen Victoria continues, hideously, to intervene on Upward’s behalf, continuing to chat with the audience as if it is assumed that she is on the side of justice. Meanwhile, the audience is compelled to boo the Emperor, who is never especially nasty, and who becomes more sympathetic as the play continues.

‘A custard pie full of razor blades’ Chris Bond, who directed a successful 1988 revival of Poppy at the Half Moon theatre, offered Nichols a cogent analysis of the play’s relationship to conventional pantomime: Pantomime’s bottom line (sic) is reassurance: everything will turn out right in the end [...] the plot can be written on the strap of one of “Cinderella’s” sandals, exposition and character development are irksome irrelevancies. Once upon a time, says pantomime, the meek, the just and the deserving lived happily ever after [...] The medium rapidly becomes the message, the stories interchangeable, and only the gags remain the same. Pantomime is unashamedly and gloriously soft-centred. [...] Nowadays it nearly always fails because the people connected with it are more Upward than Idle, and therefore the blanket gets more and more threadbare and the expectations less and less fulfilled. “Poppy” on the other hand is a savage critique of Victorian values, and as fine a satire as any since Swift. When we laugh, and we should laugh a lot, it should not simply be for the pleasure of recognising a well worn routine but at the wit and skill with which the familiar has been harnessed to an altogether darker purpose. “Poppy” is in some respects as different from a pantomime as chalk is from cheese; its centre is hard and angry, its plot powerful, its exposition lengthy and complicated in places, its character development rich. But we can have it both ways if we don’t indulge for a second. The medium must never become the message. Each scene and song must be a pantomime gem: but each gem must connect to form a necklace to throttle the idea that Victorian values can do anything other than reduce our world to an abattoir where the greedy

123 124

Nichols, Poppy, p. 426 Nichols, Poppy, p. 481


and unscrupulous are rewarded and the meek and the just inherit at most a mouthful of dust.125 Nichols, who had praised Chekhov for refuting the idea that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth,’126 described Bond’s assessment of Poppy as ‘quite brilliant.’127 Bond continues to say that the play should be ‘a custard pie full of razor blades. But English custard; and British Steel! Nothing Brechtish, Kabukian, Yankish, fancy or foreign. Panto’s ours, so was the trade in “Poppy.” And would be again if the city could swing it.’128 The neologism ‘kabukian’ may be a reference to Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, while the point about Brecht must have resonated with Nichols, whose meta-theatrical devices, often derived from British popular theatre, had been attributed to Brecht’s influence ever since the Lord Chamberlain’s reader CD Heriot sarcastically pronounced Joe Egg a work ‘in the best Brecht tradition.’129 Twenty-one years after Joe Egg, Robert Hewison gave the Half Moon production of Poppy a glowing review, observing that ‘the songs and direct address of panto get across a lot of information, while the comic stereotypes are pure Brecht. Without, of course, anyone noticing the fact.’130 ‘Pure Brecht’ is too essentialist a description: for one thing, the nature of the pantomime form guarantees that the characters are not ‘pure’ anything. More important, while it would be impossible to isolate such a play from Brecht’s influence, it is much more strongly influenced by Littlewood (and, as Robert Leach has indicated in his study of Theatre Workshop, Littlewood was Brecht’s contemporary, not his imitator).131 Interestingly, the critic Peter Davison believes that the meta-theatricality that runs rampant in British popular theatre has inoculated British audience against the power of Brechtian techniques: ‘It is this

Chris Bond to Nichols and Monty Norman, 14 June 1988 (Nichols papers folder 78984, Br. Lib.) 126 See above, p. 221 127 Nichols to Bond, 18 June 1988 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 128 Bond to Nichols and Norman, 14 June 1988 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 129 Heriot, Reader’s Report for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, 30 March 1967 (Lord Chamberlain’s correspondence, 1967/1507, British Library) 130 Robert Hewison, Review of ‘Poppy’ revival, Sunday Times 4 Sept. 1988 (Andrew Parkin, File on NIchols (London: Methuen, 1993) 131 Robert Leach, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006).


plunge back after the momentary suspension of disbelief, this reinvolvement in the story, that makes it so difficult to work the Brechtian alienation technique with an audience accustomed to this tradition.’132 As a corollary to Davison’s claim, whenever Nichols employs the conventions of a particular genre, there is a danger that the conventions will dominate the play itself. Nichols reported in his diary that at a performance of Chris Bond’s production of Poppy, one group in the audience ‘booed and hissed through the best lines, which was what they thought was expected. Serves me right,’ he added, ‘for pretending to ask for audience participation.’133 Though Nichols’ collaboration with Bond had been more satisfying than his collaboration with Hands, the behaviour of the audience (whose interaction with the actors is a collaborative event in its own right) was still unpredictable, and more apt to reinforce dramatic conventions than to defy them. In Privates on Parade, as in Poppy, Nichols was nonplussed by the power of the conventions he employed. After the first production of Privates, Nichols complained to Blakemore that ‘the show came out more as a musical than a play and the story suffered as a result,’ a problem he blamed partly on ‘the sheer verve of the numbers.’134 The critic Michael Feingold agreed vehemently with this assessment when he saw a Broadway production twelve years later: ‘Play an audience old music,’ he declared, ‘and even if your words and action parody it brutally, they’ll tune out the verbal comment and take the number as an affectionate gesture of nostalgia.’135 This is an excessively condescending view of theatre audiences (as well as one which treats them as an undifferentiated mass), and Oh What A Lovely War, to take an obvious example, disproves it. However, the subtlety of Nichols’ plays can easily be flattened by their theatrical energy, and his attempts to emphasise the


Peter Davison, Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England (Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982), p. 33 133 Peter Nichols, ‘Diaries: 1989’ (Areté, No. 15, Autumn 2004), p. 99 134 Nichols to Blakemore (draft), August 1977 (Nichols papers folder 78985, British Library) 135 Michael Feingold, ‘Drags of War’, Village Voice, 5 September 1989


‘message’ above the medium, as in his dispute over the Carmen Miranda song in Privates,136 have often been futile.

Poppy and the Nichols Oeuvre Originally conceived with Denis King as a musical to follow-up Privates, Poppy seems intended to be a show so grim that it cannot be smoothed over by ‘the verve of the numbers.’ Poppy was the first of Nichols’ plays to make no explicit reference at all to his own life, but it is not quite the anomaly it appears to be. In fact, it combines a striking amount of stylistic tropes and thematic elements that have appeared in previous plays, foregrounding and expanding ideas that Nichols had experimented with in the past. Most significantly, Poppy is not the first of Nichols’ plays to draw explicitly on pantomime: the genre’s distinctive doggerel rhyme appears both in The National Health and in Privates on Parade. In Privates, Terri Dennis twice delivers a parting couplet to the audience before leaving the stage. First, after telling Steven Flowers to take Sylvia Morgan’s coat to her, he says ‘so now she’s helped young love to have its fling/’Tis time your Fairy Queen was on the wing.’137 After learning that Sylvia and Steven plan to get married, Terri tells the rickshaw driver ‘Your Fairy Queen’s done all the good she may/so Fleet Club, sweetie, by the shortest way!’138 These digressions into verse fit comfortably into the play, because Terri’s lines nearly always push the boundaries of naturalistic speech, and because we know he is familiar with pantomime conventions: as he explains to the audience, he came to Singapore because ‘the panto season was over and life under Clementina Attlee wasn’t exactly the Roman Empire.’139 Pantomime plays a more substantial role in Health, where a doublewedding draws together the play’s ‘realistic’ and ‘soap opera’ strands in a pantomime-style grand finale. Once the cast is assembled, dancing and
136 137

See chapter 5, pp. 215-216 Nichols, Privates on Parade, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 138 138 Nichols, Privates, p. 175 139 Nichols, Privates, p. 138


throwing confetti to the accompaniment of a minstrel-show band, the orderly, Barnet, delivers the final lines in verse: A double wedding ends our pantomime – four hearts transplanted in the nick of time. Our nursing girls – yes madam, you’re so right! – Under the doctor each will spend the night. Next he presents the nursing staff, headed by MATRON The ship of state sails on, a bit becalmed Though matron on the bridge is not alarmed. Until the sails swell out above the boom She trusts her coolies in the engine room.140 The epithet ‘coolies’ in the second quatrain anticipates Nichols’ later attention to Chinese labourers in Privates and Poppy, the latter of which also ends in a double wedding. The stage directions in Health specify that the wedding is attended by the PATIENTS, quick and dead, throwing confetti, streamers, rice, and waving Union Jacks.’141 The ‘dead’ are also present at Poppy’s finale: the horse, Randy, appears wearing a halo.142 The ‘pantomime’ finale of Health does not fit easily into the rest of the play, which until that point has been a mixture of naturalistic drama, soap opera, and stand-up comedy. It falls on Barnet, the intermediary who has linked together all the previous styles, to carry the play to its grandiose conclusion – in fact Nichols wrote the final verse specifically for Jim Dale, who played Barnet, because he ‘was so surprisingly good.’143 Poppy also uses songs to expand ideas brought up in The National Health. One passage recalls a moment when the ex-soldier Loach complains about class-prejudice in Khartoum: ‘Wouldn’t look at you, the British civvies. I turned round to one of them, I said, look, me old mate, we’re not wogs.’144 In Poppy, Idle Jack sings a Kipling pastiche along similar lines about working for the East India Company:
140 141

Nichols, The National Health, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991), pp. 235-36 Nichols, Health, p. 235 142 Nichols, Poppy, p. 498 143 Nichols, Diaries, p. 42 144 Nichols, Health, p. 187


Then it was ‘Idle, where’s my boots?’ and ‘Idle, fetch my flaming grog’ For there was no one lower down than me except a wog – A sweeper name of Ram; so it was ‘Ram, you itherao, Fetch idle sahib’s boots, you earthen dog, so Juldi jao.’ He salaamed me as he oughta but I loved the so-and-so For we wus both untouchables, the lowest of the low.145 Nichols expands a joke from The National Health into another song: in Health, a West Indian nurse reveals she doesn’t know a (white) patient’s name, turning to the audience and confiding ‘they all look the same to me.’146 In Poppy this becomes ‘They All Look the Same to Us’, a duet sung by the Chinese Emperor and Lin Tse-Hsu, in which the two men give up on trying to distinguish between Europeans: They all look the same to us Scarlet face and yellow hair Noses too conspicuous Eyes that permanently stare. In a word, they’re barbarous And they look the same to us.147 In one respect, the Emperor himself resembles an earlier Nichols character. Nichols was insistent that the Emperor should be played by a magician and perform conjuring tricks on stage,148 The casting call for the New York production specified that while the emperor should be ‘Oriental if possible’, he must be a magician ‘who can devise his own magic.’149 Nichols had already written a ‘Chinese Magician’ in Forget-me-not Lane. The character is a white variety show performer called Mr. Magic who attempts to molest the play’s narrator when he is a child, and continues to haunt his adult subconscious. The entire play takes place within the memory of the narrator, ‘Frank’, and during this scene he shuts his eyes ‘as if to dismiss the

145 146

Nichols, Poppy, p. 440 Nichols, Health, p. 124 147 Nichols, Poppy, p. 457 148 see Nichols to Chris Bond, 18 June 1988. (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, Br. Library) 149 Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library


thought’ and shouts ‘get off, get out!’ The child (‘young Frank’) has run off, but the magician now confronts the narrator directly: MR MAGIC: Don’t you shout at me. You can’t push people out as easily as that. FRANK: Can’t I! (He moves swiftly towards MR MAGIC) MR MAGIC goes, leaving the door open. FRANK slams the door and holds it shut. MR MAGIC opens another door nearby. MR MAGIC: All your life you’ll be wincing at the memory. FRANK leaves the door, runs to shut him out again. The sound of footsteps continues behind the wall and FRANK follows the sound until it stops on the opposite side of the stage. He waits for the door to open. It does not. He opens it wide. Nobody there. MR MAGIC opens the door by which he first went out. I’m part of your mental landscape for ever, duckie [...]150 This scene is especially disturbing because it is autobiographical. Nichols told me that Forget-me-not Lane is ‘the one I like best of my plays, probably because it’s the most truthful,’ adding that ‘all those things really did happen – the conjurer did try to touch me up.’151 The connection between the Chinese Emperor and ‘Mr Magic’ exists outside the scope of Poppy, which makes no reference to the author’s own life. Without any ‘autobiographical’ context, it is difficult to know what to make of this strange and disquieting link.

‘A spectacle using all the resources of the new theatre’ In early 1981, Poppy was being pursued by two theatres: the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Stratford East Theatre Royal, a Victorian theatre in East London made famous by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Since 1979, ‘Stratford East’ had been run by Littlewood’s former assistant Philip Hedley, who would make it into one of the most culturally diverse theatres in
150 151

Nichols, Forget-me-not Lane, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 278 Peter Nichols, personal interview, 14 March 2005


Britain. The prospect offered by the two theatres could not have been more different. Hedley planned to make it Stratford East’s most expensive show by 30%, but told Nichols he would be grateful if the size of the orchestra could be cut ‘even by one member, in order to make the show more affordable.152 The RSC, on the other hand, wanted Poppy to be the first new play at the their new London venue, the Barbican. Nichols would come to find it significant that it was the first theatre ever to be built within London’s financial district, ‘The City’. He later wrote that ‘the Barbican is not an Arts Centre (whatever that may be); the art part is a dab of sauce to hide the true taste of the dish. Its purpose is to sell Cortinas and personal computers.’153 Obviously, as the first premiere, Poppy would be designed to show off the new venue. The production promised to be especially sumptuous because Trevor Nunn had introduced a policy of ‘enhancing physical presentation’ at the RSC in 1981 after visiting New York and deciding to mimic the stage spectacles he saw on Broadway.154 The conditions for British theatre had transformed in 1979 with the arrival of Thatcher’s conservative government, and Nunn was one of the first to adapt to the new financial situation. When the new Arts Minister, Norman St. John Stevas, cut theatre subsidy and demanded to see ‘the private sector raising more money and bringing business acumen [...] to bear on the administration of public institutions,’155 the RSC had already formed a partnership with Hallmark cards to fund a regional tour in 1978 – the first of many such deals between subsidised theatre and private business.156 In 1981 Nunn guaranteed his own financial security by directing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the first of the ‘mega-musicals’ that would become Britain’s most globally-recognised theatrical export since Shakespeare. In 1985, the RSC itself would score an international hit with Les Miserables (also directed by Nunn), but in 1981 this was still four
152 153

Hedley to Nichols, 20 Mar 1981 (Peggy Ramsay papers, British Library) Nichols to John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, 20 Oct 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) 154 Colin Chambers, Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 76 155 Dominic Shellard, British Theatre Since the War (London: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 188 156 Shellard, British Theatre, p. 185


years in the future, and the RSC was struggling with a mounting deficit while being forced to pay the government more in VAT and National Insurance than it received in subsidy.157 When Nunn visited Broadway, he seems to have decided that the best way to get money would be to spend money, and to spend it conspicuously. By this reasoning, the RSC’s first new production at the Barbican would have to prove to investors (not to mention its new City landlords) that their money had been well-spent. To accomplish that, the show did not need to be incisive, thought-provoking, or funny – it simply needed to be dazzling. The director Harold Prince, who had collaborated with Sondheim as well as with Lloyd Webber, thought Stratford East, with its Victorian balconies and left-wing reputation, would be ‘perfect’ for Poppy.158 Nichols was reluctant to give up the lavish funding promised by the RSC, but Hedley was the first bidder to promise him a definite production, so on 25 February 1981 Nichols wrote to both Peggy Ramsay and Trevor Nunn to say that he would be taking Hedley’s offer.159 This letter had an instant effect: Nunn wrote to Nichols the very next day, offering to produce the play at the Barbican.160 Nichols accepted Nunn’s offer, and Terry Hands was put forward to direct. Nichols told Hands that he and Hedley had discussed ‘two ways of doing it – one, as a parody of a tatty panto and two, as a sumptuous musical spectacle based on the traditional panto but leaving it far behind as it proceeded.’ Nichols wanted to take the latter approach but, as he told Hands, ‘it’s not anything Philip [Hedley] could afford. Only the RSC or the National could.’161 According to Nichols, Hedley had budgeted

157 158

Chambers, Inside, p. 76 H. Prince to Nichols, 20 Oct 1980 (Nichols papers folder 78945, British Library) 159 It is a mark of the times that Hedley himself assured Nichols in a letter that ‘We will be searching for commercial sponsors and/or outside backing for the show but our commitment to staging it is not dependent on finding either’ (Hedley to Nichols, 20 Mar 1981 (Ramsay papers, British Library). 160 Nunn to Nichols, 26 Feb 1981 (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) 161 Nichols to Terry Hands, 19 March 1981 (Margaret Ramsay papers, British Library)


£50,000 for the production.162 The RSC was planning to spend £130,000.163 Nichols envisaged a pantomime that metamorphosed into a musical: I have the feeling that it should perhaps start as a trad, even rather limited parody, then break out. The transformation scene should indeed transform the play from plodding but comically amusing panto to a spectacle using all the resources of the new theatre. This possibility excites me rigid.164 On 1 April Hedley, wrote to Nichols conceding defeat. ‘I sincerely hope they abide by their seductive offers,’ Hedley told the playwright. ‘If they don’t,’ he added, ‘do please come back to us.’165 The following summer Nichols would attempt – unsuccessfully – to do exactly that. Nichols had always been pessimistic about his plays while they were in rehearsal, but his despair about Poppy - expressed here in a letter to Ramsay – was unusually deep: How my poor play will survive is anyone’s guess. The director has no sense of humour. We should have done it at Stratford. I was wrongly advised and my eyes were bigger than my stomach. [...] I fear the worst and feel completely alone. The director is a sort of zombie, the composer only cares about his songs, the actors are dispirited and rebellious, the rehearsals casual and unpunctual. The lack of discipline is astonishing. It’s the first time I’ve really worked with the RSC company – my other two shows were only under their management.166 Later, he concluded that the Barbican’s mainstage, which had inspired such high hopes, was ‘perhaps the least suitable stage for a show based on pantomime’: We couldn’t fly people, there was no orchestra pit, [...] the traps didn’t work and no one from the stage could go amongst the people because there were no aisles [...] I was embarrassed by the opulent production. My simple, subversive idea – to use the favourite Victorian entertainment form to tell a story of imperial hypocrisy and wickedness – was lost among the grandeur.167
162 163

Nichols to Terry Hands, 19 March 1981 (Margaret Ramsay papers, British Library) Hands to Nichols, 23 July 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library). According to the Sunday Times, the production ultimately cost £250,000 (Leslie Geddes-Brown, ‘Subsidized big spenders start West End war, Sunday Times, 10 October 1982) 164 Nichols to Terry Hands, 19 March 1981 (Margaret Ramsay papers, British Library) 165 Hedley to Nichols, 1 April 1981 (Margaret Ramsay papers, British Library) 166 Nichols to Ramsay, 18 August 1982 (Margaret Ramsay papers, British Library) 167 Nichols, Introduction to Poppy, Plays: Two, p. 408


But when Nichols accepted Nunn’s offer in March, 1981, all this was yet to come, and the production, his third with the RSC, was full of promise. And before the production proceeded any further, Nichols had a favour to ask of Terry Hands: he needed to get a composer fired.

King cut loose Since collaborating on Privates on Parade, Nichols and Denis King had been planning to write a musical together, and Poppy had developed from their discussions. ‘There is no real commitment to him,’ the playwright assured Hands, ‘though it would be difficult for me to go to another composer.’168 King had already begun composing music for the show and prepared a demo tape, but Nichols was not pleased with it: ‘I’ve felt his work for this play has not been so accurate or imaginative,’ he told Hands, ‘and feel that you should come in soon, before the situation gets embarrassing. This is urgent, particularly as he wants to be taken on.’169 Nichols was trying to fire King (who was a good friend) without the order appearing to come from him. Hands understood what Nichols wanted from him, and carried it out elegantly: ‘I would like to wait until Poppy has evolved finally before making a decision,’ he told the composer in a letter: ‘There are many areas to be sorted out before a clear musical brief emerges. And a third member of the team should only be added when Peter and I are settled.’ Hands took full responsibility for the decision, concluding ‘Forgive me, therefore, but I’ve insisted to Peter that we wait.’170 King could see that he was being cut out, but seemed most upset by the way he had been removed from the narrative of the play’s early development: ‘I was more than a little surprised at [...] your assumption that my involvement in Poppy was some kind of afterthought,’ he wrote to Hands.’171 Hands’ next letter to King was frank to the

Nichols to Terry Hands, 22 April 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 169 Nichols to Terry Hands, 22 April 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 170 Hands to Denis King (cc Nichols), 1 July 1981 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 171 King to Hands, 7 July 1981 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library)


point of brutality: he told King the music he had composed was ‘too laid back, too bar room piano, not sufficiently of the period and above all not pungent enough.’ He added disingenuously that ‘my caution, and it is only that, is because Poppy will be the first new work into the new Barbican theatre. It therefore takes on an extra dimension of importance for the RSC as a whole.172 Nobody is ever mollified by the implication that their work might be sufficient if only the occasion were not so significant, and King turned on Nichols as it became clear that he shared Hands’ view. Understandably, he found it ‘extraordinary’ that the playwright had waited so long to voice his ‘doubts and misgivings.’173 As for Hands’ comparison of his music to ‘bar room piano,’ he wondered ‘if Trevor Nunn said the same to A. Lloyd Webber.’ A fair question, though Hands would have known that Nichols and Lloyd Webber attracted different audiences, with different expectations. In fact, when Nunn himself listened to King’s tape he told Nichols ‘I was very depressed by what I heard.’174 King certainly knew what was coming, and on 6 April Hands wrote to tell him that Monty Norman (most famous for composing the James Bond theme and the music for the musical Irma La Douce) would be writing the music for Poppy.175

‘No-one will grieve a blue horse’ After King was removed from the project, Nichols’ relationship with his collaborators quickly deteriorated. Nichols would later tell Norman that ‘our work together on the songs was delightful, but ‘from the moment the sets were suggested it all went wrong.’176 Nichols wanted the set to consist of painted cloths, as in the pantomimes he had seen as a child (he had also wanted painted scenery for Privates on

172 173

Hands to Denis King, 8 Jul 1981 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) D King to Nichols, 15 Jul 1981 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 174 Nunn to Nichols, 19 Apr 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 175 Hands to D. King 6 Apr 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 176 Nichols to Norman 26 Oct 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library)


Parade177), but the designer, Abdel Farrah, was less keen. Nichols also did not feel people were taking seriously his idea for an interval drop-cloth advertising genuine Victorian Laudanum-based medicines. This sort of attention, he told Hands, was ‘a good example of what I mean by saying I’m an all-round theatre person. [...] I like the discipline of the interval and always try to use it.’178 Here, one can see shades of the child who had noticed the quality of the curtains when he attended the cinema. Nichols continued to feel ignored by his collaborators and by July 1981 was writing one of the earliest of the aggrieved letters that he would be sending to Hands for years to come.179 ‘The design does fly in the face of all I asked for in the play,’ he told the director, ‘and it does seem unkind not to have warned me, say some six months ago.’180 Slightly revising his earlier view that the play should transform from ‘comically amusing panto to a spectacle using all the resources of the new theatre,181 Nichols warned that ‘doing a wildly abstract set for a musical which is essentially a British pantomime seems to be risking confusion when all should be clear.’182 In reply, Hands told Nichols that the playwright’s design ideas were ‘pastiche, suitable for Greenwich or a Victorian music-hall, and in my opinion fatal to a production at the Barbican.183 He went on to say that since he had already offered Nichols a change of director, a change of designer, and the opportunity to direct the production himself, and since Nichols had rejected all three offers, the RSC would take up Nichols’ suggestion that they withdraw the production. ‘The normal rehearsal work of cutting, reshaping lyrics etc.,’ he said, ‘will be impossible in an atmosphere of grievance and distrust,’ adding ‘and of course I

177 178

Nichols, Diaries, p. 417 Nichols to Hands, 19 May 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 179 On 12 February 1982, Hand replied to what appears to have been Nichols’ first angry letter to him about Poppy. In that response, Hands wrote ‘why should I complain when on every occasion, public or private, actors, agents and the theatre itself seems to be your whipping boy.’ (Hands to Nichols, 12 Feb 1982 (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library)) 180 Nichols to Hands, 17 Jul 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 181 Nichols to Terry Hands, 19 March 1981 (Margaret Ramsay papers, British Library) 182 Nichols to Hands, 17 Jul 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 183 Hands to Nichols, 23 July 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library)


fear articles in The Times.’184 In order to avoid a scandal, Hands promised, the RSC would announce publicly that it was unable to afford the production. The production went ahead at the RSC, however, though Nichols later said that he had tried unsuccessfully to convince Monty Norman to pull out and take the show to Stratford East.185 In August Nichols announced to Norman and Hands that ‘the time’s come round for another of my grumbling letters.’ He was still frustrated by the set, still felt nobody was taking the interval drop cloth seriously enough, and now was appalled by the pantomime horses (Randy has a female counterpart called ‘Cherry’), which, he learned, were to be blue and red, respectively. Randy was a leading character, Nichols pointed out, and ‘his death is a key scene.’ ‘No one will grieve a blue horse,’186 the playwright predicted, a statement which almost compels the reply ‘oh yes they will!’. The horses became a recurring trope in Nichols’ complaints about the production and four years on, when reiterating his frequently-made suggestion to Terry Hands that they would ‘have a terrific exchange of letters to publish,’187 he declared that it would have to be titled ‘a horse of another colour.’188 Despite Nichols’ good-humoured fantasies of publication, the correspondence (which was aggrieved from the beginning) quickly became extremely bitter, leading Hands to complain to Peggy Ramsay of Nichols’ ‘insults, misrepresentations, paranoia, petulance and [...] rather shabby attempt at bullying.’189 The offence was mutual: after a row during a rehearsal, Nichols pleaded to Hands and Norman for ‘no more panics like the last. You, Terry [Hands], may be able to work in a battlefield but I’m a civilian, and a pacifist.’190 In response, Norman asked Nichols ‘Why talk of being a pacifist when you are almost continually near

184 185

Hands to Nichols, 23 July 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Nichols to Norman 26 Oct 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 186 Nichols to Hands, 24 August 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 187 Nichols to Hands, 25 Sep 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 188 Nichols to Hands, 4 Mar 1986 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 189 Hands to Ramsay, 17 Jan 1983 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 190 Nichols to Norman and Hands, 9 Oct 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, B. Lib.)


to declaring war?’191 and continued with a stream of exasperated questions: ‘Are we all fools and saboteurs of Peter Nichols work? Did the RSC pour thousands of pounds into Poppy just to hurt you? [...] Are the audiences enjoying themselves just to be perverse?’192 His letter then touched (probably unwittingly) on the cause of Nichols’ continued ambivalence towards writing for the theatre, an ambivalence which he had discussed with Morahan and Sondheim and which he had tried to escape both by moving into musicals, and into novel-writing: ‘Whether we like it or not, Peter, this is shared work,’ Norman wrote, ‘[...] A show as complex as this one is a collaboration for its greater good.’193 ‘The trouble,’ Nichols retorted, ‘is you collaborated with the other people.’194 ‘Collaboration’ continued to be an insoluble problem for Nichols: on the one hand, he wanted to be able to refine and sharpen his scripts with a director both before and during rehearsals, as he had done with Blakemore. On the other hand, he was reluctant to relinquish control to the director, actors, and designer during rehearsals and was (understandably) not receptive to the idea that his own view of his play might not be definitive. With Poppy Nichols felt that he had been cut out of the process as soon as the script was written. Just after he decided to give the script to the RSC, he admitted to Nunn that ‘There is, at times, an Orwellian fear on my part that everybody there has forgotten that the company is named after a playwright.’ Nichols added that ‘”S” [Shakespeare] was an actor and company man, as well as providing scripts. Most playwrights want to be involved and to feel they’re as much a part of things as, say, the DSM or sound man. I certainly do. Otherwise I may as well be a novelist.’195 He did not mention that he had been trying unsuccessfully to write a novel for at least two years. Nichols seemed to be stuck between a need for collaboration and an equally strong distaste for it.
191 192

Norman to Nichols, 23 Oct 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Norman to Nichols, 23 Oct 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 193 Norman to Nichols, 23 Oct 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 194 Nichols to Norman 26 Oct 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 195 Nichols to Nunn 7 April 1981 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library)


On 10 September 1982, nearly a month before Poppy was to open, Nichols told an Evening Standard reporter that he was ‘giving up’ on writing for the theatre because of ongoing frustrations which had culminated with the struggle over Poppy.196 This was not an auspicious launch for the first new play to open at the Barbican, and matters were not helped when technical problems forced the management to cancel a preview.197 Cancelled shows are not good publicity, and disavowal of a production by the playwright is even worse. Hands found it particularly galling that Nichols was complaining while being ‘ the prime beneficiary of the venture.’198 The director explained the financial situation to Peggy Ramsay after the show had been running for three months: So far it has earned him [Nichols] £7132. Should it run a year in the West End and on Broadway it could earn him a further £125000. The RSC will get little or nothing. It will take many months to repay our initial investment before we can hope to make a return.199 This raises an easily-overlooked point about the show: far from being a flop, it achieved moderate critical and popular success and won the Society of West End Theatres for best musical. Mervyn Jones observed in 1983 that ‘Poppy is playing to packed houses at the Barbican, and it is scheduled to transfer to the West End, where it will almost certainly be a great success by commercial standards.’ But Jones added that in his opinion, ‘by any other standard it is a catastrophic failure.’200 Jones compared Poppy with Oh, What A Lovely War and suggested that ‘it might all have turned out differently in the intimacy of Theatre Royal, Stratford.’201 On the other hand, John Russell Taylor gave the show a good review in the same journal, writing that ‘the only person to seem really discontented is Peter Nichols, but at least he has the comfort of being able to cry all the way to the bank.’202 Terry Hands himself told Nichols ‘I know
196 197

Michael Owen, ‘Nichols: “This is where I quit”’, Evening Standard, 10 September 1982 Colin Chambers, Peggy, p. 280 198 Hands to Ramsay, 17 Jan 1983 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 199 Hands to Ramsay, 17 Jan 1983 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 200 Mervyn Jones, ‘Peter Nichols, the playwright who has had enough’ Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review, No, 148 (1983), p. 8 201 Jones, ‘enough’, p. 8 202 John Russel Taylor, Review of Poppy, Drama, No. 147 (1st Quarter 1983), p. 27


we can’t make you happy – maybe we can make you rich.’203 One should not read too much into a single comment, but this does seem a long distance from Christopher Morahan’s 1977 promise, on behalf of the NT, that ‘We can’t offer a fortune but I believe we can offer an unrivalled platform.’204 Meanwhile, John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy (who in 1972 had picketed the RSC over its production of their play The Island of the Mighty) wrote to Nichols to express their ‘solidarity’ as playwrights.205 ‘We are probably, all three of us, of one mind on the times we live in, Nichols replied, ‘The temper is so red-necked and the bullies are in such full cry that an old liberal like EM Forster now seems almost radical.’206 The reference to Forster is a non sequitor, but Nichols’ discomfort with the new political (and economic) landscape is unmistakeable. The RSC needed a Broadway transfer in order to recoup the production costs, let alone to turn a profit. Ramsay went so far as to rather wickedly describe the play’s London production as ‘a run-in for New York’ in a letter she wrote to Hands.207 Nichols himself understood that the existing production needed to transfer, because ‘to start from scratch would be too costly for the New York producers.’208 Nevertheless, he was implacable: ‘I cannot stop the RSC taking over their show, he wrote, ‘but can’t feel any enthusiasm for helping a production which, I believe, fundamentally misrepresents the script.’209 In the end, Nichols had nothing to worry about: despite the efforts of the RSC and a string of American producers, the production never reached New York. But despite the endless acrimony surrounding the production, Hands seemed indefatigable: when he wrote to Nichols in 1986, he concluded by saying

203 204

Hands to Nichols, 7 June 1985 (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) Morahan to Nichols, 27 Oct 1977 (Nichols papers folder 79108, British Library) 205 John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy to Nichols, 14 October 1982 (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) 206 Nichols to John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, 20 Oct 1982 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) 207 Ramsay to Hands, 9 Jan 1984 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 208 Nichols to Bill Fournier, 14 Jul 1983 (Ramsay Papers, British Library) 209 Nichols to Bill Fournier, 14 Jul 1983 (Ramsay Papers, British Library)


‘Please can we have your next play.’210 This was not to be: Poppy was Nichols’ last play for either the NT or the RSC.211

Collaboration – aesthetics and finance From Hands’ perspective, there were two areas in which the RSC suffered from Nichols’ refusal to cooperate: the first area was the aesthetic power of the play itself (which according to Nichols had been damaged by the RSC’s refusal to cooperate). The second, which Nichols did not concern himself with, was the financial health of the institution. First, the aesthetics: according to Hands, by disavowing the production, Nichols had upset the equilibrium between the author’s progressive intent and the play’s reactionary facade.212 Fundamentally, this is a question of trust: the audience accepts the play’s racism, jingoism, casual violence, and amorality, on the understanding that the playwright is attacking, rather than celebrating these traits. According to Hands, when Nichols gave the impression that he was angry at the RSC as well as at the British East India Company, the play’s intentions ceased to be clear. I have referred to this as ‘breaking a term of the contract between actors and audience.’213 Nichols frequently breaks this contract deliberately, most famously in Joe Egg, which he describes in his essay ‘Casting the Audience’: The audience was shouted at, appealed to, confided in; some of the actors broke up or seemed to be improvising and at such moments it wasn’t at all clear whom to trust. Either the actors or the character or the author – probably all – were betraying the implicit licence the audience had granted them: to play the game of illusion by understood rules.214 This sort of rule-breaking relies on a highly-skilled production in which those terms that are intended to be clearly delineated are clearly delineated. A critical
210 211

Hands to Nichols, 3 Nov 1986 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Up to the time of writing. 212 This is reminiscent of The National Health, where self-consciously framed on-stage institutional racism incorrectly implied that the producing institution was free from such prejudice. In the case of Health, however, the audience was not aware of Olivier’s prejudice against the black actors (see Chapter 2, p. 130). 213 see Chapter 2, p. 130 214 Nichols, ‘Introduction: Casting the Audience’, Plays: One, p. xi


element in the experience of play-going is the knowledge that on-stage chaos is an illusion underpinned by careful organisation (the anxiety that comes from maintaining this order is for the staff and performers to shoulder). The audience is disorientated by Joe Egg, but after a temporary disturbance it becomes clear that the performance is under control. According to Hands, Nichols’ disavowal of the production had violated this aspect of the performer-audience contract, one which was especially significant in the case of this play: The audience are intended to be confused by their own reactions: in joining in Rat-tat-tat-tat for instance and then realising what they are singing. The method works audaciously and well. However if you then add a further ‘confusion’ of perhaps this isn’t what the author or director intended, you sink the boat as it comes off the slip-way. 215 Hands’ argument makes sense, and some in the audience may have been confused. However the critics seem to have understood the situation very well. The assessment of John Elsom in the Mail on Sunday was shared by many of his colleagues: The author [...] wanted to use the device of a tatty patriotic panto ironically, even bitterly, to remind us that our entertainment has deep roots in our imperialism. But unfortunately he ran across the RSC director Terry Hands, for whom nothing comes as naturally as excess. Hands so sugars the pill that what could have been another Oh, What A Lovely War emerges as a showbiz spectacular.216 To Elsom, the situation seemed clear: it was Hands’ direction, rather than Nichols’ intemperate comments, that was muddying the play. For his part, Nichols began to worry that the performers were inserting their own ironic distance between themselves and their roles. The play employs irony in the sense that its ‘message’ is the opposite of the message delivered by the characters: it relies on a knowing audience able (and willing) to reject the assumptions of Queen Victoria, Dick Whittington, and the other protagonists. However the alchemy of irony must take place only in the audience. Though

215 216

Hands to Ramsay, 17 Jan 1983 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) John Elsom, Rev. of Poppy, Mail on Sunday (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-6 Oct 1982), p. 554


part of the nature of pantomime is that the performers exist both within their characters and outside them, able to comment on their behaviour as observers (thus claiming the audience’s right to observation as well as the character’s right to speech), any ironic distance or self-consciousness on the part of the actors would be fatal: the characters must be ‘aware’ that they are performing, but not that they are wrong. The play’s power resides in the contrast between the response that the characters expect from the audience and the response that the author expects. After Poppy transferred to the Adelphi theatre, Nichols told Hands that he worried that the actors were allowing themselves to be too visibly critical – not about the politics, but about the form itself: Wish they’d play the London scene more seriously, not make so many jokes about the corniness of the jokes. The audience gets nervous, in case they find one of the corny jokes funny, in which case they should feel free to laugh.217 According to Nichols, audiences should feel guilty about enjoying the play’s content, but not about enjoying its form: the target of the satire is imperialism, not pantomime. What is perhaps most surprising about Nichols’ discomfort with the production is that he became dissatisfied with self-conscious and transgressive theatre itself, disavowing the ‘mixed style’ that had been the single most distinctive quality of his plays. Just after the play opened, Monty Norman tried to calm his doubts: Also please do not question your original conception of the show which daringly combines straight play, panto, music hall, musical theatre, Chinese theatre and a dozen different musical styles of songs. The mess you speak of is in your mind, not on the stage.218 Nichols later told Hands that the only way to make the play work would be to ‘carry the audience along, not to let them question what they’re watching.’219 This seems like a strange prescription for Poppy, which becomes a pointless

217 218

Nichols to T. Hands, 20 Jan 1984 [draft] (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Norman to Nichols, 23 Oct 1982 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) 219 Nichols to Hands, 4 Mar 1986 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library)


exercise if the audience ceases to question it. Even more surprisingly, Nichols went on to tell Hands ‘I actually dislike most theatre, particularly that side of it that thrives on knowing who played what, when and where. It often seems to be a shelter for people who wouldn’t survive outside.’220 Again, this is a peculiar stance for an accomplished writer of pastiche to take: for example, appreciation of Obadiah Upward is unquestionably enhanced by, if not dependant on, familiarity with GIlbert and Sullivan. But perhaps it is Nichols’ ambivalence towards the theatre that makes his deployment of its devices so potent. He had praised Oh, What A Lovely War for ‘using the tricks of show biz and at the same time showing how these tricks are available as a means of unscrupulous persuasion,’221 a duality shared by some of his best own work.

Finance In the realm of aesthetics and theatrical presentation, therefore, Nichols understood the situation as well as anybody – he just disagreed with Hands. But financially, Nichols does not seem to have understood what the RSC required of him. Nichols had come to prominence in the late 1960s and the 1970s, a period of relatively lavish subsidy during which there was ample space in the NT and RSC for uncompromising, even irascible playwrights. By the time Poppy opened, Margaret Thatcher had been in power for three years, Arts Council funding was lagging behind inflation, and the well-subsidised 1970s already seemed like a golden age. It was characteristic of the time that Poppy was feasible only because it was underwritten by the bookmakers Ladbrokes PLC. This was what Nichols had failed to grasp: if he wanted to be a ‘company theatre man’ in the 1980s and work as a part of the RSC, the most helpful contribution he could make would be to let the company turn his play into a hit by any means necessary. This was not a pleasant prospect to contemplate for a playwright who was mistrustful of directors’ interpretations of his work at the

220 221

Nichols to Hands, 4 Mar 1986 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Nichols to William H. Honan, 19 July 1978 (draft or copy) (Nichols papers folder 79109, Br. Library)


best of times, but it appeared to be the new reality for subsidised theatre. There was already a hint of desperation in a letter that Hands wrote to Nichols in February 1982 after the playwright complained that too little time was being spent on his play: ‘We are busy a lot of the time providing venues both for people to perform plays new or otherwise,’ Hands explained testily, ‘and also to keep alive an organisation that can present them’ [my emphasis].222 It is important to reiterate the fact that the RSC’s decision (exemplified by Poppy) to ‘enhance presentation’, emphasising theatrical spectacle, was a decision intended to avert an impending crisis – the RSC, already out of money, was moving into a venue that promised to be as inefficient and costly as the NT’s South Bank venue had been when it opened in 1976. Some critics were sympathetic: reviewing Poppy, Michael Coveney came to the conclusion that ‘When stuck in a concrete hole, the best policy, the RSC has quickly discovered, is to sing, dance, and spend your way out of it.’223 But Colin Chambers, who became the RSC’s literary manager in 1981 and stayed until 1997, is scathing on the subject of ‘enhanced presentation’, arguing that the ‘aesthetic trend this represented chimed with the spread of individualism and the worship of money in a society that was losing its collective life,’ and adding that ‘Due to financial pressures, the RSC allotted too little preparation time to mount shows of the complexity in which it was now engaged,’ leading to cancelled performances.224 Chambers admits, however, that advocates of the new policy could cite ‘a rise in audience figures as vindication.’225 In the 1980s, this came to be of paramount importance. In 1987, Arts Minister Richard Luce would make it explicit by announcing that ‘the only test of our ability to succeed is whether or not we can attract enough customers.’226 Kenneth Tynan had exposed the

222 223

Hands to Nichols, 12 Feb 1982 (Nichols papers folder 79110, British Library) Michael Coveney, Review of Poppy, Financial Times (London Theatre Record 23 September-6 Oct 1982), p. 552 224 Chambers, Inside, p. 77 225 Chambers, Inside, p. 77 226 Shellard, British Theatre, p. 189


colossal naïveté of this apparently ‘hard-nosed’ claim twenty-three years before Luce made it: as soon as you begin to apply commercial criteria to the drama, you find that a play with two characters and one set, which runs for six months, must be considered ‘better’ [...] than a play with fifty characters and twelve sets, which runs for a year: since the former will undoubtedly show a larger profit.227 Tynan’s formula demonstrates what a tremendous risk the RSC was taking by attempting to spend its way out of a deficit by attracting large enough audiences to recoup a profit over its mounting costs, even with infusions of money from the private sector. In fact, in his review of Poppy John Elsom wrote that ‘With such costly extravaganzas, the one vice of which the RSC can never be accused is the love of profit,228 while Francis King’s remarks were even more pointed: Only last week Sir Roy Shaw of the Arts Council was declaring that the whole RSC operation at the Barbican was in jeopardy for lack of funds. Was this then the right moment for the company to lavish so much money on the ungrateful task of adding some wattage to Mr Nichols’s increasingly dim lantern-lecture.229 However King’s admonishment was an aberration among generally positive reviews. Many of the critics explicitly took Nichols’ side in his public fight with the RSC, agreeing that his play was being misrepresented by the production. However, they did so in terms that virtually guaranteed that the production would not be altered. Michael Billington complained that ‘far from wringing our withers at a shameful episode from our mercantile past, it leaves the audience in a state of festive gaiety. It provides a good night out rather than a stab at the conscience.’ Given the RSC’s deficit, the amount that had been spent on the production, and the hopes that were pinned on a Broadway transfer, it was unthinkable that Hands would deliberately transform ‘a good night out’ into ‘a stab at the conscience.’230 When the play re-opened in the West End a year

Kenneth Tynan, ‘The National Theatre: A Speech to the Royal Society of Arts’ , A View of the English Stage 1944-1965 (London: Methuen, 1975), p. 354 228 John Elsom, Review of Poppy, p. 554 229 Francis King, Review of Poppy, Sunday Telegraph (London Theatre Record 23 September-6 Oct 1982), p. 555 230 Michael Billington, Review of Poppy, Guardian (London Theatre Record 23 September-6 Oct 1982), p. 553


later, a few critics noted that its presentation had been further ‘enhanced’, clearly in preparation for a transfer to Broadway. Jack Tinker cogently observed that ‘its success has persuaded an American movie company to invest a small fortune re-working it for the West End stage – in much the same spirit of free enterprise, come to think of it, as Mr Nichols is at such pains to condemn.’231 In The Spectator, Giles Gordon worried that Broadway audiences would not realise that Nichols was being ironic, and, though Gordon praised the show for its lavish set and for having the ‘most accomplished and prettiest chorus girls in London’, he shared Billington’s concern that ‘the production’s intent seems to be to have you leave the theatre smiling and lauding the spectacle rather than embarrassed and thoughtful about our shameful treatment of wogs and chinks.’232 Meanwhile, the review by John Barber, who had previously called Nichols’ view of the Opium Wars ‘complacent’, demonstrates precisely why Nichols and the RSC were unable to agree about the production: Last year the Royal Shakespeare Company seized upon a mordant and ironical Peter Nichols play, Poppy, added sugar and spice and lashings of sex, and turned it into a spangled oriental romp. The show now turns up [...] in a hyped-up version which approximates it even closer to the Broadway musical its director, Terry Hands, seems always to have wanted it to be.233 ‘I am not saying it won’t be extremely popular,’ Barber concludes sniffily. Hands presumably regarded this as a vindication of his production, just as much as Nichols would have regarded it as a vindication of his objections. Furthermore, Hands may have felt, perhaps with some justification, that critics might have been less censorious about the production if Nichols had not announced his displeasure before it opened. As it was, Poppy enjoyed moderate success, but would not become a profitable venture for the RSC unless it reached Broadway. Peggy Ramsay wrote to Hands, saying ‘I’m really most awfully glad for all


Jack Tinker, Review of Poppy, Daily Mail (London Theatre Record 19 Nov-2 Dec 1983), p. 1027 232 Presumably Gordon meant the epithets to underscore his point. (Giles Gordon, Review of Poppy, Spectator (London Theatre Record 19 Nov-2 Dec 1983), p. 1028) 233 John Barber, Review of Poppy, p. 1029


concerned that it is now beginning to build and indeed has earned money for everyone (except for the management),’ adding that this should not be a problem since ‘the management are using this as a run-in for New York.’234 In The Set-Up, Ronald Hayman had used Joe Egg as an example of New York’s grossly inflated role as a financier of British theatre – ‘the biggest potential source of income’ apart from film, according to Hayman.235 The Broadway run of Joe Egg allowed the Nichols’ to buy a house in Blackheath, where they met Michael Frayn, and Nichols became a Board member at the nearby Greenwich theatre. After Poppy (which, as Hands was keenly aware, had provided Nichols with a substantial income), the Nichols’ left London for the countryside, withdrawing from the London theatre scene for a few years. He would return to the theatre in 1987 with A Piece of My Mind, but he would not enjoy the same national recognition again. From the perspective of the audience, Nichols’ career from 1967 to 1983 was a glittering string of critical and popular successes, his record only marred by the disaster of The Freeway. But Nichols himself could be forgiven for feeling that he had undergone a series of near-constant problems (most prominently his disputes with directors, delayed transfers, and projects cancelled before they reached the stage) and that he had been perpetually at the mercy of political manoeuvrings both within the theatre and outside it. These had been the conditions of production in the 1970s, the ‘golden age’ for theatre subsidy. Now it was clearly getting worse. In this light, it is understandable that Nichols chose, albeit temporarily, to leave the theatre entirely.

234 235

Ramsay to Hands, 9 Jan 1984 (Nichols papers folder 78984, British Library) Ronald Hayman, The Set-Up: An Anatomy of the English Theatre Today (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973), p. 127


Bibliography Interviews by the Author
• • • • • Joe Melia, 6 March 2006 Peter Nichols, 14 March 2005 Peter Nichols and Michael Blakemore, 1 December 2005 Cleo Sylvestre, 20 January 2006 Joy Zinoman, 4 January 2005

Archives and Personal Papers
British Library Manuscripts Collection • Peter Nichols Papers, British Library, London • Lord Chamberlain’s Correspondence [Folder 1967/1507, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg] • Laurence Olivier Papers • Margaret (Peggy) Ramsay Papers • Kenneth Tynan Papers Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, RA LC/GEN/440/65 [information provided by Dr. Steve Nicholson] • Lord Chamberlain, Interview (1965) National Theatre Archive • Peter Hall Correspondence • The Freeway Production Folder • The National Health Production Folder

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992) Beaumann, Sally, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1982) Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1984) Bennett, Alan, Forty Years On and Other Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1991)


Berney, K. A., ed., Contemporary British Dramatists, (London: St. James’ Pres, 1994) • Zeifman, Hersh, ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ (pp. 766-768) Billington, Michael, One-Night Stands (London: Nick Hern Books, 1993) Blakemore, Michael, Arguments with England: A Memoir (London: Faber and Faber, 2004) Blakemore, Michael, Next Season (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969) Bowker, Gordon, George Orwell, (London: Little Brown, 2003) Brandt, George W., ed., British Television Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981) • Miller, Brian, ‘Peter Nichols’, pp. 110-136. Bratton, J. S., ed., Music Hall: Performance and Style (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1986) • Pickering, Michael, ‘White Skin, Black Masks: “Nigger” Minstrelsy in Victorian England’ Bull, John, New British Political Dramatists (London: Macmillan, 1984) Bull, John, Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre (London: Macmillan, 1994). Cave, Richard Allen, New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage 1970-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988) Callow, Simon, The National: The Theatre and its Work, 1963-1997 (London: Nick Hern Books, 1998) Chambers, Colin, Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company (London: Routledge, 2004) Chambers, Colin, Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent (London: Methuen, 1997) Cohn, Ruby, Retreats from Realism in Recent English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) Coveney, Michael, The Citz: 21 Years of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990)


Coleman, Terry, Olivier (London: Bloomsbury, 2005) Crick, Terry, Essays on Politics and Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1989) • ‘The Political in Britain’s two National Theatres,’ • ‘On the Orwell Trail’ Daniels, Therese, and Jane Gerson, eds., The Colour Black: Black Images in British Television, (London: British Film Institute, 1989) • Bourne, Stephen, ‘Introduction: Soap Opera’ Davison, Peter, Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England (London: Macmillan, 1982). Elsom, John, and Nicholas Tomalin, The History of the National Theatre (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978) Eyre, Richard and Nicholas Wright, Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) Foot, Paul, The Rise of Enoch Powell (London: Cornmarket Press, 1969) Goldman, William, The Season (New York: Harrows, Brace, and World, 1969). Hall, Peter, Making an Exhibition of Myself (London: Oberon, 2000) Hall, Peter, Peter Hall’s Diaries, ed. John Goodwin (London: Hamish Mamilton, 1983) Hallifax, Michael, Let Me Set the Scene (Manchester, NH, USA: Smith and Kraus, 2004) Hawthorne, Nigel, Straight Face (London: Hodder and Staughton, 2002). Hayman, Ronald, Playback (New York: Horizon, 1973) Hayman, Ronald, The Set-Up: An Anatomy of the English Theatre Today (London: Eyre Methuen, 1973) Hiro, Dilip, Black British, White British (Middlesex: Penguin, 1971) Hobson, Harold, Indirect Journey (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1978) Hooker, Virginia Matheson, A Short History of Malaysia: Linking East and West (Crows Nest, Australia: 2003)


Innes, Christopher, Modern British Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) Itzin, Catherine, Stages in the Revolution (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980) James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 1994) Johnston, John, The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990) Kerensky, Oleg, The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights Since Osborne and Pinter (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979) King, Kimball, Twenty Modern British Playwrights: A Bibliography, 1956-1976 (New York: Garland, 1977). Larkin, Philip, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 2003) Leach, Robert, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the Making of Modern British Theatre (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005) Lewis, Peter, The National: A Dream Made Concrete (London: Methuen, 1990) MacArthur, Brian, ed., The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (London: Penguin, 1999) McDonald, Jan, What Is A Citizens’ Theatre? (Glasgow: Proceedings of the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 1984) McGrath, John, A Good Night Out (London: Nick Hern Books, 1981). Malik, Sarita, Representing Black Britain (London: Open University, 1998) Miller, Jonathan, Subsequent Performances (London: Faber and Faber, 1986) Morgan, Kenneth O., Britain Since 1945: The People’s Peace, 3rd ed. ( Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001). Nichols, Peter, Blue Murder (London: Methuen 1996) Nichols, Peter, Diaries 1969-1977 (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000). Nichols, Peter, Feeling You’re Behind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984).


Nichols, Peter, Plays: One (London: Methuen, 1991). • Introduction: ‘Casting the Audience’, pp. xi-xiv • A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, pp. 3-112 • The National Health, pp. 113-236 • Forget-me-not Lane, pp. 237-336 • Hearts and Flowers, pp. 337-406 • The Freeway, pp. 407-510 Nichols, Peter, Plays: Two (London: Methuen, 1991). • Chez Nous, pp.1-100 • Privates on Parade, pp. 101-204 • Born in the Gardens, pp. 205-288 • Passion Play, pp. 289-404 • Poppy, pp. 405-499 Orwell, George, ‘England, Your England,’ A Collection of Essays (London: Harcourt, 1981). Orwell, George, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1 An Age Like This, 1920-1940, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968) Parkin, Andrew, File on Nichols (London: Methuen, 1993). Phillips, Mike, and Trevor Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of MultiRacial Britain (London: Harpercollins, 1998). Pinter, Harold, Betrayal, Plays: Four (London: Methuen, 1981) Poole, Stephen, Unspeak (London: Abacus, 2006) Postlewait, Tom, and Bruce A. McConachie, eds., Interpreting the Theatrical Past (Iowa City: U. of Iowa Press, 1989). • Carlson, Marvin, ‘Theatre Audiences and the Reading of Performance.’ Quilley, Denis, Happiness Indeed (London: Oberon, 2004). Rebellato, Dan, 1956 and all That (London: Routledge, 1999). Rees, Roland, Fringe First: Pioneers of Fringe Theatre on Record (London: Oberon, 1992) Rowell, George, and Anthony Jackson, The Repertory Theater Movement: A History of Regional Theatre in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984)


Rusinko, Susan, British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989). Sandbrook, Dominic, Never Had it so Good (London: Little Brown, 2005). Sandbrook, Dominic, White Heat (London: Little Brown, 2006). Saunders, Frances Stonor, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta, 1999) Schmidt, Jeannine, Elemente Populärer Genres in den Dramen von Peter Nichols (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990) [German thesis with concluding ‘summary’ in English]. Shellard, Dominic, British Theatre Since the War (London: Yale University Press, 1999) Shellard, Dominic, Kenneth Tynan: A Life (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale UP, 2003) Shellard, Dominic, and Steve Nicholson, with Miriam Handley, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets...: A History of British Theatre Censorship (London: British Library, 2004) Sher, Anthony, Primo Time (London: Nick Hern Books, 2005) Spurling, Hilary, The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (London: Penguin, 2002) Stoppard, Tom, The Real Thing (London: Faber, 1982) Taylor, Diana, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003) Taylor, John Russell, The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (London: Methuen, 1971) Terzani, Tiziano, A Fortune-Teller Told Me (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997) Thompson, Paul, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd edn, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000) Trussler, Simon, ed. New Theatre Voices of the Seventies (London: Methuen 1981)


Tynan, Kathleen, The Life of Kenneth Tynan (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987) Tynan, Kenneth, The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, ed. John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury, 2001) Tynan, Kenneth, A View of the English Stage, 1944-1965 (London: Methuen, 1984). • ‘The National Theatre: A Speech to the Royal Society of Arts.’ Tynan, Kenneth, ed., Othello, The National Theatre Production (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1966) Wardle, Irving, Theatre Criticism, Theatre Concepts Series (London: Routledge, 1992). Whitelaw, Billie, Billie Whitelaw...Who He? (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995) Wilder, Thornton, The Skin of Our Teeth, Our Town and Other Plays (London: Penguin, 1962) Williams, Kenneth, The Kenneth Williams Diaries, Russel Davies, ed. (London: HarperCollins, 1993) Williams, Raymond, The Raymond Williams Reader, ed. John Higgins (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001). • ‘Film and the Dramatic Tradition,’ pp. 25-41. Woodcock, George, The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (1966, reprinted London: Fourth Estate, 1984) Worthen, W. B., and Peter Holland, eds., Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). • Kruger, Loren, ‘History Plays (in) Britain: Dramas, Nations, and Inventing the Present,’ pp. 151-176,


Periodicals and online articles
Berry, Kevin, ‘Forget Me Not,’ The Stage (5 July 2007), p. 60 Billington, Michael, ‘All Our Yesterdays’, Guardian, 3 August 2006 <> Billington, Michael, ‘Critical Comment’, Theatregoer Magazine, Dec. 2005, p. 46 Billington, Michael, ‘Drama at the National’, Guardian 24 March 2006 <> Callow, Simon, ‘The Wizard From Oz’, Guardian, 2 October 2004 <> Clayton, Thomas, ‘The Texts and Publishing Vicissitudes of Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, Vol. 9 No. 4 (December 1987), pp. 365-383. Demastes, William, ‘Peter Nichols on His Art, Politics and Peers: An Interview,’ Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. 3 No. 1 (1988), pp. 101-11 Featherstone, Simon, ‘The Blackface Atlantic: Interpreting British Minstrelsy’, Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Autumn 1998), pp. 234-250 Foulkes, Richard, ‘The Cure Is the Removal of Guilt': Faith, Fidelity and Fertility in the Plays of Peter Nichols’, Modern Drama, Vol. 29, No. 2 (June 1986), pp. 207-215. Geddes-Brown, Leslie , ‘Subsidized big spenders start West End war, Sunday Times, 10 October 1982 Gussow, Mel, ‘Play Agent’, New Yorker, 23 May 1988 (pp. 34-60), p. 59 Hiley, Jim ‘Liberating Laughter’ [interview with Peter Nichols and Peter Barnes], Plays and Players, March 1978, pp. 14-17, p. 15 Jones, Mervyn, ‘Peter Nichols, the playwright who has had enough’ Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review, No, 148 (1983) Lang, James M., ‘Staging an Image-System: Breaking Down the Self in Peter Nichols's Joe Egg,’ Essays-in-Theatre/Etudes-Theatrales, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Nov. 1993), pp. 63-73. Morley, Sheridan, ‘”Poppy” in the Wars’, Times, 5 October 1982, p. 8


Muir, Hugh, ‘Yard accused as case collapses over a family night out at the theatre that ended in arrest, Guardian, 23 March 2006 Nichols, Peter, ‘A Classy Tale’ (Sight-and-Sound, October 1991), p. 33 Nichols, Peter, ‘A way out of the dark: The West End's current plight’, Times, 13 June 1987 Nichols, Peter, ‘Bernard Manning’, The Independent Magazine, 1 Sep. 1990, p. 54 Nichols, Peter, ‘Diaries: 1989,’ Areté, No. 15 (Autumn 2004), pp. 93-114. Nichols, Peter, ‘Diaries: 2003-04’, Areté, No. 16 (Spring 2005), pp. 45-84. Nichols, Peter, ‘Green Room’, Plays and Players, July 1982, p. 35. Nichols, Peter, ‘In Stitches but not laughing at the Casbah of Cures’, Times, 13 August 1983, p. 8 Nichols, Peter, ‘Tracing Orwell to the Source’, Times, 3 Sep 1983, p. 6 Nightingale, Benedict, ‘The Sour Smell of Success: Peter Nichols is Not about to Surrender to Optimism’, Times, 25 September 2001 <> Norman, Barry, ‘Miss Cleo Sylvestre from Hitchin makes a remarkable new attraction at the National Theatre’, Daily Mail, 17 October 1969, p. 7 Owen, Michael, ‘Nichols: “This is where I quit”’, Evening Standard, 10 September 1982 Packer, George, ‘Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “War on Terror”’?, New Yorker, 18 December 2006, p. 60 Paterson, Anthony Mason, ‘Citizens' Theatre: The Years Between’, Scottish Theatre News, October 1982 Peter, John, ‘No More Opium for the People?’ Drama: The Quarterly Theatre Review, No, 147 (1983). Rosenthal, Daniel, ‘Peter Nichols and Peter Whelan: Playwrights on Parade’, Independent, 15 January 2002


Schleuter, June, ‘Adultery Is Next to Godlessness: Dramatic Juxtaposition in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, Modern Drama, Vol. 24, No. 4, (Dec. 1981) pp. 540-545 Steiner, George, ‘True to Life’, The New Yorker, 29 March 1969, p. 139 Stiles, G. W., ‘Some thoughts on Two Modern English Comedies,’ UNISA English Studies (No. 9, Sep 10-16 1971). Storm, William, ‘Adulteration as Clarity: Dramaturgical Strategy in Peter Nichols's Passion Play’, Modern Drama, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Fall 1994), pp. 437-50. Tynan, Kenneth, ‘The Theatre Abroad: London’, New Yorker, 9 November 1968 (pp. 123-159) Wright, Allen, ‘The Citizens’ Pulls its’ Weight’, Scotsman Week-end Magazine, 20 May 1967, p. 3

Play Reviews
The Hooded Terror Coe, John, ‘The Meaning is Hooded, too’ [Review of The Hooded Terror], Bristol Evening Post (27 October 1964) [facsimile provided by University of Bristol Theatre Collection] A Day in the Death of Joe Egg Bryden, Ronald, ‘Nightmare Comedy’ [Review of Joe Egg], The Observer, 21 May 1967 Foster, Paul H., ‘Citizens’ Play Brings Taboo Into the Open’, Evening Times (Glasgow) 10 May 1967, p. 9 E.M. [Author’s name given as initials] ‘A play worth seeing’, Times, 23 May 1967 Oliver, Cordelia, Review of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Guardian, 11 May 1967, p. 6 Small, Christopher, ‘Savage Flashes of Caricature’, Glasgow Herald, 10 May 1967, p. 8 Wright, Allen, ‘Stimulating Assault on Inhibitions,’ The Scotsman, 10 May 1967, p. 4


The National Health Bryden, Ronald, ‘Having an Extravaganza on the National Health’ [Review of The National Health], Observer, 19 October 1969 Jones, D. A. N., ‘Mercy Killing’ [Review of The National Health], The Listener, 23 October 1969 Morley, Sheridan, ‘On the Theatre’ [Review of The National Health], Tatler December 1969 Wardle, Irving, ‘Organisation versus the individual’ [Review of The National Health], Times, 17 October 1969 Wardle, Irving, ‘Web of Changing Relationships’ [Review of The National Health], The Times 20 January 1971 Young, B. A., ‘The National Health’, The Financial Times, 17 October 1969 The Freeway Cushman, Robert, ‘Running into Roadblocks,’ Observer, 6 Oct 1974 Hillgate, Jason, ‘The National in a Jam’ [Review of The Freeway], What’s On, 11 October 1974 Hobson, Harold, Review of The Freeway, Sunday Times, 6 Oct 1974 Marcus, Frank, Review of The Freeway, Sunday Telegraph, 6 October 1974

Privates on Parade Billington, Michael, ‘Peter Nichols’s new jungle-bashing comedy’, Guardian 23 February 1977 De Jongh, Nicholas, ‘Military camp supplies irresistible comic treat’ [Review of Privates], Evening Standard, 11 December 2001 <> Feingold, Michael, ‘Drags of War’, Village Voice, 5 September 1989 Koenig, Rhoda, ‘The Donmar’s latest all-singing, all-dancing offering is all rouge, ruffles and rifles’, Independent, 12 December 2001 <> Marks, Peter, ‘Stiff Upper Quip: The Empire’s Last Laugh’, Washington Post, 17 September, 2002, p. C1


Marowitz, Charles, ‘Privates on Parade’, Plays and Players, April 1977, p. 22 Spencer, Charles, ‘A Parade of astounding richness’, [Review of Privates on Parade], Daily Telegraph, 12 December 2001 <> Tinker, Jack, ‘Service with a smile... ‘ [Review of Privates], Daily Mail, 23 February 1977 Wardle, Irving, Review of Privates on Parade,Times, 23 February 1977, p. 12 Wardle, Irving, ‘Farcical Little World,’ [Review of Privates on Parade], Times, 9 February 1978, p. 13 Passion Play Amory, Mark, Review of Passion Play Spectator, (London Theatre Record, 4-17 Nov 1982) p. 637 Coveney, Michael, Review of Passion Play,(Financial Times (London Theatre Record, 4-17 Nov 1982) p. 635 Grant, Steve, Review of Passion Play, Time Out, (London Theatre Record, 1-14 Jan 1981), p. 9 Nightingale, Benedict, Review of Passion Play, New Statesman (London Theatre Record 1-14 Jan 1981), p. 8 Poppy Amory, Mark, Rev. of Poppy, Spectator (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-5 Oct 1982), p. 550 Barber, John, Rev. of Poppy, Daily Telegraph (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep5 Oct 1982), p. 552 Billington, Michael, Review of Poppy, Guardian (London Theatre Record 23 September-6 Oct 1982), p. 553 Coveney, Michael, Review of Poppy, Financial Times (London Theatre Record 23 September-6 Oct 1982), p. 552 Elsom, John, Rev. of Poppy, Mail on Sunday (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep6 Oct 1982), p. 554 Gordon, Giles, Review of Poppy, Spectator (London Theatre Record 19 Nov-2 Dec 1983), p. 1028


King, Francis, Review of Poppy, Sunday Telegraph (London Theatre Record 23 September-6 Oct 1982), p. 555 Morley, Sheridan, Review of Poppy, Punch (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-6 Oct 1982), p. 551 Nightingale, Benedict, Review of Poppy, New Statesman (London Theatre Record 23 Sep-6 Oct 1982), p. 555 Radin, Victoria, Rev. of Poppy, Observer (London Theatre Record, 23 Sep-5 Oct 1982), p. 554 Shulman, Milton, ‘Sweetening the bile’, Evening Standard, 6 Oct 1982, p. 27 Taylor, John Russel, Review of Poppy, Drama, No. 147 (1st Quarter 1983), p. 27 Tinker, Jack, Review of Poppy, Daily Mail (London Theatre Record 19 Nov-2 Dec 1983), p. 1027

Unpublished works
Paterson, Anthony Mason, Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, 1957-1969: The Middle Years (Dissertation, accessed from British Library)) Schvey, Henry, ‘The National Health: Danse Macabre’ (Nichols papers Folder 78970B, British Library, London).

Talks and Lectures
Crick, Bernard, ‘Orwell and the Business of Biography’, British Studies Distinguished lecture, University of Texas at Austin. (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, 1996) Nichols, Peter, platform discussion with Michael Grandage, National Theatre, 3 August 2007.

Recorded Performances
The Freeway (radio version) dir. Philip Martin, BBC Radio 4 (1991) (Sound archive C959/26, British Library). The Gorge (TV play) dir. Christopher Morahan, BBC Wednesday Play (4 September 1968) (Sound archive V2294/01, British Library)


The National Health dir. Michael Blakemore, Old Vic (audio). Recorded 13 December 1969 (Sound archive P713/4/5B;NP1903B, British Library) Poppy dir. Terry Hands, Barbican Theatre (video). Recorded 16 November 1982 (Sound archive T5547-T5548BW C1, British Library) Privates on Parade dir. Michael Blakemore, Aldwych Theatre (audio). Recorded 29 March 1977 (Sound archive T1561BW;T1562BW;T1563BW, British Library) Privates on Parade dir. Joy Zinoman, Studio Theatre (video). Recorded 26 October 2002 (Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA), Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Washington, DC)

Conference Proceedings
Eclipse Report: Developing strategies to combat racism in theatre, Nottingham Playhouse, 12 and 13 June 2001, (an Arts Council of England, Midlands Arts Board, Theatrical Management Association and Nottingham Playhouse initiative)

Online Resources
AHRC British Library Theatre Archive Project (TAP) <> • Jamie Andrews, Interview with Peter Nichols (31 August 2005) • Ursula Canton, interview with Michael Frayn, (27 Feb 2004) US State Department <> • Dean Rusk, memo to John F. Kennedy, 24 November 1961 (document 275) Fordham University <> • Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu, letter to to Queen Victoria, 1839 <> • Friedman, Herbert A., ‘Psychological Warfare of the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960’

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