It was a delight, spending an evening in the company of the witty and astute Peter Nichols at The British Library. One of Britain’s greatest playwrights he was celebrating having reached his ninetieth birthday in July by looking back over his illustrious career with the help of some talented friends. Not least of which was Michael Grandage, whose discreet and affectionate questioning of the writer with whom he has worked closely as a director enhanced the evening. Urbane and successful on the stage they recollected a conversation when Peter Nichols had said as a connecting thread, ‘We both come from trade.’
Peter Nichols writing career didn’t take off until he was forty. Or fifty years ago today as he put it last Friday. When, thanks to a single review of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg published in the Scottish Guardian, the play and his talents came to the notice of the London theatrical establishment and then Broadway. Providing him with a reputation and sufficient monetary success to buy a house in London and to sustain his family of four children by writing.
It was moving to find out that this success came from deep sadness in his family life. He is a writer who writes about events from life and he had written the play that changed his life about his wholly handicapped first daughter, Abigail, who lived for eleven years, seven in hospital. It’s a comedy.
Being a writer Mr Nichols took us through a swift glossary of terms to describe Abigail’s disability in compliance with the ever changing demands of political correctness. He said at first for his family, Abigail had been described as Spastic, an adjective later regarded as a term of abuse, but which merely originated from the spasms that came with her condition.
Mr Nichols also enlightened us about the application in 1967 of the British censorship laws, requiring a license to be obtained from the Lord Chamberlain to perform any play, officials demanding such changes as they thought necessary to protect decency in public life. Mr Nichols had brought along for our benefit their line by line demands for alterations to A Day in the Death. They were ridiculous, describing a different way of being so far removed from the way theatre and media operate in contemporary Britain, they were safely hilarious.
Then there was an extract acted from the play. A sanctimonious neighbour advocating those who are NPA ( ‘Not Physically Attractive’) should be killed. Powerful indeed.
This was the first of the readings and performances that interspersed Mr Nichols’ witty and shrewd telling of his writing life, concentrating on some of his 32 plays for the stage although he has written eleven films and for television too. Inspector Morse, most people know about he says, the theatre being enjoyed deeply, by only a few.
One of his plays, A Piece of my Mind (1987) played in the West End for two months. It was about a playwright envious of another, who had leapfrogged him in success. Mr Nichols said with hindsight this would have been better going into a small venue such as the Donmar, with an audience likely to understand this particular unhappiness. Different venues suiting different work. He refused to name the playwright who had been his inspiration though one existed. Stephanie Cole and Roger Allam performed a reading from this play, tart and very funny.
Among Mr Nichols’ other work is the book and lyrics for the accoladed and constantly revived Privates on Parade, which originally opened at the Aldwych Theatre with the RSC in 1977. After enlightening anecdotes about his own experiences in the troops in the Second World War with Kenneth More and John Schlesinger as young men, Roger Allam ( who won an Olivier Award for his role) and Denis King, who wrote the music performed, ‘ To whomsoever it may concern at the BBC…’ It was fabulous.
As indeed were all the readings, performed by Stephanie Cole, Sam Swainsbury, Sarah Woodward, by Roger Allam again and even Peter Nichols himself, playing his elderly father, Frank.
This evening was a special insight into our theatrical history with Peter Nichols the shining star. He is no longer writing plays but he writes his diaries every day as he has done since he was young. He describes them as being like scales for a pianist. They number 40 volumes now.
Peter Nichols’ archive of diaries, manuscripts and scripts has been acquired by The British Library. Anyone may access them on request, what a fabulous resource this is for all of us.
Peter Nichols talks to one of the key directors of his work, Michael Grandage, and leading actors Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, Sarah Woodward and Sam Swainsbury read extracts from the plays. Illustrated by material from his fascinating archive, housed at the British Library.
In 1967, Nichols shot to fame with his theatrical debut, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Following this, he wrote two award-winning plays, The National Health and Passion Play, both winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Play. Privates on Parade also won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy, an Ivor Novello Award for Best Musical and a Society of West End Theatre Award for Comedy of the Year. His television plays include Hearts and Flowers and Inspector Morse. Recent revivals of his work have attracted actors such as Roger Allam, Eddie Izzard, Clive Owen and Stephanie Cole. In 2012, Privates on Parade opened the Michael Grandage Company season of work at the Noel Coward Theatre. The production starred Simon Russell Beale and was directed by Grandage, who had previously directed a highly successful production of Passion Play at the Donmar Warehouse which subsequently transferred to the West End. In the 1960s, Peter also wrote the screenplays of such films as Georgy Girl and Having A Wild Weekend (For the Dave Clark Five) before going on to adapt some of his stage plays for both the small and big-screen including A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health and Privates on Parade. Further playwriting credits include Forget-Me-Not Lane, The Freeway, Chez Nous, Born In The Gardens, Passion Play, Poppy, Blue Murder (Later Fig-Leaves), So Long Life, A Piece Of My Mind and Lingua Franca.
Peter Nichols at 90
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London, NW1 2DB
Friday 22nd September 2017