Playwright Peter Nichols is enduring the final twinges of an agonising bout of gout —- his first and he sincerely hopes his last — as he settles in the airy sitting room of his Oxford penthouse flat to discuss a gratifying upturn in his professional fortunes.
The torments of two days earlier (“I have never known anything like it. I was shouting with pain”) have mercifully abated as he stretches on a sofa and prepares to talk — for nearly two hours, as it turns out. Prepares to listen, too, since an interview with Peter should more properly be called a conversation, an exchange of views.
His capacity for bringing out the ideas of his interlocutor were early noted by the distinguished director Michael Blakemore, who collaborated with Nichols on four of his biggest stage successes, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health, Forget-Me-Not Lane and Privates on Parade.
In his memoir Arguments With England Blakemore writes: “[He] was a wonderful listener, looking at you with an absorbed stare as you embarked on some opinion or indiscretion.”
He notes, too, how Nichols “had a need, a hunger, to find what was comic in any given situation. You could sense him nosing around in the conversation, sniffing it out”.
This characteristic is to be expected, perhaps, in a writer who has said “I can only write dialogue when I hear people’s voices in my mind” and “my writing comes from memory and imitation”.
In Privates on Parade, the high-profile revival of which supplies the principal reason for the interview, the memories are those of a young man of 20 — Nichols himself — who was playing his part in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit, out in Malaya, in the period following the Second World War.
The play, with much music (by Denis King) was a big hit for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1977. The bravura portrayal by Dennis Quilley of drag queen Terri Dennis, who gets to impersonate Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn, won him the Society of West End Theatres’ award for Best Comedy Performance.
In the revival which next week launches a five-play season by the Michael Grandage Company at the Noël Coward Theatre, the cross-dresser is being played by one of the country’s highest-rated stage stars, Simon Russell Beale.
“He must think it’s time to appear with bananas on his head,” muses Peter, for Carmen Miranda is another of Terri’s turns.
The four plays that follow in a season lasting into February 2014 feature a roll-call of other big-name stars, including Judi Dench, Jude Law, Daniel Radcliffe, Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and Ben Whishaw.
There are more than 200 £10 tickets available for each performance, with more than 100,000 over the season. (Go to MichaelGrandageCompany.com) Peter is naturally delighted that his work comes first in this prestigious programme but admits that he is “mystified why [Grandage] has chosen it”. A possible explanation (possible joke, too?) suddenly strikes him. “He has directed it before [in a revival at the Donmar Warehouse in 2001 starring Roger Allam], so probably he won’t have so much work to do with it.”
Peter began work on Privates on Parade with a number of hit plays already behind him. These included his first stage success, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, based on his and wife Thelma’s true life experiences of bringing up a severely handicapped daughter, who died aged 11. The couple had three further children and now have seven grandchildren.
Still Nichols’s best-known work, Joe Egg has often been revived, most notably with Eddie Izzard on Broadway where, says Peter, the comic’s predilection for lengthy improvisation had to be sharply reined in.
Privates on Parade was originally conceived as a play with just one song, the opening chorus. Peter says: “But I thought ‘why stop at that?’. In Denis, who had been one of the singing group The King Brothers, I had a writer who was able to provide excellent pastiche music to go with my lyrics.”
Peter stresses that the play was not designed to provide an accurate picture of his life in Malaya but is a fantasy based upon it built on a company that famously included the future stars Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.
They were known then as ‘Ken’ and ‘Stan’, as can be seen in a programme reproduced in Peter’s 1984 autobiography Feeling You’re Behind. (The writer has an appetite for slightly risqué puns, this one actually contributed by his wife.) The film director John Schlesinger was out there too — as a juggler.
“What is seen on stage, though, is better than anything we did. It’s better written. It’s better acted.
Privates on Parade has been subject to various revisions down the years. Peter remains much happier with it than he was with the 1982 film version. This featured John Cleese in the role of a pompous officer whose silly walks and the rest, says Peter, overshadowed the action.
The West End opening of Privates on Parade is followed in May by a revival of Nichols’s 1981 black comedy Passion Play at the Duke of York’s Theatre with Zoë Wanamaker in the lead role. Then Joe Egg is being presented at the Liverpool Playhouse and the Rose Theatre, Kingston.
For all his pleasure in these revivals, Peter would find a source of even greater joy in an airing of plays of his that have yet to be seen. Three of them have been written in the six years he and Thelma have lived in Oxford (in a quiet location by the Oxford Canal that both much enjoy). “A play does not really exist until it is seen on stage,” he says.
One deals with the shocking discovery by his fellow Bristolian Cary Grant that the mother he presumed dead had instead been committed to a mental institution by his father.
Another concerns Peter’s period as a clerk in Calcutta on National Service that immediately preceded his Malayan adventures. In an episode that ought, surely, to appeal to any prospective producer this features an appearance by her Majesty the Queen about the business of converting the hero — a character based on the writer — to communism.
As for theatre in general, Peter confesses to a lack of interest in it these days. “I have stopped going to the theatre. The fun I used to get from it has gone. I don’t know why this is. When you reach a certain stage of life you have seen an awful lot and don’t find anything new enough, or unexpected enough — which is what I have always tried to provide with my own stuff.”
He naturally adds that it would hardly be in his own interest for others to take the same view...