Giles Woodforde talks to a writer whose 1980s play about Oxford graduates has been revived

It’s 1981, and riots are growing in intensity right outside Viv’s house in Brixton. Inside, however, Viv’s housemates take little notice.

They’re all freshly graduated from Oxford University, and have their own, largely self-centred concerns. Take Baz, for instance, who has become a professional Frisbee team manager. A game he is trying to organise is falling apart: “I’d have joined British Leyland if I’d wanted this hassle,” he shouts as he slams down the phone. Thus does Doug Lucie’s play Hard Feelings reveal that it began life in 1980s Oxford. “One of my best friends was a full-time union official at Cowley,” Doug explains when we meet up. “So I learned quite a lot about the goings-on up there. I went on a few demonstrations with him as well — I remember a joint shop stewards’ march in London, and afterwards we went for a drink with some of his friends from Coventry. One of them asked what I did for a living, and when I told him I was a playwright he said, ‘my son does that’. “It turned out that his son was Ron Hutchinson [now an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter], and — I say rather grandly — I discovered him. He sent half of his very first play to an Oxford student group that I was involved with. The play was called Says I, Says He, and I thought it was wonderful. We asked for the rest of it, put it on, and he got noticed.”

Doug has now lived in Oxford for 40 years. What, I ask, brought him here in the first place?

“I arrived at Worcester College in 1973 to read English, but other things gradually took over: I started writing plays while I was a student. After about a month, I found myself embroiled in student politics and took part in an occupation of the Examination Schools — there was a campaign for a central students’ union. I didn’t know anything about it, I just got dragged in.

“From there I went into student theatre, and then on to a backstage job at the Playhouse.” Doug comes from Chessington, Surrey, which is hardly renowned for being a hotbed of confrontational politics, student or otherwise. “Oxford is a shock to anybody who doesn’t know it — a lovely shock, mind you,” he says. “I was born and brought up on a brand-new council estate: most of the people living there had been bombed out during the war, as was the case with my family.

“My dad was a milkman. Chessington is right on the edge of the Green Belt, and it was a great place to grow up.

“The headteacher at my primary school — I’m still in touch with him now — hothoused three of us for the 11-plus, and I got into Kingston Grammar School, and from there into Oxford.” Almost exactly 30 years after its premiere at the Oxford Playhouse, Hard Feelings has just completed a revival run in London.

The play offers a still-sharp picture of Oxford graduates as gilded youths, who can walk into jobs without really trying. “Which they did in those days!” Doug exclaims. “I loosely based my characters in the play on real people. When I came here with my grammar school background, the biggest shock was meeting real public schoolboys — Etonians, Harrovians, and so on. I generally got on fine with them: they took the mick out of me, and I did the same to them.

“But when I became involved politically, the lines became drawn. By the early eighties, when I wrote Hard Feelings, a new hedonism had set in. Meanwhile there were riots up and down the country.” It’s often struck me that there are few more precarious ways of earning a crust than being a playwright. One minute every trendy director wants a slice of your work, the next they’ve switched to someone new. “Let’s just say it’s a challenging lifestyle!” Doug laughs wryly. “For a start, you spend weeks, months, years sometimes, on your own trying to turn the world around you into drama. It isn’t an entirely sane thing to do. “Then when something gets picked up, you’re suddenly surrounded by people working on this thing you’ve created. It’s like a acquiring a big family. That can last a few days in radio, or a few weeks in the theatre. Then, boom, it stops again, and you never know when the next opportunity is going to come. “I’ve been regarded as one of the older generation. But as we’ve seen lately with the great Peter Nichols, who lives just round the corner here in Summertown, you can have a revival of fortunes. “We first met a couple of years ago — we both had plays done as part of the RSC 50th anniversary — and it was wonderful talking to him, because I thought, ‘there’s a guy whose reputation is far bigger than mine, and he can’t get anyone interested in his work’. Then, suddenly, Privates on Parade and now Passion Play have been revived in the West End. I’m kind of hoping that Hard Feelings will do that for me.”

Meanwhile, Doug is working on a brand new play for Plymouth Theatre Royal with Mike Bradwell, who directed the original production of Hard Feelings to great acclaim.

Not only working but still learning, Doug admits. “I think Mike is one of the best directors of new work this country has ever had. I’ve watched him work magic with actors and scripts. We had a script meeting a couple of weeks ago, and I came away fizzing. I wrote the play last year, and thought, ‘this will do’.

“But I realised that I’d become very complacent, when Mike gently showed me where I was going wrong. He went through the script line by line, and said, ‘this bit doesn’t feel right’ or ‘what’s that all about?’. I’ve now got reams and reams of notes, and I’m really looking forward to rewriting the play.”