Tuesday 10 September 2019

Peter Nichols

Sorry to hear of the death of that rather wonderful playwright Peter Nichols. He had reached a good age – 92 – and lived long enough to be, finally, recognised for his achievements, with a CBE, awarded last year. Happily, his work lives on – or at least one of his plays, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which is soon to open in a new production at Trafalgar Studios. That play and the very different Privates on Parade will surely endure, and several of the others are worth a revival any time. And, for the theatre averse (like me), there's also Nichols's gloriously named autobiography, Feeling You're Behind.
Here's how the Preface begins...
'At another man's publication party, someone asked me about my writing plans now that I'd left the theatre. I told him, with some pride, that I'd been commissioned to write my life.
 "So has everyone in this room," he said.
 A glance at the assembled drunks and derelicts was enough to show that I would need better reasons than vanity to sustain me through the writing...'
 Happily there were better reasons (not least the money), and Nichols found that his autobiography was 'a pleasure to write. No vainglorious director rewrote it, no manager talked about Bums on Seats or last trains, no numbskull actors told me it wouldn't stretch them or thanked me for what they called "a vehicle".'
 Feeling You're Behind is a joy to read – especially the chapters about his early years with his family in Bristol, in a part of the city still haunted by the recent presence of young Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant, whose mother was committed to the local asylum, from which she was eventually sprung by her now famous son. Nichols's account of touring in Malaya with Combined Services Entertainment, along with the likes of Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter (the inspiration for Privates on Parade) is great stuff too, much of it – as with a great deal of this playwright's memoir – written in dialogue. The line between Nichols's private life and his plays is so very fine that these dialogues from life and those from the stage are sometimes almost interchangeable. It's an unusually open and frankly spoken autobiography, and often very, very funny. If you see a copy, snap it up.
 And meanwhile RIP Peter Nichols.

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