Peter Nichols tells Terry Grimley why Privates On Parade is still one of his favourite achievements.
Do two new productions of Peter Nichols’ plays constitute a revival? With Born in the Gardens recently out on tour and Privates on Parade opening in Birmingham on Thursday, it does feels a bit like one.
But that probably reflects the fact that the author of landmark plays like A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and The National Health has been less in the spotlight in recent years.
“It just happens that in the last few years they have been blowing the dust off,” he tells me from his home on the outskirts of Oxford. “This is a good year because Born in the Gardens and Privates have both been produced. At Christmas RADA are doing Poppy, which might be interesting because it’s quite suitable for a drama school production.”
Now 81, and having moved home from London last year, Nichols feels his work has been under-produced for most of his working life. But he doesn’t want to labour the point, recognising that to be seen as a whinger is a no-win scenario.
However, he draws attention to one extraordinary fact. Despite giving the National Theatre one of its biggest hits in its early days at the Old Vic with The National Health, and despite A Day in the Death of Joe Egg being included in the National’s list of 100 top plays of the century, he has never had a play performed on any of its three stages on the South Bank.
“When Joe Egg was voted one of the top 100 plays of the century, the funny thing is that Trevor Nunn, who was then running the theatre, said ‘What a play, what a play...’ and I stood there, waiting for him to say he was going to put it on. The next time it appeared it was with Clive Owen, who was superb. He joined a list that included Joe Melia, Albert Finney and Jim Dale.”
There was also Alan Bates, who co-starred with Janet Suzman in the 1971 film version. Nichols’ first stage play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was a painful autobiographical piece reflecting the struggle he and his wife faced in coping with their severely handicapped daughter. The subject is characteristically treated with grim humour, and comedy co-existing with awfulness became a Nichols trademark.
In Born in the Gardens breezy, almost sitcom-ish humour is undercut by the central character’s blithe racism, in Privates on Parade high camp proves no defence when real bullets start flying, and in Poppy the 19th century Opium Wars are given a musical pantomime treatment.
The awkwardness of the work came to be seen as indistinguishable from the awkwardness of the man – which, according to Nichols, is a myth: “I’ve brought it on myself ,” he admits. “I used to complain vociferously, but really I’m a pussycat.”
Nevertheless, he has demonstrated his even-handedness by falling out with both of the big national companies.
Having premiered Privates on Parade to great success in 1977, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Poppy in 1982, at a time when it was fixated on musicals.
Though hardly a hit to compare with Les Miserables, it was also not the biggest flop of this era at the RSC (who can forget – or perhaps more to the point, remember – Carrie?) but Nichols was deeply unhappy with the production and fell out with then artistic director Terry Hands: “I’m not on the RSC’s role of honour,” he says.
But Privates on Parade, filmed in 1982 with Denis Quilley reprising his larger-than-life performance as the extremely camp acting captain Terri Dennis, has a happier history and Nichols is delighted with the way it has been revived in the co-production by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Birmingham Rep.
“Privates is one of my favourites and I think it’s come through extremely well in this producton. I saw it in Leeds and the difference is that the actors are all playing instruments, where the original show had a five-piece band.
“It won the Ivor Novello Award for best musical the year it came out, but I still describe it as a play with songs rather than a musical because the songs are subsidiary. Denis King wrote the music and over the years we have refined it and added more music.”
The show, which tells the story of an army song-and-dance troupe incongruously on duty in the Malayan jungle, is based on Nichols’ own experience of National Service between 1945 and 1948, when he served in just such a unit with comrades including Kenneth Williams, Stanley Baxter and the future film director John Schlesinger.
“It’s a kind of summary of what happened to me during my National Service,” he explains. “I started writing it intending it to have one opening number, because there was always a rousing opening chorus in these shows. But as I got working on it I thought it’s silly to stop at one song because we have to engage musicians anyway. So there are parodies of Noel Coward, Carmen Miranda and Vera Lynn.”
Although it began with autobiography, Nichols admits that the show bears little actual resemblance to his own experiences.
“I usually start from a personal experience or something it amuses me to remember, something I might be fond of or something that was awful, that I recognise as having the stuff of theatre about it.
“For example, in the case of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg it wasn’t a nice experience to have a handicapped child but the way I dealt with it was very theatrical. I didn’t know where I was going with it.
“There’s a nice metaphor that EM Forster used to describe writing: its like being up on a big hill in a fog and you can’t see a foot in front of you, then the mist begins to clear and it eventually becomes a very clear day and you’re standing there looking out.
“Some of my plays stay as they are. Born in the Gardens didn’t change much, but Privates changed a hell of a lot. It acquired a completely different ending.
“I’m very pleased with the show. The strange thing is it’s so good-natured. This is what can happen in the theatre, it can surprise you, the elements coming together.”
And you never know how an audience will react to what you’ve written, as Nichols demonstrates with the story of the 1969 premiere of The National Health.
“It was my second play in London, and Laurence Olivier hated it. He was running the National Theatre at the time but Kenneth Tynan [the National’s literary manager] forced him to do it. He was always unhappy about it.
“We had 25 speaking parts and I thought Michael Blakemore did the most wonderful job of directing. We were quite cock-a-hoop about it.
“Then came the dress rehearsal and Olivier, who had been filming, came and sat in the auditorium like a cloud of thunder. The cast went to pieces, because of course they were all doing an audition for next season.
“I went home to my wife and said ‘We must go to the far west, to Cornwall, tomorrow and stay away until it’s all over’. I remember Michael Blakemore saying ‘Come in tomorrow night – Larry doesn’t know anything about plays, he doesn’t know one play from another’. So I did, and it began with six hospital beds on stage, with actors in the beds, which meant they had to be on stage 40 minutes before the play started.
“As the time for the play approached there was a noise off of bedpans and the audience laughed, then a dawn chorus of birds and the audience laughed again. By the time the first lines were spoken we were a success, and it just went through the roof.”
* Privates on Parade is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from Thursday until Nov 8 (Box office: 0121 236 4455).