Peter Nichols at 90: ‘Playwriting was my dream. Acting was just a stopgap’
As one of the UK’s most underrated living playwrights celebrates his 90th birthday, Giverny Masso charts his long and successful career writing for stage and screen
While Peter Nichols may not have achieved the household-name status that some of his contemporaries enjoyed, he still had a long and successful career writing for the stage and screen. His 32 stage plays, 25 television plays, 11 films and seven novels include the Olivier award-winning shows Privates on Parade – about a mostly gay military concert group – and comedy musical play Poppy. He even wrote an episode of Inspector Morse.
His breakthrough play was A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1967 – which was later turned into a film – and many of his productions would go on to run in the West End, including The National Health, Passion Play and Chez Nous.
Nichols has also written two memoirs, a book on journalism, personal diaries since the age of 18 and a selection of poems – which include The Rime of the Ancient Dramatist; about him accosting the then-director of the National Theatre Richard Eyre for neglecting his work.
To celebrate turning 90 this year, Nichols sat down with director Michael Grandage, one of the key directors of his work, to discuss his career. The conversation took place at the British Library in London, where many of his writings are housed.
Born in Bristol in 1927, Nichols was educated at the city’s grammar school before training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. After completing national service in India, Malaya and Hong Kong, he became an actor in repertory theatre and television for five years and then a teacher in London schools.
Nichols says he never took himself seriously as an actor: “I only became an actor because there was no way to become a playwright then. Now you have courses and universities and there are ways in.
“I always wanted to be a playwright. I was good enough to just about manage as an actor. I remember in particular in Scotland, I played Count Dracula in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, and the headline the next day was ‘Count Dracula no longer so fearsome’.”
He would make his name in writing, and the play that made him famous was Joe Egg. “I don’t know about famous,” he told Grandage. “When people say: ‘What do you do?’, and I say I’m a playwright, they’d say: ‘Oh, would I know anything you’ve written?’ And I’d start off with Inspector Morse, but they’d never heard of the plays.”
Joe Egg was based on Nichols’ own experience of raising a disabled daughter, who passed away aged 11. The play premiered at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, directed by Michael Blakemore, before transferring to the West End.
“My wife and I sat in the circle, and we heard these women behind saying: ‘Oh Zena Walker, she’s good, I’ve seen her’; they were reading the programme. ‘Who’s Peter Nichols, I don’t know him?’, ‘Oh, he’s got two cats, bless his heart’,” Nichols recalled of opening night.
“Then one of them asked, ‘Where are you going this year on holiday?’ Then the play started and it’s been described since as a little moment of theatrical history. That a taboo was broken and something changed a bit. Certainly it was very exciting to me and to several others in the audience. Then the curtain came down and everybody sat back and the other lady said: ‘We’re going to Cyprus this year’.”
Nichols attributes the success of the play to regional criticism, after it was covered in the Scottish Guardian.
He says: “I only tell you this because it shows how critical things can be between making it work, and making it not work. And it’s changed our lives, that play.”
In 1967, it was necessary to get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain in order to put on a play – unthinkable now. After submitting the work, the Lord Chamberlain’s office came back with a list of prohibitions, including that the child should not be seen on stage to listen to her father and mother talking about going to bed together.
Nichols says: “We said, ‘She’s an actress, she’ll be at least 16’, because then you couldn’t go on stage below that. ‘Also, she’ll have been in rehearsal, she’s read the play and she knows that she’s an adult actress.’ They said: ‘Well the audience doesn’t know that, it mustn’t be seen to corrupt this child’.”
Another prominent work by Nichols was Poppy, a musical comedy set during the first opium war, which was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican in London in 1982. Despite the production going on to win the Olivier award for best new musical, Nichols says he was unhappy with it.
“I wanted it to be small and, in a way, chatty, but the RSC did it and made it into a grand musical, spent an enormous amount of money, and it was very lavish and the play got lost in the midst of this,” he says. “I lost my temper and did the unforgivable thing, which was to talk to the press saying I was dissatisfied. One should never do this – it’s treacherous to the people who put your play on.”
Grandage asked about the strong gay themes that run throughout Nichols’ work, at a time before homosexuality was fully decriminalised. Nichols says: “I moved in circles of showbusiness where it was acceptable, within the particular community that we lived in.”
He recalls one man working with him on a show was arrested for homosexual activity: “I went along to his trial, and he said to me: ‘I don’t want my mother to know, please can you pass my letters on?’, which I did. And it was my taster of what happened if you fell foul of this disgusting law.”
Nichols says that he has stopped playwriting now, but he continues to write his diary for an hour each day; about 40 volumes of which are housed in the British Library.
“At the beginning, I said you’ll go on writing plays until you drop, but I don’t because I discovered you need an extra spurt of energy from somewhere, an extra force, and that seems to have gone now,” Nichols says.
He adds: “It’s funny that when you’ve been [writing] for a long time, as I have, you actually get to enjoy it, and you think ‘I could be somewhere else, I could be swanning around, I could be in Bermuda, I could be anywhere, enjoying myself in a traditional way’, but actually, I enjoy myself when I sit at the desk.”
Grandage called working with Nichols one of the “great highlights of my career” and said he was someone who believed in the theatre, knew what it was capable of, and “constantly pushes the boundaries”.
Grandage added: “I once asked someone, when we went past on a train, ‘what do you know about Leicester?’ They replied: ‘Cheese, Joe Orton and Richard III in a car park’. If we stopped at Bristol Temple Meads, we would definitely be naming you.”
Peter Nichols’ life’s work is stored at the British Library in London
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