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Birds of a Feather creator Laurence Marks on the writers’ group that was his stepping stone to success

Laurence Marks (left) with co-writer Maurice Gran
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Birds of a Feather co-creator Laurence Marks owes his career to a writers’ group that continues to provide a supportive space to try out work 70 years after it was created. Now co-president, he reveals how it kick-started his writing partnership

One evening in December 1973, I went to an event that changed my life. It was one of the weekly meetings of the Player Playwrights, a mutually supportive group of actors and writers. At that stage, Player Playwrights had been going for a quarter of a century. The idea was startlingly simple. Aspiring playwrights brought their work to be tried out. Professional actors who wanted to keep their hand in, and have the chance to create characters no other actor had tried before, gave the work a rehearsed reading.

The writer learned from seeing how professional actors worked with their characters, and from the discussion afterwards, which was always knowledgeable and sometimes astringent.

After a few months, I plucked up the courage to try out my very first attempt at dramatic comedy writing. The sound of the Player Playwrights audience laughing at lines I had written gave me a buzz unlike any other I had ever experienced. It was better than sex. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to write television comedy.

Maurice Gran, an old friend of mine, came with me one night, and he, too, found he could write comedy. Neither of us had written plays before, although we were both enthusiastic fans of radio and television comedy. The only writing we had ever done was in my job as a journalist, and Maurice selling the odd short story.

One evening, the then secretary of Player Playwrights, a wise old playwright called Don West, suggested we try writing something together. It sounded like a good idea. Our comedy heroes included the writing partnerships of Galton and Simpson, who wrote Hancock and Steptoe and Son, Clement and La Frenais, creators of The Likely Lads and Porridge, and Barry Took and Marty Feldman, whose shows included Round the Horne and The Army Game.

The result was a half-hour dramatic monologue called The World’s Not Ready for You Yet, Sylvester. It worked. The Player Playwrights audience on a Monday evening liked it, and laughed at it. Maurice and I reckoned that if we could make 30 people laugh, why not 15 million television viewers?

That really was the start of everything we have done together: Birds of a Feather, The New Statesman, Shine on Harvey Moon, the whole 12 yards.

The writers and stars of The New Statesman, which featured Rik Mayall (third from right) as cold-hearted Tory MP Alan B'Stard
The writers and stars of The New Statesman, which featured Rik Mayall (third from right) as cold-hearted Tory MP Alan B’Stard

We’re now proud to be the joint presidents of Player Playwrights. We continue to try out all our new work there first, and, just like any novice writer there, we can see how to make it better when we watch its talented actors interpreting the characters we have written, and listen to its writers tearing into our work as only writers do.

Even today, when we have a raft of new drama projects, a couple of comedies in development, when we’re working on two new musicals and there’s a play waiting to go into the West End… even today, Player Playwrights gets to see the first draft.

We hand out the prizes when it runs competitions. And some evenings, instead of hearing a play, attendees hear us talk about the craft of writing plays. Sometimes it has other speakers too. The group meets each Monday evening during term time, mostly to hear a play, but this coming term it will also hear talks by Steve Harper, literary manager of Theatre503; the radio playwright Martin Jameson; and Danny Robins, whose new play End of the Pier has just finished a successful run at the Park Theatre.

End of the Pier review at Park Theatre, London – ‘thought-provoking comedy’

A lot of the plays performed don’t see the light of day, of course – though their authors generally treasure the experience. But several of them do get through. Mark Jagasia’s brilliant take on national newspaper journalism, Clarion, was first tried out at one of Player Playwrights’ Monday evenings – a fact that Jagasia acknowledged in the programme, where he thanks the then secretary, Peter Thompson.

The television scriptwriter Peter Vincent, who has worked on The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen and much more, is still a pivotal figure in Player Playwrights, and takes his new work there first. There is a regular trickle of the event’s work on to the London Fringe. This autumn, four Player Playwrights writers – Francis Beckett, Martin McNamara, Kevin Mandry and Gemma Mills McGrath – will have a play in a London fringe theatre.

Player Playwrights came out of the 1947-48 playwriting course at the City Literary Institute. The aspiring writers who attended the course wanted to stay together and continue to hear each other’s opinion of their work, and arranged to continue to meet weekly. Over the years, they were joined by many more.

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran together in Hollywood in 1985

The first ever guest speaker at Player Playwrights was Joy Harrington, then a senior BBC drama producer. Key early figures included Howard Purdie, a Scottish playwright who won several national playwriting competitions, and Densil Barr, a successful radio playwright.

But its central purpose remains what it has been since 1948: to provide a space for writers to try out their new work in front of a friendly but critical audience. I have sat through more plays there than I care to remember. Some were brilliant and some dire.

All scripts are evaluated by members before being performed, though all new plays are mentored by one of the experienced writers, and one that isn’t ready for a rehearsed reading doesn’t get one – the writer gets some notes on how to improve it, and is welcome to bring back a rewrite. The parts are cast in advance and actors rehearse with the writer and a guest director.

It is one of the few writing groups where a playwright can get a full stage reading of his or her work, by professional actors in front of a knowledgeable and appreciative audience. Today it meets in the upper floor of the North London Tavern in Kilburn every Monday, and starts its autumn programme of events on Monday, September 17.

Further information is available at: playerplaywrights.co.uk

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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