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‘Fuck the critics’ – remembering the pithy advice of fearsome agent Peggy Ramsay

Peggy Ramsay Peggy Ramsay. Photo: Fatimah Namdar
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Legendary writers’ agent Peggy Ramsay was known for offering forthright guidance to those she represented. A collection of her correspondence is a testament to her high ideals and unwavering support of artists, as Nick Smurthwaite discovers

For hot young playwrights in the 1960s and 1970s, the most sought-after agent was Peggy Ramsay. In her prime, her client list included Joe Orton, Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Peter Nichols, Stephen Poliakoff and Caryl Churchill.

Ramsay wasn’t so much an agent as a guardian angel, who nurtured and protected her precious young talents, as well as lambasting them every so often when they failed to live up to her impossibly high standards. She has been likened to a real-life Jean Brodie – an idealist who took no prisoners.

Though she died in 1991, the legend lives on. Ramsay inspired the 1999 play Peggy for You by former client Alan Plater, an acclaimed biography by Colin Chambers and Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of her in the 2007 film about Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears.

Now comes a collection of her letters, Peggy to Her Playwrights, edited by Chambers, who is rapidly becoming the go-to person for all you need to know about Ramsay.

Ramsay was a prodigious letter writer all her life but rather than publishing an all-encompassing door-stop of a book, Chambers has been highly selective in this 200-page volume. He concentrates on the Peggy-knows-best letters she habitually fired off to her clients and anyone else she felt needed the benefit of her wisdom.

“I didn’t think anyone would want to wade through reams of stuff about contracts or particular productions,” says Chambers, a former literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I knew I’d have to discard a lot of material. The interest for me was what she had to say about art and life.”

Colin Chambers’ new collection of her letters to the writers she represented

When the idea of a book of letters was originally mooted by the actor Simon Callow, a close friend of Ramsay’s and a trustee of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, Chambers feared it might appear to be a sentimental project in the wake of his biography.

“But actually there is some cracking stuff in her correspondence,” Chambers says. “She may have been of a different era, but what she was saying about writing and the theatre and art in general still has leverage today.”

In his introduction to the book, Callow writes: “The voice that is to be heard in these letters, though distinctly of its period, has a remarkable, almost timeless, authority, appealing as it does to eternal verities, not as the basis of rules or prescriptions, but as the ultimate source of living art.”

Callow was clearly in awe of her high ideals and absolute belief in the primacy of the artist. He adds: “[For Peggy] a play was never just a play, an author was not just an author: both had the possibility of transcending themselves, and must be given every chance to do so.”

Despite Callow’s view, born no doubt of love and respect for Ramsay’s memory, there is an almost sanctimonious tone to much of her correspondence.

“You shouldn’t allow yourself any of the indulgences that success and money have bought,” she wrote to Robert Bolt in 1964, by which time he had written A Man for All Seasons and Lawrence of Arabia, and was to become the highest-paid screenwriter in the world. “I am certain this is essential if you are to write a play which is to strike us bang in the middle.”

She was entreating Bolt to keep faith with the theatre, having been lured away by cinema’s riches, by suggesting he and his family should “sacrifice all luxuries and all treats”.

Her tendency to let her evangelism spill over into her clients’ private lives could sometimes be inappropriate to the point of offensiveness. When Peter Nichols informed her he was taking his wife Thelma to the premiere of his play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in New York, she told him it would be like “taking a ham sandwich to a banquet”.

Equally, she had the capability of shoring up her writers when times – and reviews – were bad. After her client David Hare’s anti-capitalist thriller Knuckle received terrible reviews at the Royal Court in 1974, she wrote: “Fuck the critics. They’ve all compromised or sold out. They are failures and along comes a shining child of 26 and tells them what’s wrong with them. They aren’t big enough to take the blows. Are you really going to allow (this) grey shabby lot break your spirit and your confidence?”

Failure, Ramsay believed, was as interesting and useful an experience for the writer as success. As an artist, you learnt by your failures and atrophied by your successes.

Chambers feels her intensity paid dividends and made her the most influential agent of her time. “Artists like to think what they do is important, and if you’ve got someone telling you it’s important, that spurs you on. I think the letters kept her writers on their toes, made them question what they were doing and why they were doing it.”

Peggy to Her Playwrights, edited by Colin Chambers, is published by Oberon Books.

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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