Peter Barnes was one of Britain’s most significant and enduring playwrights, having had success in the West End over five decades. Among his biggest successes was the 1968 play The Ruling Class, a darkly comic satire of the British class system later adapted for film. Peter O’Toole gained an Academy Award nomination for his performance as an aristocratic fantasist who inherits an earldom.
Born in London on January 10, 1931, Barnes was educated at Stroud Grammar School in Gloucestershire. He served in the RAF and worked as a civil servant for the London County Council before becoming a story editor for a film company in London. He became a playwright in 1963 with The Time of the Barracudas, followed by Sclerosis, a one act play produced in London in 1965. When The Ruling Class was first produced at Nottingham in 1968 it created an uproar.
Its acerbic woven plot openly criticised England’s social hierarchy, specifically the foibles and greed of the upper – the ruling – class.
Relatively unknown until this play appeared, Barnes gained an international reputation as one of the moving forces in British theatre after the production moved to London. Barnes described The Ruling Class as “a baroque comedy” and he also wrote the script for the 1972 film, directed by Peter Medak.
His screenplay of Elizabeth von Armin’s novel Enchanted April recieved an Oscar nomination in 1992. Later stage plays included Leonardo’s Last Supper (1969), The Devil is an Ass (1973) and The Bewitched (RSC 1974). Red Noses, a play about a group of itinerant clowns during the Black Death, won an Olivier Award for best play in 1985.
Barnes was a prolific writer for television, adapting and directing a production of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1994), starring Alan Bates and Alex Jennings. He also adapted many classic stories for American television, including Alice in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol. One of his last completed screenplays is due to be shown on Granada TV.
Based on his own life, the two part drama, Babies, tells the story of a man who became the father of triplets in later life. Barnes’ wife Christie, gave birth to his daughter Leela when he was 69, and the arrival of triplets Nathaniel, Zachary and Abigail followed soon after. Another recent screenplay by Barnes was Sea Change, an adptation of a Noel Coward play, which will be produced by the actress Kristin Scott Thomas. A biography of the playwright, The Theatre of Peter Barnes by Brian Woolland, is to be published next month.
Barnes died on July 1, 2004 aged 73. His agent Jodi Shields said that he died in hospital “surrounded by those he loved” after becoming ill at his home in Marble Arch. “As a person he was witty and clever and funny,” she said. “He was really a political playwright. He wrote about social injustices and was a very straight forward social commentator.” Barnes is survived by his wife and children.