Actor and playwright Hugh Hastings, who died on November 26, aged 87, wrote one of the British theatre’s most successful post-war comedies, Seagulls Over Sorrento, which opened in 1950 at the Apollo Theatre in London and ran for 1,551 performances.
The play subsequently became staple fare for repertory companies throughout the world and was filmed in 1954 with Gene Kelly in the leading role.
Seagulls Over Sorrento was a British service comedy with an all-male cast. Five naval ratings volunteer for a special posting on a naval experimental base on a remote island off Scapa Flow. The work of the base is so secret that they themselves are not told what it is but they are warned it is highly dangerous. Hastings had spent five years in the Navy himself and put his experiences to good use.
Although a smash hit worldwide, the play was very nearly never produced at all. Hastings sent the script to his agent, Eric Glass, who employed four outside readers and had a fixed rule that if all four gave a play a bad report then he wouldn’t bother to read it at all. All four did. The script was about to be returned to Hastings when Glass’ wife, Blanche, read it, found it compelling and persuaded her husband to market the play.
Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, then London’s most powerful theatrical impresario, turned the script down flat and numerous managements followed likewise. Eventually the play was presented for a single performance at the Comedy Theatre in April 1949 when it was seen by a friend of Beaumont’s who insisted that the impresario present the play, which he did the following year. Comedy actor Ronald Shiner played the lead and he was supported by William Hartnell and relative newcomers Bernard Lee, Nigel Stock, John Gregson and David Langton.
The West End success and later repertory productions made Hastings one of Britain’s most successful and wealthiest playwrights. A Broadway production opened in 1955 with Rod Steiger and Leslie Nielson and the same year a young Harold Pinter appeared in a repertory production at Colchester.
John Osborne recalled in his autobiography that he wrote Look Back In Anger “on scraps of paper while appearing on Morecambe Pier in Seagulls Over Sorrento in 1955”.
Hastings was born in Sydney, Australia, on January 31, 1917 and educated at Fort Street High School, Sydney. He worked variously as a cowhand, a school teacher and a pianist before emigrating to Britain in the late thirties.
As an actor he worked in various repertory companies and during the Second World War served in the Royal Navy. After writing Seagulls Over Sorrento he made his first appearance on the London stage in the revue Sweetest and Lowest at the Ambassadors in 1946.
Throughout the fifties and sixties he toured frequently as an actor and wrote several other plays including Red Dragon (1950), Inner Circle, Touch of the Sun (1952), Pink Elephants (1955) and Blood Orange (1958).
He wrote a less than successful musical version of Seagulls Over Sorrento entitled Scapa! (1962) and in the early seventies teamed up with Dad’s Army actor Bill Pertwee to appear in cabaret.
He also wrote The Green Carnation (1973) and in 1974 became a leading member of the Young Vic Company and toured America and Australia appearing in Othello and Charley’s Aunt. For several years he appeared as one of the back row platoon in Dad’s Army.
At the time of his death Hastings had been working on a series of musical plays about his life which he had intended to give to the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, Scotland.