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Obituary: playwright Peter Nichols – ‘Never afraid of tackling the thorniest of issues head-on’

Few writers mined their own biography with such caustic flamboyance and mordantly gleeful disregard for opinion as Peter Nichols, who has died aged 92.

Born in Bristol, he was exposed to the stage by his amateur performer father and a theatrical agent uncle and began acting during his national service, where fellow would-be entertainers included Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.

After training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, he worked in regional reps and was seen in minor roles on television before winning a BBC writing competition with his first screenplay, A Walk on the Grass, in 1959.

Peter Nichols early in his career

Not so much a spokesman for the generation of playwrights who followed the “angry young men”, more an obstinate heckler from within their ranks, Nichols will be best remembered for his first stage play, the bleak, black comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg [1]. Based on his own painful experience of raising a daughter with cerebral palsy who died at the age of 11, it shocked, provoked and dared audiences to respond to the then virtually taboo subject of disability.

Laced with sardonic vaudevillian comedy and featuring characters with no room for manoeuvre except to buttonhole complacent audiences across the footlights, its skewering of embarrassed propriety was first seen at the Glasgow Citizens before transferring to the Comedy Theatre in 1967 and Broadway the following year. It was subsequently filmed with Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in 1970 and again, for television, in 2002 with Eddie Izzard and Prunella Scales.

No less provocative was Privates on Parade [2], his first play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with music by Denis King, in 1977. Based on his wartime experiences with the Combined Services Entertainment unit in the Far East, the young squaddie’s rite of passage story touched on still-nascent debates about gender, sexual politics and the responsibilities of a failing imperial power. It earned Nichols an Olivier award and the second (of four) Evening Standard Awards.

Actors Stephanie Cole, Sam Swainsbury, composer Denis King, producer Michael Grandage, and actors Sarah Woodward and Roger Allam celebrate Peter Nichols (centre) at 90 at the British Library

Nichols was never afraid of tackling the thorniest of issues head-on, as the biting satire of The National Health – a soap parody set in an NHS cancer ward – vividly demonstrated in the National Theatre’s 1969 premiere at the Old Vic Theatre.

His own favourite play, Forget-Me-Not Lane (Greenwich Theatre, 1971), was a Proustian bran-tub of childhood memories that blended not-always-agreeable reminiscences with remembered songs of the period.

1979’s Born in the Gardens at Bristol Old Vic, which Nichols directed, was a moving portrait of a country in self-confident denial about its fading grandeur as a family, led by dotty matriarch Beryl Reid, gathered for a funeral. Acutely ahead of its time, as the new Thatcher government swept into power, its subsequent run at the Globe Theatre showed Nichols at his most forlornly nostalgic and bittersweet.

In stark contrast, Passion Play saw him at his most lacerating. Its depiction of a husband’s self-recrimination for his adultery was splintered through the time-fractured doubling of the emotionally bruised and battered central characters. First staged by the RSC in 1981, it went on to success in the West End and on Broadway and was last seen at the Globe Theatre in 2013.

Poppy, his follow up for the RSC in 1982, saw Nichols the provocateur coming to the fore. With a score by Monty Norman, its combination of music hall, pantomime and politics proved a coruscating critique of the UK’s role in the 19th-century opium wars with China.

Peter Nichols

Despite winning an Olivier award for the show, Nichols had frequent fallings-out with director Terry Hands during rehearsals and disapproved of its scheduling in the cavernous Barbican Theatre – vowing never to write another play. Taking umbrage with the refusal of the National Theatre to stage his plays, he conducted a very public spat with then artistic director Richard Eyre before distancing himself even further from the stage.

Despite his avowal, he continued to write, producing four novels, an autobiography and a body of plays, including a sequel to Passion Play, that remained unproduced.

A smattering of new plays trickled out, most notably A Piece of My Mind, a sour-sweet portrait of a once successful playwright, now aged and embittered, grappling with writer’s block, at the Apollo Theatre in 1987. For a time in the 1990s, he worked with the Bristol-based Show of Strength which produced his self-refracting double-bill Blue Murder in 1995.

Television proved fertile ground for Nichols’ development as a writer with 17 scripts broadcast in the decade following his debut, heralding a move into film with the John Boorman-directed Catch Us if You Can (1965) and four-times Oscar-nominated Georgy Girl (1967).

His major plays were all filmed or televised and there were late adaptations and new dramas for Belgian and Polish screens as well as an episode of Inspector Morse in 1991.

More recently, 2012 saw revivals of Privates on Parade (Gielgud Theatre), Passion Play (Duke of York’s Theatre) and Joe Egg (Liverpool Playhouse), with a new staging of his debut play scheduled to open at the Trafalgar Studios later this month.

He published an autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind, in 1984 and his Diaries 1969-1977 in 2000.

Peter Richard Nichols was born on July 31, 1927 and died on September 7. He is survived by his wife, Thelma, and their children. His younger brother, the jazz trumpeter Geoff Nichols, died in July.

Peter Nichols at 90: ‘Playwriting was my dream. Acting was just a stopgap’ [3]