“…the sight of people running insanely from door to door backstage, doing quick changes as they went …seemed to me funnier than what was going on round the front.”
Michael Frayn, one of the world’s top writers – still alive today – and father of Noises Off, the inspiration behind Sardines’ christening. Perhaps this intellectual author, whose body of work is so vast and varied in all aspects of the written word, may find my well-heeled questions about his seminal play, downright tedious.
However, I needn’t have been so concerned. Taking time out from attending rehearsals of the revival of another of his famous plays, Donkeys’ Years, I found Michael to be a very affable English gent and happy to disclose exactly where the inspiration for his most famous farce came from. Michael Frayn is a fascinating man so, not wishing, like several of his other interviewers, to overly editorialise or punctuate the interview with opinions, I let Michael do the talking which I’m sure, dear reader, you will appreciate.
“The first show I ever wrote was called The Two of Us, which consisted of four short plays – produced originally at the Garrick Theatre with Richard Briars and Lynn Redgrave. The point was that these four plays were performed by just two actors, and the last of the series, was Chinaman, a farce with five characters which the two performers had to play between them. I watched it backstage one night and the sight of people running insanely from door to door backstage, doing quick changes as they went, while the stage manager put an arm on the first door to make it look as if the character as still there, seemed to me funnier than what was going on round the front. So I thought I would write a farce seen from behind. It was a simple ambition to have but turned out to be horribly difficult to do. I made many, many attempts with short plays and full-length plays, but I finally wrote a short version which was about a company performing a pastiche French farce, the whole thing lasted about fifteen to twenty minutes.
“That was produced for a charity evening, and it worked fairly well, but it was all over in one act. You had to take in everything simultaneously. You had to get to know the company and realise they were playing away upstage of you and then take in the backstage antics downstage. It was all too much and I thought what it really needed was a separation into different sections, so first of all you should see the play the company is rehearsing, so that you get to know the play and also because it’s a rehearsal and sometimes the rehearsal gets stopped because things have gone wrong, you would get to know the company. Now in the second stage you will see it from behind and now you already know the play they’re doing upstage, you don’t have to see it so closely. Then the third stage is to see the effect the backstage events are having on the onstage events with everything going wrong.
“Michael Codron read the first short version of the play and asked me if I would like to do a full-length version. When I thought out this scheme I told him ‘alright’, I would take a commission – I think it’s the only time I’ve ever taken a commission for one of my original plays – I said, ‘you realise I’ve got a lot of other things to do first so it’s going to take me a long time before I can deliver this?’ He replied: ‘I entirely understand, I’ll be absolutely patient. I will just wait until you tell me there’s something for me to see.’ A week later he rang and asked, ‘how are you getting on?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry but I won’t be starting for another six months,’ and, again, he said, ‘I absolutely understand.’ A week went by, the phone rang again, Michael impatiently saying, ‘where is it?’ That’s the wonderful thing about Michael Codron, he’s a real enthusiast. I worked with him very closely on the text, he persuaded me to do a lot of rewriting on it and he had a lot of ideas himself. It wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t done that together; he made a huge contribution towards it.
“Implausibly it worked out but I have to say before it was performed for the first time no one knew whether it would. Michael Codron said before we started rehearsing, ‘I will do my very best with this, but whether it’s going to work or not, I haven’t the slightest idea.’ I’ve gone on rewriting and rewriting and rewriting it. When we first produced it at the Lyric Hammersmith, the first two and half acts were totally farce, but then it became very solemn and started to reflect on the nature of life. However, as soon as we saw it in front of an audience it became plain that they did not wish to know about man’s destiny or the state of the world at that point in the evening and there was nothing to do but cut it and rewrite the ending.
“While it was on at the Lyric I went on rewriting the ending until finally Nicky Henson, who was in the cast, was deputed by the company to come and say that the cast refused to learn anymore variants of the play. He played Garry Lejeunne and was absolutely like the Garry character in the show, who protests on behalf of the company. Then, every time we changed the cast or did another production in America, I rewrote the ending. When the play was revived at the National Theatre in 2000 the director, Jeremy Sams, and I worked on it again. I did a lot more rewriting throughout and I, once again, rewrote the ending. If you see a play a million times your fingers itch to get things a bit better.
“Theatre, of course, has also changed. When I wrote the play it was in three acts, when it was perfectly common for a play to have two intervals, but by the time we revived it no audience wanted to leave the auditorium for a second interval, so we had to find some way of putting two of the acts together. I’ve also done the same for Donkey’s Years, which started life as a three-act play and is now a two-act play. It’s sensible, especially with a play like Donkey’s years. If you send the audience out after act one, or what’s now, act one – scene one, they really haven’t got enough to keep them interested. You’ve got to give them a reasonable amount before they go out for the interval.
“However, I think after you’ve done your best with a play – when it’s first produced or when it’s revived – you can’t then control subsequent productions; it’s just not physically possible. Professional companies have done productions of Noises Off over and over again all over the world, and there’s no conceivable way in which I could begin to supervise all those productions, so you really just have to let people get on with it. I think writing plays is a bit like bringing up children. You fuss and fuss and worry about their education but at some point they go off into the world and become independent of you, and that’s that. You can maintain, I hope, a loving relationship but you can’t control what they do any more.”
Photo: Eamonn McCabe.
Sensing that Michael was becoming a little tired of talking about only one aspect of his career, I enquired which genre of writing he favoured most? “I think if you’re writing you have to wait until ideas come into your head, and the ideas will dictate the form. The ideas are for a story told in a particular way and you just have to follow that through. I have occasionally been in two minds about what form something should take. I wrote something called Now You Know which began life as a play. I wrote draft after draft of it and I could not make it work. Finally I thought: ‘Well, the problem is …the story is really about knowing what other people are thinking.’ We needed to know what was going on in the minds of all the people involved. You can’t do that in a play, not directly. People can say ‘I’m thinking this’ and ‘I’m thinking that,’ but that’s an indirect way of coming at it. In a novel it’s very natural, so I then wrote it as a novel and saw it through the eyes of each of the characters in turn. The novel was published, and then I thought: ‘well, now I’ve done that, now I know what all the characters are thinking, I can go back to the original situation’ …which is the one we’re all in, in life, of the characters trying to work out what each other is thinking, from what they say, the expressions on their faces and their behaviour and so on. So I then wrote it as a play and it was – I have to say – only very moderately successful. That’s one of the few times I’ve really been in two minds about how to tell the story.
“I do find writing things difficult, if I could find something easy to do in life I would switch to it immediately. It’s very hard work, writing, and it takes me a long time. There are some writers who amously write plays in three days, Noel Coward was one, alleged to have written Hay Fever in three days. Alan Ayckbourn is another. I can’t imagine how they do it …it takes me a very, very long time. If you want to be successful as a writer the thing to do is to write the same thing over and over again in very slightly different forms until people get used to it. You only need to change the story slightly, change the characters slightly, but just keep doing the same thing because, after all, people like to know what they’re going to get. If you go to a supermarket and buy a packet of cornflakes, when you get home you hope it’s going to contain cornflakes and not boot polish or rat poison.
“It’s the same thing with a play, if you can establish your trademark or your brand, people know what they’re going to get under that name. It’s not a good idea to do what I seem to have done in life, which is to write all sorts of things.” I, for one, am very glad Michael chose to ‘write all sorts of things’ …although the theatrical side to his work is the one Sardines is obviously most interested in! I’ll end this article with how the interview ended. Just a tantalising little taste of what is soon to come from the pen of a great English playwright.
Q – What projects are you working on at the moment?
A – I’ve got a new play which is just finished.
Q – Can you tell me what it’s about?
A – (Laughs) I’m going to have to wait for the producers to announce all that I’m afraid.
Tessa Peake-Jones may be forever as, Raquel, who resides in Nelson Mandela House, Peckham with market trader, Del Boy, alongside his brother Rodney and Uncle Albert. The reason is pretty straight forward; Only Fools and Horses was, quite simply, one of the UK’s most popular comedies of all time. Penned by John Sullivan, the show peaked at a whopping 24.35 million viewers (1996 – when Del and Rodney really do become millionaires) – viewing figures not to ever be repeated in today’s multi-media age.
As if one slice of British comedy history wasn’t enough, here in 2020, Tessa is about to open in Bang Bang!, a new farce adapted by Fawlty Towers creator, John Cleese. Based on Monsieur Chasse! by 19th Century French comedy playwright, Georges Feydeau, Sardines caught up with Tessa as the company was deep in rehearsals ahead of the opening night (in Exeter) of its UK tour…
Farces are complex at the best of times, but Tessa Peake-Jones does her best to explain the plot of Bang Bang! to me: “It’s about a couple who live in Paris,” she begins, before revealing the basic set-up. “They’ve been married quite a while and you could say that the excitement of their marriage has… hmmm, how shall we put it… ‘eased’. Unbeknown to Leontine (my character) her husband, Duchotel [played by Tony Gardner], keeps making the excuse that he’s going hunting, but is really having an affair. The story he tells his wife is just to cover his ground and make an excuse.”
So far so good… A married couple. An affair. A typical farce methinks. “By the way this why it is now called Bang Bang!,” explains Tessa, referring to the hunting element. “He keeps going off with his gun and his cartridges and his picnic hamper. In fact the play starts with him preparing to go on one of these ‘weekends away’ as the curtain rises.”
The actress then proves how much of the script she’s learned by delving deeper: “Now Duchotel has a friend who is a doctor [Doctor Moricet – played by Richard Earle], who just happens to be in love with my character, Leontine. So they are having, what is best described as – a flirtation. Moricet arrives right at the start, even before the husband has left so, immediately there is a situation where one person should have already gone and the other two can’t discuss anything in front of them… and it goes from there really.”
She continues, “Moricet lays a trap when he says to Leontine, ‘If you found out your husband was having an affair, would you do the same?’ I say that I would, purely because I know he would surely never do such a thing, to which Moricet then sets about trying to convince her of her husband’s unfaithful agenda.”
In true farcical fashion, nothing is left out. “There are lots of doors, balconies, mistaken identities, men in their underpants, the police even get involved… all the usual things,” Tessa enjoys telling me, before explaining a little more of the basic set-up. “As it’s set in period, over a hundred years ago, the women are dressed in corsets, petticoats and what’s called the bum-roll, on the back to lift the skirt up and make your waist look smaller.”
I’m sure Mr Cleese was in his element, having arguably written and starred in what may well be the only successfully filmed farce in television history, about a hotel in Torquay. Tessa explains, “In the final act we see all of them coming back to the home from act one and trying to cover their tracks and pick their way out of the trap – because by now of course they are all implicated. It’s great fun to watch as they each dig a deeper and deeper hole for themselves.”
The new UK touring production also stars Wendi Peters, who plays… “I don’t want say a Madame,” says Tessa, trying to think of a more appropriate description of her fellow cast member’s character. “…more of a ‘concierge’ – that’s the polite way of putting it. Ha ha!”
When the public get to see the new show, it’s bound to be slick and pacey. However, for this interview we are chatting to Tessa Peake-Jones in the middle of rehearsals; a scenario no doubt familiar with directors, casts and societies all over the country. “At the moment, in rehearsals, it’s a bit like walking through mud because whenever you take on a scene – especially comedy – you must take it very seriously in order to get it right. Sometimes you think, ‘This is never going to work!’ But gradually, with lots of practice, it improves and gets better and better. As a cast we all hope the audiences will all have an enjoyable evening in the theatre.”
In explaining his love of the genre, John Cleese says that laughing at a farce really makes you feel that “life is worth living!” Sardines was even named after a farce… Michael Frayn’s Noises Off! I ask Tessa if this is possibly the perfect way to describe the experience? “Yes. That’s definitely the experience of watching farce,” she agrees. “We really want to get it right for that reason, especially in the current political climate and the way everyone is feeling right now. It would be really nice for people to come and sit down for a rollicking good evening and then go out feeling a little bit better. If we achieve that then we would have done our job properly. I think that’s necessary with the world, at the moment, feeling not quite as secure as it used to.”
John Cleese also believes heavily in cast, director and writer all collaborating heavily to get the comedy exactly right, which is how Fawlty Towers became so well-received. Presumably this attitude has worked its way down to the show’s director, Daniel Buckroyd, and cast. “Absolutely! You don’t have a proper theatre piece or a play unless it’s done as a team,” Tessa agrees once more. “We started with a read-through and are now all up on our feet completely working as a team.”
Teamwork or no teamwork, there is something vulnerable about the actress’s lack of experience. “…and I’ve never done a farce! I’m finding it incredibly difficult,” she discloses, levelling the field with many people reading this. “I’ve done lots of comedy, but that’s very different. It’s probably speed more than anything and it feels a bit like an express train which is difficult to stay on. The pace and energy required for farce is different to any other kind of comedy. We are going to know we’ve been in a show after this, and I’m losing so much weight! I’m so thrilled. I normally do the 5:2 Diet, but I don’t need it at the moment!”
Apart from the obvious (Fools and Horses), Tessa Peake-Jones has appeared in many dramatic roles on TV including the ITV detective drama, Grantchester. So where does comedy and theatre sit in her list of priorities? “Well, I haven’t done comedy on stage for quite a long time, and I do love touring, especially as my kids have now grown up and left home,” she discloses. “I said to my agent I wanted to do a comedy, and then this came along and I thought, ‘Wow!’ To be honest I probably like a mix of drama and comedy as well as theatre and television. A good year for me is getting to do a bit of everything. At the moment I’m really enjoying being back on the comedy circuit, even though at this point in rehearsals there’s quite a lot of self-doubt still due to the amount of work we still have to get through.”
Tessa relates about that bit of theatre magic you simply cannot get from a drama: “When I did Shirley Valentine a few years ago – which was the first theatre I’d done for ten years – during the very first preview, when she has to cook egg and chips, which is horrendously difficult, props-wise, I can still remember hearing the first laugh. And as they were laughing, a tiny bit in my head thought, ‘This must be what someone like Billy Connolly, doing stand-up, must feel every time he does a show. It’s like nothing else; it’s so extra-ordinary how it lifts you up. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t do another one-woman show; it’s so frightening. I was talking about teamwork earlier, so imagine having nobody else there with you!”
Only Fools and Horses was famously filmed in front of a live audience but, presumably, that’s still a big departure from live theatre. “At the time I went into Fools and Horses I’d never done a studio show before,” is Tessa’s honest response. “I’d done comedy on stage and had filmed serious drama for TV but, with Fools and Horses, from the minute I started to the very last day of filming was a real learning curve for me. In fact I never stopped learning.”
As the actress reminisces, she goes on to speak about her fellow cast members and the experience of making that Peckham sit-com: “I think there are probably no better experts than David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst to teach you about performing comedy in front of an audience. They were amazing. It’s an extraordinary thing to perform for a camera while, at the same time, having a packed studio audience. And I mean packed; the show was so popular it was packed to the gills. At one point we had to move to a bigger studio just to fit the audience in. It was an amazing experience and I learned such a lot.”
Tessa even confesses to being an Only Fools… newbie: “Believe it or not I’d not watched the programme before I went into it, and everyone had said to me how funny it was.” It didn’t take her long to realise the calibre of who she was working with. “When we were rehearsing I couldn’t understand why everybody was so quiet and serious. But they would spend hours working on just a little bit of business, very seriously and down to the tiniest little detail. It got to the point where you would think, ‘How is this going to be funny when there’s nothing happening?’ But then you’d see them put that into practice in front of an audience and it was amazing. I’ve never heard laughter like it.”
Who can forget the episode when Del Boy met Raquel at Waterloo Station for the very first time? I bet Tessa has never walked through the station in the same way since. “Do you know, when I walk through the station today I do stand under the clock sometimes. That was my first ever day filming on Fools and Horses. The first thing on the schedule was meeting David and him holding those flowers. There is so much nostalgia for me; everybody had said to me, ‘You’re not going to know what’s hit you once you’re in the show!’ …and I couldn’t understand why. But 24 million viewers later you realise why it changed things.”
It’s easy to use hindsight and current social attitudes to pinpoint how the move for gender equality has gained pace. Back in the 1980s John Sullivan was arguably quite ahead of the game by bringing strong female roles into what had been up to that point a male-dominated sit-com. “The show had been running for about ten years before Raquel and Cassandra came into it,” remembers Tessa. “I think what happened was, by that time John [Sullivan] felt they had almost explored enough of the male ‘buddying’ storyline – and thought what it might be like if he gave the brothers female counterparts to bring out another side of their characters. In that way he was indeed ahead of the game. But he was very good in that way; he never sat back and let it run itself. He always gave himself a challenge. Every Christmas Special, there’d be something different for him to try out, so he would continuously test the actors and his writing.”
Initially the part of Raquel was only written in as a one-off character, but the benefits of giving Del Boy an ‘other half’ soon became obvious to all concerned. “Both myself and Gwyneth Strong, who played Cassandra, were very good characters to try and keep the boys on the straight and narrow, as well as advance the storyline.”
As if by magic, Tessa neatly brings us out of our brief Only Fools… dream and back on to the production in question… “We were also brought into Fools and Horses to act as foils for the comedy. Hopefully in Bang Bang! I can get stuck into the heart of the action a little more. Well hopefully! I’ll let you know in a few weeks’ time when we’ve opened. Again it’s all teamwork, but it is nice to be fully involved rather than just playing the ‘straight man’.”
Despite Tessa’s relative inexperience in performing the organised chaos that is farce, I still ask her for any gems of advice she might have up her sleeve. Oozing humility, she doesn’t disappoint: “As a non-expert I can only speak from the environment I’ve been learning in so far. But I already know that you’ve got to add lots of energy and commitment to the physical aspect of the performance. Clarity is another big part. The words are important because you’re continuously interlacing so many plotlines, you must know what you need to communicate and get
across at any given point.”
Adapted by John Cleese from a play by Georges Feydeau – touring the UK from 6 Feb – 16 May.
More at: www.bangbangtour.co.uk
John Cleese. Photo: Courtesy of Bang Bang!
Let’s talk farce…
John Cleese: I’ve always loved farce. I also love that farce is constructed, when its good, in an incredibly clever way – a really great farce, like the French farces of 1900. And I like the theatre because in farce, there’s a lot going on and you can’t pick it up with just one camera. If you try to shoot a wide shot for television its too wide, but if you’re sitting in an audience you can see the whole stage and you can see him and her at the same time, and see them interact – without some editor choosing what you’re going to see. Farce in the theatre is, I think, the thing that makes me happiest.
What makes a good farce?
John Cleese: I think the key elements of a farce are the structure of the plot and if I was to give advice to young people who are interested in farce, what I would say is get the story right – before you start writing the dialogue. When Connie and I were writing Fawlty Towers, we didn’t write any lines of dialogue for about two and a half weeks. We just sat trying to ﬁgure out what made the plot work. A lot of writers almost come up with a straight plot and then they have to write lots of a jokes, because the situation is not very funny – but if you can write funny situations then writing the dialogue is easy because you just have to act out that situation.
Discuss your creative process…
John Cleese: Well I lecture on creativity and I’m absolutely convinced that everything that’s really original comes from the unconscious – you don’t have control. This means that you have to understand how the creative process works, which is that you have to get in a state of mind where you can keep focus on what you’re doing – without it being a furrow-brow, studying-late-into-the-night intensity. And why the people who commission scripts often get it wrong so much, is that they don’t give writers enough time. So they are immediately saying ‘I want something Wednesday week,’ and the reality is if you want something Wednesday week I don’t have time to think of anything original.
Why should people come TO see Bang Bang!?
John Cleese: Well you know what they say about buying property don’t you, there’s three things… location, location, location. And the only reason, the only reason, anyone should come to Bang Bang! is to laugh, to laugh and to laugh.
Can you sum up the show in one sentence?
John Cleese: No! Ha, ha, ha!