Playwright

I completed my education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and London University. Its outstanding gift to me was the encounter with the great Elizabethan scholar Muriel St. Clare Byrne. The times I spent with her as my tutor were times of an unfolding revelation in which I discovered for the first time the inter-relatedness of societal and family forces, of the illusion of political power and the realities of monetary wealth, and above all the significance of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. In her vision they were neither mere poets nor chroniclers of their time, but men trying to make sense of their existence within the tumult of events that men misleadingly called history.

With the advent of the dark Fifties, at the age of twenty-two, I wrote my first play, ‘A Masque of Summer’. It was presented at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow. It was a time in which I received a most generous patronage, for I was supported by the famous literary wives of two of Scotland’s most renowned writers, James Bridie and Eric Linklater, and was encouraged and guided in the practicalities of the theatre by my stage director, Peter Potter. He was to emerge as one of the leading directors of the post-War period, his career climaxing with highly praised productions at Covent Garden, including Wagner’s Ring and Verdi’s ‘Otello’ with Placido Domingo. The critical if not public success of this first play led to ‘The Face of Love’. Peter Potter, still with the active support of Bridie’s widow, the wise Rona Mavor, and the beautiful Marjorie Linklater, arranged for its presentation at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was the tremendous success of this play that took me back to London as a professional writer. Peter Luke of BBC TV Drama signed me as a contract writer and adapter, launching my career with the TV presentation of my play. In the cast were Mary Morris, Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance.

The R.A.D.A. was about to use its Vanburgh Theatre as a showcase for its graduating students. The retired principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes, asked the new principal, John Fernald, if he would open the theatre with the play of his one-time student. Its presentation was to launch the career of Albert Finney. Noel Coward praised the play – ‘Needs harsh cutting!’ – which he generously did. The Oliviers commissioned me to do an English version of a play on Marie Antoinette, Louis and Fersen. This connection was later to plunge me into a passionate friendship with Vivien Leigh during the turbulent collapse of her marriage. Princess Bibesco, the declared friend of Marcel Proust, of whom she seemed to remember nothing, asked me to adapt her bizarre play on Stalin’s mother. Peter Ustinov proposed me for an Arts Council grant. The head of the Council told him that my work would not be understood by the man in the street, to which Peter acidly retorted –

‘You mean Jermyn Street – that’s the only street you know!’

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