Peter Nichols – playwright
Born July 31, 1927; died September 7, 2019
Peter Nichols, who has died aged 92, was a master of serious fun in his plays, which combined auto-biographical material with a relish for popular theatrical forms. Nowhere was this more evident than in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, his 1967 hit which premiered at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, and focused on a young couple’s travails in raising their disabled daughter. As they tend to Joe’s needs, both the couple individually and their marriage survive through a series of comedy routines that barely disguise the cracks in their relationship.
Directed by Michael Blakemore, and with comedian Joe Melia and Zena Walker playing the couple, the play’s mixture of music hall style addresses to the audience and at times heart-breaking seriousness was genuinely taboo-busting, and had to circumnavigate the Lord Chamberlain’s office, which still had the power to censor anything deemed ill-fitting for a respectable stage.
Nichols’ debut stage play wasn’t out to shock, however, but was drawn from his own experience raising his disabled daughter, Abigail, who spent much of her short life in hospital before passing away aged eleven. While Nichols was keen to play down his play’s real life roots lest he be accused of emotional blackmail, as Blakemore related, after watching a run of the play’s opening act for the first time, he turned to Nichols to see tears streaming down his face, the floodgates of his own experience finally burst.
As Nichols’ debut as a stage writer other than a rehearsed reading of an early work, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’s mix of lacerating one-liners and inherent theatricality made quite an impact, and was picked up by Albert Finney. The show transferred first to the West End, then to Broadway, where it ran for 154 performances, with Finney taking over the part of Jo’s father himself.
The play was filmed in 1972 by Peter Medak, with Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in the lead roles, and has been revived numerous times since. Joe Egg came home to the Citizens in 2011 in a production by Phillip Breen that starred Miles Jupp and Miriam Margolyes. Nichols gave his full approval, and, in a guest blog for the Citz’s website, wrote how ‘It’s marvellous to have it done at its birthplace, and we’ll be there at its rebirth.’
Peter Richard Nichols was born in Bristol to Richard, a sales rep, and Violet, who gave piano lessons at home. He was introduced to theatre by his father, a keen am-dram actor, who took him along to sees shows at the behest of and his talent-seeking theatrical agent uncle. He attended Bristol Grammar school prior to National Service, first as a clerk in Calcutta, then in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit in Singapore that saw him perform for the troops alongside Kenneth Williams, Stanley Baxter and John Schlesinger. This became much of the inspiration for Privates on Parade, Nichols’ 1977 play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which won an Olivier award for best new comedy before being adapted into a film in 1982 starring John Cleese, with Blakemore directing.
Once demobbed, Nichols trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Nichols taught English as a foreign language, and, as an actor, played Dracula at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. A review of the show declared that ‘Count Dracula no longer fearsome. There were no gasps, no shrieks last night.’ In his Citizens blog, Nichols wrote of the premiere of Joe Egg, ‘there were a few gasps, but far more laughs, which was our intention….I always suggest to directors fresh to the work that they should think Noel Coward rather than Strindberg.’
Nichols won a BBC writing competition for his first screenplay, A Walk on the Grass, in 1959, and for the next five years a dozen of his scripts were screened. His work moved onto the big-screen in 1965 care of director John Boorman, who drafted him in to write the screenplay for Catch Us If You Can, a vehicle for British beat group, The Dave Clark Five, in which a runaway model embarks on a series of adventures with the group. A year later, Nichols received a writing credit for Georgy Girl, adapted by Margaret Forster from her novel, in which Lynn Redgrave played a misfit cast adrift in swinging London.
For the stage, Joe Egg was followed by The National Health, a hospital-set black comedy originally written for television, but which was premiered by the National Theatre, its mix of arch farce and social satire proving a commercial success. The presence of Jim dale in Jack Gold’s 1973 film version gave it the feel of a Carry On film.
Other plays included Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971), Chez Nous (1974), Privates on Parade (1977), Passion Play (1982), which looked unflinchingly at the effects of adultery, Poppy (1982), which used a pantomime framework to look at the opium trade, and which won an Olivier for best new musical.
As he became isolated from the changing of the guard within mainstream British theatre institutions, Nichols turned to prose. An autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind, appeared in 1984, and a typically acerbic book of diaries in 2000. Several novels remain unpublished.
Three later plays were produced by the Bristol-based Show of Strength Theatre Company, while Lingua Franca was seen at the Finborough in 2010. While other works remain unproduced, latterly there were several revivals of his best known works. Prior to its Citizens revival, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg as produced on the West End with Clive Owen and Victoria Hamilton, with Eddie Izzard starring in its Broadway run. A new production with Toby Stephens, Claire Skinner and Patricia Hodge is set to open in London later this month, and should reveal Nichols once more as a writer who saw the funny side in the most painful of truths.
Nichols is survived by his wife, Thelma Reed, his son Dan, and daughters Louise and Catherine.
The Herald, September 14th 2019