Interview: Peter Gill (2/2)

23rd April 2008

 

INTERVIEW: PETER GILL (2/2)

The veteran director and playwright speaks some more to Aleks Sierz about his own production of his 1976 play, Small Change (currently revived at the Donmar), and about his early career at the Royal Court in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Joan Littlewood’s Stratford East was the place to go to see things – there was never a dud show there ever.

Transcript

INTERVIEW: PETER GILL

The veteran director and playwright speaks to Aleks Sierz about his own production of his 1976 play, Small Change (currently revived at the Donmar), and about his early career at the Royal Court in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Recording Date: 23 April 2008

Transcribed by Keyboard Freedom. © theatreVOICE.

Part One:

Aleks Sierz: Hello and welcome to Theatre Voice. I’m Aleks Sierz and I’m at the Donmar Warehouse in London today with the playwright and director Peter Gill, whose own production of his 1976 classic, Small Change, is currently playing at this venue. Although his work has been described as one of the best kept secrets of British theatre, Gill has had a long and distinguished career as an actor, playwright and director. His numerous credits as a director include the introduction of the plays of DH Lawrence to modern theatre audiences, which he did at the Royal Court in the 1960s, and he’s also been the founding director of the Riverside Studios and of the National Theatre Studio. As well as Small Change his plays include The Sleeper’s Den, Cardiff East and The York Realist.

Welcome to Theatre Voice. Could we start off by talking about Small Change, could you tell us about why you originally wrote the play?

Peter Gill: I don’t know really, to be honest with you. But it’s such a long time ago now, I really don’t know, I mean I just must have been concerned with some of the subject matter I suppose. I used to write just based on things, on verbal ideas that I’d committed to paper and then extend them, and anything would come into being from that.

Aleks Sierz: So you were somebody who kept a lot of notebooks and things?

Peter Gill: Yes, it must have been from some, probably some series of ideas that wouldn’t go away, and I think that’s what usually happens with me.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, and with most writers there’s a kind of nagging thing that’s constantly pulling you back. As an experienced director, do you prefer to direct your own work?

Peter Gill: Well, what happened was, when I was a young actor, was that I was writing and I got more and more interested in the whole business of the theatre. So if you’re a young actor in a new production you get interested in how the director’s working, so I became very interested in directing as a separate thing. And I got a job at the [Royal] Court Theatre when I was about twenty-five as an assistant director, while George Devine was still running it, Anthony Page ran some seasons. And I hadn’t done any productions at university because I hadn’t been to university, so I hadn’t actually done any productions. Most people had done, you know, productions in the university way. So I remember being a bit anxious about that, and a friend of mine called Desmond O’Donovan, who was a wonderful director, directed a production on a Sunday night of my first play, The Sleeper’s Den. So I had a play done before I directed a play, and I didn’t direct that. But once I started directing and writing, the two seemed to go together. I didn’t write in order to direct, my plays are not, I don’t think, the kind of plays a director would write. I don’t think they’re a bit like, for example, I was thinking this the other day, Roger Planchon, who was a wonderful director wrote plays that are rather a, they’re rather about having a mise en scene. So they must have been always two separate activities, I take it, going back in my own head. So the answer is, is that because I was learning to direct I directed the plays.

Aleks Sierz: And when you see somebody else direct them, what do you think?

Peter Gill: Well, I’m always rather pleased because that then shows you a writing competence that you might have thought you didn’t have, you know, so I’ve always led people direct them when they wanted to and I never, I don’t think I even went to run-throughs when they did them. They did a season of my shows at Sheffield [Crucible] which I, the directors were all young directors and I thought they don’t want me hanging about, so I just let them get on with it.

Aleks Sierz: But presumably they asked you about the work as well?

Peter Gill: They did initially and then, you know, and then I thought oh I wouldn’t like somebody coming in, so I didn’t. I saw all the productions but I didn’t take part, you know, much.

Aleks Sierz: And what was that, about three years ago?

Peter Gill: Yes.

Aleks Sierz: And how did this particular revival of Small Change come about, did Michael Grandage ask you?

Peter Gill: He did ask me, yes.

Aleks Sierz: And of course he was at Sheffield when that season was on.

Peter Gill: He put the season on at Sheffield.

Aleks Sierz: And did he ask you to do this particular play or did you choose to?

Peter Gill: He asked me to do this play.

Aleks Sierz: OK. And so this is what, the second time you’ve directed it or…?

Peter Gill: I directed the first production, and then that production was revived first at Riverside Studios and then later at the National Theatre, and this is a new production.

Aleks Sierz: Did you change the text at all?

Peter Gill: I thought of doing it, I mean, you know, what’s in a play is in it really. I trimmed a tiny, little bit of it, that’s all, I just made some of the last scene a little, tiny bit easier, and one other place I think I altered a sentence.

Aleks Sierz: But what were you tempted to do, sort of revisit and get stuck in again or…?

Peter Gill: Well, you can’t, you know, plays, unless you’re going to completely rework it for some reason, a play is very much what it’s been arrived at. That’s what I think is a problem with this sort of, the truism surrounding the whole notion of drama dramaturgy really, not that I don’t believe in it at all but that’s the kind of belief that plays exist in order to be work-shopped or to get right. Well if that had happened we’d still be working on Measure for Measure, wouldn’t we, we wouldn’t have got Hamlet at all.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, exactly.

Peter Gill: And these people were trying to get it improved. So I’m not a great believer in it as a rule, not as a thing that you have to do.

Aleks Sierz: Also one of the problems surely as well is that it encourages playwrights to write unfinished or uncompleted work.

Peter Gill: I think that is happening with the younger playwrights and I think in certain places that they go to they, if they’re junior, they know their plays will be altered. So it’s a bit like the film world and then it gets to be, it becomes, as they say, a self-fulfilling prophecy that scripts will need altering, and so it goes on. And then you have group writing and then you have the American method. But it’s not that I have any objection to dramaturgy, in fact friends of mine I think gave me a nice, small change when I read it and showed it to them. And that’s not the point, it’s that it’s the sort of, it won’t of itself make a good play. It might make a poor play a little bit more palatable, I don’t think it’s sensible and I think there are lots of young writers who just know they might, and whether they know it or not I think they’re writing drafts all the time.

Aleks Sierz: Let’s summarise Small Change. It’s set in a working class community in Cardiff after the war and it’s about two mothers and two sons, and so we have Mrs Harte and Gerard and Mrs Driscoll and Vincent. Obviously you chose to concentrate on those two couples, do you remember why?

Peter Gill: I really don’t, I’m afraid, it just came out like that I think. It must have been something to do with my own early understanding of the particular community because it’s a similar community that I come from. It’s these two neighbours, because they obviously live next door to each other apart from anything else.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, because they share a wall and everything, yes.

Peter Gill: And they have the kids, which would be common and they went to the school together. And it makes, I can see now why because it all makes a dramatic structure.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: Once you put the two, the pairs next to each other, the singles next to each other. The thing I noticed this time, which I don’t think I noticed when I did it before, is Gerard and Mrs Driscoll never meet. So that must mean something in the past.

Aleks Sierz: Oh yes. In fact when he comes over to her house, I think she’s already dead, isn’t she?

Peter Gill: He never goes there and he doesn’t want his mother to go in there.

Aleks Sierz: No, because his mum… yes, that’s right, yes. OK, yes. Also the thing I noticed is that I had a very firm impression of Mr Driscoll, especially that wonderful line, and I’ve forgotten exactly how it goes, but there’s a dark presence, a big, dark presence in her life, but with Mr Harte a lot less so.

Peter Gill: There’s two, well the other boy asks about him because he worked with him, and right at the end of the play there’s a description of a photograph which is clearly him.

Aleks Sierz: Oh yes. And also I think Gerard says, or Vincent says something about being carried, that Gerard used to be carried on his shoulder.

Peter Gill: Shoulder, that’s right. So he’s present all the time but he doesn’t have the same sort of slightly, you know, bullying presence I suppose. There is quite a vivid description of him.

Aleks Sierz: More than one critic has mentioned DH Lawrence, especially Sons and Lovers: do you think that that did feed into your imagination?

Peter Gill: I don’t know. I suppose it did, I mean I was very influenced by reading when I was young The White Peacock followed by Sons and Lovers, so, well I suppose anyone, anybody writing about a sensitive boy and his mother would be, that would be obvious they’d come in. It’s a very difficult thing to discuss really, isn’t it? There are different relationships, and of course I am still very fond of his, Lawrence’s first play called A Collier’s Friday Night, which I think is an amazing play. I don’t think people quite understand how, what a revolutionary text it is, myself, but that’s quite a different temperature, the relationships are quite different.

Aleks Sierz: And with this play obviously you only have four actors and in this production it’s a bare stage with only four chairs. Is that the best way, do you think, of doing it?

Peter Gill: Well I’ve seen productions where people tried a composite set but you can’t, there are too many locations, you can’t identify them physically. And I think when I wrote it I must have partly decided not to write an overtly realistic play, there’s only two props in the whole play, so there must have been something going on that I thought it would be done in this, this sort of more simple way, relying entirely on the actors taking this over. And because I obviously wanted it to shift about, I must have thought, I can’t remember thinking it but I must have thought that it would be done in some simple way.

Aleks Sierz: Also, would you agree that it’s a kind of memory play?

Peter Gill: Well, I was thinking of that, I don’t know whether it is really because all the memories are in the present, they’re not about somebody remembering and then it coming in.

Aleks Sierz: Oh I see.

Peter Gill: Because it’s not only the boy who has them; every single character is continually having insights of some kind, describing either to another person, in the case in Mrs Harte they seem always to be to an absent Gerard, to Gerard they’re either, there to who, we don’t know, and so the other characters. Only Mrs Harte is always talking to Gerard, but they’re talking to some kind of audience in their head. It’s about, and it’s not just him, so it’s four people’s, part of it is four people’s soliloquising I suppose really.

Aleks Sierz: Yes. Or the way we talk to people when we explain parts of our lives that went on.

Peter Gill: So though I don’t object to it, it’s not a kind of, it has… to say that is to give it the wrong inactive feel, I think.

Aleks Sierz: And why did you, well you probably don’t remember why you choose that particular form because your other plays aren’t exactly like that at all, are they?

Peter Gill: They all have a little bit of it, I think, or they tend to. Even The York Realist, which is a more overtly, you know, kind of homage play to a certain kind of one-set realistic, a small number of characters, it has dislocated time.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: And a play called Kick for Touch is all in that sort of, it jumps about even more than this in a way.

Aleks Sierz: In this production you have some really good actors of course – Matt Ryan, Sue Johnston, Luke Evans and Lindsey Coulson. In rehearsals did they have any particular difficulty with the play because it’s…?

Peter Gill: Well the Cardiff accent is quite a different accent…

Aleks Sierz: Yes, I noticed that.

Peter Gill: … to the rest of South Wales and the two boys are real – one is a Valleys boy, the Romney Valley, and one is from Gwarffynnon, so their accents are much more I suppose melodic than a Cardiff accent and the two women, one comes from London and one comes from Lancashire. So we had to work on that to a certain extent, so the Cardiff accent has become more of a generalised South Wales accent than it used to be, I think. It’s quite a difficult play to learn.

Aleks Sierz: Oh yes, yes. Also because you wrote in some repetitions.

Peter Gill: All the time, yes.

Aleks Sierz: And actors, yes, find that it’s almost Beckettian in that, isn’t it?

Peter Gill: But they’re not exact repetitions.

Aleks Sierz: I know. So what kind of other questions did they ask about from the accent? Well presumably they wanted to explore…

Peter Gill: Yes.

Aleks Sierz: … the back stories of all the characters.

Peter Gill: No, I don’t remember them doing that. We did try and make a line of the play to find out early on where some of the scenes were in relation to each other, and it’s also difficult if you have to suddenly say a line that’s an entirely different part of a person’s life, to make it a separate action in time and yet connected with what you’ve just done, you know; that was all very hard for them, I think.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, and there’s a really big sort of gap, isn’t there, because when Mrs Driscoll dies, then they separate, don’t they, the boys, and I think they’re at the age of sixteen and seventeen.

Peter Gill: And then you don’t see them again.

Aleks Sierz: Exactly, until they meet…

Peter Gill: They’re twenty-eight, yes.

Aleks Sierz: They meet again, so there’s a big kind of gap obviously, and before they were kids or young teenagers, weren’t they?

Peter Gill: Yes, they sort of, well there’s one little bit which would be when Gerard was very little…

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: And then there’s a bit when they’re just nine-year-olds I suppose, round about then.

Aleks Sierz: And that’s when they’re swimming and…

Peter Gill: And then there’s a teenage, yes, and then there’s a teenage time, and then there’s the time of a crisis. But then they, then after that Gerard and his mother moved house which is where…

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: So it’s very much about, and there’s a time in the women’s lives when things are relatively alright when their children are young.

Aleks Sierz: And I wasn’t quite sure about the suicide in that because it’s suggested, isn’t it, they think that she might have done it because she was pregnant.

Peter Gill: I don’t think that’s probably the reason.

Aleks Sierz: No. But they do think that, don’t they?

Peter Gill: But she obviously thinks she’s pregnant and never got to find out.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, exactly, whether she really is or not. As regards the actors, the two men, did Matt and Luke find that very old world quite strange?

Peter Gill: I don’t think they found that. What we found was interesting, particularly Sue Johnston and I who, she’s a bit younger than me but we people from the 60s, they found the politics of the 70s in which the play was written completely exotic, because the world is largely being depoliticised compared to then, when the play was written strangely enough. And that’s, I think, they found interesting, more the world in which the play was written in rather than the world in which it’s about.

Aleks Sierz: What, the fact that producing a dignified and lyrical picture of working class should be seen as political?

Peter Gill: Yes, or proposing, well having a play about an upper working class that are not chavs.

Aleks Sierz: Yes. Oh absolutely, yes. It almost reminded me of that Victorian distinction between respectable working class and rough working class.

Peter Gill: Well, it is about the respectable working class, I suppose.

Aleks Sierz: And they quite often talk about that, don’t they, you know?

Peter Gill: It’s about what used to be called the upper working class in part, who have been dissolved effectively.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, because they’ve either become middle class or there’s a whole social…

Peter Gill: Yes, there’s an underclass, isn’t there, there’s a sort of consciously created American underclass in Britain now.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, through the Thatcher years, I think, yes. What interested me was that they were Roman Catholic as well as working class and obviously Labour voters.

Peter Gill: Oh…

Aleks Sierz: Yes, Mrs Driscoll does say that she…

Peter Gill: She’s not a Catholic.

Aleks Sierz: And that she doesn’t think there’s any point voting.

Peter Gill: No, she hasn’t, she’s got no, you know, she doesn’t see that that’s been proved to be efficacious.

Aleks Sierz: And so could you tell us a bit about this Roman Catholic in play?

Peter Gill: Well, you see, if you look at any ports in Britain, it could be set anywhere really. The north-east, you know, has got a lot of Catholics, London, Newport, Cardiff, Barry, Liverpool, it’s a very, you know, it’s an immigration thing. There’s a huge Catholic population in South Wales.

Aleks Sierz: And that exactly where you came from, is it?

Peter Gill: Yes.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, that kind of social situation.

Peter Gill: Yes.

Aleks Sierz: And what were the sort of politics of that, was it sort of Labour voting?

Peter Gill: Yes, well it was old-fashioned Labour, down the line, not particularly leftwing or… well yes, very leftwing but not, being Catholic it was sort of, it had an undercurrent of monitored anti-communism, I suppose, right? But the Catholic Church had not been stupid, there’d been various [papal] encyclicals after the Russian Revolution, I think there was one called Rarum Novarum (of new things) in which the Church realised that trade unionism better be embraced. So indeed my generation, not belonging to a trade union was practically a confessable sin because you had a moral duty to take part in what was going on.

Aleks Sierz: And it’s a world that was fragmented by social change during the 60s, is that right?

Peter Gill: Well any immigrant community, I think that community altered immediately. If you think that it probably started somewhere, in South Wales it wouldn’t have started until after, well it might have started in the 1840s and 50s but I don’t think it really did, I think it started when the ports were opened. And of course it was quite, if you had a bit of money the Irish often went to America, the notion of the American Irish are the poor, they’re the ones who could afford the passage. But I think you could even travel as ballast from Waterford and Wexford to South Wales and…

Aleks Sierz: And that would be free?

Peter Gill: I think so, yes, I’m not, and nobody’s told me this but I’ve read it somewhere. The big movement was from the west of England to South Wales in the sort of Thomas Hardy depression, agricultural depression.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: From all over the world but from Ireland to, you know, to do the dock work really, to build them. And the interesting thing is very soon the communities were set up very strongly but they, at the same time within about twenty years they also began to change, right at the beginning Catholics started to marry Protestants, which they would never have done in Ireland. Almost immediately, not the people who started it but their children.

Aleks Sierz: Yes. Yes, I suppose this idea…

Peter Gill: So it, so you then got this situation in which you could have a Catholic family next to a family in which one of the parties were, well the would not have happened except to those two, that generation of Mrs Harte. And now if their parents were both immigrants, I suspect, and that’s very interesting and I think that’s a big thing that happened quickly. And that’s to do with what happens when people move and it’s also to do with that liberal part of Britain, I suppose.

Aleks Sierz: And I suppose it’s a myth to think of working class communities as stable in the past, because as you’ve pointed out…

Peter Gill: I think they were briefly.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: I think they were extremely stable, like the Jewish community in the East End, very, very stable. And it must be the same, they’re all the same stories, aren’t they, I suppose, when race is added to class it’s different. But do you know, it’s usually about class and not race, I think, don’t you?

Aleks Sierz: Yes. Oh yes, absolutely.

Peter Gill: It’s usually about cash.

Part Two:

Peter Gill: When you’re about six or seven the world is the world you live in, isn’t it, and the whole thing of language happens that, you know, that people don’t give up their languages.

Aleks Sierz: And also I thought it was quite significant that Mrs Harte and Mrs Driscoll, there is that solidarity, which I think was probably pretty strong amongst the women as well.

Peter Gill: Well they had to be, women have to carry on this discourse for anything to be memorised. But I think they all did, that particular group in that particular period, people who would have been born just before the First War. Women, you know, had got the votes when they were in their twenties and had their children vaccinated, you know, they were…

Aleks Sierz: And of course they very rarely went to work if they had a family.

Peter Gill: No, not allowed, not in a Catholic household, no. And of course they’re very intelligent, so we’re talking about a different thing, we’re talking about, you know, women who are as bright us buttons, you know.

Aleks Sierz: And the interesting thing about, for me, about Mrs Driscoll is that clearly she’s very unhappy. Today we might call it clinically depressed.

Peter Gill: Yes, she would be on medication. I don’t know if whether she’d be any better off but, well she wouldn’t have so many children today and she’d be able to get out of the marriage if that’s what she wanted to do. But of course she doesn’t want to do it, she’s in love with her husband.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, exactly. But…

Peter Gill: But I think also mental illness then, although it’s not talked about in the play, was seen to be a character defect…

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: Which is only now being questioned, isn’t it, really?

Aleks Sierz: Yes. And there was in a sense no vocabulary. What’s interesting about your characters is you can see them and hear them struggling, a bit bewildered by their own experiences. She has what we would call a panic attack in the street, I think, but of course she doesn’t have almost any words to be able to, you can feel her struggling to express that.

Peter Gill: She manages to describe it enough anyway, doesn’t she?

Aleks Sierz: Yes, yes. And there’s also that horrific moment when she locks herself in her room and lies on the bed. And that presumably is also why in the end she kills her self.

Peter Gill: I think that her anxiety was too much to bear. It’s combined with a romantic unhappiness but I would have thought it was probably because she could no longer bear the feeling and there was no, it was very, there was an awful lot of that in that area amongst people who were poor with nothing but drink and no medication and no counselling, I mean there was no such thing.

Aleks Sierz: And also I remember that sex roles were very sharply defined.

Peter Gill: Yes.

Aleks Sierz: So that the men used to go drinking together as men quite often.

Peter Gill: Well, the men had to work very hard, and people often forget that, you know, in these days, they had to work fantastically hard.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: You know, they had to work on Saturdays and they, both parties had to work very hard. You wouldn’t want a load of, more than you could help it, load timber into a boat. Do you know, because he would have been a docker, her husband so, you know, that’s the thing and women had to work hard because there were no washrooms, they’d think they were lucky if they had a mangle, some women. There were more, I think that whole thing of anxiety which has been present, there was no vocabulary, as you said, there was nothing for people to do. There began to be tablets, didn’t there, I think, but the health service had just come in I suppose.

Aleks Sierz: On the other hand they did have a family network, because of course when Mrs Driscoll is in a fix she gets her older daughter to take the kids down to…

Peter Gill: And she has a neighbour who’s got a talented sort of counselling quality, she can sit there and not, she doesn’t judge the woman and she lets her…

Aleks Sierz: Talk and encourages her.

Peter Gill: Talk and have it out, yes, she doesn’t, she’s… so they fulfil functions for each other because the older woman admires the younger woman, so they were very important to each other.

Aleks Sierz: And also on the subject of the vocabulary, the climax of the play of course is when Gerard and Vincent meet again in later life. It’s very painful and very emotional and there’s this sense of incompleteness, isn’t there? And yet of course they talk about love actually quite openly, but they don’t talk about it like we would talk about it today.

Peter Gill: Well, what seemed to have happened, I mean it’s interesting doing the play this time because it’s much less of a problem doing it now, it’s much more of a relationship that younger people understand can happen and that people would talk about, it’s much less of a problem relationship. It’s just as painful, I think, in fact possibly more so, but it doesn’t seem to be quite so much as a kind of contrived writer’s thing to make certain points. That’s what’s so very interesting about how time changes plays. But it’s clearly that when they were in their adolescence the one boy was, the younger boy was in love with the older boy who wasn’t in love with him in the same way…

Aleks Sierz: Exactly.

Peter Gill: Because one of them is clearly straight.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: But he, but the play isn’t about, it doesn’t describe sex very much but clearly something happened that would, that the younger boy cannot understand how he couldn’t capitalise on the red-bloodedness of his friend because it was too big a thing for him, it was not just sex.

Aleks Sierz: Exactly.

Peter Gill: And so he happened and it is sort of, it’s puzzled him ever since because he feels that the other chap could have ameliorated various problems as he, because on the face of it they’re very well suited and that’s part of the tragedy of the play, because of course that’s just hard lines because they both mock up each other. One is very daring and yet inadequate and the other one is not very daring and very adequate, and so they make quite an amusing, that’s why they’re amusing in their scenes when they’re young, as one gets caught climbing and has to be rescued by the less adventurous one and then he jumps in when the tide is turning and the other one is more competent. And so they’re, so one leads the other in to ideas, you know, those kinds of things going on, and they meet and there’s this terrible sense of loss that they both have that they can’t do anything about.

Aleks Sierz: And in fact the whole play evokes a lost world firstly and then a lost relationship perhaps.

Peter Gill: But you feel at the end that there’s going to be an alteration, that somehow the action of the play has pushed Gerard, the younger boy, to some possibility of getting on with it.

Aleks Sierz: Yes. Well it is called Small Change…

Peter Gill: Yes.

Aleks Sierz: But there is that element of change, isn’t there?

Peter Gill: Well, he discusses how change is an almost impossible thing in the circumstances in which his parents lived, you know, you didn’t have the money to change.

Aleks Sierz: I think that’s true, I mean both of us do remember the 60s and there was a sudden possibility that didn’t exist then.

Peter Gill: Yes, there was, there was an emancipation because of the 1945 elections, it’s as simple as that, isn’t it?

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: That’s why we’ve got change to get that.

Aleks Sierz: And talking of that, you yourself started out as an actor, and how did you come to be at the Royal Court then in the late 50s?

Peter Gill: Well I got interested in acting at school, I had a group of friends and we were all what now we would call artistic, I don’t think we thought of ourselves. One became a poet, he’s called John James, one is a painter, and various people, and I went to the local drama school and then I left because I didn’t think I was learning anything, and I got a job as a young actor in various places. And then I auditioned for the Royal Court Theatre when I was about nineteen and I went and worked as an understudy and was in various things, and I got very interested in that theatre which seemed to be the place to be really.

Aleks Sierz: And also presumably you found it interesting that it was a new play theatre?

Peter Gill: Yes, I think that all came after I was there. The conversations going on there, the things they were doing, what they were trying to do, the seriousness, the humour and all the rest of it, it was a slightly a barbarous atmosphere which seemed to me to express something which was interesting to me. Then Stratford East was a place I wanted to go and see things at because they were such enormous productions but I never really would have been any good in that company.

Aleks Sierz: Well, that was always about Joan Littlewood, wasn’t it, whereas…

Peter Gill: And she was a phenomenal director, Joan Littlewood, there’s no doubt you never saw, I never saw a dud show there ever, at the Stratford East, never ever. But I didn’t want to sort of, the Court theatre seemed to be, yes, it was more about a lot of talent all coming together, so it seemed a good place for me to be. And that’s where I worked for a long time.

Aleks Sierz: And presumably you remember John Osborne and his work there?

Peter Gill: But I was in the next wave, they’re all… it’s very interesting, I have two older brothers who occupy exactly the same age as all those people, it’s very, very interesting and it never dawned on me at the time. I have brothers who are eight and eleven years older than me and that’s sort of what that group all were.

Aleks Sierz: So you’re the more kind of Edward Bond generation?

Peter Gill: Yes, Caryl Churchill, and Edward. I’m just trying to think who else. Alan Ayckbourne I suppose.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: Alan Bennett, they’re a couple of years older but, you know, we’re not…

Aleks Sierz: Michael Frayn, about that kind of age?

Peter Gill: Yes, those, yes, people who are war babies, we are.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: Not bulge babies.

Aleks Sierz: No.

Peter Gill: And they’re all pre-war and had their adolescence which started at the end of the war, didn’t they, or just after in a very strapped circle. They’re not great, some of them are as big beneficiaries of the Butler Act, which is what we are more.

Aleks Sierz: Now in 2006 you directed the fiftieth anniversary production of Look Back in Anger at Bath, clearly you think it still stands up as a play?

Peter Gill: Well, I have a very curious relationship to John’s plays. I was the assistant director on the first production of Inadmissible Evidence, in fact I had to cast it because there was no casting director at the time. Well I say that, Anthony Page did, but I set it all up and I was in the auditions that gave Nicol Williamson a part and etc. And I had been the prompter on the production, the first production outside the Court when I first started, I was the ASM, so I knew Look Back in Anger off by heart. And the play is less attractive in a way to my personality because for a boy of eighteen which I was then, just eighteen, you know, there was this sort of man going on who was clearly middle class and, you know, he had talked about his father and a cheque book and things and there was this sort of hetero hell going on, but the writing was amazing. He said something about what men feel about women, whether it’s what they should feel is neither here nor there, but it’s a bit what Strindberg is on about, but it’s about, it fascinates me because its about how they think women, they see themselves as sort of Protestant biblical figures, they don’t know what it is in the plays. John would, I don’t know what to wear, the woman’s going to sin in her very soul against them.

Aleks Sierz: Yes.

Peter Gill: The woman’s father is going to be always the important thing. And whatever we think, that kind of paranoia is very, very real, and to say it isn’t, that’s not something I have about women but that’s what, and that’s what he put down really in the first person since him have done it. So it makes an uncomfortable place and the problem with Look Back in Anger is, I think, that there’s a difference between the objective writer writing about Jimmy Porter where it’s very brilliant, where you’ve got the two slightly Shakespearian thing of something objective and something personal, and then the play sides with Jimmy narcissistically. There’s a moment which used to irritate me when she says you make a good cup of tea Alison, and the other one, Helena says something Jimmy taught me. And you thought he has to be able to make a better cup of tea than anybody else, you can’t be allowed to make a good cup of tea off your own bat.

Aleks Sierz: Yes. And of course Alison not only loses her baby, but loses the capacity to have children. So of course that means that Jimmy gains her mother as well as his wife.

Peter Gill: So it’s all very interesting in all the plays. I think Inadmissible Evidence is fascinating from that point of view because it really does portray a sort of nervous breakdown. But, you know, I was present, I’ve just, you’ve just broken a memory. When I was a young actor I worked on a production of two Willis Hall plays which John Dexter directed at the Lyric Hammersmith, designed by Shaun Kenny, and the leading lady of the place was Jill Bennett who was married to Willis Hall, and in the second play with her was Pamela Lane who was married to John Osborne. And I remember John coming to see the plays, isn’t it funny, and he had been married to one and then he married the other.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, Jill Bennett and famously Pamela Lane.

Peter Gill: Well Pamela Lane is the woman on whom Alison Porter was meant to be based.

Aleks Sierz: Yes, that’s right.

Peter Gill: A very, a terribly nice woman with beautiful eyes and red hair. Well Jill was very nice, I thought. But I was a boy, I didn’t think of that, this is only me and I was learning that now, I didn’t have any…

Aleks Sierz: Well apparently Pamela Lane, when she went to see Look Back in Anger, and the curtain rose and she thought, you know, her heart immediately fell and she said well there was even the ironing board, you know, and of course…

Peter Gill: Well, John Dexter of course is a character in Look Back in Anger, an offstage character, I think he’s Webster, you know.

Aleks Sierz: Oh yes, that’s right, yes.

Peter Gill: And an actor I think I directed later, a marvellous boy called John Rees, it was a Welsh actor who was at Derby Rep at that time. So that’s why asking about things like biography in plays, it’s rather a dead end because if you’ve worked at the Court theatre you’ve met all these people and people’s mothers and things, they never bear any relation whatsoever to the characters in the plays, you know. You just know that it is X’s mother is in or his first wife. A friend of mine’s husband wrote a play about her and she said well if only he’d told me, when she saw it, I can see what the problem is now.

Aleks Sierz: Right, on that note I think we’ve run out of time.

Peter Gill: OK.

Aleks Sierz: Thank you very much, Peter Gill.

 

Join our email club

We'll let you know by email whenever we add new recordings to the site

Facebook