In the early 1990s, I was writing my PhD. It concerned the ‘revolution’ in British theatre marked by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court. (The thesis would be the basis for my subsequent book 1956 and All That). Part of the effect of Look Back in Anger’s success was to throw a deep shadow over the generation that preceded it. A whole generation of writers was obscured and while some, like Terence Rattigan, have seen their reputations finally recover, there are some who suffered almost total eclipse.
One of the most significant was Christopher Fry. He was a leading figure in the genre of poetic drama that had a huge flurry of successes and critical interest in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Eliot was the stern, austere proponent of verse drama as the conduit to the spiritual foundations of Man. Fry was the versifier in love with words, whose bubbling, riddling, language-mad plays burst with exuberant pleasure, wore their seriousness lightly, and enchanted west end audiences again and again and again. Whenever I’ve given talks about postwar British drama over the last 25 years, any mention of Christopher Fry’s word produces an unmistakeable ripple of pleasure in a certain demographic of the audience, a demographic that is now dying out, but which experienced the rare jouissance of seeing Fry’s work on stage. A Phoenix Too Frequent, The Lady’s Not For Burning, Venus Observed, The Dark is Light Enough, Ring Round the Moon… these were huge hits, some of them playing for years in big commercial theatres.
When the Angry Young Men happened, Fry’s verbal artifice seemed immediately old-fashioned and his reputation suffered a downfall that it has never really recovered from. There have been revivals; Sam West directed The Lady’s Not for Burning brilliantly at the Minerva in 2002. Ring Round the Moon was in the West End a decade ago. But so far we haven’t found a way of rediscovering these plays fully, of really reconnecting with his project
Fry died in 2005, aged a splendid 97. I interviewed him when I was doing my PhD in 1992, when he was a comparatively youthful 84. I went down to his home. I must admit I forget where it was, exactly, but a neighbour picked me up in her car and drove me to a delightful little village where we sat in his lovely cottage and chatted for well over an hour, before going over to the village pub for a toasted cheese sandwich. Fry was spry, extremely helpful, I think rather delighted that someone so young (I was 24) was so interested in his work.
At one moment, I appeared to have astonishingly compendious knowledge of the theatre of his time. He was discussing the casting of one of his plays and mentioned that Pamela Brown (a terrific actress of the period) was unavailable because of another show the name of which he’d forgotten; was it The Gioconda Smile my Aldous Huxley, I asked. I remember an astonished look on his face as he confirmed that was the forgotten play. In fact, I’d happened to read that play only a few weeks earlier and had noticed that one of Fry’s favourite actors was in it, so it was a bit of luck, but it certainly helped my. credentials as an interviewer who had done his homework.
I transcribed bits of the cassette a year or so later but it’s sat on my shelf for 25 years, unlisted-to, and, for the last ten years as I’ve moved on technologically, unlistenable-to. But, with some other things, I got it digitises the other day and here it is. I think some of my questions sound a bit gauche but it’s still a bit of a rarity: a full-length interview with one of the great playwrights of the mid-century. You can listen to it here: