Michael Frayn: ‘There’s something slightly disgraceful about old folks having fun'

The writer talks about his new collection of comic pieces, why he loves iPhones, and why Covid-19 may spell doom for stage comedy

Michael Frayn was born in London in 1933 and began his career as a journalist on the Guardian and the Observer. His novels include Towards the End of the Morning, Headlong and Spies. The fifth of his 17 plays, Noises Off, was recently chosen as one of Britain’s favourite three plays. His new book of short comic pieces, Magic Mobile: 35 pre-loaded new text files, is published by Faber.

Generations of readers loved your newspaper columns; how did you come to return to the form?
Second childhood, I suppose. And the balance of nature, perhaps; if your vita turns out to be reasonably longa, as mine has, then to compensate your ars gets naturally more brevis.

Do they give you the same pleasure to write as they did, especially without deadlines?
I’m afraid they do, and yes, especially without deadlines. I have rather mixed feelings about this. There’s something slightly disgraceful about old folks having fun, when they should, as Russians used to say, be making their souls in preparation for the long funlessness of eternity.

What kind of “magic” mobile do you own?
I have an iPhone, and it’s a most beautiful object just to hold in one’s hands. But what this slim and graceful artefact can do! Conjure up my family and friends; most of the world’s great music, books, and pictures; the latest news; tomorrow’s weather; a taxi to the station; the time of the next train to Bucharest or Weston-super-Mare; and a summary of everything that human beings have thought and discovered in the last 3,000 centuries. It (and the complex of electronics that nourishes it) must surely be one of the greatest peaks of human achievement.

So why are you mocking it?
To express my awe in some manageable form, in the way that one might gently tease somebody one admires and loves. Besides, its perfection sometimes fails for a moment – or, even harder to bear, shows up one’s own incompetence, or inability to remember where one concealed a vital password.

Do the pieces arise out of a gentle slow-growing irritation with modern consumerism, or an abrupt fury?
Out of amusement, mostly. Which of course can turn without warning to abrupt fury.

Your first novel, The Tin Men, was about scientists programming computers to take over human thinking. In Magic Mobile, a computer retaliates against the constant insults of its impatient owner. Do you see these machines as a mirror of our own character and folly?
Human beings who behave like machines; machines that behave like human beings. They’re both ways of dramatising the elusive but fundamental way in which human beings, however stupid, have some essential and irreducible faculty of choice and invention that machines cannot reproduce, however clever.

You started out as a reporter; how did you come to comic writing?
I was set to write a kind of diary column three times a week. This was on the Guardian, back in the 50s. It meant finding an endless amount of raw material, and I began to eke out the supply with bits of my own invention, in imitation of the established funny columns of the day, such as Peter Simple in the Telegraph and Beachcomber in the Express. The flow of fiction turned out to be a lot easier to maintain than fact.

Is humour your natural cast of mind, as well as your professional element?
It’s not really a question of what I’m like – it’s everything else! There are a lot of serious and terrible things in the world. But there are also some funny ones, and you’d have to be a funny sort of person not to notice.

Meera Syal, Lloyd Owen, Simon Rouse and Enyi Okoronkwo in the 2019 Lyric Hammersmith production of Noises Off.
Meera Syal, Lloyd Owen, Simon Rouse and Enyi Okoronkwo in the 2019 Lyric Hammersmith production of Noises Off. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In the new book, in a domestic dialogue about buying teabags, the husband replies with the empty rhetoric of a politician. Might he belong equally well to any party?
I thought it was the wife speaking, and I had one particular politician of the day in mind. But in spite of all her heroic efforts to say nothing that could disrupt the fragile balance between her extremely quarrelsome colleagues, they drove her out of office nearly a year before the book was published. Now you’ve even forgotten her very distinctive tone of voice.

You’re right, I have already forgotten her! I loved the online article that repeatedly asks for the reader’s endorsement; how do you rate (so to speak) today’s interactive, below-the-line, star-rated media?
Oh, about three stars.

In a wonderful pastiche of Waiting for Godot, every pause is filled with phone-browsing. Are you hopeful that we might recover our powers of concentration?
I thought that my Vladimir and Estragon, unlike their originals, were lucky to have their magical machines to keep them entertained while they waited. In fact they don’t have to wait more than about 10 minutes, because they’ve also used them to set up the meeting with their particular Godot much more efficiently than the originals.

Some people wish your fiction – Headlong and Spies, for instance – was just as famous as Noises Off. Do you have specially tender feelings about the different genres in which you work?
Odd how separate the audience for novels and plays seems to be. And yes, I wish they were all equally well known, and feel a certain defensive affection for the ones that aren’t.

Do you think theatre will have a different future, after this pandemic?
If we still have to maintain social distancing, as seems likely, then it certainly will. Live theatre depends upon an audience present in the flesh, sitting close together and being infected with each other’s responses. Particularly comedy. Michael Rudman, who directed some of my early plays, always maintained that the only way to do it is with a full house. Difficult to achieve, even at the best of times, but an ideal as forgotten as courtly love if everyone in the audience has to have four or five empty seats to left and right of them, and two or three empty rows in front and behind. Easier to get a drink in the interval, of course.

Magic Mobile is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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