Peter Nichols obituary

Playwright who found fame with A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Privates on Parade and Passion Play

Over a period of 15 years, from 1967 to 1982, Peter Nichols, who has died aged 92, wrote some of the most brilliant and distinctive plays on the British stage. Yet he became sour and paranoid about the failure of the artistic establishment to pay him his rightful due.

He remained best known for his early success A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967), in which a married couple cope with their difficulties caring for a child with severe disabilities through comedy routines and black humour. It was an absolute first in breaking that sort of polite taboo about people with disabilities, and it caused a furore. But the play – which sprang from Nichols’s own family experience, like all of his work; his first child, Abigail, spent most of her 11 years of life in hospital – won Nichols the first of his four Evening Standard drama awards.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in a still censored theatre, tested the limits of comedy and even managed to circumvent the suggestion made by the Lord Chamberlain’s office that the child might be represented on stage by a dummy. The moment when little Joe skips out of the chair in a vision of what might have been in her life is one of the most original and heartbreaking in all modern drama.

A poster for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols, 1967.
A poster for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols, 1967. Photograph: Alamy

In later years, Nichols never stopped writing, and never stopped complaining; no one, he felt, wanted to present his work in the West End or at the National Theatre, for which he had had two plays produced, with differing degrees of success, in 1969 and 1974.

The unresolved question was: had he stopped writing well, or had he simply gone out of fashion? Judging by the limited evidence of the odd sightings since he officially “retired” from the theatre in 1982, after yet another bust-up over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of his Opium Wars musical, Poppy, the answer was: probably both.

Nichols himself, who was formed as a writer by the second world war (and his national service in the far east, which he called his “university”), his love of the music hall and sense of displacement as a provincial, was ferociously hard on himself, and on others.

His friend and fellow playwright Michael Frayn admired above all his dangerousness: “He doesn’t have any of the techniques of self-censorship that other writers develop. Sometimes he says terrible things that no one else would say, that absolutely strike home to one’s heart, and sometimes he says things which are embarrassing.”

This frankness carried through to his writing style, which broke down the “fourth wall” in directly addressing the audience, and sarcastically memorialising the past in present-tense use of parlour songs, vaudeville routines, brutal jokes and an acid rain of envy, regret, nostalgia and sudden shafts of tenderness.

In an aberrant return to the theatre in 1987, with the suitably titled A Piece of My Mind, he even came clean on his envious dislike of Tom Stoppard, creating a successful playwright, Miles Whittier, who made over one of the main character’s lesser plays into something resembling a success; Whittier scored yet another critical bull’s-eye with an intellectual comedy on a cruise-ship bound for Turkey (on board passengers included Gandhi, Kipling, Chekhov and Dame Nellie Melba) nicknamed “Look Back in Ankara”. But Whittier became a dumping ground for other grudges, too, namely all dramatists still writing, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the RSC.

Peter Nichols, centre back, with the cast of Privates on Parade.
Peter Nichols, centre back, with the cast of Privates on Parade. Photograph: Tony McGrath/The Observer

Nichols was convinced that he had seen the best of his time between the coming of John Osborne, who became his close friend, and about 1970; and that the abolition of censorship in 1968 coincided with a chronic decline in the popular interest in live theatre, by which, of course, he meant his type of live theatre.

Born in Bristol, Peter was the son of a Richard Nichols, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Violet (nee Poole), and went to Bristol grammar school. He had an uncle who was a theatrical agent, and took him on theatre visits from an early age. When posted to India and Malaysia on national service with the RAF in 1945, he joined the Combined Services Entertainment unit, where his colleagues in revues and sketches included Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.

That experience would be the background to his hugely successful first play for the RSC in 1977, Privates on Parade, in which the autobiographical character of Steven Flowers (played by Ian Gelder, and, in 2001 in a Donmar Warehouse revival, by James McAvoy) is inducted in matters of sex, authority and vaudeville. Returning to Bristol at the end of his own time in the CSE, Nichols joined the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, trained as an actor, and continued writing sketches and plays.

The film version of Privates on Parade, 1982, starring Denis Quilley and Nicola Pagett.
The film version of Privates on Parade, 1982, starring Denis Quilley and Nicola Pagett. Photograph: Handmade/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Like Harold Pinter and Osborne, Nichols worked as an actor in the penultimate gasp of regional repertory theatre, as well as in television and as a film extra, in the early 50s, even appearing with Osborne in a summer season at Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, in 1953. But by 1955 he was struggling to find work, and he took a job with the Berlitz language schools in Milan and Florence, before going to Trent Park teacher training college in north London and then teaching in schools in London (1957-59), all the while writing short stories.

His life changed when he won a BBC Bristol television playwriting competition in 1959 for his bitter family comedy A Walk on the Grass. This led to several other television commissions, as well as a script-writing job for the director John Boorman on his black-and-white documentary about the Dave Clark Five, Catch Us If You Can (1965), soon followed by a credit on the screenplay for Georgy Girl (1966).

The Dave Clark film gave Boorman a Hollywood calling card and Nichols time to write his first stage play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which was rejected by every management in London. Finally, Michael Blakemore directed the play at the Glasgow Citizens, the critics raved and Albert Finney’s Memorial Enterprises presented the show in London, and then New York, where Finney himself starred in a three-month packed-out run.

Blakemore famously directed the next two superb Nichols plays – The National Health at the Old Vic for the National Theatre (1969), a dance of death and a television soap parody at once, set in an NHS cancer ward; and Forget-Me-Not Lane at Greenwich theatre (1971), Nichols’s own favourite play, a family vaudeville with songs that was, said Nichols, “minimalist before minimalism was invented” – before the inevitable falling out.

Finney led the West End cast of Chez Nous (1974), in which a reunion of two married couples is somewhat tarnished by the revelation that one of the men is the father of the other’s illegitimate grandson, conceived when the friend’s daughter was 13. In the same year, Jonathan Miller failed to breathe much life into The Freeway for the NT at the Old Vic, a talking shop in a three-day traffic jam covering class conflict, anti-materialism and a dystopian view of the future. Not for the first time, Nichols felt “flattened,” even though his television plays such as The Gorge (1968) and The Common (1973), both pin-sharp comedies of social get-togethers and wonderfully entertaining, nourished his reputation.

The 1971 film of Joe Egg, starring Alan Bates and Janet Suzman, Nichols rated “an arty horror film that just wasn’t funny”, but Jack Gold’s movie of The National Health (1973) still packs a punch in a mood of heightened black comedy.

He followed Privates on Parade with another favourite play, Born in the Gardens (1979), in which Beryl Reid gloriously played a dotty old widow holed up in Bristol with one of her children, an antiquarian pornographer, and visited by the other two, one a Labour MP, the other a walking sun-tan advert for Florida. Like Forget-Me-Not Lane, it is a flawlessly structured piece of writing and a high point in Nichols’ creative life as a domestic archaeologist.

Mike Ockrent directed the next RSC commission, Passion Play (1980), in which adultery is laid bare in a marriage where the partners have onstage alter egos, and the sense of blasphemy, betrayal and self-disgust is pumped up with great blasts of ecclesiastical music; a Donmar Warehouse revival in 2000, directed by Michael Grandage, confirmed this play as a modern classic, and a further West End production opened at the Duke of York’s in 2013.

Then, at the Barbican, in 1982, came Poppy, with a jaunty score by Monty Norman and a full-scale production by Terry Hands that combined the Victorians’ favourite pastime, pantomime, with their favourite occupation, imperialism. It also featured a comeuppance for the aristocracy in the figure of Lady Dodo (Geoffrey Hutchings in drag) on a huge white elephant; symbolic, or what?

During the somewhat fractious rehearsals, Nichols is reputed to have said to Hands: “You know your problem? You can only work with dead playwrights.” To which Hands responded: “It could be arranged…” Nichols went public in his dislike of the production, saying he had intended the play for a more intimate venue such as the Theatre Royal Stratford East and that he would never write for any theatre again.

In 1984 he published a delightful autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind, which took us up to the New York opening of Joe Egg and no further. Just as well, probably. He wrote four novels, all unpublished, in this fallow period, although everyone knew there was a cache of unperformed plays. Requests for a berth on the South Bank at the new National were rebuffed, and Nichols wrote a poem, The Rime of the Ancient Dramatist (1993), in which he depicted himself as an embittered drunk berating Richard Eyre, then the NT’s artistic director, at a party.

Revivals of his best plays became more frequent, and occasionally bottom-drawer stuff would emerge: Blue Murder (1995), a double-bill in which the second play was a farce set in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, dealing with the play we had just seen, was performed in makeshift premises above the Bristol registry office where he and Thelma Reed had got married in 1959.

But nothing further happened to the play. Likewise Lingua Franca, at the little Finborough theatre, near Earl’s Court, London, in 2010, revisiting his period in the Berlitz School in Florence, satisfied a hunger for Nichols that, once experienced, never goes away, but the play was not big or strong enough to merit further life in the West End.

Nichols will always be remembered as part of the great period of British playwriting in the 60s and 70s, even though he never felt part of anything much. He was a glorious, cantankerous and very funny man, tall and bespectacled, and in 2018 he was appointed CBE. He published Diaries 1969-1977 (2000), saying that without Thelma his life over 40 years would have been unbearable.

She survives him, as do a son, Dan, and two daughters, Louise and Catherine, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His brother Geoff died in July.

• Peter Richard Nichols, playwright, born 31 July 1927; died 7 September 2019

• This article was amended on 12 September 2019, to correct a reference to a revival of Passion Play having starred Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton. They appeared in a production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the Comedy Theatre in 2001, which transferred to Broadway in 2003.


Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

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