‘Roger Moore collapsed one night. I thought he’d died’: how we made The Play What I Wrote

‘Ralph Fiennes strode into the dressing room and said he loved the show – we booked him there and then. The whole thing was very kick-bollocks-scramble’

Sean Foley, co-writer and performer

It was all [producer] David Pugh’s fault. In 1988 I’d set up a small two-person theatre company, The Right Size, with Hamish McColl, creating work that was somewhere between European physical theatre and British variety. We’d had some success; one of our shows had transferred to the West End. One day in 2001, David called us in and said, “I want you to make a show about Morecambe and Wise.”

We made polite noises in the room, but as soon as we got out, we said to each other, “This guy’s an idiot.” It looked like a poisoned chalice: as a double-act, surely the riskiest thing you can do is attempt to impersonate one of the most famous double-acts of all time. But David kept on at us and so we wrote a dummy script for him, half-hoping that he would realise the error of his ways. But he didn’t. He loved it. And we thought, “Oh God, we’re actually going to have to do this.”

The solution we found is that in The Play What I Wrote we don’t actually impersonate anyone, except ourselves. There are two characters called Sean and Hamish on stage: Hamish wants to put on a “serious” play he’s written (a very Ernie thing to do), while Sean wants to do comedy (a very Eric thing to do). It was a homage to Morecambe and Wise, but a cock-eyed one. The idea was to look at what it means to be a double-act as well as evoking Eric and Ernie’s comic spirit. We were lucky enough to work with Eddie Braben, who wrote a lot of their material and also a few new jokes for us. He insisted on being paid per gag – very old-school. It was the way it was done in those days.

In the second half of the show a guest star appears, echoing what happened on the Morecambe and Wise TV specials. We worried that no one famous would actually want to do it, but luckily a few guinea-pig stars got the ball rolling. Then one night Ralph Fiennes strode into the dressing room and said he loved the show, and we booked him there and then. It went like that. The whole thing was very kick-bollocks-scramble.

One of the things I’m proudest of is that even though we deliberately weren’t trying to be Eric and Ernie, we managed to evoke at least some of their comic world, activate this sense of nostalgia in the audience. People would say, “Oh, I remember that bit!” In fact they didn’t remember it at all: we’d written it ourselves.

Kenneth Branagh and Roger Moore on stage during a charity performance of The Play What I Wrote at the Wyndham theatre in London.
Kenneth Branagh and Roger Moore on stage during a charity performance of The Play What I Wrote at the Wyndham theatre in London. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Toby Jones, performer

I’d known Sean and Hamish for ages and seen everything they did. They were really smart. When they told me they were going to do a show about Morecambe and Wise, I said: “Don’t, it’s a really bad idea.” Then they asked if I would come on board and play the supporting roles they’d written – lots of little parts. Rather grandly, I said no, that didn’t sound very appealing. So it morphed into one part, a bloke called Arthur, again a tribute to a character in the original shows. He’d come on with his harmonica and they’d say, “Not now, Arthur.” I became Arthur.

David Pugh convinced Kenneth Branagh to direct, which made the whole thing feel a lot more intense, also because after starting in Liverpool we were due to go into the West End. There was a script of sorts, but quite a rough one, as I recall; we had to tighten it up and get it properly written down.

Of course the show kept changing, partly because of the guest-star thing – the way it worked was that Arthur would come on, dressed as the star, before the star actually appeared in the second half. It wasn’t so much impersonation as a deliberately pathetic attempt at impersonation. That was the gag. Ralph Fiennes had been in The English Patient, so they swaddled me up in bandages. With Bob Geldof, I came on and started swearing. When we had Kylie Minogue, I had to wear her dress. I was constantly changing costume.

And it wasn’t an easy show to perform. When we were doing it on Broadway, Roger Moore collapsed on stage one night after a dance number. I was actually offstage at the time but I heard the audience go deathly quiet. When I looked back, I saw him sprawled out on the floor and thought, “Oh my God, he’s dead.” They pulled in the curtain, Sean went out front and said: “I’m so sorry – Roger Moore is unwell. A doctor is coming.” The audience cheered. They thought it was all part of the joke.

Somehow he was OK. He got up again and made it to the end of the show.

• The 20th anniversary production of The Play What I Wrote is at Birmingham Rep, 27 November to 1 January 2022.


Interviews by Andrew Dickson

The GuardianTramp

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