Saturday, 12 July 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old playwright called Peter Whelan

Peter, who has died at the age of 82 and turned to the stage in his middle years was one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's most notable beneficiaries of its 'good new plays in smaller venues policy' in the 1980s.

What you possibly didn't know about Peter, that he :

*  was born in 1931 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire and raised in Bucknall, Stoke-on-Trent, the younger son of a mother who worked for the Forestry Commission and father, a lithographic artist in the Potteries and lover of the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

* growing up with his older brother during the Second World War, went out one night " to see the city burning, buggers that we were as though we were, watching a firework display, all the incendiaries burning the city from end to end" and on another occasion was blown off his feet when a bomb dropped a couple of streets away.

* at the age of nine and already wanting to be a writer, when whispering stories to his brother in bed at night,was told :  " when I said you've got to tell a story it's got to be things that have happened " and later reflected that : " It's a very basic thing in writing, that you're not going to get by with imagination, pure imagination, at all. It's got to be a mixture of reality and imagination. The very basic thing in writing is what he said and I suppose I absorbed it, the way a child does."

* went to Hanley High School, a grammar school for boys and at the age of 15, when, on the top deck of a bus, told his friend that he was "going to be a playwright" and wrote history plays modelled on Shakespeare and inspired by Laurence Olivier's bombastic Henry V which had "a kind of shock value" and convinced him that the past could be re- imagined as something vital and current and honed his theatrical skills playing Shaw's St. Joan on the school stage dressed in chain mail and a stuffed bra.

* left school at 18 in 1949 and started his National Service in the Army and was posted to Berlin,  now in the grip of the Cold War and later said "I sometimes think the ruins of that city had a bad effect on me" and was affected its division where " to be able to paint a white line on the cobbles  and to be able to say that side's communisim and that side's capitalism almost made it seem like a gargantuan child's game, but an awful one where the bullets were real."

* back in civilian life, worked for a year at the Town Planning Office, Stoke-on-Trent, as an assistant surveyor and then a worker at Endon Farm, Staffordshire before he embarked on an  English and Philosophy degree at Keele University, where he met his future wife, Frangcon Price, herself the daughter of a pottery designer.

* joined the Drama Society and played Prince Hal in the 1952 open air production of Henry IV Part 1 and contributed 'The Fizzy Blonde !' to the 1952 Keele Songbook and regretted he might have embarrassed a Muriel Tucker, later said :"Drama and university have an uneasy relationship. Drama is about emotion, not about analysis. You somehow need departments of love and hate and rage."

* after graduation in 1955 worked as a manservant at Uffington Hall, demolition worker in Staffordshire, hall porter in the English Speaking Union Hotel, London and for a year as an advertising copywriter in London where he wrote adverts for beer, biscuits and the Guardian, devised the slogan for Stones bitter, 'Wherever you may wander, there's no taste like Stones' and picked up the skill of being able to look at a chunk of dialogue and estimate its performance time in seconds.

* left the country for a year in 1957 to work as teacher of English in the Berlitz School, Bergen, Norway and returned to teach at West London College, before another spell in copywriting in London in 1959 and continued to work in advertising throughout the first decade of his success as a playwright, the 1970s.

*  said he didn't write "anything cogent" until he was almost 40 and had his theatre debut in 1975 at the age of 44 with 'Double Edge', a West End thriller co-written with his colleague in the advertising trade, Leslie Darbon, and played at the 'Vaudeville' in a cast led  by Margaret Lockwood and Paul Daneman.

* started his association with the Royal Shakespeare Company when he submitted an unsolicited script, 'Captain Swing', based on an idea brought home by his son from school and centred on the 1830 English farm workers' riots which became a  huge critical success at the 'Other Place' in 1979, transferring to the 'Warehouse' in Covent Garden, its London studio and allowed him to take the risky step out of advertising and into theatre.

* in 1981 set the RSC's, 'The Accrington Pals' in the early years of the First World War, when the country's jingoistic optimism started to wane and the true terror of warfare gradually becameclear and looked at both the terrifying experiences of the men at the Front and the women who were left behind in a Lancashire mill town denuded of men.

* based 'Clay' in 1982, on a modern day reunion of two couples, one of them played by Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent, after an 11 year separation which the critic Michael Billington described as having 'a sense of doom creeping over people's lives like late afternoon shadows in a summer field'
* wrote at the age of 60 in 1991, 'The Bright and Bold Design', inspired by the life of Clarice Cliff, a 1930s Potteries decorative artist and dealt with incident and argument among factory girls hired on low rates of pay.

* in 1992 placed the Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlow played by Richard McCabe in 'The School of Night', in the context of the espionage network in the country house of his uncle and patron, Thomas Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster and had his last collaboration with director Bill Alexander who left to run the Birmingham Rep.

* unearthed the story of the strange drama played out at Kelmscott Manor in the early 1870s, between William Morris, his wife Janey and Dante Gabriel Rossetti with Morris taking himself off to Iceland each summer to allow Janey to fulfil her role as Rossetti's model, muse and idealised lover with the relationship stopping short of physical consummation and gave it form in 'The Earthly Paradise'.

* created and staged his best known work, 'The Herbal Bed' at the age of 64 in 1996, starring Joseph Fiennes, Teresa Banham and David Tennant (right) in the 'Other Place' at Stratford-upon-Avon, centred on the case for sexual slander brought by Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna, against a neighbour, John Lane, who accused her of adulterously contracting venereal disease from a local haberdasher and saw it transfer to the West End.

* remained a socialist and a republican, who always wore his radicalism lightly, but had a fire in the furnace when poked and enjoyed travelling around universities telling budding playwright 'how to write a play in a day'.

* his forays into television work were limited to dramatised documentaries, 'The Trial of  Lord Lucan' and a series of true crime stories, 'In Suspicious Circumstances', narrated by actor, Edward Woodward.

* in 2001 his semi-autobiographical 'Russian in the Woods' in which he returned to Berlin before the 1948 Airlift which drew critical comparisons with both Ibsen and John le Carre and involved a young soldier sent for a weekend to guard a deserted British Army office and innocently found himself caught up in a situation where his conscience was on trial.

* once said it was "the mystery of human relationships" that interested him "I like to feel that I'm not going to get to the end of the mystery. It's not something I'm going to solve. That's not what I'm there for; I'm there to release the forces that are involved in it. The truth is the confusion of human relationships, and that it will go on."


  1. Thank you very much for that, we enjoyed reading it. From Tim Whelan (son) and family

  2. It was a pleasure to compose. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.