Smoke Signals

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I am wretchedly ill-qualified to write about Simon Gray, since I am hopeless about going to the theatre and have never seen one of his plays. I plan to remedy matters as soon as I can, but in the meantime I cannot recommend his autobiographical writings too highly. An Unnatural Pursuit is, alas, out of print, but Fat Chance, Enter a Fox and the masterly Smoking Diaries have all been reissued in paperback, and only the most Cromwellian theatre-hater could fail to be touched, amused and thoroughly entertained by them.

Fat Chance and Enter a Fox are both very short, and follow a familiar pattern: Gray, fuelled by alcohol and fags, finishes a play, posts it off to various directors and producers, worries that none of them will like it, spends long lunches pondering their replies with his friend and neighbour Harold Pinter, agonizes about which actors should play particular parts, sips champagne during rehearsals, and is hugely relieved when the reviews aren’t quite as bad as he’d dreaded. When not worrying about his play of the moment or pressing the wrong button on his computer – he wrote Enter a Fox, he tells us, to learn how to use the wretched machine – he talks to his dog George, and encourages him to strike up a friendship with a lonely fox which lives in his garden in Holland Park.

Those readers who like to learn as well as be entertained will discover a great deal about the workings of the British theatre: the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the prose of a writer who – like all the best playwrights, I imagine – has perfect timing and an impeccable ear. Nowhere is this more evident than in Fat Chance, and additional drama is provided by the fact that everything goes so disastrously wrong.

Gray had spent five years working on Cell Mates, a play about George Blake, who spied for the Russians, and Sean Bourke, the Irishman who helped him to escape

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About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis’s biography, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane, was published in 2005.

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