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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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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 from Wormwood Scrubs. Stephen Fry was eventually chosen to play Blake, and Rik Mayall was cast as Bourke, though Gray had never heard of either man before. Since the affable Fry was, like Gray, a product of public school and Cambridge, he seemed a kindred spirit, a ‘puppyish enthusiast’ who looked like a ‘convivial prelate’ and ended every conversation with ‘God bless’: Mayall was an unknown quantity and, on first acquaintance, less sympathetic. As readers may remember, Stephen Fry walked out of the production after two performances, and the stalwart Mayall was left to hold the fort. Fry, it seemed, had been unnerved by a review in the Financial Times, and thought he had let everyone down: despite fears that he might have committed suicide, he was spotted in the South of France wearing a beret, and was said to be contemplating a fresh start as a prep-school master. Enter a Fox lacks the high drama of Fat Chance, but ample excitements are provided by the computer and by the nuts and bolts of getting The Late Middle Classes into production. We’re also introduced to the heavily made-up figure of Mr Burn, a pederastic schoolmaster from Gray’s prep school in Putney who resurfaces in The Smoking Diaries. Published last year, The Smoking Diaries differs from its predecessors in that it does not hinge on the production of a new play, and it interlaces explicit autobiography with scenes from the present day, many of which revolve around lunch with the Pinters and his partner Victoria Rothschild, the doings of his cats, and ruminative visits to the Queensway ice rink. Another difference is that Gray, who happily drained four bottles of Veuve Cliquot a day in his prime, has foresworn the booze in favour of Diet Coke, and is reduced to being a mere ‘chain-smoking, teetotal, alcoholic wreck’. Booze and fags loomed large in Gray’s family. His brother and an aunt died of drink: his mother, a former Olympic athlete, refereed hockey matches with a cigarette in her mouth, and exclaimed on her deathbed, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, Si, I’ve learned my lesson! I’m never going to smoke another cigarette’; his father’s cigarettes were confiscated as he lay dying, on the grounds that they were bad for his health. Gray Senior was a Scots-Canadian pathologist, and Simon Gray’s early years were divided between Canada and South Kensington; he was, as a boy, a keen cricketer, playing for Westminster against Eton, and he recalls, with some nostalgia, the halcyon days when he dived into the Mediterranean with a cigarette clamped between his lips. Written in a conversational, telegraphic style reminiscent of Molly Bloom and of Mr Jingle in The Pickwick Papers, The Smoking Diaries are opinionated, digressive and extremely funny. They’re also very sad, as old friends like Ian Hamilton, another lunching companion, die of cancer, and Gray himself is threatened with the disease. As he contemplates, in moments of gloom, ‘a life spinelessly lived, now supinely closing’, he can draw some consolation from the immense pleasure the rest of us will draw from his version of events. I long to learn more; in the meantime, I must catch up on the plays.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 5 © Jeremy Lewis 2005


About the contributor

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

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