The second ‘Television’s Forgotten Dramas’ season at BFI Southbank was launched on 2 February 2017 with a screening of John Osborne’s The Hotel in Amsterdam, followed by a discussion about the play, John Osborne, and forgotten television drama more generally, with Anthony Page (the play’s original director, of both stage and TV versions) and playwright Nicholas Wright (who was Page’s Assistant director on the original 1968 stage production). This is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Billy Smart. Anthony, it would be 46 years since you last saw that. What are your reactions to seeing it again?
Anthony Page. Well, its an extraordinary self-portrait of John Osborne at that stage of his life. I was very moved by the last scene of him (Laurie) and Annie. Its difficult to say – it’s a very different period and there’s a lot of malice and camp. They’re very spoiled, the people. I just think it’s a very frank piece of writing about himself
BS. It doesn’t invite the viewer’s sympathy at any point.
AP. No. Maybe at the end he has got this feeling for her. Its very John – he’s going from wife to wife with some rather compulsive impulse – and also his need to drink.
BS. It’s a really precise and acute study of what happens when people get drunker and drunker, I think. Its not only a self-portrait of Osborne, it’s also a group portrait of the people around him. I wonder if you could tell us a little of the background of the play and its world.
AP. Well, the pregnant wife is Penelope Gilliatt, who he had left. Jill Bennett actually plays the part that was based on her. That marriage ended up very unhappily, of course, but he was very romantic about her when they met and the marriage with Penelope broke up. The secretary is a portrait of a girl called Sonia.
BS. And, of course, KL is –
AP. – Tony Richardson.
BS. I’ve read that Osborne had overstretched himself financially at this point and was hoping to get a commercial production of the play from the outset, but commercial managers didn’t want to take a risk on it, because Tony Richardson was a director whom they would hope to work with.
AP. I didn’t know that, but I remember Tony Richardson turning up at the theatre to see it and looking extremely poisonous afterwards. He even contemplated a lawsuit, but I don’t know how he could have brought one.
Nicholas Wright. He said, “Its just writer’s jottings”!
BS. Nicholas, you’ve long been an advocate of Osborne, and this play in particular. You once wrote that, “The Hotel in Amsterdam is so soundly forgotten as to amount to a sort of state secret.” You were Assistant Director on the original production. What are your impressions on seeing it?
NW. I was Assistant to Anthony, although I didn’t do much except just sit there. I think it holds up extraordinarily well. I think from that whole period of his life, that last period when he wasn’t writing anything like as well as he had before – I think it’s almost like a last flickering – of something extraordinary, actually. There are moments of complete magic in the writing, I think. We all know when we hear them, it’s so obvious what they are, but – “A swimming pool is a terrible thing to look into on holiday. Its no past and no future” “Sleeping pills, aspirin, bottle of whisky, half a loaf of bread to keep it all down”. That wonderful thing he says, “what I do I pluck out of the air” – and then he says this marvellous thing which a writer would say, “even if its not so hot always”, its completely brilliant and lovable. So it has got magic in it, I think.
But its 1968, and you think of that period as being hippies and rock groups, but actually it was really a time when doors were opening to people who hadn’t had those doors opened to them before, so Dan, the character that David Burke plays, who is working class, but is mixed there with posh middle class people because he’s a painter.
AP. But John had been working class as well
NW. Exactly, yes. It’s sort of about that – it’s about the prosperity and luxuries that suddenly people were entering into.
BS. I get the impression that none of these people have grown up into this bohemian and well-heeled and promiscuous world, and that they don’t really know quite how to deal with it very well, although they’re trying it, with ruinous consequences.
AP. Well, I think they’re quite used to luxury by that time. John would stay in expensive hotels. In a way, his speeches about his family are incredibly snobbish but anyway that’s how he felt about his background.
BS. Osborne quotes loads of letters from his relatives in the second volume of his autobiography. The effect is comical and funny, but also slightly unpleasant, as well, I think.
NW. But its very much the sixties thing. David Mercer would quote his family endlessly, but always with reverence because of their working class values. John Osborne did exactly the opposite, of despising them for their – I don’t know what, actually. I don’t get it you see – I don’t like it. I hate that bit where he quotes the letter. I find it quite repulsive.
AP. But it’s very real about him, its again part of the self-portrait. Because he’d hated his mother – he’d been terribly fond of his father, but he’d died when John was quite young. Its extremely personal, the play. He was a very difficult character, very melancholy under the surface.
NW. Anthony, I’m wondering – How much of John did Paul Scofield catch in the performance? Or, was he then adding something very distinctive of himself?
AP. I think he just made a character; he didn’t try and imitate John at all. In a way he was much camper than John.
NW. John had the camp, but he was more camp than John.
AP. Much more, yes, he was almost Frankie Howerd.
BS. Was Scofield always intended for the part?
AP. No, the play got written and I think I’d already worked with him. The thing is you always needed a star part. There was always a part in an Osborne play that was very virtuoso. In a way, being an actor, he’d almost written them for himself.
BS. A thing that strikes me about The Hotel in Amsterdam – and often in other good Osborne productions – is that although they are written with these tremendous leading parts, the other people around them can be quite convincingly drawn. You get their situations and are affected by them as well.
AP. Well, in a way the parts are more even in this play. There’s still this great sort of star role and the people are a little bit shadowy in comparison, which is what happens in his plays generally, isn’t it?
NW. Yes, I think they’re all pretty good. Gus is such an interesting character, and I thought Michael Craig was terribly – I had not seen Michael Craig’s performance because Joss Ackland played the part on stage and I hadn’t seen this – terribly good.
BS. There’s something true about Gus that you see in life – people who act as clownish characters within their group but are actually less pleasant really. You see it with the way he deals with the waiter.
Could you tell us a bit about adapting the play for television?
AP. I simply don’t remember. It was cut down a little bit, and there were some passages that Paul didn’t like playing about golden sanitary towels and lubricants and things were cut out. But it was so long ago, I don’t really remember.
BS. ATV made it because Paul Scofield wanted a record of his performance, and you had recently directed a play by Alun Owen for ATV with Scofield [Saturday Night Theatre: Emlyn 1969]. And because the production was being made because of him and Scofield was in charge, he requested that the speeches he hadn’t liked giving on stage be cut. There are three; a long extended ribald joke about buying KY Jelly, the Golden Sanitary Towel Award, and there’s also a bit about hoping that someone dies of cancer. It’s sort of improved by leaving them out, in a way.
I’m struck by Scofield’s camera sense in the play. Robert Stevens said an interesting thing about Scofield’s stage performance where he wasn’t sure if Scofield particularly liked being in the play but “you could sense his whole ear, his whole being, on the audience to see if he’d still got them. And he would speed up or slow down, speak softly or loudly accordingly. Scofield had the ability to be totally attuned to the audience. That’s what I call great intuitive acting.”
AP. Well, he didn’t have an audience when we did it for television. Actually, I remember, my main task was trying to keep it spontaneous so it didn’t get – I mean it is a little bit theatrical, the speeches are. But I think he was working very much off instinct, he did it very freshly.
BS. I think the play is enhanced in some ways by having your concentration on close-ups of the actors. I was particularly struck with the Susan Engel character at the beginning when she’s laughing about having betrayed KL, but the anxiety shown in her face is quite upsetting.
AP. At that stage, television hadn’t been going that long, it always fascinated me how in close-up you could tell what people are thinking which is not always true of the theatre. Just being able to come in close on them was very good for this play.
BS. You chose interesting camera rhythms, because with the way that plays like this were made you didn’t have much opportunity to edit scenes that were performed continuously as they would have been in the theatre, but you had several cameras filming simultaneously as they were performing, but mixed from shot to shot according to your decisions. It’s particularly noticeable in Laurie’s declaration of love, where the decisions you make are interesting. You show Jill Bennett and you show Paul Scofield and we don’t see the two of them together, so the viewer is thinking about the speech and how it’s being reacted to.
AP. You made those camera scripts usually on the night before you shot, because you’d rehearse and you’d see how it was working. Where you thought the camera should be was very much as a result of what had happened in rehearsal. It wasn’t very conscious, you just put down the best shots you could.
BS. You started off in television on the BBC director’s training course. You directed a few Z Cars early on. That was very much instantly made – were they live ones?
AP. They were shot live. You had little bits of film put into them so that the actors could get to another set and change their costume, but it was going out live. It was quite difficult sometimes.
BS. You were telling me earlier about seeing Look Back in Anger in the late fifties and the effect it had on you –
AP. Well, it was incredible, because I felt I’d never seen anything like that on the English stage. It was almost messianic, a sort of firebrand. It was very different to the personality of Hotel in Amsterdam because he was just shouting about the kind of constriction of England. Did you see it, Nicholas?
NW. I saw it in Cape Town when I would have been sixteen, with my parents. Nigel Hawthorne played Cliff, strangely enough, the other cast you wouldn’t have known. I remember sitting there, and the thrill of my parents’ sort of stiffenings of fury and anger watching it, how they intensely disliked what they were watching and how subversively exciting that was for me.
[Three clips were then shown; an extract from the earliest surviving television footage of an Osborne play – a scene from Epitaph for George Dillon taken from a Granada variety programme called Chelsea at Eight (1958), Osborne as an actor in Play of the Month: The Parachute (a David Mercer play directed by Anthony Page), and Terrence Rattigan’s 1962 BBC play Heart to Heart.]
BS. Anthony, you had a simultaneous career as theatre and film director. One television play that you directed, The Parachute by David Mercer, starred John Osborne as a German army officer. Was it your idea to cast him? It fits very well with Osborne’s own writing and persona, I think.
AP. Yes, David Mercer was a very different kind of writer, but Osborne was very intelligent as an actor, that was the reason. His sort of slightly inhibited acting worked very well for this character, too.
BS. You get the sense of a contrarian personality.
AP. Well, a sort of contempt for the people around him, the Nazis – he was very good in it.
BS. And Nicholas, you’ve had a place in bringing to life a television drama that wasn’t just forgotten but actually unmade by another great playwright, Rattigan’s Nijinsky.
NW. Yes, I did – that was a play done at Chichester from a curious genesis. Towards the end of his life, Rattigan had written a screenplay for Cedric Messina, a very well known established BBC television producer about Nijinsky. It didn’t go out and Messina didn’t make it because Romola, Nijinsky’s widow, who was still alive, threatened to sue because she said – rightly so – that the play had insinuated that Nijinsky ha had a homosexual relationship with Diaghilev, which she said was an outrageous slander, and if this play went forward then she would sue them through every court in the land. Well, of course she wouldn’t have had any case, but they didn’t want the bother of even an unsuccessful case, so they dropped it. So I adapted that screenplay, plus the story of Cedric Messina and Rattigan. Because Rattigan had his own – it was a slightly Pirandellian situation with Rattigan’s terror of having people suppose that he, himself, was gay. Though as Messina points out in the play the fact that he’s unmarried at the age of about 55 and is always being photographed with the longest cigarette holder and leaning on the mantelpiece would suggest nothing else, except possibly to some very old lady with a parrot in Cheltenham. What clip have you got?
BS. I thought it would be interesting to see as a reversal of your play, because where you converted a television play on stage, this is Rattigan’s earliest surviving original TV play – which is about television. I thought it would remind you of the BBC, at the time when you started off as an Assistant Floor Manager.
NW. No, I hadn’t reached the heights of an Assistant Floor Manager. I was a Floor Assistant, where all you do is, you go around and you knock on doors and you say, “Mr Miles, they are waiting for you on stage”.
BS. Rattigan’s play, Heart to Heart used the idea of television and the famous programme Face to Face broadcasting to the wider public to investigate ideas of private lives and passions and public life.
NW. There had been a famous Face to Face with a TV personality called Gilbert Harding – nobody will know who he was now – who was a very pompous and masculine and down-to-earth figure like Peter Hitchens, but was also himself secretly gay, and somehow John Freeman got him to break down in tears in front of the camera, which was a big national event.
Questions from audience.
First Questioner. Was that the end of Osborne and Tony Richardson’s friendship?
AP. Probably – I don’t think it recovered.
NW. Was it The Charge of the Light Brigade [1968 film directed by Richardson] that did it?
AP. The Charge of the Light Brigade was the thing that tore it, because Tony Richardson took a part away from John, which John took a lot of umbrage at. But I think there was a lot of financial stuff as well – I would think that by the stage that Hotel in Amsterdam was written it was a real terminal breech of relationship.
Q1. The details with Charge of the Light Brigade were that John Osborne never liked to rewrite, and extensive rewrites were asked for and he didn’t come up with them and so they then got Charles Wood to come in and virtually rewrite the script. He was supposed just to doctor it, but he really rewrote it to a huge extent, apart from the structure, which was still there. And really John never forgave that. That was really the casus belli. I worked on it, so I remember that very vividly.
Second Questioner. This has been very illuminating, fascinating to hear about. Because we all know he was such an awful man, I couldn’t bear to read those books he wrote – his memoirs about his wives and all that, terrible. But he was so passionate, there’s a speech in A Patriot for Me about love – absolutely incredible. So he was very Jekyll and Hyde, and this evening has shown that side of him quite clearly. He was very conflicted, wasn’t he? Horrible, but marvellous, too!
AP. Well, he wasn’t horrible to me. He was rather passive-aggressive. He was extremely polite. He would occasionally have outbursts of rage.
Q2. I think he was very frustrated. He would say, people don’t have imagination and they don’t ask questions.
AP. I think he was quite isolated in his mood. He also would have groups of people – like in this play – that were rather sort of malicious. Laurie is just as malicious about KL as KL would have been about him. And they were rather part of the entourage. Whenever he left a wife, the new wife would always be trying to be very insulting about the old one.
NW. He always went through that rejection thing of his mother, didn’t he, on the previous wife. There was always a routine of finding female villains to replace the mother. Just like he always found idealised father figures, like George Devine or whoever, throughout his life.
I saw him late in life because he wrote a terribly good version of The Father by Strindberg for the National Theatre where I was working at the time. And I met him and he was strange then. He was very thin and it was as though he had burned out, but in a beautiful way. He was sort of ashy in colour. His hair was white. He had a long spindly white beard. It was as though all the passion had been burned out of him, and he was like a sort of ash-white stick, of great courtesy and charm. Not drinking, I think, then or he would very carefully drink a glass of champagne.
BS. I sat opposite him on a train once. He was wearing this extraordinary tweed outfit. I was this unprepossessing-looking 19-year old, and he gave me this knowing look of tender contempt. It was quite frightening, but I knew I’d remember it for the rest of my life.
NW. But he was physically then very beautiful. He’d become very beautiful, which he certainly wasn’t in youth.
BS. Osborne might have been a reprehensible figure, but I do find him a compelling dramatist. I think this play has demonstrated this very well tonight, and it’s been marvellous to have its director and assistant still here to enjoy it, fifty years on.