Arts: The gent's still for quoting

In his heyday, Christopher Fry was famous for his impenetrable verse dramas. Now, at 91, there's nothing he likes more than to spin a yarn.
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The Independent Culture
In the basement cafe of the Actors' Centre in Covent Garden an old, slack-jawed filmy-eyed man is staring intently into a glass of water as he speaks to me. A few moments later he'll give it a whack with his elbow, sending water and glass fragments everywhere.

"I have known Christopher since 1935," he tells me. "And, yes, he is still writing... mainly poems these days, when people ask him. He'd still very much like to write a sequel to A Phoenix Too Frequent but he finds plots awfully difficult. No one has found the right plot."

The Christopher in question is 91-year-old Christopher Fry, the playwright who was so famous for his intricate and often bewildering verse dramas until the Osborne/ Wesker/Arden generation seemed to sweep him into oblivion.

The vernacular had triumphed momentarily over the poetic. However, The Lady's Not For Burning has just had a successful revival at the Shakespeare Theatre in Ontario. There have been recent productions of other plays in the United States. Germany is especially fond of him. But what of his home country?

The friend looks saddened, though stoical. "It's mainly the amateur dramatic societies that do him these days. He'll come back; he'll come back."

The fact is that Christopher Fry has not quite gone away. He is still alive, living in a village in Sussex, and today, at the invitation of the Piccadilly Poets, he's been driven up to London by a kindly neighbour to talk to this roomful of admirers about those glory days of his. He arrives a little late for this appointment with himself, which is always a good way to whet an audience's appetite. He's short, spry, dapper, energetic, lightly tanned, and smartly buttoned into a two-piece suit.

He could be 15 years younger than we know him to be. He has the demeanour of a man who thinks that there is a lot still to play for, both on the stage and off.

The prepared talk - his friend had already let me know which talk I would be hearing - relives the amicable tussles with dear old Larry Olivier at the turn of the Fifties when Olivier had just taken on the management of the St James's Theatre in London's West End, and had commissioned Fry to write a play for the opening production. The play would be The Lady's Not For Burning (that phrase, Fry reminds us with a touch of baleful humour, which would be of such service to Mrs Thatcher's speech-writers).

The writing is proceeding at such an agonisingly slow pace that Larry sends his darling boy a typewriter ribbon through the post. Unfortunately, it does not quite fit Fry's 1917 Corona Portable.

As Fry reads, he jingles the loose change in his trouser pocket. When he quotes an extract from one of his plays, he slips his small hand inside his jacket and presses it to his heart - as if he needs the body's pulse to read his verse by.

Larry tours with the play to New York, from where he writes Fry an impassioned letter, telling him about the problems he is having with the play. "The whole thing is just too intellectual for the audiences," Olivier explains. "One moment I have them in my hand like baby mice, then out comes something difficult again and it is like playing in a hospital for croup. Be a bit easier on them, you cocky bastard!" he pleads.

"Dearest Kit, if you would only act some of your roles, you'd find out so much to give you occasion for constructive pondering."

Fry stops quoting dear old Larry and looks up. "I did give Rosabel a drastic going-over two or three summers ago," he tells us, his eyes twinkling. "Unfortunately it was 48 years too late."