Invisible Ink: No 65 - Peter Nichols

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The Independent Culture

I've always felt guilty describing living authors as "forgotten", hence this column's title-change to something more apposite.

Novels remain, yellowing on shelves, but most plays are ephemeral, vanishing after a brief trot around the theatre circuit. Peter Nichols's plays proved more robust and cinematic – several were filmed – but that hasn't stopped him from disappearing in a West End stuffed with musicals.

Nichols was born in Bristol in 1927, which threw him into the Second World War in his teens. A contemporary of the equally brilliant Charles Wood, he began writing TV plays (when there were such things). But where Wood frequently wrote about war and survival, Nichols has always been harder to pin down in choice of subject matter. His work was often autobiographical. A Day in the Death of Joe Egg had been inspired by his own experiences of raising a handicapped child, and although a deeply compassionate piece, it's still shocking today.

He clearly enjoyed making audiences uncomfortable. The National Health was a zeitgeist play presenting Britain as an ailing patient. In it, soap-opera medics fall in love, while all around them an imploding NHS hospital proves unable to cope with the sick, who die in an atmosphere of indifference.

Privates on Parade, which drew on Nichols's own Ensa (Entertainments National Service Association) experiences, sees the ditzy members of the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, under the command of queeny Captain Terri Dennis, end up running guns on a hellish tour of Malaysia that sees most of them shot dead or wounded. Dennis is a glorious creation, camp and brave with a penchant for the dressing-up box and a disrespectful range of one-liners: "That Bernadette Shaw, nags away from arsehole to breakfast-time but never sees what's staring her in the face."

Nichols's most subversive play was Poppy, which re-imagined the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars as a Christmas pantomime complete with panto cow, dame and cross-dressed principal boy. At one point, the audience was encouraged to rise and join in a sing-along about the disgraceful behaviour of British troops, while Dick Whittington's sister ends up a junkie. That this was installed at the Adelphi in a spectacular RSC production says a lot about theatreland's present low ambitions.

A terrific autobiography, Feeling You're Behind, followed, along with an excellent set of diaries covering Nichols's key years. The West End needs his angry humanity more than ever.