Coales' Notes: Not the real thing: Gordon Coales fills in for a leading playwright

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY This week's main panic is the Unton Festival of Literature. As Di said, perhaps the smallest, but easily the first literary festival of 1993. 'And the wonderful thing is, we've got Tom Stoppard to do the opening on Friday.' General disbelief. 'Well it's practically definite. Hebe knows someone who knows Fizz.' She asked me if I'd come down and do the warm-up. I hesitated. Rory said (without looking up): 'Oh come on Gordon, it's perfectly simple. Dazzlingly complex comedy of ideas. Verbal acrobatics. He makes words dance. Or see the play.'

I rang up my new friend Mr Jarvis to get his views. He said not to see the play. If I wanted the real low down, I should meet him at a pub in Highgate tomorrow, for the North London Stoppard Society's post-first-night seminar.

WEDNESDAY The pub was buzzing with excitement. Jarvis and I joined what seemed to be the most serious table. A man with a moustache explained that a sweepstake had been held in advance as to the likely contents of the new play. 'There was oceanography and international terrorism. There was genetic engineering and financial futures. And there was serial music, serial killers and cereal packets, which had a lot of support.' However, he said, the master had confounded them all - with a quite unforeseen combination of landscape gardening and Chaos Theory. The whole table began to smile broadly and shake their heads. He went on: 'I mean. Who but Stoppard. . .?' General sigh.

Another said: 'But beneath the verbal gymnastics, Stoppard is asking some serious questions. What is time? And can we ever really know anything?' A third added: 'And he never went to university, you know.' At this point Jarvis became restless, and we left.

THURSDAY I am not going to do it, and I have said so. Di took me to one side this evening, and murmured urgently, 'Look Gordon. Stoppard's fallen through. I'd like you to do it instead.' I said, perhaps. She went on,'I really don't like doing this, but you are more or less his age, and how many people really know what he looks like?' I said, be serious. She said, 'Well, I'm sorry - but I promised them Tom Stoppard, and I'm not going to let them down now.'

I told her I was very happy to deliver a perfectly decent all-purpose opening speech, such as I have delivered many times before.

FRIDAY We all drove down to Unton, with me being coached (under protest) in a speech penned by Rory which began 'There has always seemed to me something inherently paradoxical about a Festival of Literature. . .' I assured them again that it would not work.

We arrived in the nick of time outside the festival marquee - crowds, banners blowing etc. Introduced as TS to the Chairman of the Unton Literary Society. He gave me a slightly strange look, but seemed pleased. Di said: 'I think we have to do something about your hair, Gordon. Wear this.' She produced a baseball cap. I could hear the Chairman saying 'verbal pyrotechnics - conceptual conundra - swiss watchmaker.' Then applause - and I was propelled towards the podium.

I decided to take things no further. I began: 'Ladies and Gentlemen. I have a confession to make. You are the victims of an elaborate hoax and I am an impostor (laughter). I am not Tom Stoppard (laughter) I am someone completely different (laughter). It is not even a particularly good likeness (mad applause).' After which, I could apparently do no wrong, and I think I gave one of my best ever opening speeches.

The Chairman then glad-handed me to a seat, saying 'Well, ladies and gentlemen - who but Tom Stoppard could have given such a dazzling and, if I may say so, such a quintessentially Stoppardian twist to the proceedings? - though at the same time posing some quite profound questions about identity. . .' More applause, during which I slipped from the tent, and Rory sped me to a hotel three villages away, where I am to lie low.