HOW WE MET

MICHAEL BLAKEMORE AND MICHAEL FRAYN
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The Independent Culture
The director Michael Blakemore (near right) was born in Sydney. His stage productions include A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Lettice and Lovage (1987). Aged 67, he is married to Tania McCallin, the designer; they have two daughters. Michael Frayn, 62, has written eight novels, two films and 11 plays, including Noises Off (1982). He lives in London with his wife, Claire Tomalin; he has three daughters from his previous marriage

MICHAEL BLAKEMORE: My first memory of Michael Frayn is in the Upper Circle bar in the Old Vic. I'd just done a production of Peter Nichols's The National Health and Michael had seen it and he was very delighted with it. It was the interval and he came up and very generously congratulated me, so possibly this appealed to my vanity and made the event stick in my mind. He was friends with the Nicholses before I knew him, and I'd certainly heard about him through Peter, but I think that was the first occasion we'd met. This was in 1969.

I was mainly struck by the generosity of his response to the show - how could I not like somebody who liked my work? I knew his comic pieces in the Guardian, so I wasn't at all surprised by his sense of humour and the value he placed on laughter. I liked him at once.

The next occasion I was in touch with him was when I was asked to do a play in Tel Aviv. I didn't know Israel at all, but I knew as a journalist that he'd been there, so I rang him up for advice. He recommended me the best hotel I'd ever stayed in in my life - it was called the American Colony, which makes it sound like a modern monstrosity, but it was nothing of the sort. It was a hotel run by an old American evangelical family, who went to Jerusalem on a quest when all their daughters were killed in a storm at sea. They built a hospital in the walls of Jerusalem, then they opened this hotel in an old pasha's palace in what used to be the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem. All the rooms were the rooms of the pasha's harem, so they had these amazing sculpted ceilings with stars and crescent moons, and it was right next door to a mosque, so you had the prayers all night long - a unique place. It's journalists who always know all the good places to go, so I was grateful to Michael for that.

We didn't really become close friends, I think, until 1971 or 1972. I found a house at a bargain price in the south-west of France on the Atlantic coast, down in Biarritz. It was in terrible, ramshackle condition, but it was large, so I decided I could afford to renovate it if I let out part of it to friends for a nominal rent. I rang up Michael and his family, and they came down every summer for three or four years. And that was where I got to know him very well.

Later on, when we were doing plays together, we went down to France to prepare Noises Off. My only athletic activity is surfing, and this was a little bit of Australia I'd found in Europe - Australian surf with French food: a perfect place to work. So we'd do some work, then I'd say, "Michael, haven't we done enough? Let's go for a swim," and we'd go and have a swim.

The first of his plays that I directed was Make and Break. I read it, was knocked out by it, thought it was the best play of Michael's many fine plays up to that date -- did it, it was a success, and we formed this working relationship. I wasn't really worried about working with someone I knew as a friend, because having a working relationship with somebody in the theatre is actually - unless it goes wrong - inclined to intensify the friendship. In fact, I think whereas I counted Michael as a friend when he came down to France, he really only became a very close friend when we started working together. There's no quicker way of getting to know somebody than working with them. Theatre is like a hothouse, it breeds a sort of forced intimacy, and it's very much to do with crisis, deadlines, pressure; when you share those sorts of experience with somebody you become close to them.

I don't think we've ever had a fight. We spend a lot of time before rehearsals going through the play very carefully, with me asking dumb questions, so I know exactly what he hopes to get out of every scene, and that preparation means I'm usually not on the wrong track.

Then Michael comes along to the theatre towards the end of the last week of rehearsals. I'd be very happy if he attended all rehearsals - some writers like to - but we've worked out that the best way for us to work together is for him to stay away until I've got something to show him. Then he comes along and he has views and opinions, takes notes, and we discuss his notes and they're implemented. Occasionally there might be something we disagree about for a moment, but by and large I don't think we've ever had a fight. He's very good to work with, because if he has a point of view about something he's very firm, but there's no sense of him throwing his weight around because he's the writer.

My wife and I and Michael and Claire frequently go out to dinner and go to the theatre together. I was best man at his wedding, and we see a great deal of each other. We share an interest in films and plays and books - Michael is much better read than I am. I would describe him as a man of passionate moderation, with a truly independent mind - sceptical of excess and emotional excess.

MICHAEL FRAYN: We met through the playwright Peter Nichols, because Peter and his wife had just moved to Blackheath, where my then wife and I lived, and we became great friends with them. Michael directed all Peter's plays, absolutely wonderfully, and it was through him that I met him. It was when he was directing The National Health at the National Theatre, which was then at the Old Vic. Michael tells me it was 1969; it was certainly some time around then.

I was probably overawed, because he was a celebrated director. The theatre was a world I was beginning to get into - I must have written my first show by the time I first met Michael - but it was a glamorous world I was on the outside of. He was, and remains, an immensely charming, forceful character to me.

We always got on well, but I don't think it was a coup de foudre. We gradually got used to each other and became friendlier and friendlier - we certainly became friends before he directed one of my plays. The first one he directed was Make and Break, and he was already a good friend. I can't remember being at all worried about working with him - certainly friends can fall out, but it's never happened to us. We sometimes squabble, but I don't think we've ever really fallen out over work.

Michael knows my work very well, but the wonderful thing about him as a director is that he starts each new play as if he knows nothing whatsoever about it, as though it's by someone he'd never met before. A lot of directors come to texts with very set ideas; Michael always starts from zero, and letting the play speak.

The first thing the director does with a new play, which people outside the theatre often don't understand, is work with the writer and try and make the text work. A good director can often make suggestions to a writer which make him see things in the text he hadn't realised were there. With Noises Off, which was our biggest joint success, Michael persuaded me to do a great deal of re-writing, and put up a lot of new ideas himself. A lot of things that made that play work are thanks to Michael.

If Michael says he's worried about something, or something's not clear, I certainly listen with great care and almost always do precisely as he suggests. But he tends not to make specific suggestions - he doesn't say, "Why don't you make this line into such-and-such?". He makes helpfully imprecise suggestions which point the way and set one's imagination to work.

He sometimes gets impatient; the relationship between director and writer can be difficult. The director does this wonderful job in rehearsals, then the writer comes in and starts to fuss and make pernickety objections. It requires a great deal of patience on the part of the director to put up with this.

Michael likes to work in Biarritz, where he has a holiday home. On several of the earlier plays I've gone down there for a week or two to work. He has this place because he's very keen on surfing, and his eye tends to wander at the end of a morning's working to the weather outside, and he starts saying, "Hmmm... there might be some waves... perhaps we should break off and go and have a look... " He's an immensely courageous surfer; my nerve is not quite up to it. I quite like body surfing, but the kind of surf he goes after makes me turn tail.

He's one of the most intelligent people I know. I don't mean clever, I mean intelligent - because he thinks everything out for himself. And he's very human. He's a great hypochondriac; always suffering from a range of ailments. He once made me swallow a complete garlic clove whole, because I came to talk about a script when I was suffering from a slight cold. He backed away in horror and said, "Don't come near me till you've swallowed this clove."

He's also very generous. He always wears handmade shoes, and he's always mocked my taste in footwear. One day, I got a message from him, sounding rather agitated, saying could I meet him in the West End. I rushed off to this meeting, feeling rather anxious. He said, "Would you mind if we just went into this shop here," so we went in, and I realised everyone was bowing to him and saying, "Oh, Mr Blakemore, hello Mr Blake-more, so nice to see you, Mr Blake-more," and I realised it was one of these very expensive shoe shops. The next thing I knew, I was sitting down, my feet were being measured, and he treated me to a pair of handmade shoes. I didn't realise what a treat it was until a year after, when I decided to have another pair made. I went back to the shop, but it didn't occur to me to ask what they were going to cost. When I got the bill, I fell back in horror. It was one of the nicest gestures he's ever made.

Michael's been working abroad a lot in these past last few years, but when he's here we tend to see quite a lot of each other. When Claire and I finally got married two years ago, Michael was our best man; he made an extremely funny speech, at our expense of course. And his wife, who is Tania McCallin, the designer, was absolutely wonderful; she designed the whole wedding. She tried to persuade me to wear one of Michael's ties, but I rebelled at that point.

We often go and see plays together, or go to the cinema. We often have dinner together, or they just drop in, or we drop in on them. In fact, Tania went into labour with her second child when they were having tea round at our house. It was quite dramatic: suddenly Tania realised the baby was coming. Michael rushed off to ring the ambulance, fell down a flight of steps and broke his ankle, so the ambulance had to remove both of them to the hospital, put one in the labour ward and one into casualty. !

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