Life catches up with you

First Stephen Fry walked out on him. Then they gave him six months to live. It's been a hell of a year for Simon Gray.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For an annus that is definitively horribilis, the following would take some beating. It kicks off with Stephen Fry doing a mysterious, headline- hogging bunk from your new play Cell Mates. Despite a number of appreciative reviews, this defection convinces the media that your fine, thought-provoking comedy is contaminated and speeds it to a premature, highly publicised demise. Then, just as you've managed to sluice most of that out of your system and into a book, you're told that you have terminal cancer with two years to live at the outside but, more likely, six months.

The ultimate damning review. But in the same way that the critics have been wrong when forecasting the life expectancy of his plays (as with Butley, say, which ran for over a year), so the medics turned out to be a little over-hasty in predicting an early closure for Simon Gray himself. A couple of aneurisms is all they found - though theirs was, you feel, the kind of misdiagnosis that could have been as lethal as the (illusory) cancer.

Gray succeeded in exorcising most of the demons of the Fry debacle by writing Fat Chance, one of his unputdownable, if putdown-packed, memoirs - here deepened and darkened by a sharp sense of the way the off-stage and on-stage dramas mirrored one another by both flowing from the betrayal of a friend. His doctors have good cause to be relieved that Gray has not responded to their clinical misadventures in quite so direct a form.

The brush with death led, instead, to his wondering how life had been treating the characters of his 1975 hit, Otherwise Engaged. In that play, Alan Bates memorably portrayed Simon Hench, a publisher who tries to fend off the world by pretending it doesn't exist. His attempts to settle down and listen to a new recording of Wagner's Parsifal were repeatedly, tragicomically, foiled by interruptions from lodgers, brothers, friends, spouses and so on. "If life catches up with everybody at the end, why hasn't it with you?" complained one of Hench's less successful school- mates, whose young lover the publisher had casually seduced. Simply Disconnected, Gray's new play (again starring Bates and opening this week at Chichester), puts Hench through a day full of deja vu correspondences with the one he experienced 20-odd years ago. But though he starts off in characteristic provokingly poised and detached form, it's the desolating fact that he has left it too late to catch up with life that gradually confronts Gray's protagonist here. Just for one moment, the accumulated pain is let out in "a terrible howl of grief and rage".

I met up with Gray at one of his regular haunts, the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park, where I found him looking the picture of defiant ill health, chain-smoking religiously and demonstrating that, like Bernstein's Cunegonde, he has no strong objection to champagne. Eyes, which it must have taken some fixity of purpose to get quite so bloodshot, give the formidable scowl a significant boost. At one point, he made a reference to a Cambridge professor who had suffered a stroke on the squash courts: "He was super fit - always a dangerous condition to be in, I think." No immediate risk of that kind of health hazard with Gray, whose refusal to compromise is genuinely inspiring.

He agrees that the new piece will probably elicit comparisons with John Osborne's Deja Vu, which showed Look Back in Anger's Jimmy Porter in garrulous middle-age, a different Alison now stationed behind that legendary ironing board. "My play has one advantage," says Gray; "it's shorter" - a comment that suggests a less than total admiration for Osborne's last work. Now a childless widower, the hero of Simply Disconnected is, Gray believes, "in hell and, in a sense, dead. I think he begins to discover the value of new life as the day proceeds, and it's too late."

The young, married cleaning woman is pregnant, possibly by Hench; it's likely that he's the father of the screwed-up drug addict who arrives out of the blue claiming to be the bitter fruit of one of his loveless couplings on the office floor. But both of them reject Hench's desperate offers of help. His belated need to be needed goes unanswered. He was never there: why should they let him be now? The play, though, is studiedly ambivalent about its hero. Gray says that Hench's "refusal to answer to other people on any question, including the question of whether he wants to live or die, seems to me both worthy of respect and contemptible simultaneously".

The theme of frustrated paternity will be given an intriguing spin in Richard Wilson's premiere production at Chichester by having the drug addict played by Alan Bates's real-life son, Benedick. Father-son relationships cropped up a lot in our conversation. He has just finished, he reveals, the first draft of a play about his own pathologist father. Concerned with the "impossibility of escaping the genetic trap", it looks at how, by surviving our fathers, we - in some odd sense - swap roles with them, becoming our father's father. It's curious, we agreed, how the art of biography tends to dwell on the way parents shape their children, when the way children shape their parents is also of huge significance.

Symbolic fatherhood surfaced as an issue, too, when I brought up the question of his film script on the topic of Siegfried Sassoon during the Great War. Commissioned to adapt the first two novels of Pat Barker's trilogy, Gray found himself going back to the historical sources and writing a much more personal film which the studio that owns the rights is never going to make. In Fat Chance, he mentions this blow as being one of the causes of the breakdown he suffered, confessing that "the subject of [Sassoon in the War] reached far too deeply into me, overthrowing me really emotionally".

Talking to him about this and reading his excellent script, you sense a strong imaginative identification with men for whom the war came as a hideously double-edged chance to sublimate painful sexual ambivalences in caringly paternal relationships: the commanding officer to his men, the doctor to his patient. Gray, the father of two children, interprets Rivers, who ran Craiglockhart Hospital, as a father manque involved in the cruelly ironic business of restoring the "sons" he loved to psychic health so that they could be sent back to the trenches to be killed. The final scene shows Sassoon running across the German lines like some rapturous maniac offering himself up to a death that eluded him. The war as a way out for the suicidal man of honour: you feel that Gray understands the appeal of that. He's certainly in no doubt that the Hench of Simply Disconnected, a bastard who has committed a kind of spiritual suicide but who is not without a certain sense of personal honour, would have fought fearlessly in the trenches. The BBC has bought the rights to Fat Chance and even made the tasteless suggestion that it might be filmed with Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall playing themselves. It says all that needs to be said on the subject of the dramatist's current feelings about Fry that he wouldn't put it past him to accept such a part. Not that Gray will ever provide a script. Instead, he's written a piece about another real-life performer - Julian Hough, Patrick Barlow's partner in the National Theatre of Brent - who "walked" not once but twice, each time when they were on the brink of a big breakthrough. "It's a much richer story," says Gray, "because I think that Hough, who was killed jay-walking on the Guildford by-pass, had an element of genius in him - desperately unhappy, mad, father-fixated." And the father on whom he was fixated just happens to have been Graham Hough, the don who taught Gray at Cambridge.

Towards the end of this interview, a call came through to remind Gray that he was due at the doctor's. When Anthony Burgess was mistakenly assured that the end was nigh, he polished off half-a-dozen works of fiction. Gray, too, now seems to have an almost indecently large number of projects on the go, including a novel that began as an effort to write straight pornography and turned, he seems disappointed to discover, into a somewhat higher-brow piece about lovelessness. If he keeps up this level of productivity, we'll have cause to be grateful to those misdiagnosing medics.

n Now previewing, opens Monday, Chichester Minerva Theatre, West Sussex (01243 781312)