THEATRE / Purring like a kitten, roaring like a lion: Peggy Ramsay, the legendary London agent who discovered Joe Orton and Edward Bond, left her estate to 'writers in need of assistance'

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The Independent Culture
As the new pounds 50,000 Peggy Ramsay Play Award is announced, five established playwrights recall how Ramsay - formidable, infuriating, forthright, the scourge of their families, the blessing of their careers - set them on the right path. Interviews by Sabine Durrant.

DAVID HARE

Peggy's ferocious passion was for the new; all her genius was for fighting for a writer before that writer became recognised. That was the period, from when she first persuaded the critic Harold Hobson to give Samuel Beckett his support, that she felt she was most useful to people. What she loved was to be able to support writers like Joe Orton or Caryl Churchill - in every case writers who were in advance of public taste. She had this wonderful phrase: 'The first thing I look for in new work is ugliness. The new is always ugly and shocking.'

She always believed writing plays was to do with character. She turned down quite well-known writers if she didn't believe they wanted to write the plays within themselves, that they didn't want to look inside themselves. She had a very romantic 19th-century view of art which she loved with a capital A; emotional honesty was her criterion, really. It's very fitting that this award should be a production fund - it's to be given to a theatre or company to put on a new play - and not a commissioning fund - Peggy was very intolerant of people who intended to write plays. She was only interested in people who had.

I came to her in 1973 after I'd written a play called Knuckle, which my then agent Clive Goodwin didn't like. He had me marked down as someone who made jokes, so when I wrote a serious play he was horrified.

Peggy, though, fell passionately in love with it. She drove the rest of her clientele mad - saying to everyone 'Why can't you write like Hare?' My name was mud. She persuaded Michael Codron to put it on and it was a flop, but she used to write me passionate letters, saying it doesn't matter, I've seen these setbacks before. She had faith in you at crucial moments. And when Peggy flattered, you stayed flattered because you knew her praise was unbuyable.

Everything I then wrote for a 10- year period was marked by our relationship - it would be a very rare day when she didn't ring me five or six times, usually beginning at 6.30 in the morning. It was nothing but profit, with the exception of my marriage, I suppose . . .

She didn't approve of husbands or wives; she felt writers shouldn't have lives. There was a wonderful thing she said to Peter Nichols when he was off to a premiere of one of his plays in New York. When he told her that 'Thelma was looking forward to it too', she was genuinely shocked. She said, 'You're taking your wife? That's like taking a ham sandwich to a banquet]' Another time, when Knuckle was going to New York, she gave me dollars 2,000 for expenses - 'buy yourself a girl', she said.

Our lives were entwined for about 10 years until Simon Callow arrived. She became very close to him and our relationship changed. I was never hurt or jealous. But I think she was bored by my success. I remember her reading The Secret Rapture and saying: 'This is going to be your most successful play.' When she said that, it was like closing a book.

She became much more relaxed near the end. She used to hate publicity, but during the whole business of the film Prick Up Your Ears, she discovered she didn't dislike publicity as much as she thought she had. 'I know they're going to cast somebody ghastly as me,' she told me, 'Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave or someone.' 'Who do you think woud be perfect?' I asked. 'Catherine Deneuve,' she said.

WILLY RUSSELL

It was way back in 1973 and, under very iffy circs, I'd walked away with nothing from a BBC Radio Times Drama award and Hugh Whitemore, who had been a judge, sent my script to Peggy. I was teaching at the time in Toxteth and a phone call came for me in the staff room - in those days to interrupt a teacher was unheard of - and it was Peggy. 'Hello dear,' she said, 'I'm going to look after you . . . Now where are you? He's teaching, Tom]' I could hear her cry to her office. She was on the phone for three-quarters of an hour, by which time the class had been and gone - fled the bloody school.

But that's what she was like, all demanding in terms of attention and you were happy both to receive it and give it back.

She was brilliant in the early days - I think she got the first million dollar contract for Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. But that was nothing to her. Her passion was not for the writer, it was for the writing. I remember phoning her up one day - I'd just done the film of Educating Rita, I had a big TV series on, I was jetsetting out of the country every week - and I told her I wanted to do a five-man play and tour it round schools in Merseyside and she didn't skip a beat. She didn't care as long as you were writing.

If ever I had trouble with what I was working on I'd always drop in and fly it past her. She'd always come in from left field, never directly. Sometimes she'd put her arms around you, sometimes she'd boot you in the arse. She could be scabrously wicked. She always called Educating Rita 'that little play'. She didn't understand the rave reviews. She said, 'What's wrong with them, darling? That little play . . .'

MARTIN SHERMAN

Peggy was the first person of any importance in the theatre who took any notice of me. It was in the early Seventies and I had a two-bit agent in America, where I was still living. I wrote to Peggy and, when I was over for a week, rang her to ask if she'd read my scripts. 'Oh yes, darling,' she said. 'Whatever I can do for you, of course.' It's hard to explain how I was treated in those days in America - absolute shit. It simply was not possible to get an agent of Peggy's position on the phone, let alone to read a script. I think the work was very, very crude, but what she saw was promise.

I've never met anyone who could read a play like Peggy. She was invaluable to me as a writer. I wrote a play called Rio Grande which I thought she would like, but she talked about how I was wearing my heart on my sleeve and how I should toughen up. I think that lead directly into Bent, the play that followed and into everything I've written since. She was an absolute one-off, an artist who happened to be an agent.

She also got things done. There's a very complicated scene change in Bent and, when it was done at the Royal Court, the technical rehearsal was a mess. The next morning, very upset, I went to see Peggy. She said, 'You mean it's roaring like a lion whereas it should purr like a kitten? So we should purr like a kitten and not roar like a lion' - she often repeated herself if she said something she liked. 'I'll phone them and tell them.' An hour later, I went into the Court and there were twice as many technicians, the whole Court staff was there, and the scene change went effortlessly. Afterwards one of the stage hands came up to me and whispered, 'purred like a kitten'.

CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON

I remember quite vividly the first time I met Peggy. I had a play on while I was at Oxford, When Did You Last See My Mother, and I started getting letters from agents. I wrote to Peggy and she summoned me down to London. I found her dazzlingly formidable, and she interrogated me mercilessly. Anyway, I went back to Oxford, and four weeks after this I was sitting in my room in college and the porter came and said there's a phone call for you - an unprecedented event, I thought someone had died. But Peggy had browbeaten this fellow to get me. 'Well, dear,' she shouted, 'They're putting your play on at the Royal Court. You'd better get down here.' Later I got to read the report they'd written on the play - 'quite interesting, not up to our standards' or something. They'd communicated this to Peggy and she'd give them such a bollocking they'd had to change their minds.

All Peggy's energy went into looking after the new ones. It was a sort of tempestuous love affair. She'd ring me up at 8am and say, it's time to go to work. She wasn't interested in you when you were famous. She thought that as writers got better known, they got more 'comfortable' - a great Peggy word of reprobation. There was always a period of some dread after you'd submitted a play. I can think of a TV film of mine that she didn't like which never appeared - I've always suspected she had a word with the producer. She would refer to it as 'That Film' - 'You know, dear, That Film.'

NED SHERRIN

Caryl Brahms knew Peggy from way back and we went to her after Caryl got pissed off with another agent. I don't think she ever thought we were good enough for her. She was always trying to offload us. But we'd always say 'It's no good, Peggy, you can't sack us.' Occasionally, you caught her at the out-of-town first night of one of your plays telling the producers not to bring it in. But her opinion was always valuable and if she did send something to somebody, you realised she wasn't bullshitting. She never sent out stuff she didn't believe in. And if things came to her on a bog roll, she'd read them and assess them.

Six theatre or theatre companies are to be invited annually to submit a new script for the Peggy Ramsay Play Award. The 1994 selection will be announced this week. David Hare is one of the trustees

(Photograph omitted)

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