A life in two acts

Roy MacGregor came late to writing plays and died all too soon. Here Dominic Dromgoole, who produced the author's first work at the Bush and presents his last work at the Old Vic tonight, pays tribute to a sweetly surprising talent

The first time I met Roy was in a squalid little meeting room at the Bush. He'd come up to talk about his first play, Our Own Kind. We'd read the first half and were fired up about it. A play about council estate racism - traditional territory for bleeding-heart victim plays - it had a scope, a rhetoric and an attack that was truly original.

Roy was a surprise. The play's fire and flourish seemed to find no equivalent in the faintly lugubrious, gentle man I met. His preternatural calm, and habitual hangdog expression always misled people. They under-estimated the amount going on inside. Unlike those playwrights who noisily advertise demons they don't actually possess, Roy had real demons, and he dealt with them, quietly.

But what became clear, even at a short meeting, was a quite extraordinary and very rarely met sweetness of spirit. Behind the stiff manner, the briefcase and the middle-management front, there was a genuine and particular grace. It was the grace of a man who has been to the end of despair, seen most of the squalor and torpor on offer, and then turned the corner. The grace of a man who, knowing all the bad, allows himself to be continually surprised by the good.

I'm probably being largely retrospective in my insight now. Probably at the time I just thought he was a talented writer. But, as our friendship grew, I came to discover his story. Roy led a life split into two separate acts. The radical contrast between the first and the second gives the largest insight into how he attained such an uncommon grace.

Act 1 was a long aimless drift, the restless wandering of a talented man out of touch with himself. There was a period as a blues guitarist, jamming all over Europe from the King's Head to American air-bases in Germany; there was a time as a graphic illustrator, using and developing his gift for sharp characterisation; there was everything else from selling insurance door to door round Highbury to hiring out ski equipment in the German Alps.

As with many whose sense of their potential fails to match their sense of achievement, something had to fill the gap. For Roy, it was booze, largely, although he dabbled fairly far and wide elsewhere. But booze was the No 1. He never bragged of his ex-drinking, although the hints he dropped implied a fairly Herculean intake.

Much of the Eighties Roy spent in Germany. It was at the end of that tawdry decade, when his marriage had collapsed, that Roy returned to England, locked himself into a bedsit in Bristol with a crate of booze and almost drank himself to death. For him it was the end of the road. He had tried everything, seen everything, been everywhere and found no lasting answers. Rushed to hospital in a state of internal collapse, Roy looked up and saw a priest reading the last rites beside his bed.

Act 2 began with his miraculous escape from the embrace of his own angel of death. With his recovery, a clarity broke through into Roy's life, and a purpose. He wanted to write. He didn't know what, but he knew he wanted to write. So, encouraged by therapists and counsellors, he started. And having started, he couldn't stop.

Writing filled the gap in Roy's life. All of the talent that had been there before found its natural outlet: the musician released itself into cadence and phrasing; the illustrator into accuracy and detail; the self- destruct mechanism coin-flipped into the most prodigious and determined creativity.

For a while he lived on cornflakes, and spent the rest of his pennies on writing materials. He read enthusiastically, picking up Ibsen and Priestley and Miller and Griffiths, and with the cheek of the auto-didact he took them on, on their own territory. He always liked big stories, weaving together private pain with public justice.

The Bush eventually produced two of Roy's plays, Our Own Kind and Phoenix. The first was a fairy-tale; a wonderful cast (including Kevin Whately), great reviews and a huge hit. The second - an extended parable about post- unification Germany - was a perfect consolidation. Both plays broke all the rules for their time - a time when small achievement in new writing was admired above large aspirations. Both plays also inspired many other writers to take on braver, bolder topics. They broke through the timidity that shrank new writing at the time. They said, "Look, you can do this."

The plays themselves were picked up and performed all over the world. Roy was garlanded with a few awards, including the first Meyer-Whitworth Award, and was liberally commissioned by other theatres. But the waiting and the dithering and the capriciousness got him down, and it wasn't long before he was seduced away by television.

For three or four years, Roy wrote a huge amount of popular television, stamping his hallmark truth, anger and grace on all he touched. But Roy was always looking and hoping to return to the theatre, his first love. He was beyond joy when we told him that the Old Vic would be producing Snake in the Grass this autumn.

But then life, which had given Roy such a magnificent second chance, decided to kick him in the teeth. Roy rang me in January this year and told me that he had cancer, and that it looked very bad. He hoped that he would make it to see the show, but he feared he wouldn't.

Through all our subsequent conversations and correspondence, Roy never once complained about his fate. He described his upcoming death as "natural", saying that all endings were natural, as natural as all beginning. He retired into the care of his magnificent mother, who endured many of his darker moods, and provided him with the unquestioning environment we must all hope for at our end. Hours before his death, his eyes were still bright with his remarkable calm.

Roy wrote large, clumsy plays. He was never strong on finesse or polish, but his work was always redeemed by large-heartedness and magnanimity. Always in his work, there would be a moment, a spread of compassion, that would remind an audience of what they always forget - that we should always remember how greatly we can surprise ourselves and each other by our warmth and our generosity and our courage. And that we are all capable of change, profound change, and change for the better. I think I'll meet happier men than Roy, but I don't think I'll meet any better.

Roy MacGregor died in June. His `Snake in the Grass' opens tonight, then plays Sundays and Mondays to 3 Nov, Old Vic, Waterloo Rd, London SE1 (017-928 7616)

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