John Roy Chapman, actor, playwright and screenwriter: born London 27 May 1927; married 1954 Betty Impey (three sons, and one son deceased); died Périgueux, France 3 September 2001
Last year, the Royal National Theatre staged platform performances of the 100 most popular plays of the 20th century. John Chapman's Dry Rot, first staged in 1954, was one of them, and before the excerpt from Act I began, Chapman told – most amusingly – the story of his theatrical beginnings:
My own route to writing farce was purely accidental. I had just one ambition in life, to be an actor, and to that end I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1948 and was accepted. During the first year at the academy I learnt how to walk, breathe, sit down, open a door and light a cigarette. I also found out that though I had an aptitude for modern comedy. I showed a distinct inadequacy when it came to Shakespeare. My fencing was also suspect. . .
I had a further problem. Voice production. This I studied under a teacher of great renown who had helped King George VI to overcome his stammer. One day in my second year he told me my voice was "tweedy". I was somewhat nonplussed, and asked him to explain what he meant by "tweedy". "Well" – he paused and sought inspiration from the ceiling – "just tweedy". It was obviously high time to rethink my future career
Chapman was born in 1927 in Shalimar Gardens, Acton, in west London. His mother, Barbara, had no connection with the theatre and neither did his father, Roy, a successful engineer. However, John's grandparents, on his father's side, were both lead singers with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, his uncle Edward was a well-known actor whose appearance as Jess Oakroyd in J.B. Priestley's Good Companions at His Majesty's in 1931 was one of the great successes of the West End 70 years ago. Furthermore, his aunt Connie was possibly the most successful (and feared) theatrical agent just after the Second World War. With that background – and the fact that he was sent to a Choral School at Magdalen College, Oxford – it was inevitable that John Chapman's thoughts turned theatrewise.
After his difficulties with his voice teacher at Rada, Chapman went to see the Principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes, and asked if he could leave. He recalled Barnes's response:
"That would be a great pity," he said. "You won't be here at the end of the course to receive your diploma."
"Well," I said, "perhaps you could post it on."
"I mean," he replied politely, "you won't receive one at all."
We parted amicably and, as I left, he wished me the best of luck for the future and added that in our profession there was room for all types of acting – even mine.
On the day that Chapman left Rada, he walked into a theatrical agent's office and was sent along to an audition for a pre-London tour of what was then an unknown play, Reluctant Heroes. He recalled:
I stood nervously in front of the author, the director and a budding young actor-manager named Brian Rix. Mr Rix (as he then was) asked me politely what I'd done recently. I said, "Well, if you mean today, I left Rada." Nobody asked to see my diploma or my fencing – and by a stroke of luck I got a job in what turned out to be the first of the Whitehall Farces, two of which I subsequently wrote.
Those two plays Dry Rot (1954) and Simple Spymen (1958) had phenomenally long runs for the 1950s – over 1,400 performances each. Gone were the silly-ass twits of the turn-of-the-century farces. Now came the post-war generation characters involved in the modern world. Crooked bookies, stuffy soldiers, pompous civil servants and stupid North-Countrymen (generally played by me), created with Chapman's tongue rammed firmly in his cheek.
Nowadays the plays would have enjoyed even longer runs – but in the 1950s and 1960s all the Whitehall Theatre team stayed together and the only reason the plays ever changed was to save us all from becoming as crazy as the characters we portrayed. We even married each other and begat many a son and daughter. Chapman was no exception. He married one of the company, Betty Impey, in 1954 and they begat four splendid sons.
Eventually Chapman was persuaded into the world of television with Hugh and I (1962-67, starring Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd) launching him into an incredibly long stint of writing for one writer and one series. Blandings Castle (1967, Chapman's television version of the P.G. Wodehouse tale) with Sir Ralph Richardson followed – and then, co-written with Eric Merriman, came Happy Ever After, with June Whitfield and Terry Scott (a splendid farce actor and pantomime Dame), which began in 1974 and eventually became Terry and June. This was followed by Fresh Fields, with Julia McKenzie and Anton Rodgers – which won an Emmy in 1984 – and, eventually, French Fields, written in collaboration with Ian Davidson, which ran until 1991. There were myriad other television scripts written, edited or devised by Chapman, as well as three feature films, but all the time he was occupied at one Television Centre or another, he still remained a playwright.
His Brides of March (1960), Diplomatic Baggage (1964), This is My Wife, Mr Stanniforth (1963) and Oh Clarence! (1968) were all solo efforts but after that he generally wrote his plays with collaborators. With Ray Cooney, he wrote Not Now Darling (1968), Move Over Mrs Markham (1971), My Giddy Aunt (1968) and There Goes the Bride (1974). With Anthony Marriott, he wrote Shut Your Eyes and Think of England (1977); with Dave Freeman, Key For Two, which was nominated in 1986 for a Swet Theatre Award (now the Olivier Awards) as Best Comedy; and, with Michael Pertwee, Look, No Hans! (1985) More recently he had been co-writing with Jeremy Lloyd and their Business Affairs has just finished a most successful tour, whilst their Deadlier Than the Male is to be produced next spring.
Alas, John Chapman will not be here to see it. He fought bravely against cancer for nearly two years and eventually chose for the curtain to come down on his life in his beloved French farmhouse.
John Chapman rates with Pinero, Travers and Cooney in his successful quest for laughs. As he once reminded us: "After forty years of writing farce, it's pleasing to think that probably the two most famous plays throughout the entire world are Hamlet and Charley's Aunt." One or two of John's are pretty well known, too. Since Dry Rot, there has never been a time when one of his plays is not being staged in Europe or somewhere around the world. Not bad for an actor who left Rada with a tweedy voice and no diploma.
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