N F Simpson: Absurdist playwright who influenced and inspired Britain's comic surrealists of the 1960s and '70s
Monday 12 September 2011
When the absurdist playwright NF Simpson made his sole contribution to Granada's long-running legal drama Crown Court in 1977, the producers must have expected something rather more exotic than the average burglary or assault case.
What they got was "An Upward Fall", the story of an old folks' home located on a cliff, with its only lavatories 3,000 feet below, and the carnage that ensued as inhabitants tried to avail themselves of the facilities. "An Upward Fall" was as rooted in Simpson's world as any of his plays, with characters displaying, at best, eccentricity, and possibly outright madness, but continuing as though their surreal antics were the only reasonable course of action, and explaining the irrational in a calm, rational manner.
Simpson had emerged as a dramatist 20 years earlier, after comingthird in an Observer drama competition. He had attracted the particular attention and praise of judge Kenneth Tynan, who told the paper's readers that, "I am ready to burn my boats and pronounce NF Simpson the most gifted comic writer the English stage has discovered since the war."
Simpson's play, A Resounding Tinkle, about a suburban couple who receive an elephant as a pet rather than the snake they ordered, was produced by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in December 1957 in a rough, workshop form. It had been cut to one act at the behest of the director Tony Richardson, who believed the full text to be unworkable. It was then paired with another short Simpson work, The Hole (in which Harold Pinter was the understudy), for the Royal Court's full production, which opened in April 1958.
However, the following year, Richardson was proved wrong when John Bird directed a Cambridge student production of the full two-act Tinkle, featuring Eleanor Bron and Peter Cook as the Paradocks. Bird, Cook and contemporaries had been noting Simpson's progress with great approval and delight, and Simpson's benign but strange outlook would quietly inform much comedy that came after, including Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Norman Frederick Simpson was born in London, the son of a glass-blower. He attended Emanuel School in south London, where, at the time of the 1936 abdication crisis, he acquired the nickname "Wally" after Wallis Simpson, by which name he was known ever after. He spent some time working as a bank clerk, before serving in the Royal Artillery and Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. On his demob, he studied English at London University's Birkbeck College and began a career as an adult education lecturer.
Simpson followed the success of A Resounding Tinkle with 1959's One Way Pendulum, which moved from the Royal Court to the Criterion in London's West End. The play is notable for a character's attempts to train a choir of "speak your weight" machines to sing the "Hallelujah Chorus". He produced nine plays in his career, The Cresta Run (1965) and Was He Anyone? (1972) being the last for some time. The reason was that Simpson's style had fallen out of favour, the purity of his surrealism and his lack of political edge sitting uneasily with the dramatic trends towards realism and polemic. During his hiatus, he remained active in other ways. In 1976, his novel Harry Bleachbaker was published, and he spent two years from 1976 to 1978 as literary manager for the English Stage Company at the Royal Court.
As well as influencing younger comic talents, Simpson found himself in demand as a TV comedy writer, contributing sketches to shows like Beryl Reid Says Good Evening and But Seriously, It's Sheila Hancock, and writing the odd situation comedy. He had revived the Paradocks – played this time by Edwin Apps and Pauline Devaney – for BBC2 in 1966 with Three Rousing Tinkles, followed in 1967 by Four Tall Tinkles. He had also collaborated with John Fortune and John Wells in 1970 for a BBC2 series called Charley's Grants, in which Willoughby Goddard played a hideous aristocrat attempting to extract grants for various unlikely artistic projects from an administrator played by Hattie Jacques.
"Elementary, My Dear Watson", Simpson's take on the Sherlock Holmes story, appeared in BBC TV's Comedy Playhouse strand in 1973, with John Cleese as Holmes and William Rushton as Watson. However, Simpson's televisual peak came with World in Ferment, a satire of current affairs programming made for BBC2 in 1969, starring Angela Thorne, Jack Shepherd, Dinsdale Landen, John Bird, Eleanor Bron and Irene Handl as the presenters, reporters and "experts". Sadly, the recordings were junked and the series is now largely forgotten, but surviving scripts, stills and reviews suggest a series that would stand up very well next to The Day Today.
In later life, Simpson began to receive some of the appreciation that had eluded him since his early heyday. In 2006, he was the subject of a Radio 4 documentary and the following year, a new play, If So, Then Yes, was read through in front of a Royal Court audience, then produced at the Jermyn Street Theatre last year. In 2007 A Resounding Tinkle was revived at the Donmar Warehouse, with Peter Capaldi as the male lead, as part of a triple bill called "Absurdia", with Simpson's short piece Gladly Otherwise and Michael Frayn's The Crimson Hotel.
One newspaper review of Simpson's part of the evening noted that "too much of it sounds like the contrived silliness of smart young men down from Cambridge in the Sixties",putting the chicken before the egg, and also being guilty of a disagreeable case of inverted snobbery. It was, afterall, the smart young men who sounded like Simpson, the master of a very fine and very English kind of "contrived silliness".
Simpson retired to Cornwall with his partner, Elizabeth Holder, who survives him, as do his ex-wife Joyce Bartlett and their daughter.
Norman Frederick Simpson, playwright: born London 29 January 1919; married 1944 Joyce Bartlett (marriage dissolved; one daughter), partner to Elizabeth Holder; died Cornwall 27 August 2011.
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