Simon Gray: Playwright, novelist and author of a series of hilarious, irascible memoirs

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The Independent Online

Few writers – even those who present a carefully nurtured, self-deprecatory public image – have pursued so many careers, all involving ferociously committed hard graft, as Simon Gray. Successful as academic, novelist and dramatist for stage, television and radio, he found in several volumes as a later-life memoirist the ideal outlet for a rich seam of material, variously bilious, hilarious, irascible and on occasion deeply affecting, as he reflected on his life as an accident-prone, chain-smoking ex-alcoholic and, latterly, cancer-suffering writer.

He was always prepared to have the first laugh on himself, and these memoirs are shot through with such archetypal stories as the New York episode of 1982 when Gray, escaping the ordeal of one of his own Broadway first nights in a neighbouring bar, finds himself at the intermission commiserating with a friendly audience member bemoaning the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the Great White Way: "Somebody ought to give this guy Gray the bum's rush. Got enough crap of our own. Don't need his."

There is a school of thought increasingly suggesting that the volumes of memoirs may be Gray's enduring legacy. Contrary to usual practice these seemed to get better with each successive volume; the final instalment, published earlier this year, was prophetically titled The Last Cigarette. Throughout his career in fiction and in the theatre Gray drew often on his own life, his background in academe and the lives of his family. It was easy for more facile critics to portray Gray as a lightweight boulevardier, condescending to his plays as well-made pieces of Oxbridge middle-class politesse, civilised and ironic, owing much of their success to stars (Alan Bates was Gray's most distinguished regular) or directors (Gray's friend and fellow dramatist Harold Pinter directed no fewer than nine of his plays).

This overlooked the sheer variety in Gray's work, not to mention the often violently seething tensions in so many of his plays, involving as they do psycho-sexual power-games, transvestism and, even, in The Rear Column, cannibalism.

Born in Hayling Island, Hampshire to a pathologist father of Scottish-Canadian background (subsequently Gray would lay some of his demons at the door of his Scottish genes) and sportswoman mother, Gray was evacuated as a child for over five years during the Second World War to Canadian grandparents he had never met. The England to which he returned in the 1950s ("a very courteous decade") had, together with its austerity, a restraint for which he seemed later to be somewhat nostalgic.

After some years at Westminster, Gray returned at 17 to Canada, where his father had moved to work. He studied at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia (he formed an unlikely triumvirate with the son of a rabbi and the son of a bishop to explore the world's philosophers together) and then, set on an academic career, he read English at Trinity College, Cambridge (1958-61). He taught at Cambridge for a spell and briefly lectured at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver before a long and distinguished period as a lecturer in English at Queen Mary College, London, for 20 years from 1965. Still in his twenties Gray produced four novels – the best of which remain Simple People (1965) and Little Portia (1967) which drew respectful reviews but sold only moderately.

While Gray always liked to highlight chapters of accidents and malign twists of fate besetting his career, he had a huge initial stroke of dramatist's luck when Michael Codron, then consolidating his reputation as the savviest producer on the West End block, liked Gray's Wise Child (Wyndham's, 1967) and lured Sir Alec Guinness to lead the cast, with John Dexter directing. Even pre-Star Wars, Guinness was box-office gold and the play moreover gave him the chance to follow Kind Hearts and Coronets with an appearance for most of the evening en travesti.

As "Mrs Arminster", actually a crook on the run in a seedy boarding-house, ready to exploit alike an innocent black girl and the interest of the establishment's creepy proprietor in his travelling-companion "son", Guinness was initially enthused by the project. His prestige carried Wise Child to a succès de scandale but then the star's enthusiasm waned when he began to receive letters from adolescent boys proposing meetings after school at Charing Cross Station and as his traditional public recoiled (sometimes audibly from the stalls) from Gray's material, decidedly exotic fare for Shaftesbury Avenue then.

Thereafter Gray became an established West End name, with some 20 productions over the years; only rarely was he favoured by the subsidised sector. Codron passed on both Spoiled (Haymarket, 1971), an intense study, originally intended for television, of a teacher's obsession with his male pupil and Dutch Uncle (Aldwych, 1969), a major RSC flop pairing him with Peter Hall who left a fine cast adrift in a tricky jet-black comedy including murder and sado-masochistic games. His National Theatre experience with a version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot (Old Vic, 1970) was also unhappy, again putting Gray with a director (Anthony Quayle) perhaps less than ideally suited to the material.

It was Codron who put together the ingredients of Gray's first triumph, when Harold Pinter directed Alan Bates (who took some wooing) as the eponymous academic anti-hero of Butley (Criterion, 1971 and NY, 1972). Bates richly exploited the dialogue's lacerating wit and diamond-sharp irony while creating a surprisingly sympathetic character in Gray's complex, cruel bisexual; later both Richard Briers and Alec McCowen found other equally valid aspects to mine.

Bates and Pinter joined Codron and Gray again for the even longer-running Otherwise Engaged (Queen's and Comedy, 1975 and NY, 1977). The pivot on this occasion was Simon Hench, a detached, Oxford-educated editor, who settles at the play's opening to listen to his beloved Parsifal before an evening of surprise or unwelcome visits from tenant, mistress, old schoolmate and, in the play's final scenes, his brother. In those episodes Bates and Nigel Hawthorne beautifully finessed Gray's ironic exploration of old rivalries. Somewhat similar terrain was covered in Dog Days (Oxford, 1976) involving a junior editor and his brother, both forced to accede to people they despise; the production was sadly inept and the play remains little known.

Pinter returned to Gray to steer The Rear Column (Globe, 1978) which marked out signally different Gray matter. Set in colonial Africa and taking its inspiration from Stanley's 1887 march to relieve Emin Pasha and the fate of the rear column and those left behind in the Congo encampment, the play had a fascinatingly complex central character in Major Barttelot who reverts to awful savagery while the detached British naturalist left behind also descends into moral decadence. Although Codron gave the production deluxe casting (including Barry Foster and Jeremy Irons), the play's subject and an all-male company made it a tough commercial proposition.

Ill luck haunted Gray's return to the National Theatre when Pinter directed his black comedy of family life Close of Play (Lyttleton, 1979). Rehearsals coincided with serious industrial action on the South Bank, forcing three postponements of opening, while Peggy Ashcroft was obliged by illness to withdraw from the central role of Daisy, a non-stop chatterer concealing a dark secret. Even with Michael Redgrave as the ruined demi-god of the family patriarch and a cast also including Michael Gambon and Anna Massey, the play never recovered from its unnerving start.

Far less worthwhile was Gray's excursion into the bluff-and-double-bluff world of the theatrical thriller à la Ira Levin with Stage Struck (Vaudeville, 1979). Without Pinter at the helm, this muddled effort, structured round the stage tricks (including a clumsy fake "body") engineered by a jealous stage-manager taking his revenge on an emasculating diva-wife, seemed the smallest and stalest of beer. It received mostly tepid reviews but also one real stinker from The Sunday Times' James Fenton who dismissed the piece as marking the death of Gray's talent (Gray exacted articulately savage revenge when he later reviewed Fenton's collected notices and also with an impenetrable insult in a later play, The Common Pursuit).

A cheering return to form and a reunion with Pinter and Codron came with Quartermaine's Terms (Queen's, 1981). Set in a Cambridge language school, this deceptively quiet, almost plotless play was inevitably dubbed as "Chekhovian" (indeed, Uncle Vanya is teasingly mentioned in the text), with its scrutiny of lives of quiet desperation – Gray created one of his most absorbing leading roles in the ineffably polite but hopelessly ineffectual St John Quartermaine, mesmerically played by Edward Fox.

With its title taken from F.R. Leavis and under Pinter once more, The Common Pursuit (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1984), Gray's study of six Cambridge friends and their metropolitan literary years over 20 years, seemed a West End certainty, but the production was somehow jinxed (its fortunes as recollected in Gray's diary formed the basis of his first volume of memoirs, An Unnatural Pursuit), and Codron did not transfer it. Two years later, in a revised version and after a Watford try-out with Gray himself directing a remarkable younger cast including Rik Mayall, Stephen Fry and John Sessions, The Common Pursuit (Phoenix, 1986) opened in the West End for a healthy run.

Alan Bates was in vintage form as the eponymous publisher at the centre of Melon (Haymarket, 1987). Essentially the story of a nervous breakdown (Melon steps into what Gray called "an inherent terror in life"), this memory play was written in a sharp, episodic style exploring the recurrent Gray themes of infidelity, breakdown and troubled sexuality. Again, the text seemed oddly unworked, but even although heavily rewritten as The Holy Terror (Duke of York's, 2003) with Simon Callow now playing Melon, the production was so ineptly staged that Gray's intentions still seemed unfocused.

Jinxed, too, was The Late Middle Classes (Watford and tour, 1989) with Harriet Walter superb as a matriarch not far removed from Gray's own mother. Gray's experiences, along with Pinter, at the hands of various poltroon producers – and the final indignity of the production's planned opening at the Gielgud Theatre being rudely elbowed in favour of a meretricious musical called Boy Band – were recounted in scabrously funny detail in Enter a Fox (2001), subtitled "Further Adventures of a Paranoid".

Gray directed also on Hidden Laughter (Vaudeville, 1990), a sad, perceptive comedy taking its title from Gray's favourite T.S. Eliot ("the hidden laughter of children in the foliage"). Set in the garden of an initially idyllic-seeming Devon country house ("Little Paradise"), the play follows a family's fortunes over a decade of slow self-destruction in the subtle study of selfishness. Gray also created an especially memorable character in Ronnie, a local churchman, an unusually gratuitous portrait of a man both compassionate and truly good, illuminated by the quietly unsentimental playing of Peter Barkworth.

Peter Hall did better by Gray on Japes (Haymarket, 2001). The play's origins lay deep in Gray's relationship with his beloved younger brother Piers, a brilliant academic in Hong Kong (he wrote finely on T.S. Eliot) but unsuccessful dramatist who declined into alcoholism (Gray, forced by illness to abandon his own once-heroic alcohol consumption, wrote movingly of Piers and his death in The Smoking Diaries). Despite an unlovely set, Japes held the audience with the barbed truth of the writing and the powerful central duo of Toby Stephens and Jasper Britton, covering 30 years as they played famous novelist and equally talented but less successful academic.

Pinter yet again teased out the best of Gray in The Old Masters (Comedy, 2004), with Edward Fox as the aged aesthete Bernard Berenson in a tantalising study of his dealings with the devious art-dealer Duveen (the play's luxury casting included a superb Barbara Jefford). Then Peter Hall included Gray's play based on his hero Charles Dickens' affair with the young actress Ellen Tiernan, Little Nell (Bath, 2007), in his Theatre Royal Bath season. Hall had previously tried to coax Gray into writing a play on Dickens for the National Theatre but Gray found the commission "too daunting" and returned the advance. After reading Claire Tomalin's The Secret Woman years later, he wrote a radio play on the Tiernan affair before reworking it for the stage. It was minor Gray in that its length was short and its scale small; it was also beguiling and often tender (Gray rarely sat in judgement on his characters).

Much of a turbulent life in the theatre is covered in Gray's autobiographical books, most relishably in Fat Chance (1995) covering the nightmare of Cell Mates (Albery, 1995), his play on George Blake from which Stephen Fry made a much-publicised early bolt, sabotaging the production, to Gray's eloquent displeasure.

These memoirs are also enormously enjoyable as Gray, seemingly free-wheelingly meditates on smoking, drinking (or not), health worries (not least in 2006's The Year of the Jouncer) and his ceaseless battles with officialdom, machines and other cultures. In How's That For Telling 'Em, Fat Lady? (1988), mostly detailing a chaotic American production of The Common Pursuit and the dealings of a charming rogue-producer, he spins merry culture-clash riffs: he has to produce his driver's licence to hire a video; a receptionist asked to call Gray a cab thinks he wants to hire a cat. In The Smoking Diaries he delightfully recounts his boyhood admiration for the soft-porn pulp-fiction of Hank Janson.

Always self-deprecating, Gray presents himself as mostly an idle memoirist, casually jotting down random thoughts between televised cricket (another bond with Pinter). But those volumes in fact are cunningly structured, dazzlingly inventive in their language and ideas alike, and often deeply touching when writing of friendship or dealing with the deaths of friends – Ian Hamilton, Alan Bates – or with their illnesses (as with Pinter, especially after the rupture of their relationship when Pinter took exception to Gray's portrait of him in a television play – happily this was a friendship repaired).

A defiant smoker – a 65-a-day habit was severely trimmed – until the end, his memoirs regularly smoulder with Gray's fury at the anti-smoking brigade. Notices on smoking were red rags to Gray. One can only speculate on his response to any celestial waiting-room's printed injunctions or admonitions. He took particular exception to "We would prefer you not to smoke", and his most likely response, should it be brought to his notice after lighting up, would be "I prefer to smoke."

Alan Strachan

Simon James Holliday Gray, playwright, writer and memoirist: born Hayling Island, Hampshire 21 October 1936; Supervisor in English, University of British Columbia 1960-63, Senior Instructor in English 1963-64; Lecturer in English, Queen Mary College, London 1965-85, Honorary Fellow 1985; CBE 2005; married 1965 Beryl Kevern (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1997), 1997 Victoria Rothschild; died London 6 August 2008.