Obituary: William Douglas-Home

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The Independent Online
William Douglas-Home, playwright, born Edinburgh 3 June 1912, married 1951 Rachel Brand (succeeded 1970 as Baroness Dacre; one son, three daughters), died Kilmeston Hampshire 28 September 1992.

WILLIAM Douglas-Home was the most gentlemanly of playwrights, as befitted the son of an earl. He was also among the most courageous both on stage and off. Defying the gallery booers of Ambassador Extraordinary in 1948, he looked up at the angry gods at the Aldwych and said: 'I like heckling. Please go on. We have the night before us.'

When the hooting had died down, he added: 'I hope some people have enjoyed the play.' Then, lifting his head towards the front of the gallery, he went on: 'As for the others, it doesn't much matter whether they like the play or not - because if they don't learn the lesson of compromise taught tonight, in six months' time that gallery won't be there.'

With the Cold War in mind, the play described the arrival from Mars by rocket of a young man who ordered the British Foreign Secretary and the Panslovian ambassador to stop their countries going to war. If they did not appreciate the value of compromise, then the man from Mars would pelt both countries with atom bombs.

When he was himself at war in 1944, as an acting captain in the Royal Armoured Corps, Douglas-Home defied orders to take part in the attack on Le Havre because he feared that thousands of French civilians would be killed. He was court-martialled and sentenced to a year's hard labour for disobeying an order in the field, though, as he said at the time, the attack was unnecessary because the German commander offered to send out all civilians if he was given three days. 'That was four days ago,' Douglas-Home wrote to his parents, 'and the battle has not started yet.' In 1988 he tried to have his court martial quashed; and in June last year the Ministry of Defence again turned down a petition to review it.

It is hard today to see how, given the sort of humanity by which Douglas-Home always lived, he could have compromised with his conscience; and, anyway, out of the eight months he served in prison came one of the most interesting, refreshing and radical post-war plays, nine years before Look Back In Anger and the great change of climate in the London theatre which Osborne's play is always supposed to have begun. Now Barabbas . . . it was called: a fragmented, almost cinematic tale of what it was like to wait in prison to be hanged for murder, and it was the playwright's first piece to reach the West End. What made it so remarkable for the time was that, long before Brendan Behan showed us what went on 'inside' in The Quare Fellow, Douglas-Home sought our sympathy not only for a condemned man wondering if he might be reprieved (he was not) but also for a homosexual friendship. This was powerful stuff for the West End in 1947 and probably it was his best play. It was certainly his most serious.

Afterwards, for nearly 40 years and more than 40 plays, he seldom veered from the popular path of light to high comedy in such works as The Chiltern Hundreds (1947), The Manor of Northstead (1954), The Reluctant Debutante (1955), Betzi (1964), The Queen's Highland Servant (1967), The Secretary Bird (1968), Lloyd George Knew My Father (1972), The Dame of Sark (1976), The Kingfisher (1977), and After the Ball is Over (1985).

When he did veer it could be startling. David and Jonathan (1984), for instance, postulated a marriage between two gay young men officiated by a country clergyman. It got no nearer town than Farnham and Worthing; but Douglas-Home was used to the sticks, as well as to critical stick.

Did his aristocratic background ever tell against him with a generation of reviewers hungry for more meat in their plays than drawing-room comedy provided? It was sometimes thought so. What Douglas-Home was undeniably skilled at, however, was the composition of light-hearted lounge-hall comedies for actors who knew their way about lounge-halls and how to behave in them. This breed of player has almost vanished but the art of men like AE Matthews, Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde White and Kenneth More was bound to prosper in his plays because he let his upper-class types revel in their eccentricities.

And for playgoers to whom the play was not the only thing, this knack of supplying the player with the material which he can turn to his own comic account was often a delight.

Were his comedies any more class-conscious than, say, Alan Ayckbourn's? Or was it the affection with which he treated his characters from high society - often mockingly but always good naturedly - that seemed on the stage like politically bad form after 1956?

Douglas-Home could never be other than generous when depicting people he knew about; and if they tended to come from the upper classes that was because they were the kind he knew best; so why shouldn't he write about them without fashionable contempt?

In fact, it was argued that he did not write about them, these dukes and peers, with accuracy. It is true that some of his forebears inspired his writing. The idea for the Conservative butler for instance defeating the socialist viscount in a by-election in 1945 came from his observations of his father's butler and his political tendencies. In much the same way, The Reluctant Peer (1964) was derived from his brother Alec's disclaiming his title so that he could become prime minister. But whether his comedies were socially or psychologically accurate the playwright knew that most theatregoers hardly care for precision as long as they are being entertained. What he did was to show us the way we like to think the upper crust lives; and if that meant a lot of cliches in the talk they were usually amusing enough when delivered by players who knew how to time a line, an entrance, a laugh, a murmur in the Du Maurier drawing-room manner, and give it a subversive twist.

But it is worth remembering that not all his works were directed at the carriage trade after 1947. Even at Eton College he showed a gift for stirring things up. As editor of the Eton Chronicle he wrote his first play. It was a piece of grand guignol. It lasted 10 minutes; and it depicted the murder of a housemaster by one of his pupils. This raised the headmaster's hackles until the enterprising boy author persuaded the headmaster's son to take the lead.

But it was Douglas-Home's father, the 13th Earl of Home, who most encouraged his theatrical interests, taking him to West End shows at weekends in the 1920s; and when he came down from Oxford he was acting as well as writing, though the acting didn't last long after RADA's chief, Sir Kenneth Barnes, compared the noble student's voice to that of 'a constipated bishop'. He would often turn out, however, to help a play through its tour if the star became, as they say, indisposed. He did short stints in one or two of his West End hits like The Chiltern Hundreds, and The Reluctant Debutante; and in Aunt Edwina (1960) he played - but only at Brighton - Col Ryan, a retired military buffer who undergoes a sex change after swallowing hormone pills meant for his horse.

The splendid Henry Kendall played the role in town; and there was never any doubt that Douglas-Home was lucky in his casting. He may not have attracted the critics very much but he certainly drew the best of the players to his side.

Who can forget Kenneth More as the husband divided between his wife and his secretary in the The Secretary Bird or Alastair Sim as the Marquess of Candover in The Jockey Club Stakes (1970) - a world with which the author had become familiar since he had bought a racehorse - or Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft as the elderly couple in Lloyd George Knew My Father whose marriage was so touchingly scarred by a truth they had been unable for decades to share?

If the best players usually came his way, managements did not. Hence his faith in the touring system, now, like drawing-room acting, approaching extinction. Every London manager turned down The Secretary Bird. In desperation someone set up a tour which started at Swanage and became, after over three years, one of the playwright's great successes.

But try-outs could be suicidal if a national newspaper critic was on the warpath. Kenneth Tynan once confessed that: 'There comes a time when there are more important things in life than driving William Douglas-Home off the stage.'

And some of the plays, without the best players to prop them up, could be easy meat for a young reviewer trying to make his name. One such aspirant found himself faced by a new Douglas-Home at St Albans in the 1960s.

He poured, predictably, scorn upon it in the then chaste columns of the Daily Telegraph. He was never invited to write about the theatre again.

Quotation from Danny Danziger: The Best of Times: Only the butler remembered; The Independent, 8 June 1990:

The Chiltern Hundreds was a joy to write . . . I was having a snooze on the sofa, after lunch, and my mama was knitting, my papa was doing his crossword, and Mr Collingwood, the butler, came in, tears streaming down his face, and he said: 'He's lost, m'lord.'

And my papa said: 'Who lost what?'

And it was Sir Alec, who had lost his seat, and the only one who'd remembered he'd been standing for Parliament was Collingwood, and we'd all forgotten - we didn't much care whether he won or lost.

I continued my sleep - and then I suddenly thought I'd better write something about that, and I started the next morning.

I went out into a wood and wrote it outside. I'd go out into the wood after breakfast and go on until four or something. I still do that now: sit under a tree, put the notebook on the knee.

I finished after a fortnight, went back into the house and said: 'I've finished that one,' and then Sir Alec's wife typed it up for me . . .

On my first night of The Chiltern Hundreds I was sitting with my wife in the back row, and the lights went out and I got so nervous I got up and paced up and down, you know, tripping over the fire buckets and the usherettes. Then the lights came on at the end of the first act, and I looked over the top and saw there was a man sitting beside my wife. He went away to have a drink, and she said: 'I've been pinching that man the whole way through the play when anything went wrong because I thought it was you,' and I found out later who he was, and he was the critic of the Morning Star, and he gave it the most marvellous review the next morning.

Sir Alec came to the opening night but he had to vote in the House of Commons and he left in the interval. I was very annoyed because I thought all the critics would look when the lights came up and his seat would be empty, so I made the chauffeur bring him back from the House and got him into his seat five minutes before the curtain. Well, it wouldn't do to have him not there.

(Photographs omitted)

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