Brian Viner: 'What's it going to be like in a theatre, seeing actors grappling with being me?'

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The Independent Online

Last week Jane and I were invited to a read-through of the play based on my book Tales of the Country. Jane especially went with trepidation. She doesn't mind me opening our lives to public scrutiny in a weekly newspaper column, or even in a couple of books, but a play's a slightly different matter. At least until now it's been my own interpretation of our family life, not a playwright's, and we don't sit there while people read about us, listening to their reactions. What's it going to be like in a theatre, with actors pretending to be me and her and even the children, metropolitan émigrés grappling with life in rural Herefordshire?

If the first read-through is anything to go by, it will be unnerving and exciting at the same time. The excellent Pentabus Theatre company is based in an old school building just north of Ludlow, which is where we went for the reading. We sat round a big table with half a dozen actors, the director Orla, and the playwright Nick. On the table was a cafetière full of good coffee and a plate of chocolate brownies. It was a bit early in the day for double vodkas, although I dare say we could all have done with one; Nick, Orla and the actors were no less aware than we were of the weirdness of the situation. They all introduced themselves. "I play Brian," said a nice young man, rather better-looking than me. "And I play Jane," said a pretty dark-haired woman.

Ever since Pentabus first approached me for permission to adapt the book, Jane and I have joked about who might play us, if not on stage, then in the Sunday-night television version which is more or less, possibly with emphasis on the less, bound to follow. I think Pierce Brosnan and Pauline Quirke, she thinks Catherine Zeta-Jones and Timothy Spall. Anyway, we were both more than satisfied with our alter egos at the read-through, although Orla made it clear that she hadn't yet cast the play, so these might not be the eventual stage actors.

Around the table, though, they did a fine job. As had Nick in adapting the thing. He is a hugely experienced writer for stage and screen, with numerous Radio 4 plays and episodes of Holby City and EastEnders in his locker, so I never doubted his expertise, but I still wasn't sure how he would fashion my literary meanderings into a tightly-crafted play. He has done so brilliantly, and very funnily, albeit that much of the comedy is at my expense.

In the book I told the story of my clergyman friend, who was once summoned to the home of a very grand lady, but reached the garden gate to find a large snarling dog barring his path. He was about to turn tail when an upstairs window opened in the house, and the grand lady called out: "Don't worry, vicar, he won't hurt you, you just have to kick his balls." My friend stood rooted to the spot. "Go on," she called imperiously, "kick his balls. He likes it. They're at the back!" Hesitantly, my friend shaped up to do as he had been bidden. "What on earth are you doing," she shouted. "I said kick his balls. His footballs. They're at the back of the lawn."

By a stroke of cosmic misfortune, this story appeared in my column in The Independent, which had been written a week in advance, the very day after precisely the same anecdote appeared on the property pages, presented as the personal experience of a Stratford estate agent. And in the book I described how, a few days later, I was sent both cuttings through the post by some ill-wisher, with an arrow pointing at my byline picture and the single old Herefordshire word "Twazzock!" As far as I can recall, the word "twazzock" appears only once in the book, but in the play Nick uses it liberally, to convey my status in the eyes of the locals. Only gradually do I stop being a twazzock.

Still, if I can manage to sit on my pride, the play should be quite an adventure. It starts in Shrewsbury next April, then tours for six weeks around the Welsh Marches before winding up at the Pleasance Theatre in London for a few nights. After that, who knows? I suppose it might depend on Timothy Spall's commitments. Or Pauline Quirke's.

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