Happiness is a play boxed up The Geraldine Bedell interview

Simon Gray is subtly derided for writing about a small world but he still draws a big audience
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The Independent Online
SIMON GRAY shambles into the late afternoon restaurant enveloped in the smell of drink and fags. He settles himself at a corner table at which he will later dine - this is The Ivy, and he is a regular - with a fresh glass of champagne and spare packet of Silk Cut. Then he shifts about uncomfortably on the banquette, runs his fingers through long hair, pushes up sleeves already at his elbows, and responds to questions that might cue in an anecdote or glib response from someone else by looking perplexed and muttering, "I don't know . . . I really don't."

Gray is the author of a slew of successful stage plays - Butley, Otherwise Engaged, Quartermaine's Terms, The Common Pursuit; and television dramas - After Pilkington and Old Flames - as well as a few flops (success, even for a highly successful playwright, is not guaranteed). He's on the verge of finding out which his latest will be, snatching an hour or two between a rehearsal and a preview of Cell Mates, which opened at the Albery on Thursday, with Stephen Fry as the spy George Blake and Rik Mayall as Sean Bourke, the Irishman who sprang him from Wormwood Scrubs.

The producers, evidently anticipating success on a grand scale, have placed full-page advertisements in newspapers, an almost reckless extravagance for an untried play. But after the first night and initial reviews, there seems no reason to suppose they will be disappointed. Mayall is impressive, and the play is funny and thought-provoking (though more about character than ideas), and, like all Gray's work, accessible. These qualities have led some people to dismiss him as an urbane boulevardier, to point out that his characters - academics, publishers and ex-public schoolboys - inhabit too narrow a world. This criticism, which may be a bit like saying that Jane Austen doesn't do enough battle scenes, resembles the other way in which Gray is subtly derided, for being prolific, which seems somehow to imply that he produces the theatrical equivalent of easy listening.

Literate and popular he may be, but urbane he is not. In person he can be both trenchant and funny, but his sentences characteristically begin quietly and tail away, as though there is always more to be said, another point of view lurking. He seems anxious to place the emotion just so. And when I ask if he's nervous about the opening, he says "Absolutely. What else?" It is not a rhetorical flourish; it is a helpless moment: raw.

It was sadness, he says, that drew him to the Blake-Bourke story: "I think they were both very needy men. They both desperately needed a friend. And it got itself screwed up, as friendships and so forth often do."

Particularly in his own case, it seems. Gray had a very public falling- out with his friend Harold Pinter a couple of years ago, when the latter took exception to the portrayal of himself in Gray's television serial, Unnatural Pursuits. And then there was the earlier, blistering row with the poet and journalist James Fenton, who reviewed one of Gray's plays, and whose collection of reviews was in turn reviewed by Gray; and the diary Gray published about his disastrous efforts to write a musical with Jule Styne, which painted Styne as doddery and surrounded entirely by incompetents.

Gray receives the suggestion that he's always quarrelling with a quick smile, and says mildly that he doesn't think he's alone in having rows: "I've noticed it in life as well, one might say." He has made up with Pinter, with whom he now dines a couple of times a month. "That was a personal row, of a kind that can break out between two friends at any time. And the row with James Fenton was an entirely appropriate row. Actually, if you asked around, most people would describe me as extremely sweet- natured. I never have a row in rehearsals, never have had . . . I like to think I'm sweet-natured. Or rather," he smiles once again, "I like to think I appear sweet-natured."

He was born 58 years ago, the son of a Scottish-Canadian pathologist father and an English athletics teacher mother who specialised in something called the broad jump - like the long jump, he says, but from a standing start. He was evacuated to Canada for five years during the war with his older brother, to grandparents they had never met. His memories of this are hazy now, but when I ask whether it was traumatic, he says, "yes, probably".

He returned to Portsmouth Grammar School and Westminster, to an England of restraint and good manners for which he remains nostalgic. "I was brought up in the Fifties, which was a very courteous decade - probably the only courteous decade in the history of this country. But I assumed that that's what grown-up manners were like. I don't think there's been a transformation into something worse, I simply think there's been a reversion. I can't bear the bestiality of some parts of English life."

Among the various things he can't bear is piped music. "I hate it, hate it. It seems to me there is silence, and there is conversation, and there is a place you choose to go to, to listen to music. I hate the presumption." There's also the current state of English teaching. "It's become an almost meaningless discipline - politicised and timid. You don't read George Eliot for George Eliot any more, you read it for a cause of some kind. And timid because that's a safer way of teaching. You're required to think far less. We'll have a generation of illiterates." And then there's London: "It seems to me that in my lifetime it has turned from being a surprising, gracious city which contained its past harmoniously to . . . appalling. There's almost nowhere in London I can bear to be." So why does he stay? "Friends. And the cricket."

This sort of thing, coupled with the fact that he doesn't drive and writes on ancient Olympia typewriters - had led me to expect a man who was harsh, irascible, misanthropic, ungenerous of spirit. Which just shows how wrong you can be, because the adjective that comes to mind for his spirit is quaking.

At Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia (his father had accepted a job there, and he was just 17, too young, he says, to stay behind) he formed a triumvirate with the son of a rabbi and the son of a bishop to read Kant, Plato and Aristotle. He was always religious himself, "although never an assiduous church-goer". His religion, he says, takes the form of fear. And he laughs, but uneasily - "in the sense," he explains, "that I think there must be a point to all this. It's a religious act to have children, wouldn't you think?" I say it could equally be an attempt to fill the void, togive meaning to meaningless. "Yes, well, that seems to me to be a religious sensibility. We're talking about the need for faith."

He has two children himself, now 28 and 25 - "terrifying, the responsibility, the fear for their lives, the constant anxiety, and at the same time obviously deep pleasure. I mean, that terrible clich happens to be exact - they're hostages to fortune." After many years of married life, he left his wife to live with Victoria Rothschild, a colleague at Queen Mary College, where he taught for 25 years. He doesn't want to talk about this: pain and anxiety scurry across his features.

He works obsessively, although he said once that the only moment of simple happiness to be derived from writing comes when a play is boxed up and he's poured a drink (it used to be Glenfiddich, but he sticks to champagne now for health reasons). I suggest that this sounds pretty gruelling, and he shrugs and says the work people most enjoy is inevitably painful. "It requires concentration, and when one's in the middle of a story, it's difficult to think of anything else - at three in the morning, three in the afternoon, when I wake up. But what would I be doing otherwise? Lying like a turnip. You know, one's simply grateful that there's something to make one's mind and imagination active because otherwise one's simply sort of dead - or this one is, anyway.

"I mean, I can only go on holidays where I can swim in the sea. I could never go to a country house hotel and go for walks. I actually don't know how to relax. It seems to me an unlearnt discipline. I'm very easily bored by myself, except when I'm working." Fortunately, there is always cricket. And a couple of days earlier, he had bumped into Will Carling in Fry's dressing room: "I was about seven years old again. I'm fanatical about sport: there seems to me something almost religious about the fact that human beings can organise play, the spirit of play."

If Simon Gray is bored by himself, others are not: he has many intense friendships and is notably convivial. But he has no plans to retire, would like to die mid-sentence. And talking of his children again, the terrible anxiety they bring: "Ideally in old age you will have all your family around you. And one's friends. One hopes it will be a crowded room. It seems to me that that is the best one can expect."

Irving Wardle's review, page 24