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The Blue Touch Paper by David Hare, book review

David Hare's new memoir is likely both to infuriate and infatuate – much like the playwright himself

Louise Jury
Thursday 03 September 2015 15:37 BST

Faber & Faber, £20. » Order at the discounted price of £16.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

When the National Theatre published its poll of the hundred best plays of the 20th century, Sir David Hare had written five of them. Now 68, he has been a fixture of British stage and screen for the best part of half a century and this memoir – which, bar the postscript, takes readers only to 1979 – is a reminder that his talent, both to dazzle and to infuriate, emerged precociously young.

Born the son of a philandering purser in suburban Hastings, he charts his path from scholarship boy at Lancing public school, where he first encounters fellow future playwright Christopher Hampton, to Cambridge, where he acts with Germaine Greer and meets Diana Quick on the Edinburgh Fringe. He spots future film star Michael Douglas chatting up students in a disco on his first trip to the States, where he stays with the lawyers who represented civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks.

Later, his "second university" training in television drama at BBC Pebble Mill is a lesson in how a public service broadcaster once championed all the best available talent as he describes rubbing shoulders with Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Willy Russell and the Alans Clarke, Bleasdale and Plater – while TV gardener Percy Thrower pops into his office to admire his success in growing tomatoes.

The tale of the boy from modest means is the story of a post-war generation raised with the benefit of a free education, free health service and the safety net of a welfare state, which it imagined were "permanent gains" until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 signalled "a retreat from social justice and equality". Even without the stardust, it is an interesting social history.

But it will be of particular fascination to anyone who loves actors, writers and directors. The cameo appearances from Bill Nighy, Tom Stoppard and Helen Mirren, the gossipy details of pioneering touring company Portable and of life at the newly-opened National Theatre with Peter Hall, not to mention friendships with Tennessee Williams and Philip Roth (revealed as a one-time regular at the Notting Hill Spudulike), are a delight.

Yet Hare can sound insufferably grandiose. "Only when I became a creative writer could I rid myself of self-consciousness, and of worldly ambition." And his searing honesty about his deficiencies, from being a "nasty little boy" through to his destructive affair with the actress Kate Nelligan while married to TV producer Margaret Matheson, is in counterpoint with a boastful modesty. His self-deprecating comments serve principally to flatter. What's a guy to do if actresses use your work as a stick to beat other male playwrights for failing to write them such good roles? His ease with women was simply upbringing, he shrugs, (faux) bashfully.

He can be witty, as in his admission that listening to women as a route to successful seduction was not a tip that worked for him. But he is also nasty, as in his glib, crowd-pleasing blanket condemnation of politicians and journalists. Curiously, while repeatedly scathing of the left, despite his professed socialism, he is more tolerant of American radicals whom he credits with "a toughness and a sense of humour often lacking in their more pampered British counterparts".

His own radicalism often seems ungenerous and ill at ease with the reality of his self-confessed bourgeois happiness. Perhaps this is what he means when he claims he really wasn't very nice, though I am not sure he expects to be taken at his word. The danger is that if you repeatedly regale readers with your "disgraceful behaviour" and "reputation for being ruthless and arrogant" they might just believe you.

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