SHORT of Rip Van Winkle making a comeback as an alternative comedian with a ring through his eyebrow, it is hard to find any comparison for the opening of Ben Travers's The Bed Before Yesterday on 9 December 1975. It was his first play for 23 years, and he had not had a hit since the end of the 1920s. Ageing playgoers remembered him as a distant back- number assumed to be long dead. Then came The Bed and the biggest success of his career.
I first met Travers at a pre-production lunch in the summer of 1975, just as his life was getting back into top gear. He looked like an off-duty Father Christmas: aged 89 and bursting with health and good spirits, tears of laughter running down his face as he told stories about the disreputable luminaries of his youth. He was a widower, and had been living in affluent retreat on the Sussex coast, attended by a devoted housekeeper. 'That woman is a saint,' he said. 'She cooks for me, does the laundry, cleans the house. I want for nothing. I am bored to death.' Shortly afterwards he moved back to London, exchanging the comforts of Watchbell Street, Rye, for the rigours of a service flat in Victoria, where his saintly housekeeper was replaced by a breakfast harridan who roused him to a blur of smudged mascara and greasy fried egg, and slammed out without a word. Fifty years earlier Ben had made a speciality out of demon landladies (starting with the deadly Mrs Spoker in A Cuckoo in the Nest), and life now seemed to be taking its revenge.
Boredom apart, I asked, was there anything else that had driven him out of retirement? Yes, he said, the end of British stage censorship. The new play had been on his mind for years, but there was no point in writing something that was sure to be strangled by the Lord Chamberlain. When The Bed Before Yesterday opened I saw what he meant. The tale of a frigid potted-meat heiress who awakens in middle age to the joys of sex, it would have been like scrawling 'bum' on the nursery wall as far as theatre's moral guardians were concerned. Whether Ben's view of erotic freedom gets past today's thought police will only emerge from this month's Almeida revival. But in 1975, the piece went off like a time bomb: a long-pent-up eruption of the Life Force, coming from an author old enough to have been Malcolm Muggeridge's father.
Travers had a privileged and demoralising youth: leaving Charterhouse horrified by the bullying and convinced of his own stupidity, only to be shot off by his company-director father on a succession of distant postings, to further the firm's interests in tea and dried fruit. Light dawned when he reached Malacca and discovered a collected edition of the plays of Pinero. These, he said, were not just 'plays to read. They were guidebooks to the technique of stagecraft.' He had found something he wanted to do. Back in London, he became a publisher's reader at the Bodley Head, with the result that his first works (after demob from the RAF in 1918) were novels. The Dippers was taken up for adaptation by the actor-manager Charles Hawtrey, but by the time it reached the West End (in 1922) it had been rewritten by one Sidney Blow. A Cuckoo in the Nest caught the eye of Gerald du Maurier, another idol of the carriage trade, but he later relinquished his interest and the adaptation fell into the hands of Tom Walls and his crew of supposedly red-nosed low-lifers at the Aldwych. It was the beginning of a partnership that yielded nine hits in as many years and made a fortune for all concerned.
There was, however, a price to be paid. Walls and his co-star Ralph Lynn mapped out their comic territory strictly and guarded it with vigilance. If Lynn had a laugh-line there would be hell to pay if it was not followed by one for Walls. The company also had their own house style, which meant that by the time they had finished with any text it would have been 'translated into Aldwych'. Finally, it was Walls's habit to spend most rehearsal time on the first two acts, leaving the third (in what time he could spare away from the racetrack) to the last minute. 'Go away,' he told Ben during the Cuckoo rehearsals, 'and rewrite the whole bloody thing. Don't strain yourself. Thursday morning will do, so long as you get it right.'
After Walls's heyday, the Aldwych farces became fodder for weekly rep and amateurs. But Ben's re- launch brought some of the plays back into the West End, and five of the best, including Rookery Nook, Thark and Plunder, were reissued in 1977 by W H Allen. The blurb for this collection ended with the bold inquiry: 'Is it too far-fetched to compare him to P G Wodehouse at his best?' The comparison did not please Ben, who considered Wodehouse a 'silly man'. Wodehouse wrote as an innocent in an artificial world. Ben's method was to present characters from everyday life and then drive them berserk. Like all great farceurs, he thrived on desperate situations: such as that of the blameless hero in Plunder who is in danger of being hanged. That is an extreme case; but if one sound echoes through these plays it is that of somebody hammering on the bedroom door and failing to get in.
Another recurring note is that of people being brutally rude to each other. My one objection to Travers as a craftsman is his habit of halting the action for static slanging matches - something he certainly did not pick up from Pinero. But maybe this was an inescapable consequence of his candour. Travers's characters have no subtext: that is one of their comic glories. The cards go straight down on the table. 'You're a jealous, green-eyed, backbiting woman.' 'You'll gain nothing by rudeness.' He does, though: he gains a laugh from those who have always longed to say such a thing themselves. There's an even bigger laugh when the anger boils over and twists the syntax into knots. 'I'm not on stinking terms with you, you speaker]' The speakers on such occasions are usually two boys competing for the same girl; or a long-married couple wishing that some rival had carried off their unwanted partner. Furtive husbands, bossy wives: it is the same world of killjoys and moral blackmailers that darkened his childhood.
The Bed Before Yesterday is a comedy, not a farce. Travers was now writing about people who could change their lives, though they are still the same kind of people. Alma and Victor, her maiden-gentleman companion, could easily have figured as a farcical dragon and hen-pecked victim. But instead they strike up a relationship that enables them to shed these masks and understand themselves. Alma begins like half-a- dozen Donald McGill cartoons rolled into one, from rampaging battle-axe to hopeful spinster cruising the waterfront. The sight of her breaking out of these stereotypes to emerge as a human being in her own right made you want to cheer. However much sexual attitudes have altered since the 1970s, I think she's big enough to take them in her stride.
Like his heroine, Ben also went on to a new lease of life, with an autobiography, A-Sitting on a Gate, and two more plays - After You with the Milk and the still-unperformed Malacca Linda, in which he returned to the colonial Malaya of his youth. I last saw him in a Sloane Square bar in 1980, the year he died aged 94. As we came out I offered him my arm, and Ben duly did his old-man stuff. Then he spotted a taxi. 'Just off to see my girlfriend,' he said, and disappeared into the traffic.
'The Bed Before Yesterday', directed by Peter Wood, starring Brenda Blethyn, previews at the Almeida, N1 (071- 359 4404) from Mon, opens 17 May.
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