OBITUARY : Diana Morgan

Adam Benedick
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:48

Whatever it was that killed off "intimate revue" - and the debate continues among the theatre-going oldies - Diana Morgan's talent was a reminder of its glories. It was so instructive, as well as amusing; and so easy to get the hang of that it made playgoers of schoolboys.

Yet its appeal was to the so-called sophisticated playgoers of the 1930s and 1940s. So the schoolboy of that day might not get the hang of everything, though, of course, he would have had no trouble with the two eight-line verses in Latin in The Number's Up (Gate, 1936), a musical play about a "very modern" contemporary public school.

At any rate James Agate, the most influential critic of the era, considered the dog-Latin worth quoting in full in his Sunday Times notice as an example of the show's brand of humour which ranged "half way between the great masters and the master-buffoons":

"The School Song" ran:

A, ab, absque, coram, de,

Floreat Mulburia!

Arma cano virumque,

Floreat Mulburia!

Magna Charta, locum tenes,

Ubique delirium tremens,

Cantabamus, omnes screamens

Floreat! Floreat! Floreat!

Carpe diem, Postume,

Floreat Mulburia!

Mensa quam celerrime,

Floreat Mulburia!

Alma Mater, tibi cano,

Mens sana in corp're sano,

Credimus cum salis grano,

Floreat! Floreat! Floreat!

Within two years, Morgan and her collaborator, Robert MacDermot, who became her husband, had two successful West End openings on successive nights. The first was a full-scale revue at the London Hippodrome, Black and Blue, headed by Frances Day, Vic Oliver and Max Wall, and directed by Robert Nesbitt.

The next night at the Ambassadors was the transferred Gate Revue, directed by Norman Marshall with Hermione Gingold, Walter Crisham, Michael Wilding, Gabrielle Brune and Derek Farr - all unknowns then.

Satire also counted high in a theatrical era when the Lord Chamberlain kept a wary eye on every script. Audiences, especially schoolboys, relished the complicity between them and the players and the notion of seeing something which the Lord Chamberlain would have forbidden in a public theatre.

Could the ultimate shedding of that functionary's powers over the stage in 1968 have sounded the death-knell of intimate revue? Not that everything - and there might be 30 items in a revue - was meant to be provocative. But there was simply nowhere else to taste whatever forbidden fruits might be on offer. No television satire programme to keep us in on Saturday nights (That Was The Week That Was); no Private Eye to be rude about anything and everything.

Above all, there was nothing to match the atmosphere of a "club" theatre which anyone could join for a few shillings a year and feel he belonged among the "sophisticates". Moreover, the snugness of a club theatre deepened the sense of something exclusive going on, and few theatres were snugger than the Gate in Villiers Street, Charing Cross, where the dressing rooms were just off the postage-stamp type stage itself.

Marshall had bought it in 1934, not to promote satirical revue but to put on his own kind of arguably rather highbrow play - Ibsen, Schnitzler, Aristophanes, Ernst Toller, John Steinbeck, Jean-Jacques Bernard.

At Christmas, though, a revue was expected. A well- established genre in the West End since the First World War under Andre Charlot and C.B. Cochran, it had been allowed to lapse when they both abandoned it for more spectacular shows at the London Pavilion. Marshall wanted something cosy, topical, witty and satirical.

He took on Morgan and MacDermot, then in their twenties, because he liked the material they had written for one of his revues at the Cambridge Festival Theatre a year earlier; and though the cast was low-spirited - two of them left before it opened - business gradually picked up until the show ran for eight crowded weeks, headed by Hermione Gingold (who during the war was to keep the Ambassadors filled with the Sweet and Low series of revues).

Morgan and MacDermot went on to contribute to Let's Face It! (1939), Swinging the Gate (1940) and scores of other revues in both the West End and at its outlying club theatres, like the Watergate.

What both writers learned was how to write for their players - for personalities like Gingold, Beatrice Lillie and Walter Crisham - and how to shape their material to get the mixture of moods, vital to revue, exactly right.

"Above all," as Marshall himself once put it, "if a revue is to have any style of its own it must be the expression of a single person's taste, not a hotch-potch of other people's suggestions and prejudices."

That's why he rented the Ambassadors where the Gate Revue ran for two years. When you think of all the other talent that came to the top through revue and the training it gave in timing and getting on immediate terms with an audience - from Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams to Ian Carmichael and Moira Fraser, Dora Bryan and Max Adrian - as well as writers like Harold Pinter, John Mortimer, Sandy Wilson, N.F. Simpson and Peter Cook - its loss is depressing on both sides of the footlights.

Eleven years ago the King's Head, Islington, staged something called Meet Me at the Gate. Devoted to the early writings of Morgan and MacDermot, it pleased nostalgic addicts of a genre which gave its last gasp, coincidentally or otherwise, when the censor gave his.

That was 28 years ago; and MacDermot had died in 1964; and you may now write it all off as a consequence of changing taste. But it was fun while it lasted. Nor did Diana Morgan ever allow her talent to stop there.

A Welsh character actress from the age of 20 and a playwright even earlier at the Arts with something called Cindelectra (imitating, perhaps, satirical zest?), she enjoyed numerous West End and Fringe productions as author and performer of marginal, Welsh parts.

Among her own plays were A House in the Square (St Martin's, 1940), a musical, Three Waltzes (Prince's, now Shaftesbury, 1945), Rain Before Seven (Embassy, 1949), The White Eagles (Embassy, 1950), and After My Fashion (Ambassadors, 1952), a well-received domestic drama of adultery. Other straight plays were The Dark Stranger (Ashcroft, Croydon), and The Judge's Story (Ashcroft, 1964).

After training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Diana Morgan ranged as an actress from Coward's Cavalcade at Drury Lane in 1931 to Mrs Dainty-Fidget in Wycherley's The Country Wife (Ambassadors, 1934), Phyllis in Parnell and Old Woman in Lysistrata (Gate, 1935), Bette in She Too Was Young (Wyndham's, 1938) and small parts in her own plays The White Eagles (Embassy 1950), After My Fashion and The Little Evenings (Welsh National Theatre, 1970).

She was a contract writer to Ealing Studios in its heyday, and her film credits include Poet's Pub and A Run For Your Money (both 1949). She won over a dozen international awards with her script for the film Hand in Hand, about a Roman Catholic child and his Jewish friend.

Among television series which she wrote were Emergency Ward 10; there were also documentaries and two radio plays and two novels. Only nine years ago she collaborated, aged 77, on a musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's fantasy The Secret Garden (King's Head).

But it was surely her revues with MacDermot which gave the most piquant pleasure.

Mary Diana Morgan, playwright and actress: born Cardiff 29 May 1908; married Robert MacDermot (died 1964); died 9 December 1996.

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