It didn't sound very likely that a play about a man who appointed himself Pope in a kind of dream sequence would be likely to merit the serious attention of an audience for nearly three hours. And who had ever heard of the author anyhow? No disres pect in retrospect to Peter Luke, but his name meant nothing to dramatic critics on that night in 1967 when the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in tiny premises near New Street Station, bade us to a play called Hadrian VII.
Hadrian who? One thought of the wall. One dug up every reference book. There was no trace. I never did find out before I faced the play which Luke had taken from the novel by Frederick William Rolfe (1860-1913) about the hero who saw himself raised from indigent obscurity to the Chair of St Peter.
Luke himself, who had been a soldier, sub-editor, wine merchant and book reviewer for the first half of his life, had never dreamed of being anything but a painter. When that ambition, after two years' study at art school, was scotched by the Second World War - in which he won the Military Cross in the Rifle Brigade - he was driven to seek his fortune in Fleet Street, then in oenophily and in literary criticism, before turning to television drama in its heyday under the great Sydney Newman for whom he worked in Armchair Theatre as a story editor.
A year later, in 1959, he adapted Hadrian VII from a semi-autobiographical novel which had been published in 1904. The novel's author had failed as a candidate for the priesthood. Luke had to wait eight years to see the play acted in that first production by Peter Dews at the old Birmingham Rep, but it was worth the wait.
It was not perhaps entirely Luke's own triumph. Dews had seen the theatrical scope as director of this story so embroiled with the rituals of Rome; and Alec McCowen seemed to have been born to play the Roman Catholic convert of an Edwardian novel who hadhis revenge on the Roman church. But it did seem improbable. For one thing the hero never met his secular or theological equal. One-sided tales do not usually hook us for long on the stage. For another, it all seemed so very far-fetched. We were asked to believe that out of the blue an awkwardly devout but rejected candidate for the priesthood was suddenly summoned to Rome and elected Pope before he knew what was happening; and that he more or less got his spiritual own back on the enemies of his temporal days before being shot by a blackmailing Ulsterman whom he nobly forgave with his dying breath.
A bit much? Over the top? Well, all I can say is that McCowen as the hero carried us with him - and the play - to international triumph. For all the obvious fantasy and the strong smell of incense which pervaded the evening, the passion of this idealist's unorthodox beliefs came impressively across the footlights. The actor seized and relished every opportunity for blending the sense of divine vocation and impish wit of a character seen as part martyr and part mischief-maker.
Merging fact and fantasy may have since become a vital aspect of the television writer's craft but at the time it was the merging of autobiographical motives and wish-fulfilment which made the fantasy so powerful. What we had feared might be too arid, devotional and frankly religious turned out to be enthralling and alive with ironical sidelights. No one can ever weigh precisely the contributions of writer, actor and director but that night at Birmingham they came marvellously together.
If it was easier to rave about the actor's angry, aloof and mercurial performance of the first supposed English Pope since 1159 than to see what Luke or Dews had put into it, that is the way of the stage. At all events it freed Luke to write thereafter whatever he chose, or not to write at all if he preferred.
He was already middle-aged. He did get a couple of other plays into the West End. In 1974 Yvonne Mitchell and Daniel Massey came forward in Bloomsbury, a comedy postulating Virginia Woolf's view of the group surrounding Lytton Strachey; and 14 years later Joan Plowright made something (but not much) of Luke's portrait of Marie Stopes, the children's author and passionate advocate of contraception, called Married Love, which had a short life at Wyndham's.
In fact Luke did a lot of work both in the theatre and the television as a journeyman-playwright, filching, shaping, sifting and skilfully adapting mainly other people's writings. He also wrote a novel, short stories, a children's book, an autobiography,a version of Lorca's Yerma and umpteen adaptations, some of them rather more "relevant" than Hadrian VII had ever seemed or sounded.
One of these works included a play for the Dublin Gate where Luke was a director in the late 1970s, called Proxopera, from a novel by Benedict Kiely about a family man ordered at gunpoint by the IRA to deliver a bomb to be exploded in the neighbouring town. But nothing Luke ever wrote was a match for the explosion of that singularly improbable fantasy about a forgotten eccentric whose chain-smoking dream of becoming pontiff seems to come so venomously, touchingly and compellingly true, not only for him but for us in the amazed and amused audience.
Adam Benedick In 1958, just off the boat from Canada, I met an Old Etonian, ex-glass engraver, ex-wine salesman earning a pittance reviewing books for the Queen magazine - Peter Luke, writes Sydney Newman. I offered him a pittance of ABC Television's money as my story editor for Armchair Theatre and neither he nor I ever looked back.
At first, television drama was a mystery to him but, as well as his good nose for wine, he had an unerring eye for good and original writing. Thanks to him I commissioned the first television plays of Harold Pinter, Alun Owen and many others. His charm and empathy with the writer and directors, say, Philip Saville, Ted Kotcheff, Charlie Jarrott, made it easy for me to hold the loyalties of fine writers such as Clive Exton, Hugh Leonard and Angus Wilson. As he got the hang of the television drama form he wrote some nifty plays for Armchair Theatre.
At the BBC when I was its Head of Drama Group, I had the wit to hire him as a producer. One of many was his complex production of Hamlet at Elsinore (1963), in which Philip Saville directed a star cast headed by Christopher Plummer. He brought to us one of the first Prix Italia prizes won by the BBC for TV Drama with Hugh Leonard's Silent Song (1967), directed by Charles Jarrott.
I cannot think of anyone else who was more important to my professional life in television than Peter Luke. He also became one of my dearest friends.
Peter Ambrose Cyprian Luke, writer: born St Albans 12 August 1919; MC 1944; sub-editor, Reuters News Desk 1946-47; wine trader 1947-57; story editor, ABC TV 1958-62; Editor, The Bookman (ABC TV) 1962-63; Editor, Tempo (ABC TV) 1963-64; drama producer, BBC TV 1963-67; Director, Edwards-Mac Liammoir Dublin Gate Theatre Company 1977-80; married Carola Peyton-Jones (deceased), secondly Lettice Crawshaw (one daughter, one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1963 June Tobin (two sons, three daughters); died Cadiz 23 January 1995.
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