Plater Pays Homage to Peggy RamsayDate: 5 November 1999
The late Peggy Ramsay was the most celebrated literary agent of her day. In his new play, Alan Plater, a former protegé, celebrates life à la Ramsey. Nick Smurthwaite talks to him....
Like all successful writers, Alan Plater has had his share of duds. Hampstead Theatre returned one of his manuscripts once, saying the story didn't start until page 53. At the time, Plater phoned his agent, Peggy Ramsay, who had also read the play. 'My God, darling, as early as that!' she exclaimed when he related Hampstead's comment.
Ramsay's clients, the crème de la crème of post-war playwrights, from Robert Bolt to Yasmina Reza, got used to her honesty and bluntness. Sometimes they took offence when she went too far, but they all knew in their hearts that the greatest prize was not an Olivier award nor a rave from Jack Tinker but the blessing of the doyenne of the West End.
'If you could write a play that would please Peggy, it didn't really matter what happened to it after that,' says Plater, whose homage, Peggy for You, with Maureen Lipman, begins previews at Hampstead on 18 November.
Though she eschewed any form of self-promotion - she rarely gave press interviews - Ramsay was one of the most influential movers and shakers in British theatre for more than 30 years. How would she have reacted to being the subject of a play rather than its facilitator? 'Outwardly dismissive, quietly pleased,' suspects Plater, 'in other words, a classic Peggy response.'
Plater first encountered La Ramsay in 1961 when he was a struggling writer living in Hull. 'I put my foot in it immediately by saying I wanted someone to sell my plays. She said 'Darling, I don't sell plays . . my writers write plays and people want to buy them.' I'd never met anyone like Peggy before. She was charismatic, contradictory, outrageous, utterly professional, you were never quite sure if she was listening. What she believed in was the transcendent importance of art.
'Quite early on in my career, a reviewer wrote something about the structure of my play. I didn't know what structure meant, so I asked Peggy how I could find out about it. She just said 'Read Ibsen.' So I did. She was extremely well read. She'd go into a 20-minute lecture about the brilliance of Flaubert.'
Ramsay was a firm believer in the north-south divide when it came to her (predominantly male) writers. The northerners included Bill Naughton, David Mercer, Jack Rosenthal, Peter Terson, Willy Russell and of course, Plater himself. 'We were regarded as being self-sufficient, independent and tough.'
Not so tough, however, that they were exempt from the rigorous Ramsay vetting procedure whereby she took it upon herself to ensure her protegé was being well cared for, or at least hitched to an appropriate wagon. She famously likened Peter Nichols' decision to take his wife to the Broadway opening of A Death In The Day Of Joe Egg to 'taking a ham sandwich to a banquet.'
Plater recalls a rare social call from Peggy after he and his partner, Shirley, came to live in London. 'She had a good look round the flat and said something to Shirley like 'I don't mind what my writers do in their private lives . . .so long as it doesn't affect the work.' She had an almost puritanical attitude to work. Of course there were some writers who simply couldn't stomach this interference in their private lives.'
Plater has included three writers in his play. 'There is a fresh-faced, dewy-eyed one, kind of based on me when I started out, then there is one who's in his prime, representing all of us who were flavour of the month at any one time, and finally there is Henry after my late friend Henry Livings, who first put me onto Peggy.
'I've set it in the late Sixties when Peggy was at her absolute peak. It's a totally imaginary piece, I did no research whatsoever. All those myths and legends about Peggy just came out of my head and onto the page. I did actually ask Hampstead to bill it as a pack of lies because that's what she would have wanted.'
There is, however, at least one legend grounded in truth: The Tale of Two Alans. Just before Alan Ayckbourn hit the jackpot with Relatively Speaking, he received a royalty cheque from Ramsay that was actually intended for Plater. The cheque he should have received went to, guess who, Alan Plater. Since Plater was doing very nicely at the time, writing for television, and Ayckbourn was struggling to make ends meet, Plater was shocked by the paltry amount he received, Ayckbourn astounded by the number of noughts on his. Plus ça change. The two Alans have remained friends over the years. Indeed Ayckbourn was called upon to scrutinise an early draft of Peggy For You. It's been a busy time for the indefatigable Plater. Quite apart from the community play he's written for the Orkney Islands, the opera libretto and the children's book ('for my 12 grandchildren'), he has just started shooting his latest original film script, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, starring Ian Holm and Judi Dench, directed by Giles McKinnon.
Until recently one of our most prolific TV writers, Plater is deeply disenchanted by the lack of individuality in TV drama today. 'All the drama you see on TV tells you stuff you already know, which is why a lot of writers are going back to the stage. We all know marriages break up, policemen solve crimes, doctors make people better. There is no surprise element any more, no individual voices. And the jargon that's used to discuss scripts! The beats, the character arcs, all that gobbledegook. Peggy would have been so contemptuous. I never heard a word of jargon pass her lips and for that alone she is worth celebrating.'
Peggy for You opens at the Hampstead Theatre on 23 November following previews from 18 November 1999. It continues until 15 January 2000.