The Mousetrap Half-CenturyDate: 25 November 2002
As Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, the world's longest running play, this week celebrates its Golden Jubilee with a gala performance attended by The Queen, we look back on 50 years in the making of a theatrical institution.
At the beginning of 1947, when the late Queen Mary was approaching her 80th birthday on the 26 May, the BBC wanted to do a special radio broadcast as a tribute - television was virtually unknown - and made inquiries as to what she would like. Opera, Shakespeare, anything she chose was hers for the asking. The reply was "An Agatha Christie play". Christie complied and wrote a 30-minute play called Three Blind Mice. And so a legend was born. Because Three Blind Mice was eventually enlarged into The Mousetrap.
Why has The Mousetrap spanned ten American Presidents and ten British Prime Ministers? Why has it long since become the world's longest-running play? Why has it become, to foreign tourists, one of the sights of London on a par with Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London?
A source of wonder
According to one critic, it's "a tavern joke, a source of wonder, discussion and considerable envy." Another critic said, "The Mousetrap is to the West End Theatre what the ravens are to the Tower of London. Its disappearance would impoverish us. I loved it. And the theatre can quote me." Said a famous stage director, "The Mousetrap should be abolished by an Act of Parliament."
At the outset, three renowned directors turned down the play. Another accepted and later withdrew. The play opened at a theatre so small that it had to be an immediate smash hit to survive. Well, it was and it did. Why has it run? No one can say for certain. A family play, a good whodunit, comedy and thrills, well constructed (perhaps better than people realise). But other plays have also qualified in these categories. After 18 months, star Richard Attenborough left, which would have been a death blow to most plays. But with no 'names' The Mousetrap strode triumphantly on.
Running out of records & adjectives
Records came and went. And there came a time - hard to pinpoint exactly - when The Mousetrap became an institution. And still people laughed, admired and wondered. Publicity was self-perpetuating, helped by mammoth celebration parties, which the stars generously supported.
The fact that Agatha Christie herself rarely gave interviews made her occasional ones enormous news. Even the Milk Marketing Board arranged to bring a cow on stage to get people to drink more milk. But there was a foot and mouth disease scare at the time and the scheme had to be abandoned.
In its first 50 years The Mousetrap has 332 actors have appeared in the play with 167 understudies and 20 directors. Over ten million people have seen the show.
'Catch' adjectives became an annual feature. And so it was the ninth Incredible Year', the '10th Imperishable Year', the 'llth Extraordinary Year', the '12th Shattering Year', the '13th Momentous Year', the '14th Awe-Inspiring Year', the '15th Unashamed Year', the '16th Mind-Boggling Year', the '17th Inexorable Year', the '18th Beautiful Year', the '19th Breathtaking Year', the '20th Proud Year', and the '21st Coming-of-Age Year'. And there the adjectives stopped. But The Mousetrap didn't.
The Mousetrap has been performed in 44 countries throughout the world. During the London run, the scenery and all the furnishings have been replaced except for a clock. The only change in the script has been the deletion of references to rationing and identity cards, which were in force at the time. Neither the author nor the producer has ever been able to give an answer as to why it has been running so long.
When Agatha Christie was once asked "Is The Mousetrap being kept on to beat more records?" she replied, not boastingly but in some bewilderment, "What records are there to beat?"
FIFTY YEARS OF FACTS & FIGURES
The above is an edited extract from The Mousetrap Story. The stage play, The Mousetrap, continues to run at the West End's St Martin's Theatre.