The first play I ever acted in was As You Like It – playing Silvius, the lovelorn shepherd. I was 11 and at an all-boys prep school. Daniels minor was my Phoebe. The first play I starred in was The Taming of the Shrew in my last year at school. My 17-year-old Petruchio wooed a Kate played by Nick Sherwin, brother of David, the future author of If… which was self-confessedly based on the school we all attended. Which, say people who've seen the film, explains a lot about me… My servant, Grumio, was played by Timothy (James Bond) Dalton.
The first play I fell in love with on the page was Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, also in my last year at school. After a diet of compulsory Shakespeare, Racine and Schiller in the way of drama (I was doing French and German at A level), I was set alight by the raw street-cred of Pinter's dialogue and the alluring mysteriousness of his characters – who were these magnetically attractive people, opening the doors of perception for a sheltered public-schoolboy? When I joined Methuen as their drama editor in 1974, I became Pinter's publisher, and it took me two years or more to stop pinching myself as I sipped Chablis in his study going over proofs of the latest masterpiece.
Back in 1961, my discovery of Pinter had led me on to all those Angry Young Playwrights being collected and published in the newly launched Penguin New English Dramatists, the 14 volumes of which are still on my shelves. And so I added Wesker, Osborne, Arden to my acquaintance as well as N.F. Simpson, Peter Shaffer, John Whiting and Bernard Kops. When my school sanctioned a rare sixth-form outing to London, I made a bee-line for the fabled Royal Court, determined to see whatever was on. I struck lucky: John Dexter's charismatic premiere production of Chips with Everything, with its brilliantly choreographed silent raid on the coke-store – my first lesson in how drama doesn't necessarily need dialogue to engage an audience and score a point.
The first play I ever published was one that Methuen had already committed to, so not my choice. The Incredible Vanishing!!!! (four exclamation marks), which was Denise Coffey's take on Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, had just been staged at the Young Vic under Frank Dunlop's regime. It was an attractive and energetic play for children, and Denise was a helpfully attractive and energetic author to work with on my first publication. I no longer have a copy, but I see it's available via Amazon for the customary penny.
The first play I chose to publish was Hitting Town, Stephen Poliakoff's ‘breakthrough' at the ripe old age of 22. At that time Methuen was still publishing all its plays in both hardback and paperback, and publishing them some months after the premiere. Coming from teaching in the provinces where we needed immediate access to the plays that London was seeing, I was determined to short-circuit this cumbersome publication procedure. The result was that Stephen's play and many by subsequent up-and-coming writers were published in hideous KwikFit editions, with the text set in double columns and the covers printed in black only. They were pretty universally disliked, but they served their turn by greatly reducing the interval between the appearance of the play on stage and its appearance in print.
I struck lucky again with the first play I published when I set up Nick Hern Books in 1988. Nicholas Wright's Mrs Klein, now – like Nick Hern Books itself – 25 years old, has become a modern classic. So proud was I of this first product of my new imprint that I blazoned ‘A NICK HERN BOOK' all over the front cover. "Humph!" said the author on seeing the first copies, "Your name appears rather more times than mine." The banner headline was promptly dropped.
The first play I ever saw in the theatre was, I'm pretty sure, something called The Silver Curlew by (I've just looked this up) Eleanor Farjeon. I was six, and, my mother being ill, it fell to my father to entertain me that Christmas. Off we went to a matinee at the cavernous Kentish Town Forum. My memory is that there were only about six other people in the audience, and we were moved forward from the cheap seats at the back. I found the proceedings on stage tedious and fey, an opinion I'm sure I would still share with my younger self. The cliché about falling in love with the theatre at first sight failed miserably in my case, and my father's well-meaning experiment was not repeated. Instead, as with real-life love affairs, I had to make my own choices, and, as in real life, theatrical love exploded when least expected.
The Christmas 1960 school holidays saw me take over operating a follow-spot for the pantomime at the New Theatre, Bromley (now the Churchill). A more enterprising older friend had sweet-talked his way into this job but had to absent himself for a couple of days to attend a round of Oxbridge interviews. I shadowed him for one performance, and then I was on my own. The anxiety, the thrill, above all the glamour – I can still recapture that heady brew today. And, despite the thousands of plays I've watched, read and published since, I have to admit that training my follow-spot onto the principal boy that Christmas over 50 years ago as she sang "Moon River" to the principal girl was the moment I fell irretrievably in love with theatre.
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