Michael Frayn at the Chiswick Book Festival 2023

Image above: Michael Frayn talking to Torin Douglas at the 15th Chiswick Book Festival; photograph Roger Green

Talking with Torin Douglas about the people who have influenced his life both professionally and personally

Playwright and novelist Michael Frayn was at the Chiswick Book Festival this weekend, talking to festival director Torin Douglas about his memoir.

The writer, best known for the play Noises Off, had celebrated his 90th birthday the day before. He won his first award, the Somerset Maugham award for young writers, in 1966 and went on to win five Evening Standard awards, two Oliviers and a Tony for his dramas as well as an international Emmy and an award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.

He has won both the Whitbread prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his novels and the Golden PEN award for a lifetime’s distinguished service to literature.

He is one of only a few writers who have been as successful for their plays as they have for their novels. The event was sponsored by the Arts Society Chiswick.

There were several authors talking about their memoirs at the festival. Michael, as one who has thought long and hard about structures, chose to invert the format and instead of writing in the first person about himself, chose to write about others – Among Others: Friendships and Encounters, a collection of short essays about the people who have shaped his life, both professionally and personally.

Images above: Bamber Gascoigne, host of University Challenge; photographs BBC

Bamber Gascoigne, who introduced him to theatre

Bamber Gascoigne, the original quizmaster on University Challenge (1962 – 1987) was his oldest friend, who died last year. They went to Cambridge University together and Bamber, who lived in Richmond, introduced Michael to the area. They used to have swimming parties in the river, he said.

“He was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people you’ve ever come across.”

It was he who introduced Michael to the theatre.

“Bamber wrote a dazzling revue at Cambridge. I wrote one that was a flop.”

Bamber’s revue was taken up by producer Michael Codron and put on in the West End, with the title Share My Letters, starring Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. He put one of Michael’s sketches into it (“30 seconds” said Michael), and that was how he made his start in theatre.

“I hated, detested and despised the theatre at the time” he told the audience in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at ArtsEd, “because my first effort was a flop. Sour grapes.”

Noises Off

How did Noises Off come about?

“I was doing The Two Of Us, an evening of short plays, one of them a farce with two actors. There was a series of quick changes and I thought ‘this is funnier than what was going on out front’, so I wrote Noises Off, which was fiendishly difficult to do. It went through many rewrites and only worked because of Michael Blakemore and the suggestions he made.”

There have been five West End productions of the play and it is about to have its sixth, which will be its 40th anniversary, at the Haymarket theatre, starring Felicity Kendal.

Frank Rich, the New York theatre critic known as ‘the Butcher of Broadway’ said it ‘was and probably always will be the funniest play of my lifetime’.

“I am puzzled why it’s been such a success” said Michael, “but equally puzzled why other plays have been a flop.”

Michael Blakemore was a central character in Michael Frayn’s career.

“Michael was a friend before he directed my plays. He’s Australian and passionate about surfing. He had a house in Biarritz because it had the best surf in Europe and he liked writers to go and work with him there.

“Michael liked working on new plays. It was a risk because you didn’t know whether it was going to work or not, but he directed all my plays.”

Image above: Copenhagen; Soulpepper Theatre Company

Copenhagen

Copenhagen, which Michael Frayn wrote nearly two decades later, could not have been more different. Based on a true event which happened in Copenhagen in 1941, it is about a meeting between two scientists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

“Why did Heisenberg go and see Bohr? It has been endlessly disputed,” said Michael. “What was so important? No one knows. The play is not really about science but about the philosophy – why do people do what they do?

Heisenberg worked for Germany, researching atomic technology and heading their nuclear reactor programme. He was best known for his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ of quantum mechanics.

“You can never know how a particle will always behave and I don’t think we can ever know why people do what they do.”

“Were you surprised it was so successful?” asked Torin.

“I was absolutely astonished that it was performed,” said Michael.

Image above: Michael Frayn talking to Torin Douglas at the 15th Chiswick Book Festival; photograph Roger Green

Writing funny pieces for The Guardian and The Observer

While theatre was one thread, writing funny pieces for The Guardian and The Observer was another. The Guardian published some of them to mark his 90th birthday:

Michael Frayn at 90: a miscellany of the satirical columnist’s finest moments

Neal Ascherson is another of the characters he credits for helping him.

“He was ahead of me at Cambridge. His reputation preceded him. He’d been at Eton and stabbed someone and been birched for it. He had also been an officer in Malaysia and done heroic things. He was very kind. He came to see me at Cambridge and made sure I was set up ok in Manchester when I started work for The Guardian.”

Michael Frayn also did what you might call ‘straight’ journalism as well. As a Russian speaker he was offered a job by Reuters when he was still at university and went to Moscow to meet the incumbent correspondent.

At that time Soviet citizens were not allowed to talk to the foreign press and he was so appalled when he heard what the lifestyle was like (Monday darts at the British embassy, Tuesday a social at the French embassy, Wednesday doughnut night at the American embassy) that he went home and declined the offer, but he did work in Fleet St and set one of his novels there.

Image above: Michael Frayn signing books at the book festival; Towards the End of the Morning

Towards the End of the Morning

Towards the End of the Morning was a satirical novel about journalists working on a newspaper in Fleet St in its heyday.

“It was republished a few years ago and I had to explain what Fleet St was.”

(It was where all the major newspapers were based.)

Torin quoted best-selling author Richard Osman, another Chiswick resident, who is on record as saying Towards the End of the Morning is ‘the funniest book in the English language’. It was Michael’s first successful book.

“It is a completely fictitious book but I borrowed some characteristics from some of the people working at The Guardian and The Observer.

Images above: Spies; Michael Frayn signing books at the book festival

Spies

Another of his books, Spies, was based on a childhood friend.

“He was my best friend when I was a boy. He was very good with his hands and also very creative. When I came to write Spies, set during the War in the suburbs of London, I suddenly remembered this boy. He said to me in the middle of the Second World War ‘my mother is a German spy’.”

They followed her around for a bit until they got bored, but the idea stuck.

He has, he said, been taken to task by both his wife, the biographer and literary journalist Claire Tomalin and his daughter, documentary and feature film maker Rebecca, for not having more women in the book.

“It’s not that there aren’t women in my life who influenced me” he said. “Two of them I married and others I fell in love with. I just found it very difficult to write about them. I showed it to my wife Claire and as a result of her bullying I did write a piece about a girl I was in love with many years ago, but you can’t write about your own wife.”

Image above: Michael Frayn signing books at the book festival; Photograph Roger Green

Tips for would-be writers

Torin asked Michael about his success in being able to master the forms of both novels and plays (and TV documentaries for that matter) and he said:

“In a novel it is very natural for the author to know what the characters are thinking. Not so in plays. In plays it is most natural for the author not to be inside the characters’ heads – all we know is what we see.”

Another important tip for the would-be playwright or novelist came from one of the questions from the audience: Did he think that having been a journalist made him a better playwright and novelist.

“It probably did. I often think people who write fiction ought to be obliged to work as a journalist first because the invented world is not like the real world. It is extremely complicated and muddled. Serious newspaper reporting is very difficult and can be tremendously dangerous.”

Of all Michael’s work I have only ever seen Noises Off. As a result of this session I now feel a whole world of good writing has opened up for my future enjoyment.