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From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] GRAY: Simon James Holiday Gray 2008
Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2008 14:01:01 +0100
Prolific playwright who wrote a string of black comedies and later produced
a series of candid memoirs
Last Updated: 12:54AM BST 08 Aug 2008
Gray with one of his 60 a day: 'I don't know how to relax. I'm very bored
by myself except when I'm working' Photo: MARTIN POPE
Simon Gray , who has died aged 71 , was a prolific playwright of black
comedies, and thrived off professional and personal conflict; during the
last decade he found a new audience with a series of memoirs collectively
known as The Smoking Diaries.
Gray had many West End hits, including Butley (1971), Otherwise Engaged
(1975), Quartermaine's Terms, (1981), Melon (1987), The Common Pursuit
(first produced in 1984 and revived in 1988), Hidden Laughter (1990), The
Late Middle Classes (1999), Japes (2000), The Holy Terror (2004) and, on the
radio earlier this year, Missing Dates, a sequel to Japes.
The Smoking Diaries (2004), The Year of the Jouncer (2006) and The Last
Cigarette, published earlier this year, won wide praise both for Gray's wit
and charm and for his objections to the "barbarism" of modern Britain.
Despite such successes, Gray was a self-confessed paranoiac and struck an
Eeyorish pose most of his working life. Seen through his bile-coloured eyes,
the world, the flesh and the Devil all conspired to thwart him, often in
league with his colleagues. He had public spats with, among others, the
critic James Fenton and a falling-out with his old friend Harold Pinter.
Most of his characters were drawn from the small, introverted milieu of
academe and the media. Many of them were haunted by the happiness - or
horror - of childhood and school which had turned them into frigid adults in
Among the most tragic of Gray's creations was Simon Hench, the protagonist
of Otherwise Engaged, who spends the play trying to listen to his new
recording of Parsifal while his domestic world crumbles about him.
Eventually he switches off a recorded telephone message of a man threatening
to kill himself.
Gray revived the character for Simply Disconnected (1996). When Hench, now
retired, is told that his brother, a schoolmaster, faces ruin after
accusations of child abuse, the most emotion he can muster is a
non-committal "ah". Gray described Hench as a man who tries to deal with the
world by pretending it doesn't exist. He both "respected and despised" this
"I was bought up in the '50s," said Gray. "Probably the only courteous
decade in the history of this country." He loathed "the bestiality of some
parts of English life" and bemoaned piped music and the "politicised and
timid" way in which English had come to be taught. He never drove and wrote
on an old Olympic typewriter.
Much of his work was filled with disgust for the betrayals of contemporary
middle-class life - "that peculiarly English cruelty of bumbling other
people to their own destruction". Sexual jealousy went hand in hand with a
distaste for the mechanics of sex; "I'll catch them at it," says Benedict in
Close of Play, thinking about his scriptwriting wife and her lover. "At
their f***ity-f***ity, clackity-f***ity, f***ity-clackity."
A recurring motif was the adulterous husband covering his tracks by playing
squash and showering before returning home. Disappointment in marriage was
contrasted with enduring - sometimes passionate - friendships between men.
Happiest were those too old to be troubled by desire, like his senile
schoolmaster Quartermaine. Some characters escaped into drink, some into
purgative madness. In Melon, a publisher, driven insane by jealousy,
descends into a hell of despair. Only after recovering can he begin to
appreciate the subjectivity of his experience.
A tall, billowing figure with a mop of straggling hair, Gray smoked 60
cigarettes a day and lubricated his thoughts with copious amounts of
champagne and whisky. Though he hated much of contemporary life, he could
suggest nothing better; faith, he said, might help, but his religion took
the form of fear. He did write a comedy about a rural vicar, Hidden
In mining his own neuroses for his work, Gray was prone to lash out. His
journals were unsparing, mocking the American actors in his Broadway
production of The Common Pursuit and portraying Jules Styne, with whom he
collaborated on an unproduced musical version of The Red Shoes, as a
whimsical megalomaniac surrounded by sycophants. His last books unsparingly
examined his terminal lung cancer.
James Fenton, who had written a scathing notice of Gray's Stage Struck
(1979), took violent exception to the author's vengeful review of a book of
his collected pieces in which Gray speculated about the sexual potency of
Pinter was angry at Gray for caricaturing him as the pompous Hector Duff,
"the world's greatest living playwright", in the television play Unnatural
Pursuits; the two were reconciled after Gray sent Pinter a poem about loss
he had seen in The Spectator.
Gray was the victim in the best documented of his public fights. In 1995
Stephen Fry absconded from Gray's West End production of his play Cell
Mates, leaving Gray a message on his answering machine: "I'm sorry. I'm so
Fry had been playing the traitor George Blake. From Gray's point of view, it
was not ideal casting, as he had wanted his favourite, Alan Bates, in the
role. None the less, rehearsals had been amicable enough; the producer
Duncan Weldon had invested heavily in advance publicity, takings were
healthy and the reviews were on the whole, encouraging. Two days later, Fry
disappeared, donning a disguise and slipping away to Belgium, asking his
agent to forward some letters of apology.
In faxes issued from his laptop, the fugitive actor gave as his excuse the
indifferent notices he had received personally (though he had, in fact,
been, if not especially impressive, perfectly presentable in the role).
These reviews had made no difference to the box-office; but, when news of
Fry's flight broke, takings plunged. Though Simon Ward learnt the role in
three days to take over, the play closed shortly afterwards.
The Fry story, however, ran and ran. He had suffered a crisis of sorts, part
induced by over-work, partly by a vigorous cocaine habit, and partly for
psychological reasons (he later became candid about his homosexuality, and
gave a moving account of his being diagnosed as bipolar). But at the time he
seemed otherwise healthy and, when fears of a suicide bid appeared to be
contradicted by photographs of Fry dining in Bruges, Gray saw his treachery
as being comparable to that of Blake's, and called him a coward and an
This had the effect of making Fry a martyr. The comedian was adored by the
British public, who now extended him their sympathy. Gray was known only as
an opprobrious playwright driven by grudges, though he had lost five years'
In Fat Chance, his diary of the production, Gray made some concession that
he had been excessively bitter about this loss, and admitted that his attack
on Fry had been "homicidal and suicidal"; but he also sketched, with
delicate malice, a subversive portrait of the actor. Emphasising Fry's
generosity, he recalled that the actor had insisted on a two-week break in
rehearsals so that he could entertain friends at Christmas. He detailed Fry's
obsession with his computerised personal organiser, his habit of - "in the
most charming and eloquent way" - obviating the writer-director to tell the
cast the meaning of their lines and his cheerful late arrivals for
rehearsal. Having published the book, Gray himself then had a collapse.
A doctor's son, Simon James Holliday Gray was born on October 21 1936.
During the Second World War he was evacuated to Canada and afterwards
attended Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge.
At Westminster he struck up a friendship with a short, ugly, unpopular
Jewish boy named Quass with whom he conducted a lucrative fraud, using
Georgian pennies instead of florins in Underground ticket machines and
pocketing three six-pences in change. Gray was told to stay away from Quass.
Many years later, he heard that Quass had killed himself. His guilt about
his desertion of the weaker boy was to provide the story of his television
play Old Flames (1990).
In 1965 Gray was appointed a lecturer in English at Queen Mary's College. He
published four novels under his own name; Colmain (1963), Simple People
(1965), Little Portia (1967) and Breaking Hearts (1997). He also wrote A
Comeback for Stark (1968) as Hamish Reade. His first effort at drama was an
adaptation for television of a short story, Death of a Teddy-Bear.
His first major success was Butley, about a university professor. The lead
was played by Alan Bates, who starred in many of Gray's plays. Some people
remarked on Gray's near-obsession with Bates.
Gray worked incessantly. "I don't know how to relax," he said. "I'm very
easily bored by myself except when I'm working."
His only moment of simple happiness, he said, was when, after an all-night
revision, fuelled by alcohol, a play was boxed up and he could pour himself
another glass of champagne. In this way he produced more than 20 plays and
adaptations. When not writing a new play, he would revise an old one.
He also wrote a half-dozen plays for television, including After Pilkington
(1987) and Running Late (1992), several plays for radio, and four early sets
of journals; An Unnatural Pursuit and Other Pieces (1985); How's That For
Telling 'Em, Fat Lady (1988); and Fat Chance (1995).
After the debacle of Cell Mates, Gray was forced to enter a clinic where he
hoped: "I would be so massively dosed with drugs that I wouldn't notice I
While in hospital he was told he had cancer. A succession of "grinning"
specialists informed him he had two years to live and each day revised their
diagnosis of the cancer, declaring it more and more malignant. In the end,
they could find only two aneurysms. Out of hospital, Gray developed
pneumonia, a classic iatrogenic condition provoked by numerous endoscopies.
"I'm still drinking and smoking more than I should," Gray said. "But at
least I'm immune from the worst health-hazard in life; the medical
profession." His first reduction in his alcohol intake was to swap Scotch
for three bottles of champagne a day. But he eventually stopped drinking
after collapsing in a restaurant in 1997. Harold Pinter raised a glass to
him as he was carried out by Alan Bates. Gray's daily routine, however,
continued to bear the stamp of his alcoholic years: he rose at 2pm, ate
dinner out and wrote through the night, going to bed at five in the morning.
In this month's Standpoint magazine, in a dialogue with The Daily Telegraph's
theatre critic Charles Spencer, he criticised as cowardly the readiness of
the National Theatre to stage shows such as Jerry Springer: The Opera, which
offended Christians, as a "very easy sort of liberalism", while condemning
the theatrical establishment's reluctance to produce similar pieces that
tackled other religions, such as radical Islam.
Simon Gray married, first, Beryl Kevern; they had a son and a daughter.
After 25 years, the marriage was dissolved. He married, secondly, Victoria
Rothschild. He smoked to the end, though he cut down a bit, and switched to
|[W-OBITS] GRAY: Simon James Holiday Gray 2008 by "Peter McCrae" <>|