The Big Interview: Michael Frayn

Geoffrey Streatfeild, Henry Goodman and Barbara Flynn in rehearsals for Copenhagen
Geoffrey Streatfeild, Henry Goodman and Barbara Flynn in rehearsals for Copenhagen
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Ten. I give Michael Frayn at least 10 opportunities to revel in a little well-earned self-satisfaction over the course of an hour and a half. Each time he either sidesteps the question, or ignores it entirely and answers a different enquiry, one which I haven’t actually put to him.

The cabbie who drops me off at his Richmond home displays no such reticence for boasting. “Meeting someone showbiz?” he asks when seeing the gated residence of my destination.

When I tell him it’s a famous writer waiting on the other side of the gates, he says: “Thought so, I brought John Cleese here the other week.”

Cleese was the star of Frayn’s most successful venture into the world of film, Clockwise, and although the cabbie saying “guess who I had in the back of my cab” is a cliche, in this case it is almost certainly true.

It’s hard to imagine Frayn indulging in any name dropping himself.

You end up almost exasperated at the fact that he refuses to show off about his accomplishments, or even say ‘yes, I have done pretty well’. Plenty have boasted more at achieving less.

It is clearly just not Frayn’s way.

Tall and stiff backed, he opens the door to his home with a smile already on his face that suggests a man who finds all life a little amusing, that he’s been there and done that – and he’s done so in a more accomplished manner than most.

He began as a columnist and journalist on the Guardian and Observer and one of his comic novels, Towards the End of the Morning, is still the definitive satire on Fleet Street. Then there are the serious prize-winning novels, comic and serious plays and books on philosophy plus the screen writing as well. Michael Frayn has more about which to crow than the majority of people. Which is possibly why he does so less.

A couple of examples: I point out that the two Alans, Ayckbourn and Bennett, have complained they are less critically appreciated because their form is comic not serious, whereas Frayn is acclaimed for combining comic and serious. Does he think that’s the case?

Instead answering, he roars with laughter. “What? Alan Bennett claims he hasn’t had critical acclaim, my jaw drops open. Ooh, poor old Alans, my heart bleeds for them.

“I think it’s true in the past that Alan Ayckbourn and maybe – maybe – Bennett were not taken as seriously as they should have been. But now everyone takes them seriously. Good God, they’ve had five-star reviews for everything in the last few years. I’m the one who doesn’t get great notices.”

That’s all very interesting, but the question was about his own work and the fact that he straddles two forms, intellectual pieces as well as comedies and farces – which is why he is critically appreciated. I repeat it.

“Maybe one should do that as well, that’s true... but a lot of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are plainly serious comedies. As are Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III for example...”

And he goes on to discuss Bennett’s work at length.

I suppose when you have a body of work like Frayn’s it is big enough to speak for itself.

He’s now 78, and we discovered more about Frayn’s childhood and the influence of his widower father Tom, a deaf asbestos salesman, through a much admired memoir he wrote a couple of years ago called My Father’s Fortune.

He was patently a smart child and an interviewer at the time the book was published made a remark about him being, even as a youngster, the smartest person in the room.

One of his plays, Copenhagen, one of three that make up the Michael Frayn season at Sheffield Theatres which opened this week, deals with a meeting between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The multiple award winning play, which was turned into a BBC film, deals with the race to build an atomic bomb.

Henry Goodman stars as Bohr in the Sheffield production. And he said after two weeks of rehearsals that his “brain was hurting’.

Clearly, only a very smart man could have written the play. Does he indeed feel, as the interviewer suggested, like the smartest person in the room?

Again, there’s self-deprecation in the reply. “Smartest in the room? That’s certainly not my experience of life, quite the contrary, I’ve always been one of the dimmest people in any circle of friends. I have always been very aware that other people were cleverer than me and in some ways that has always provided a stimulus.”

But he has written several plays that have science or big ideas at their heart. Did he feel that pull when he was a child between the sciences and the arts?

“There was never any decision between the sciences and arts for me. I wasn’t any good at science so the choice was made for me. I have no mathematics and can only understand the physics involved in a play like Copenhagen with the help of science writers who explained it to me.”

Whatever he insists, Frayn was smart enough, following National Service, to secure a place to study philosophy at Cambridge. On graduating, he joined the Manchester Guardian where his way with a comic turn of phrase was spotted and he was soon writing three comic columns a week.

He moved to the Observer in 1962, when he had already started writing a first novel, The Tin Men, which was published to great acclaim in 1965. “All I ever wanted to be was a journalist. The books and plays have come as well as my journalism. All I have ever done is follow the ideas in my head that appear to be asking for – or demanding – attention and eventually I write them. Or don’t. You don’t have a choice about the ideas that fall into your head.

“It’s as simple as that.”

“I think serious reporting is just about the hardest thing you can do in writing,” he says, before wondering out loud: “Is it harder than farces? I don’t know. Writing anything is hard.”

So why do it?

“What else could I do? If writing is what you can and you can’t do anything else, you don’t have much choice.”

I suppose we can just be glad that he can do it. And how.

Early in his career at the Manchester Guardian he found himself in the position a number of journalists in district offices have found themselves over the years.

As a reviewer he might have lacked generosity, but his adventures as a theatre critic provided ample comic material for his columns, which often lampooned the very idea of theatre, riffing on the fact that people only ever go in the hope of seeing some terrible disaster unfold.

All the while he was clearly storing up material for the play that would ensure his place in the history of the British theatrical canon.

The night before we met, I had sat in the audience of the Old Vic, where the latest revival of Frayn’s Noises Off is enjoying five-star reviews and leaving people helpless with laughter. It is as tight as a well-drilled military band and it is brilliant. First staged in 1982, it ran in the West End for five years and has enjoyed countless revivals around the world.

It features a farcical play within a play, the director is a megalomaniac, everyone is sleeping with everyone else, the leading lady is vacuous, the old hand can’t remember any lines and the elder statesman is an old soak.

It was perfect revenge for all those times he hated being in the theatre as a reviewer, wasn’t it?

“Oh no, it was a tribute to them. There are those stereotypes in there, but the more I work with actors, the more I admire them. You get on that stage at 7.30pm and you’re on it for two hours. If it goes wrong, they can’t go back and start again. I think what they do takes a great deal of courage.

“Writing the play was sheer blood, sweat and tears. As soon as I finished it, I thought ‘well, no-one is ever going to perform this. I thought I’d stepped off a cliff. I thought I’d never see it on stage.” He did. And the audience were as helpless back then as they are at the sell-out Old Vic current run.

Michael Frayn is the perfect writer to be honoured by a season of work in Sheffield, an enterprise begun by artistic director Daniel Evans with the work of David Hare last year. In a final attempt to get him to reflect on the work and the great acclaim it has won, I ask about the season, again, and what it means to him.

“I don’t think any writer has a set programme in their head where you decide you want to do this and you want to do that over the next 50 years. You just set out to make work and do the best you can.

“It’s lovely that Sheffield and Daniel have decided to do this. Very flattering.”

That’s all I’m getting. I suppose it’s up to others to sing the writer’s praises which a lot of Yorkshire folk will be doing come the end of the well timed, fully deserved, Michael Frayn Season.

Sheffield Theatres Michael Frayn Season runs until March 31 and includes productions of Copenhagen, Benefactors, Democracy and An Audience with Michael Frayn, March 23. Details 0114 2496000.