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Gray, Simon (1936-2008)


Main image of Gray, Simon (1936-2008)

Comfortably as prominent as David Mercer or Dennis Potter within the Wednesday Play fraternity, Simon Gray's rightful claim to being a key protagonist of television's 'Golden Age' has been diminished by the BBC's poor archiving policy of subsequent years. Very little of his Sixties work survives for reassessment, but his return to the small screen in the late Eighties was consistently lauded.

An habitual rewriter, many of Gray's stories have shifted medium, changed title, earned sequels or transformed out of all recognition, yet the themes remain the same: academics in emotional crisis, messy love lives, regrets for lost youth and the powerful bonds between men. His chief inspiration was the educated classes, having lectured at Queen Mary College, London for two decades. Memories of Cambridge were also potent, providing a hook for 'The Common Pursuit' (1984; filmed in 1992), a typical Gray piece concerning a group of students who maintain close, troubled relationships deep into adulthood.

Born on 21 October 1936, Simon James Holliday Gray spent the bulk of his childhood flitting between Canada and England, eventually shoring up at Trinity College, Cambridge. Novels followed, as did his first television play, 'The Caramel Crisis' (Thirty Minute Theatre, BBC, tx. 25/04/1966). Gray also made waves in theatre with 'Wise Child' (1967), a script rejected by the BBC on the grounds that viewers would not stomach a transvestite lead.

His earliest plays were frequently provocative, sharing much of the 'power play' sensibilities of Harold Pinter. 'Pig in a Poke' (Saturday Night Theatre, ITV, tx.15/03/1969) was a troubling tale of class, sex and violence, with Colin Blakely as the malevolent sitting tenant of a Hampstead couple. 'Sleeping Dog' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 11/10/1967) was another dark satire, this time of the British Empire, with Marius Goring as the lord of a country manor who keeps in his cellar a black, homosexual, chained slave. It received several complaints. 'The Death of Teddy Bear' (The Wednesday Play, BBC, tx. 15/02/1967) marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with Alan Bates, who would also star in the internationally successful stage-play 'Butley', the first of many Gray scripts to be directed by Pinter, who also supervised the film version (1974).

'Otherwise Engaged' (1974) had been a massive success in the West End and increased Gray's stock considerably, ensuring steady work in the theatre for the next decade. However, a brief return to television came in the shape of two original works - both starring Bates - which aired in consecutive slots as part of the BBC's Play for Today strand. 'Plaintiffs and Defendants' (14/10/1975) felt underpowered, but 'Two Sundays' (21/10/1975) cut deep to the heart of male relationships forged at school. Gray's extended absence from the small screen was interrupted by a riveting studio recording of the Globe Theatre commission 'The Rear Column' (Festival, BBC, tx. 13/04/1980). Directed with verve by Pinter, it depicts the slow descent into madness of a group of British Army officers abandoned in the Congo.

When the writer eventually returned to television, it was with gusto and purely on film. 'After Pilkington' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 25/01/1987), an original work starring Bob Peck and Miranda Richardson, won the Prix Italia. It was quickly followed by a faithful adaptation of stage-play 'Quartermaine's Terms' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 29/03/1987). 'A Month in the Country' (also 1987; Film on Four, C4, tx. 19/04/90) was Gray's adaptation of J.L. Carr's Booker-nominated novel.

Then, a steady stream of comic thrillers flowed. 'Old Flames' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 14/01/1990) harked back to Gray's own childhood regrets in a sharp whodunit starring Simon Callow and Stephen Fry, while 'They Never Slept' (Screen Two, BBC, tx. 31/03/1991) offered a barnstorming performance from Edward Fox in a witty satire on wartime propaganda. 'Unnatural Pursuits' (BBC, tx. 7-9/12/1992) was rather untypical, being a broad musical adaptation of Gray's mid-Eighties theatre diaries.

Fry's absconding from the play 'Cell Mates' (1995) overshadowed much of Gray's later career, and indeed, the accompanying diary 'Fat Chance' was optioned by the BBC, though was ultimately and perhaps wisely abandoned. A biopic of the actor Julian Hough was also scrapped at the development stage.

In 2004, the first in a sequence of candid, stream of consciousness memoirs was published: 'The Smoking Diaries'. It effortlessly shifted from vivid childhood memories to moving reflections on old age and male friendships. The subject of a creditable Imagine... film (BBC, 07/07/04), it led to three further volumes before his death from an abdominal aortic aneurysm, brought on by cancer, in 2008.

Ian Greaves

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