Ray Cooney talks to Tim Goodwin about his career as a theatrical all-rounder.
Ray Cooney, England's premier writer of farce, has worked in the theatre for fifty years, and written for over thirty-five. He is also one of those rare men who do not find one, or even two, careers enough. He has combined four: writer, actor, director and producer.
Several years after starting his career as a boy actor, Ray Cooney auditioned for Britain’s then master of farce, Brian Rix, and joined his company at the Whitehall Theatre in 1956. Shortly afterwards, his career took a new and unexpected course. 'I had never wanted to write anything, just chase the girls and play tennis. But the second play I did for Brian was Simple Spymen and it had a long run, I wasn't in the middle act, and after about a year of spending my time in my dressing-room, washing out my smalls and making a few telephone calls, I thought, "Well. I'd better do something useful.' so I just started to scribble." The result was One For The Pot.
The experience of theatre, and especially comedies, that Cooney had gained in repertory, combined with 'a slightly quirky sense of humour', meant that he knew exactly what made an audience laugh. Nevertheless, he did not find writing particularly easy. It was whilst working on that first play that he discovered the necessity for meticulous preparation, as well as a willingness to be absolutely ruthless with his own work.
'I've always played in the very, very first performances of my plays, when we tried them out at Guildford, Windsor, Leatherhead, wherever it might be. That's stood me in really good stead, because then one knows what it's like up there on the stage. I learnt with Brian that it's the tryouts which are viral, My plays aren't written, they're rewritten. I never get them right the first time. I did the first one with Tony Hilton, who was an actor in the company, and rewrote it, tried it out at Wolverhampton, rewrote it and tried it out at Richmond, rewrote it and tried it out at Birmingham. By the time it came to London with Brian, everybody knew for sure where every single moment was 'It was a technique he has used ever since, and it has helped ensure that everyone of his seventeen plays has run in the West End.
Cooney sees himself very much in the tradition of theatrical farceurs, from Pinero and Feydeau, through Ben Travers, to Ayckbourn and himself. Like most of them, Cooney deals with subjects that in other hands, could easily be tragedy: lies, bigamy, adultery, adoption, betrayal. But he has also helped to change and develop the genre.
"One of the little bits that I've added is the convolution of it all. They're complicated, my plays, and I think that's why the audiences enjoy them so much, because you ask them to work. There are so many lies that lead to another lie; one character knows one thing about this character, and another character thinks he's another person; and they like that." Another of his creations is the real time element. Before Cooney, the time-span of farces was always spread over at least a weekend, often far longer. "I've always used real time, so that the two hours the audience is in the theatre are the two hours in the drama. The advantage of that is that you always hope to finish your first act on a nice, theatrical moment, and when the curtain goes up on Act 2 you're still there."
The next two important twists in his career also came, if not by chance, at least unexpectedly. He was working on his second collaboration with John Chapman, Move Over Mrs. Markham, when the director fell ill just before the start of rehearsals. 'I stepped into his shoes, and I found that it was very easy to direct my own work, I found it a much happier situation, and really enjoyed it.
"Then just after Mrs. Markham, I directed a revival of Thark, by Ben Travers - this was about thirty years ago - and at the last minute the manager who was going to bring it in to London from Guildford dropped out. We'd got a lovely cast, including Peter Cushing and Alec McCowen, so I said, 'Well fine, it's all there. I'll bring it in. There can't be any secret to this producing business'. So I sold our car and rang up a few friends, In those days, you could put a play on for £6,000 in the West End; it's a quarter of a million now for about three months, and then Alec McCowen had to leave and in the end we lost all our money. But I enjoyed it. So I ended up producing, directing and writing."
Producing and directing also fulfilled other parts of his character. "I couldn't write any different plays. I don't have a drama in me that I want to write. I switch the television news on if I want to see the awfulness of the world. But as a producer, I produced several big musicals and I also did some lovely straight plays; Whose Life Is it Anyway?, Duet For One, Children of a Lesser God. Serious stuff. And then we started the Theatre of Comedy, and did a wonderful revival of Loot with Leonard Rossiter, and a production of When We Are Married, so I've crammed a hell of a lot in, and that's why I've gone on so long, because if I'd dropped everything else in 1959 when I first Started writing, I'd definitely have been written out by now.'
But acting has always been his greatest love. 'I still love the life of an actor. It's like coming to a party every night. The whole day leads up to it. Whatever you're doing, you know at the end of the day you've got this joyous thing that you're going to do. The audience fall about with laughter, you get some very sweet letters from people, and you feel you've done a very good therapeutic job. But you do have to keep yourself pretty fit.'
For a man who has done so much in theatre - who has acted all over the world, seen his plays put on from Mexico and Minnesota to Melbourne, and who has, in his own words, 'been wonderfully lucky and had a fabulous career' - it must be difficult to think of any remaining ambitions. But he does have one: 'My ambition is to carry on as long as possible. The best thing about being in my business is they don't pension you off, as long as you can learn the lines and put one foot in front of another. The older you get, the more in demand you are.'
Ray Cooney is still very much in demand.