21 November 2019
by Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives
In tribute to Peter Nichols who sadly died in September, Trafalgar Studios is staging an afternoon of readings on 27 November to celebrate his theatrical legacy, generously supported by the British Library Collections Trust. Directed by his grandson, George Nichols, and starring Roger Allam and other special guests to be announced, the event will take a look at Peter Nichols’ vast literary contribution with excerpts from his much-loved television and stage plays including Promenade (1959), The National Health (1969), Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971) and Poppy (1982), as well as passages from his personal diaries and rare unproduced plays from Nichols’ archive at the British Library.
Peter Nichols, photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios
Also on show in the Trafalgar Studios’ bar is a display about the evolution of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Nichols’ most famous play which is currently being revived by the Trafalgar in a new production by Simon Evans. You can see reproductions from Peter Nichols’ archive in the Studio Bar, tracing the play’s difficult birth from initial doubts over the first draft, to wranglings with the Lord Chamberlain’s censors and its ultimate glowing reception at its premiere in 1967.
'The Evolution of Joe Egg', display curated by the British Library for Trafalgar Studios' Studio Bar, until 30 Nov. Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Studios.
If that has whetted your appetite for further research, the wider archive is available to consult at the British Library. Acquired 20 years ago this month, the Peter Nichols Papers comprises 256 volumes of personal and professional papers from 1945 to the 2000s. You can listen to Peter Nichols reflecting on his career on BL Sounds, and various other interviews and theatre recordings are available to listen to onsite at the Library (search our Sound & Moving Image catalogue for details).
In light of Peter’s recent passing, it’s difficult not to read fresh significance into his words. In the programme for the current production of Joe Egg, Jamie Andrews from the British Library recalls one particular email exchange amongst many:
I see that at one point, feeling the physical challenges of ageing, his subject line was a typically self-deprecating ‘Petering Out’; but that a few emails later, it had changed to ‘Anything But Petering Out’…. A far more accurate assessment of his later years.
Just as Peter’s words will live on in all who knew him, his work survives in the archive he left behind and the potential it holds for many more revivals to come.
Peter Richard Nichols CBE, playwright, born 31 July 1927; died 7 September 2019, aged 92.
14 November 2016
By Alexander Lock, Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950
The British Library has recently teamed up with Nutshell TV and Sky Arts to produce an entertaining television series in which six famous faces (Lord Robert Winston, Julia Donaldson, Meera Syal, Jamie Cullum and Benjamin Zephaniah) take a personal tour of the British Library’s fascinating collections, identifying the treasures that most interest them and speak to their work. Each episode of Treasures of the British Library follows one celebrity and it was my pleasure to show the poet, author and musician Benjamin Zephaniah some of our collections that told a very personal story about his hero, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).
A gifted poet, political radical, outcast, and early advocate of vegetarianism, Percy Bysshe Shelley had long been admired by Zephaniah as a man with whom he shared certain affinities; in particular it was Shelley’s revolutionary attitudes and his passionate opposition to injustice that inspired Zephaniah and his approach to writing. For Zephaniah:
“Shelley’s my man. If he were alive now he wouldn’t be sitting in an ivory tower only leaving to attend the odd literature festival, he would be demonstrating against the exploitation of the third world and performing at the Glastonbury festival…I used to think of Shelley as just another one of those dead white poets who wrote difficult poetry for difficult people, but then I learnt how dedicated he was to justice and the liberation of the poor. He probably saw very few black people but he was passionately against the slave trade. It was this that turned me on to Shelley, his humanity, passion, and his rock and roll attitude. His ability to connect poetry to the concerns of everyday people was central to his poetic purpose, and those everyday people overstood that he did not simply do arts for art’s sake, this was arts that was uncompromisingly revolutionary, he wrote for the masses. No TV, no radio, no Internet, but his poetry was being quoted on the streets and chanted at demonstration, not only did Shelley know the power of poetry, more importantly he knew the power of the people.”
Given the range of unique and fascinating manuscript material The British Library holds relating to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley it was difficult for us to decide what would be best to show Benjamin. For instance, we could have shown him the original autograph draft of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a radical political poem Shelley wrote in response to the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or his notebook containing his famous poems ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’. Though these would have been fascinating items to show Zephaniah, particularly given their literary and political content, in the end it was decided to show Benjamin something much more provocative.
Instead, Benjamin Zephaniah was shown a letter Shelley had written 6 days after his first wife, Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816), was ‘found drowned’ after committing suicide in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The letter was addressed to his mistress Mary Godwin (1797-1851), whom he would marry just 3 weeks later. The letter shows a very different Shelley from the Romantic rebel he is usually represented as. Shelley had left a heartbroken Harriet (who was pregnant with their second child) for Mary Godwin two years earlier in July 1814. Mary was the gifted daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). In the intervening years, Shelley’s relationship with Harriet soured and he became increasingly cruel towards her.
On 9 November 1816 Harriet departed her lodgings, leaving behind her a farewell letter for Shelley. She was not seen again until her body was pulled from the Serpentine on 10 December. As the letter shows, Shelley’s initial reaction to Harriet’s suicide was to deny any blame. He wrote to Mary:
Everything tends to prove, however, that beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret. Hookham, Longdill ― everyone does me full justice; ― bears testimony to the uprightness & liberality of my conduct to her...
Shelley’s letter also revealed that he believed Harriet had ‘descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith’ who deserted her, although there was no evidence which corroborated this assertion.
Benjamin Zephaniah was initially shocked by this letter and the apparent disregard Shelley showed towards his first wife. It raised questions about the relationship between the artist and their art and whether audiences should judge a work on its own merits or in relation to the lived experiences of its creator. Though Zephaniah was unsettled by the revelations in the letter he still considered Shelley to be a literary hero for the works he produced and causes he supported. The letter is a difficult read but helped demonstrate that no one is perfect in their private lives (even great writers) and gave Benjamin Zephaniah a more rounded understanding of Shelley’s complex character.
Treasures of the British Library will be broadcast on Sky Arts at 21.00 on Tuesdays until 22 November 2016.
04 December 2015
The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of the personal archive of Kenneth Williams, including 42 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. The archive has been acquired by the British Library from Paul Richardson, Kenneth’s friend and neighbour, to whom he left his entire estate.
The Kenneth Williams archive at the British Library (Photo by Elizabeth Hunter)
Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) was best-known as the star of the Carry On films, but he was also a raconteur of verve and charm, and appeared to substantial acclaim in a number of stage roles, from frothy revue to the black comedy of Joe Orton. He used the diaries he kept for more than 40 years as a half-serious threat to his friends (“You’ll be in my diary!” was a favourite saying whenever someone annoyed him), but kept the contents almost completely to himself. Despite a selection from the diaries published in the early 1990s, the vast majority of the diary entries remain unpublished and unseen.
The diaries span the period 1942 – 1988, with only one gap of four years at the beginning of the sequence. The run makes up approximately 4 million words altogether, and is unusual in its degree of comprehensiveness and regularity. Williams wrote a page a day as a nearly unbroken ritual. In the pages of the diaries Williams is both instantly recognisable as the acerbic and maddeningly fastidious character well known to everyone, and, more surprisingly, as reflective and poignant, the private persona and increasingly skilled observer, revealed only in the confessional of the diary.
The diaries regularly refer to news and current affairs – below he records new about the famous trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal MP who, along with several co-defendants, was accused of the murder of Norman Scott, a would be male model who was allegedly blackmailing Thorpe on account of his homosexuality. The British Library also holds the political archive of Jeremy Thorpe.
June 22 1979: “On the news they announced that JEREMY THORPE had been acquitted!! So that lying crook Scott has not succeeded in his vindictive quest!! They were cheering Jeremy outside the Old Bailey, and he rather spoiled it by making a sanctimonious speech about JUSTICE etc. Whereas he should have just expressed satisfaction and breezed away!”
The archive also contains 3 boxes of personal correspondence, equating to approximately 2,000 letters as well as photographs, scripts, programmes and documents relating to Williams’ wartime service. Correspondents include Peter Nichols, Joe Orton and Richard Burton. It is estimated that 85% of the newly-acquired archive is unpublished material never before seen by researchers.
The archive will be of huge interest to social historians of post war Britain, detailing the experience of a gay man both before and after the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, alongside the mundane details of everyday life in London. The diaries and letters also record the actor’s experience of the dying days of the repertory theatre system and the growth of modern celebrity culture, something he seemed both to love and loathe. In the entry pictured below Williams was understudying Richard Burton as Trigorin in The Seagull. Despite the doubts William’s expresses in this extract, the run of The Seagull turned out to be a huge success, thanks to the performance of Burton. Williams contributed by fetching Burton drinks between acts.
Page from Kenneth Williams's diary from 21 August 1950, courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate
Material will be available to researchers in the Library’s Reading Rooms from March 2016. The 1950 edition of the diary, as well as a letter from the archive will be on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from next week onwards.
Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts and Joanna Norledge, Curator of Performance and Creative Archives
12 November 2015
by Joanna Norledge, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives
Recently the library hosted an event, as part of the 8th International Screenwriting Conference, which featured an in conversation with Sir Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter. It was an exciting opportunity to highlight the wealth of material in the British Library relating to screenwriting and specifically to explore the archive of Ronald Harwood. Sir Ronald regaled the audience at the event with entertaining stories from his experience working as a screenwriter. His career spans a long period and The Dresser was one of his successes inspired by his own early career in the theatre.
Image of the 1983 second draft screenplay for The Dresser, from The Ronald Harwood Archive, produced with permission of Sir Ronald Harwood, image copyright @ British Library Board.
Originally written as a stage play based on Sir Ronald’s experience of working as Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser, The Dresser was first performed in 1980 at the Royal Exchange Theatre with Freddie Jones as "Sir" and Tom Courtenay as Norman. The play was nominated for Best Play at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 1980. The Dresser was first made in to a film in 1983 starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
Image of the 1983 second draft screenplay for The Dresser, from The Ronald Harwood Archive, produced with permission of Sir Ronald Harwood, image copyright @ British Library Board.
On the 31st October a new television film of The Dresser aired on BBC2, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. Sir Ronald discussed, at the event, how the BBC’s single television plays provided many of the writers of the 60’s and 70’s the chance to earn money and practise their craft. In recent years the small screen has received more attention as a medium of filmic story telling than the big screen. Productions such as The Dresser (2015) look back to the BBC’s roots in theatrical and film narrative. It pays homage to the single television play form in which so many great writers and entertainers began their careers.
Image of Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins in The Dresser (2015) produced with permission of the BBC. Copyright @ BBC.
The Dresser (2015) is a theatrical story and dramatization which captures a vanished world. This world is brought to life in the screenplay and dramatic performances from the actors, both veterans of the theatrical world represented. The archives at the British Library are filled with such examples of great engaging plays and television plays and it is wonderful to see some of these being used a source for modern programming.
You can still catch The Dresser on BBC iPlayer. The Ronald Harwood Archive is available in the British Library reading rooms.
02 June 2015
The British Library is very pleased to announce that it has acquired the archive of the playwright, screenwriter and novelist, Julian Mitchell. Julian Mitchell began his playwriting career adapting novels for performance, starting with several novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett. He adapted Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion' (1971), Paul Scott’s 'Staying On' (1980) and Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Good Soldier' (1981) for television. Among his original works, he is best known for his play, 'Another Country', recently revived in the West End and on tour.
'Another Country' is based on the life of the spy Guy Burgess and explores the tensions of politics and sexuality within the context of the hypocrisy of the English public school system in the 1930s. The play won the Olivier Award for best play in 1981 and Julian later wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation in 1984. Early productions of the play were instrumental in launching the careers of Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth, and Julian's involvement with these productions can be seen in the archive. He also won the SWET Award in 1985 for 'After Aida' his play about the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, and wrote the screenplay for the film 'Wilde' (1997). Julian also wrote numerous screenplays for the Inspector Morse series and the archive including notes on adapting Colin Dexter’s books for television, along with drafts, shooting scripts and other related papers.
The archive includes successive drafts of Julian’s work providing a real insight into his creative process and the subjects which inspired him. In addition the archive includes correspondence with a wide range of people from theatre and television including the actors John Gielgud and Alec Guinness, the American writer, Philip Roth and the poet, Stephen Spender. A series of personal diaries, photographs and press cuttings are also included.
Julian’s archive is an exciting addition to the Library’s literary and creative archives and I am sure that it will be a great resource for researchers.
03 September 2014
A new series, which celebrates some of the most influential works of fiction, began yesterday evening on BBC Four.
‘The Secret Life of Books’ will examine original texts, manuscripts, letters and diaries to uncover the story behind the creation of six classic books. Look out for the British Library in the following six weeks of the series, as we examine Shakespeare’s First Folio with Simon Russell Beale (9 September), get an insight into Virginia Woolf’s writing of Mrs Dalloway with Alexandra Harris (16 September) and explore the childhood writings of Charlotte Bronte with Bidisha in the Jane Eyre episode (30 September) with my colleague, curator Helen Melody.
To mark the start of the series with the BBC, we opened up our doors and shot a special behind-the-scenes tour of of the Library's literature treasures for a short film on BBC Arts.
The first episode of ‘The Secret Life of Books’ was broadcast last night on BBC FOUR, and featured Great Expectations, presented by Tony Jordan.
For full programme details visit BBC Arts.
You can discover more treasures from the British Library’s literary collections, including works by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontës and many more, on our Discovering Literature website.
24 January 2014
On Wednesday we announced the acquisition of Hanif Kureishi’s Archive at the British Library’s Cultural Highlights preview for 2014.
Hanif kindly agreed to join us for the press launch. An early start meant an improvised breakfast in the staff canteen, but over eggs and hash browns he shared his thoughts with me on how he thinks his archive will be used in the future and why he was so keen for it to find a permanent home at the Library. Click on the link below to hear the interview:
The archive includes drafts and working material relating to all of his major novels, as well as over 50 notebooks and diaries spanning four decades. The collection also includes electronic drafts of his work in the form of Word files, including some relating to his new novel, The Last Word, which will be published by Faber next month. The Last Word tells the story of the relationship between an eminent writer and his biographer. It raises some interesting questions about identity, posterity and the inter-dependence of the writer and those who attempt to write about him, both of them being re-made in the process.
The first diary in the collection dates from 1970 when Kureishi was just 15 years old. As well as recording everyday events and reflecting on his writing projects, the diaries are deeply philosophical in places and highly introspective. They give some fascinating insights into the workings of a restless, questing mind which is always driven to know more; as he records of his friend and hero David Bowie, at one point, his is a mind that’s “interested in everything”.
Entry from a diary of Hanif Kureishi’s describing a meeting with Shabbir Akhtar, 13 May 1992. After the controversy following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, Akhtar acted as spokesperson for the Bradford Council of Mosques. © Hanif Kureishi
Along with the drafts of Kureishi’s best known writing, such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, are those of some lesser known ones and some surprises. The archive holds, for example, a draft of his adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage (written for the 1984 production at the Barbican with Judi Dench in the leading role) along with an adaptation written with his long-time collaborator, Roger Michell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was never realised.
We’ll be starting work to catalogue the collection in the next few weeks and expect to be able to make it available in the Library’s Reading Room by the end of the year. Hanif Kureishi will be headlining the Library's Spring Festival at the end of March which this year focusses on the art of screenwriting. You can find more details on the Library's Events web pages at www.bl.uk/spring
English and Drama blog recent posts
- 'Anything But Petering Out' - celebrating Peter Nichols at Trafalgar Studios
- Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley
- The British Library acquires Kenneth Williams’s personal papers
- The various incarnations of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser
- The British Library acquires the archive of the playwright and screenwriter, Julian Mitchell
- The Secret Life of Books (at the British Library)
- Hanif Kureishi on why he deposited his archive at the British Library