Saluting Michael Frayn - 85 today
Michael Frayn is 85 today. He is a brilliant writer and a fascinating figure. His play Copenhagen has just been revived at Chichester (directed by the great Michael Blakemore and starring my friend Patricia Hodge) and I recently appeared (briefly) in one of his very funny journalistic pieces adapted for radio by the brilliant Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres. I've met Frayn a number of times over the years (and, like everyone else, had to double-check he wasn't Peter Nichols, a fellow playwright, now 91) - and, sixteen years ago, I was sent by the Sunday Telegraph to interview him at the time another of his plays, his 1984 hit Benefactors, was being revived in the West End. Here's my account of that 2002 encounter. It doesn't make altogether comfortable reading (not all interviews are easy), but if you're interested in Frayn - one of our great writers - you may find it intriguing. I hope so. Come what may, let's salute the great man on his birthday.
A useful thing happened to me on my way to Camden Town to take tea with Michael Frayn. I stopped off in Pimlico to have lunch with members of the Biographers Club, an assortment of leading London literary figures whose speciality, as their club name suggests, is the anatomisation of the famous, the infamous and the interesting. I wanted their help.
I was anxious about interviewing Michael Frayn. I had met him before. I knew him to be a decent man, unspoilt by success (his farce, Noises Off, is reckoned to have made him at least £ 3 million), unfazed by failure (in the 1990s he had flop after flop: ‘What goes up comes down,’ he says, ‘the converse does not always apply’), affable yet shy, courteous yet guarded, donnish, diffident, discreet, undoubtedly a good man with whom to share a prison cell (he is over six foot tall, wiry, fit, softy spoken, with a wry sense of humour: a stimulating companion, not an intrusive one), unquestionably a challenge for an interviewer. Frayn talks discursively about his work: he rarely talks about himself. I have read the last fourteen interviews he has given. Each is much like the other. How am I to get anything different?
Over and after lunch, the biographers (the best in the business: between them, they have picked over the lives of The Queen, John Buchan, Alec Guinness, R D Laing and Joan Collins, to name but a few) help me to concoct a three-pronged strategy for my sixty-minute encounter with Mr Frayn. Armed with it, and emboldened, at 5.00 pm (Frayn sees all his interviewers at the end of the working day: he is prolific and conscientious), in the workmanlike study of the Camden Town flat where he does his writing (interviewers never penetrate his home nearby, on the north side of Regent’s Park), over the cup of tea and chocolate digestive biscuits he customarily offers his guests, I unsheath my first prong. ‘You were a journalist,’ I say - in 1957, after a suburban Surrey childhood, National Service and Cambridge (scholarship from Kingston Grammar School, 2i in Moral Sciences), Frayn joined the Manchester Guardian - ‘You’ve conducted interviews. How would you advise me to get you to say something you haven’t said a dozen times before?’
Frayn looks mildly disconcerted. He chuckles, bleakly: ‘I was never much good at it. I always forgot to ask the crucial question. The biggest celebrity I interviewed was Dave Brubeck. Usually, it was the last hand-weaver in West Horton or someone who had led a particularly unfortunate life in the Potteries.’ He pauses, crosses and uncrosses his long legs, swivels in his chair. ‘What would I do if I were coming to interview me?’ he mutters, ‘Give up in despair, I think.’ There is another pause. The biographers advised me to bide my time. Frayn sips at his tea, rubs his face with his hand and then says, ‘Benefactors is about change, social change and the changes in the lives and relationships of the four characters in the play, viewed over a period of years. Does that give us anything?’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I think it might. How have you changed since you started out?’
‘I began as a reporter, then I started writing a humorous column [for the Observer: wonderfully funny it was too], and the tone of it was mockery. If you look at my early novels, there is a satirical vein. Over the years I have lost interest in satire and become much more interested in how things work. One of the reasons I am completely in sympathy with the present government is that they are faced with a barrage of sneering that seems to me facile. The problems they face, and the way they are trying to deal with them, are much more interesting than what their critics have to say. It’s easy to jeer, it’s very hard to do anything.’
‘Have you changed?’
His brow furrows. ‘It’s difficult to remember what one was like. I was probably more ambitious when I was younger.’
‘Are you nicer, more tolerant?’
‘More tolerant, but less patient, more accepting of other people’s views and philosophies, but impatient of the small annoyances of life, like the failures of computers. I have a very foul temper. When I have to sit on a committee, mostly I am calm, but suddenly I am driven mad by something and become intolerably angry. That’s bad. At home, Claire and I don’t raise our voices, but we certainly squabble.’
Claire is Claire Tomalin, biographer, Frayn’s second wife, for whom, in the early 1980s, he left his first wife, Gillian Palmer, a fellow journalist and the mother of his three daughters. As he never normally talks about his domestic life, I am surprised to hear him mention Claire now. Perhaps he is too, because another silence falls.
Time for my second prong. ‘Give me four key turning points in your life,’ I say.
Frayn replies, without hesitating, ‘Certainly, the death of my mother, Violet, when I was twelve. She was 40. She had scarlet fever as a child and one of the after-effects is sudden heart attacks in middle-life. She was a housewife by then, but she had begun by studying the violin. Her father, a charming man of whom I was extremely fond, was very erratic, lost all his money and she had to leave the Royal Academy of Music. She became a shop assistant. She worked at Harrods and occasionally modelled for them.’
Frayn shows me a lovely photograph of his mother modelling a Harrods hat in 1925. ‘She is buried in the cemetry at Ewell parish church. There is no gravestone. My father had a pragmatic, down-to-earth view of life and thought that ceremony was a waste of time. I rather share his views. One of the things I most thank my parents for is that they never stuck me with religion.’
Frayn’s father, Thomas, was an asbestos salesman and spent thirty years successfully peddling what turned out to be a lethal substance. Frayn smiles: ‘It’s part of the irony of life. He was the sweetest man.’
Did his mother’s death bring Frayn closer to his father ?
‘In the long run, but I still went through the usual thing of feeling lofty and superior to him when I was an adolescent. He remarried when I was fifteen. I quite liked my stepmother, but it didn’t work out well. They separated.’
He gets up and wanders into the kitchen to top up the tea. ‘Other turning points? National Service, going to Cambridge, getting married. Having children was a turning point, of course. Life changes completely.’ He sits down again and shakes his head, wearily. ‘I am trying to think of turning points more interesting than the obvious ones.’
He is also, of course, trying to avoid talking about his mid-life crisis, the affair with Claire that led to his separation from Gillian. ‘Could you discuss it for a moment?’ I ask.
‘It is difficult talking about turning points that are closer to one,’ he says quietly. He laughs, he shifts awkwardly in his chair. Eventually, he says, ‘It came as a great surprise to me. Through my first marriage, which was very happy, I had always assumed that life was quite simple and straightforward. I couldn’t see why other people got into such emotional confusions. I felt rather impatient about it. I felt absolutely astonished when the same kind of feelings broke over me like a tidal wave. It took a considerable time to get to the surface and learn how to swim.’
His eldest daughter, Rebecca, now 40, says the break-up of her parents’ marriage was ‘as if a volcano had erupted on our lives’. In the wake of the trauma she turned to truancy, drugs, and became ‘the teenager from hell’. It was all a long time ago. Does he think about it still?
‘Yes, of course. How could one not?’ He has turned away from me now. He is staring at the floor. He is barely audible. ‘Do I have regrets? Not in the sense of thinking I should have done something else. I do have great regrets of the pain I caused, yes, great regrets. Having children is the thing that has meant most to me in life. One’s feelings about one’s children are very intense. I have been very conscious of my children’s love and that has borne me up at difficult times.’
The energy has left the room and my time is nearly up. Frayn clearly wishes I had never come, and now wishes I would go away.
I throw in the last line of enquiry suggested by the members of the Biographers Club. ‘What lessons has life taught you?’ I ask. Frayn shakes his head. ‘For example,’ I persist, ‘what have you learnt from your relationships?’
He sighs. ‘What do you learn from relationships? The question makes love sound very utilitarian, and the great thing about love is that it’s a given that is something in itself. It’s not a good thing because it is useful or because it teaches you anything. It is just good.’
He presses his hands against his knees. ‘I think the great lesson of life is that you never do learn any lessons. Every situation you confront is a new one and whatever wisdom you think you have acquired isn’t really applicable.’ He looks me straight in the eye and offers a wintry smile. ‘If you’ll excuse me now, I am going to the opera.’