Authors: Peter Nichols

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright and screenwriter

Author Works

Drama:

The Hooded Terror, pr. 1963 (televised), pr. 1964 (staged)

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, pr., pb. 1967

The National Health: Or, Nurse Norton’s Affair, pr. 1969

Forget-Me-Not Lane, pr., pb. 1971

Neither Up nor Down, pr. 1972

Chez Nous, pr., pb. 1974

The Freeway, pr. 1974

Harding’s Luck, pr. 1974 (adaptation of E. Nesbitt’s novel)

Privates on Parade, pr., pb. 1977

Born in the Gardens, pr. 1979

Passion Play, pr., pb. 1981

Poppy, pr., pb. 1982

A Piece of My Mind, pr., pb. 1987

Plays: One, pb. 1987, revised 1991

Plays: Two, pb. 1991

Blue Murder, pr., pb. 1996

So Long Life, pr., pb. 2000

Screenplays:

Catch Us If You Can, 1965 (pb. in U.S. as Having a Wild Weekend, 1965)

Georgy Girl, 1966 (with Margaret Foster; adaptation of her novel)

Joe Egg, 1971 (adaptation of his stage play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg)

The National Health, 1973 (adaptation of his stage play)

Privates on Parade, 1983 (adaptation of his stage play)

Changing Places, 1984 (adaptation of David Lodge’s novel)

Teleplays:

A Walk on the Grass, 1959

After All, 1959 (with Bernie Cooper)

Promenade, 1959

Ben Spray, 1961

The Reception, 1961

The Big Boys, 1961

The Heart of the County, 1962

The Continuity Man, 1963

Ben Again, 1963

The Hooded Terror, 1963

The Brick Umbrella, 1964

When the Wind Blows, 1965

The Gorge, 1968

Majesty, 1968 (adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story)

Winner Takes All, 1968 (adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s short story)

Daddy Kiss It Better, 1969

Hearts and Flowers, 1970

The Common, 1973

Nonfiction:

Feeling You’re Behind: An Autobiography, 1984

Aristophanes’ Novel Forms: The Political Role of Drama, 1998

Diaries, 1969-1977, 2000

Biography

Peter Richard Nichols was born and grew up in Bristol, in the generation that went through grammar school in the wake of the local hero Cary Grant’s rise to fame. Nichols has documented his early years in Bristol in two of his stage plays and, most extensively, in his autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind. Nichols’s family home, Palatine Lodge, was a rambling, unfashionable house located across the street from a large boys’ orphanage that served during World War II as a U.S. military barracks. The presence of the orphanage, the example of Cary Grant, and the excitement of the American influx combined in Nichols’s upbringing to create an environment that was alternatively daunting and exciting.{$I[AN]9810000976}{$I[A]Nichols, Peter}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Nichols, Peter}{$I[tim]1927;Nichols, Peter}

Both of Nichols’s parents were performers of a sort. His mother, Violet Poole, had certificates in both piano and voice from the London Academy of Music and tutored students at home during the week. After the war broke out, she began occasionally to perform in service reviews but only when her husband, Richard, a traveling salesman, was away. Her performance successes almost led to a split in the family during the war, but Nichols’s parents eventually reunited. Richard Nichols was a self-styled music hall clown and classical music collector. The monologue passages in Forget-Me-Not Lane and in the autobiography appear to have been lifted almost verbatim from the bitterly comic routines the elder Nichols rehearsed at home and then used in local club performances. When Peter Nichols first tried his hand at performance, as “the Miserable Mirth Maker” in wartime service reviews, his act owed something to his father’s precedent. The strong, eccentric style developed by Richard Nichols later constituted an important obstacle for the younger Nichols, who also had to overcome his father’s admonition that motivation for success should come from making a habit of “feeling you’re behind.”

While attending Bristol Grammar School, Peter Nichols cultivated a comic self-image, and his exploits with his best friend, Cliff Browne, a gifted cartoonist, centered on the kind of irreverent ironic invention that would later pepper the sentiment of plays such as A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. When Nichols joined the military after the war, however, his attitude changed and he became a dedicated diarist, trying hard to impress the other servicemen with his sophistication. Stationed in a dismal camp near Calcutta during the Indian independence movement, a melancholy Nichols observed with some detachment the effects of political conflict and began to keep a journal, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. Transferred to the Royal Air Force (RAF) entertainment unit in Singapore, he worked with mostly male performers, among whom were many homosexuals and transvestites, an experience he colorfully documented in his musical comedy Privates on Parade. The flamboyance of the entertainment unit and its productions left an impression on Nichols that encouraged bold choices in his later use of theatrical technique.

Nichols was eventually released from the service because of repeated bouts with dysentery. On his return to Bristol, he enrolled in the Old Vic theater school and attempted a career in acting. Though he was able to gain occasional roles in local repertory companies, Nichols gradually became disillusioned with acting. After leaving on impulse to teach English for the Berlitz school in Florence, Nichols returned to England and entered teacher training at the Trent Park Training College. There he met Bernie Cooper, the model for Ben Spray, and began the routine of classes and writing that continued through his teaching years in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. His academic years supplied him with material for a number of television plays as well as parts of later stage works such as Chez Nous. Nichols’s first break came through the British Broadcasting Corporation, and he began writing regularly for television until his A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was produced. While his second teleplay was in production, Nichols suffered a collapsed lung and was hospitalized. Through his parents he became reacquainted with Thelma Reed, a childhood friend of his brother whom he had used as a model for a television character. Her hospital visits led to their marriage in 1960. For the next few years, Nichols settled into a routine of television work and family life, though the latter was increasingly clouded by the realization of his eldest daughter Abigail’s severe mental disability. Abigail served as the model for Josephine–Joe Egg–in the play that launched Nichols’s career as a professional theater writer.

In 1967, the year A Day in the Death of Joe Egg received its premiere in Glasgow, Nichols began working steadily, producing a number of important plays as well as some less successful thesis and autobiographical plays. His major plays were adapted by Nichols for the screen, and he also wrote occasional adaptations and scripts for television. In 1967, he began working with theater director Michael Blakemore. Later Nichols directed some of his own work, such as the Bristol Old Vic production of Born in the Gardens and the Guthrie production of The National Health. The intensity and theatrical inventiveness of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg continued through a series of plays on social issues and family life that peaked with Passion Play and his most accomplished musical, Poppy.

Nichols announced his retirement from the stage in 1983, at a relatively early point in his career as a playwright. The decision was, however, not final. His plans to work on a trilogy of novels resulted in an adaptation for the stage in 1987 entitled A Piece of My Mind, which chronicles a writer’s failure to write in narrative form. After a nine-year absence, Nichols again returned to playwriting with the absurdist comedy Blue Murder, which he also directed through two productions. Five years later, in 2000, So Long Life was produced.

Nichols “preretirement” plays were collected in two volumes for the Methuen World Dramatists series in 1987 and 1991, and the occasion of their republication offered Nichols an opportunity to comment on the biographical circumstances of their composition and to summarize his work. His own conclusion was that he valued the role of the audience in the theater. One example of this is an incident, Nichols recounts, that occurred during the “performance of The National Health when someone in the stalls had a cardiac arrest and, from a stage full of actors robed and masked for a surgical operation, one had to ask, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’” This demonstrates Nichols’s unique intuition for opportunities to “cast the audience.”

BibliographyBull, John. “Peter Nichols.” In British and Irish Dramatists Since World War II, Third Series, edited by Bull. Vol. 245 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. A thoughtful survey of Nichols’s plays.Davison, Peter. Contemporary Drama and the Popular Dramatic Tradition in England. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. Davison surveys the use of popular theater in Nichols’s plays up to Privates on Parade, arguing for the complexity and value of his artistic achievement.Foulkes, Richard. “The Cure Is Removal of Guilt: Faith, Fidelity, and Fertility in the Plays of Peter Nichols.” Modern Drama 29 (June, 1986): 207-215. Foulkes reviews the marital themes in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Chez Nous, and Passion Play, arguing for a common psychological pattern in all three plays’ central characters. Contains strong psychological criticism, which does not reduce the author’s consciousness to the same simple outline.Miller, Brian. “Peter Nichols.” In British Television Drama, edited by George W. Brandt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. A survey of Nichols’s many excellent television plays. Well researched, with a modest appraisal of the material.Nichols, Peter. “Peter Nichols on His Art, Politics, and Peers: An Interview.” Interview by William Demastes. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 3 (Fall, 1988): 101-112. Nichols answers questions about his writing, his politics, and his position in the writing community, issues similar to those that later preoccupy him in A Piece of My Mind. Demastes does a thorough job of positioning Nichols in relation to other English dramatists.O’Connor, Gary. “Peter Nichols.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by Thomas Riggs. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999. Contains a listing of the playwright’s work and a compressed critical discussion of six plays.Parkin, Andrew. File on Nichols. London: Methuen, 1993. Detailed description of Nichols’s creative work including biographical information. A useful reference.Wertheim, Albert. “The Modern British Homecoming Play.” Comparative Drama 19, no. 2 (1985): 151-165. Considers Born in the Gardens in relation to themes in plays by T. S. Eliot, Harold Pinter, and David Storey. The analysis takes for granted Nichols’s excellence and demonstrates the traditional quality of even his most personal writings.
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