(David Storey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/23; Photo: David Storey at home in Belsize Park, London, 1961, with his paintings in the background. Photograph: Courtesy of the Storey family. In 1963 David Storey was an acclaimed novelist – but away from the spotlight he was battling anxiety and writer’s block. In this extract, he describes how he found a new life as a playwright.)
David Storey was an extraordinary literary figure: an acclaimed playwright and a Booker prize-winning novelist who was also an outstanding artist. Yet he began his adult life as a professional rugby player in the austere and gritty world of northern rugby league. The third son of a coal miner, he was born in Wakefield in 1933 and grew up on one of England’s first housing estates. Having signed, aged 18, to play for Leeds rugby league club, his talent as an artist then took him to the Slade. Early success as a novelist came with This Sporting Life, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Richard Harris. There followed a string of literary successes capped by Saville, the 1976 Booker winner. Storey also spent a heady period writing plays for the Royal Court in its radical heyday, where he forged close friendships with Lindsay Anderson, Ralph Richardson and Jocelyn Herbert. Despite his achievements, he struggled with anxiety and depression all his life. He died in 2017. In this extract from his memoir, A Stinging Delight, he recalls those years at the heart of British theatre, which came about almost by accident.
When my third novel, Radcliffe, was published in 1963 (the same year that the film of This Sporting Life was released) it was decided by one commentator that it established me as “the leading novelist of my generation”. Its creation was likened to that of an English Dostoevsky and a rekindling of the grand tradition extinct since the death of DH Lawrence.
Yet the more successful I became, the more ill I felt. Despite marriage, fatherhood, the realisation of much of what I had aimed for, things, if anything, had only got worse. The previous year, I had embarked on a new novel: my magnum opus, the definitive postwar British novel for which This Sporting Life, Flight into Camden and Radcliffe had been the ranging shots. However, the morning overtures of terror continued. By the summer of 1965 I had convinced myself that I had taken on something I had neither the ability nor the time to achieve. All I had produced was silence – silence masking desperation and a depression that, in the first place, it had been the purpose of art to hide.
The following summer, when this was at its height, I received a letter from the artistic director of the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, Gordon McDougall. Several years before, while working as an assistant at the Royal Court, he had taken down a manuscript from a shelf and, blowing off the dust, read with interest a play entitled To Die With the Philistines. If it were still unperformed, he would like to do it.
It had, by this time, been rejected by every repertory company in the UK, by all the subsidised theatres in London and by every West End producer to whom it had been submitted, as well as by the BBC. Relieved to be distracted, I rewrote the play, retitled it The Restoration of Arnold Middleton and sent it off to my correspondent.
[My wife] Barbara persuaded me to go and see the play and it went well: a crowded basement in an ancient part of the town. I enjoyed the audience’s laughter and though conceived with little knowledge of the theatre, much of it, I was surprised to discover, worked.
At this point, we no longer had a car. We had four children. Food began to be rationed. Stews succeeded stews: vegetables procurable from the gutters of the Inverness Street market, bones from the butcher, a move ahead of the dogs. We were once more on the breadline, the “leading novelist of his generation” leading his family nowhere.
A transfer of the Edinburgh production of Arnold Middleton to the Royal Court in London was suggested. An assistant at the Court, Robert Kidd, had been home on holiday in Scotland and had seen the last night of the Traverse run and, on returning to Sloane Square, had recommended the play to the Court’s artistic director, Bill Gaskill.
Apart from two preliminary meetings with Gaskill and Kidd, who was to direct, plus the auditions of the principal actor, Jack Shepherd, and actress, Eileen Atkins, I wasn’t involved. I first saw a performance at a dress rehearsal where, beforehand, the perspiring Eileen told me she couldn’t remember a line. Moments later I watched her walk on to the stage and, throughout the next two hours, scarcely miss a word.
If the play hadn’t been submitted to the theatre at the suggestion of Lindsay Anderson [director of This Sporting Life], seven years before, if Gordon McDougall hadn’t read it one rainy afternoon, if Bob Kidd hadn’t been home on holiday the previous autumn – if Karel Reisz [producer of This Sporting Life] hadn’t introduced me to Lindsay in the first place – it’s possible I would never have written for the theatre again.
It was the womb-like interior of the Royal Court place – red-plushed, warm, contained – that prompted my response. What it reminded me of was not any previous visit to a theatre (I’d been to fewer than a dozen) but of the paintings I’d done during the last two years at the Slade: my attempt to move away from the surface of the canvas into something visually more dramatic. Animated on the stage in the most sensational manner was a picture-framed interior, a box into which objects and figures could be inserted, no longer static, no longer abstract, indubitably real.
The response to the play was equally direct. Reviewed enthusiastically by Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times (“The best first play produced by the English Stage Company since Look Back in Anger”), its run was extended and the production was transferred to the Criterion theatre in the West End. At the end of the year it shared the Evening Standard award for the most promising playwright with another theatrical unknown, Tom Stoppard.
Despite its complexity, my new play – The Contractor – took only five days to write: the erecting, the arranging and the dismantling of a marquee around the narrative of a family wedding. It was followed by a play about family life. In Celebration only took three days to write: three educated sons returning home to celebrate their working-class parents’ 40th wedding anniversary – and to face the inevitable conflicts of familial life. Arnold Middleton, conceived in despair 10 years before in the back streets of King’s Cross, had unblocked a dam.
After agreeing to stage In Celebration at the Court, Bill Gaskill suggested inviting Lindsay to direct it. Since This Sporting Life, Lindsay’s working life and mine had drifted apart. The mentor and scribe, the aficionado and critic whom I had met nine years before, now had behind him a body of work that had achieved all he had promised, including his 1968 film, if….. It facilitated casting: Alan Bates, James Bolam, Constance Chapman, Bill Owen, Fulton Mackay and, a relatively unknown actor, Brian Cox.