In his 1954 autobiography Future Indefinite, NoŽl Coward says that he wrote Blithe Spirit in six days, Present Laughter in six days and Private Lives in four days. The man known in theatrical circles as “The Master” was indeed that, as well as being something of a genius. I will never claim to write anything approaching Sir NoŽl’s wit, polish and construction but in the mid-80s, by some miracle and a bout of bad weather, I wrote a comedy play in five days flat.
The name of the piece was Laugh? I Nearly Went To Miami! Annoyingly, it is something that I’ve never been able to repeat!
I was living in a tiny flat on Shoot Up Hill in Cricklewood, North London and was busy trying to come up with a good plot for a play. I had what I thought was a pretty good idea. Coming back from a trip to Los Angeles I was, as usual, standing with all the flight’s passengers waiting at the luggage carousel for our cases to appear. Now anyone who has ever flown knows the wretched procedure; you usually wait forever for the damn things to appear and then it’s like a scrum as one owner after another tries to grab their bags as they go flying by. If you miss them, you have to wait until they reappear.
It occurred to me what would stop you from picking up someone else’s suitcase either by accident or design? And then leave the airport with someone else’s luggage?
Provided they didn’t see you, (in which case you could feign mistaken identity), absolutely nothing.
And so my little acorn was sown. Why not have someone pick up the wrong case (in this instance an Elvis Presley fanatic Tom who is trying to get to a Presley convention in Florida so he can marry his fiancťe Alice), who then only realises it is the wrong case when he gets home? And then when he opens the case in his sitting room he finds it is stuffed with thousands of dollars. Make those dollars property of a Mafia boss and I worked out you might have a recipe for a few laughs.
I sat down to write the play in longhand on the first day that London had been snowed in for years. The fall was heavy and my part of north-west London completely ground to a halt. This was lucky for me. I had nothing to distract me for the next five days as the snow got worse and worse; I couldn’t even pop out to the pub! Outside it snowed and snowed, inside I wrote and wrote. By the fifth day I had finished the play. I typed it up.
With my wife Narelle and a good friend of ours, Tony Worgan, we decided to mount a production in Hampstead at Leonie Scott-Matthews’ Pentameters Theatre. We held open auditions at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden and found a great cast in Russell Wootton, Jill Greenacre (who later went on to play Linda in The Brittas Empire), David Bradshawe, Andrea Gordon, Gillian Vickers, Johnnie Lyne-Pirkis and Christopher Prior.
Under the directorial eye of Charles Harris who came freshly to us from directing Brookside, we spent two weeks rehearsing in The Drill Hall in Chenies Street just off Tottenham Court Road. Rik Carmichael designed a fabulous set and with stage manager Kate Stewart and lighting expert David Hardstaff aboard, the show opened on June 7th 1985.
The first night went better than we had hoped but nothing could prepare me for what happened the following evening. I turned up at the stage door and was astonished to see a long line of people trailing down the alleyway outside the theatre. Word of mouth had got around that Laugh? Miami! was a funny show and a must-see. I was staggered. The rest of the run was a sell-out. I was even more staggered.
It just so happened that I had sent a copy of the play to theatre publishers Samuel French Ltd a few weeks before. My timing, for once, could not have been better. Some reasonable reviews prompted them to send two representatives to come and see the show. The next morning, John Bedding at French’s wrote to me asking if the publishing and performing rights were available?
I told him they most certainly were.
I got Tessa Le Bars to handle negotiations and shortly an acting edition of the play was published. This opened Laugh? Miami! to a great many people who otherwise might not have been aware of it. Andre Ptaszynski and Andrew Fell at Pola Jones Ltd took a West End option on the play and plans were prepared to bring it into London. And although the play never ended up on Shaftesbury Avenue, it’s funny how when one door closes another one opens.
Glynis Barber, at the time the hottest thing on British TV in Dempsey and Makepeace, was approached through her agent Rolf Kruger to play Alice. Although sadly she wasn’t available, Rolf liked the play and passed it on to another of his clients, director Cyril Frankel.
Now Cyril was an established movie and television director (he had made two of my favourite shows Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and UFO), who sidelined in mounting hit stage comedies in Vienna. He called me up and invited me around for lunch the next day at his home in Harley Street. “I love Laugh? I Nearly Went To Miami!” he explained over a roast chicken lunch he had cooked himself. “It reminds me of the Marx Brothers, completely bonkers but somehow plausible. I want to produce it in Vienna, if I may, at the Kleine Komodie Theatre next year. What do you say?”
I said yes.
And that was how my little play opened under its new German title …Und Morgen Fliegen Wir Nach Miami the following March. Playwright Adolf Opel did a superb and very funny translation and Cyril directed it with a masterly comedic brilliance. Narelle and I flew over to attend the first night and it was odd to watch audiences laughing at lines I had written being said in a different language. The show’s leading actors Gaby Jacoby, Viktor Couzyn and Rudolf Otahal brought the house down night after night.
The play then went on to enjoy further success across Europe in translations by Ursula Lyn and Adolf Opel as well as Martine Deboosere who wrote the Dutch version We Hebben Zien Vlieggen! It never ceases to amaze me how well nutty little English farces seem to travel!
Today, amateur theatres all over the world regularly produce the play and nothing gives me more pleasure than when these companies get in touch and email me photographs and stories of their version of Laugh?
If only I could write a play in five days today!
Bring on that snow…