Terrence Rattigan and the New Statesman

The magazine features in a revival of While the Sun Shines.

Terrence Rattigan had a close association with the New Statesman, most strongly just after the Second World War when his friend T C Worsley, who often spent winter breaks at Rattigan’s house in Bermuda, became the magazine’s literary editor and drama critic. In 1950 the playwright provoked the contemporary equivalent of a Twitter storm in the letters pages of the NS when, following a bad reception for his play Adventure Story about  Alexander the Great,  he published his article “Concerning the Play of Ideas” which took a swipe at the idea that drama had to address topical controversies, singling out Ibsen and Shaw for particular criticism. Shaw waded into the controversy closely followed by Sean O’Casey, James Bridie (playwright and translator of Ibsen), Benn Levy (playwright and Labour MP for Eton and Slough 1945-50), Peter Ustinov and Ted Willis.

Rattigan had success in the 1950s with The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables (which also features a copy of the New Statesman read by the Major disgraced by the disclosure of his conviction for a minor sexual offence), but his spell at the heart of the Zeitgeist was over, aggravated by his self regarding remarks after the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

The hundreth anniversary of his birth last year has produced a spate of Rattigan revivals and his reputation has been restored almost to the heights it reached in the 1930s and 1940s. The hugely successful recent production of his 1944 play Flare Path has now been followed by a revival of the play that immediately preceeded it, While The Sun Shines, at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. Set in the London of 1943 when many couples were getting hitched only to be parted by the war, sometimes forever, this is not one of the playwright's social commentaries but a very funny comedy featuring the young Earl of Harpenden’s faltering progress towards the altar with Lady Elizabeth Randall. Matters are complicated by the earl’s entanglement with the comely Mabel Crum and Lady Elizabeth’s unwitting bewitching of both a Free French officer Lieutenant Colbert and the Earl’s new found American friend Lieutant Mulvaney. The Duke of Ayr and Stirling, Lady Elizabeth’s permanently impecunious father is desperate for the match to succeed so he can obtain a share of the Harpenden money to fritter away in the bookies – at one point he plays dice to decide which of the suitors will actually make it to the altar. A copy of the New Statesman is brandished at several points in the action, twice as Mabel Crum is dispatched to hide in the kitchen with the NS to keep her company and most memorably when Harpenden clashes with Colbert who proudly admits to being a socialist, convinced that the British aristocracy will soon be extinct. “Well I read the New Statesman, you know” retorts the distressed Earl.  The combination of misunderstandings, bed sharing, military uniforms and a splendid butler called Horton might make you think you’ve seen it before, but never better written than this and probably not better acted either. If you’re in need of cheering up you should go and fall in love with the cast, especially Greer Dale-Foulkes as Lady Elisabeth and Patrick Rogers as her aristo father – when you first see him, he seems a bit too young for the part but his comic ability soon erases those doubts. Rattigan would be delighted, and you will be too.

"While the Sun Shines" runs at the Lion and the Unicorn pub theatre in Gaisford Street, London NW5 until 17 June. Tickets from www.giantolive.com/tickets.html

Sophia Sibthorpe, Iestyn Arwel and Freddie Hutchins in When the Sun Shines
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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