Michael Frayn talks ahead of Cambridge Literary Festival event
PUBLISHED: 15:12 02 November 2017 | UPDATED: 17:56 02 November 2017
Ekko von Schwichow
One of the finest living exponents of the written word, Michael Frayn, a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is one of only a small number of people writing in the English language to succeed in both drama and fiction.
A renowned reporter, columnist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter, Frayn’s best known work includes the plays Noises Off (1982), Copenhagen (1998) and Democracy (2003) – and the novels Headlong (1999), Spies (2002) and Skios (2012).
He also penned the screenplay for the 1986 film Clockwise, starring John Cleese, and First and Last (1989), featuring Tom Wilkinson and Patricia Routledge, and will be discussing his latest book, Pocket Playhouse – a collection of 36 comic sketches – at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday, November 25.
Frayn, 84, told the Cambridge Independent: “I published an earlier collection of short sketches called Matchbox Theatre about two years ago and this is another collection,” adding: “It’s difficult not to write comedy – there are a lot of funny things in life.”
Back in 2012, the veteran author said he was never going to write anything again, though it appears to be a habit he can’t quite shake off.
Frayn explained: “If you have an idea for something, you write it. I don’t really have any ideas for longer things, plays or novels, but I keep having ideas for shorter pieces so I keep writing them. If the ideas stop coming, I’ll have to stop writing.”
He observed: “Life’s complicated. There are a lot of things which are very painful, a lot of things which are very serious – but also a lot of things which are plainly funny.”
On the subject of comedy, Frayn is a keen admirer of farce. “There are not very many good farces, but when a farce works it can be really funny,” he said. “One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is an American film called What’s Up Doc? [from 1972], directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
“He made the film version of Noises Off [released in 1992, starring Michael Caine] and he gave me a DVD of What’s Up Doc? which I’d never seen. He said: ‘This is a farce and for a farce you need an audience, so don’t watch it on your own’. But I thought my wife [author and journalist Claire Tomalin] wouldn’t like it very much so when she was off I played it.
“I realised that the most extraordinary noises were beginning to occur in the room, and they were coming out of me because it was just so funny, even watching it on your own – I couldn’t help laughing.”
One of the most beloved purveyors of farce is of course John Cleese, of whom Frayn is a fan. “I wrote the thing [Clockwise] and we were trying to think how to cast it,” he recalled. “The producer said: ‘This is surely for John Cleese.’ We sent it to him and he said yes. I thought he was absolutely wonderful in it.”
Frayn, who hopes to see Headlong, Spies and Skios all made into films at some point, finds much to enjoy in contemporary comedy too. He said: “What I find particularly funny are the television series Twenty Twelve and W1A. The director and writer is John Morton and I do find those extremely funny, with Hugh Bonneville as the chair of a committee.
“He does the most wonderful, very restrained, played-down performances – comedy is always much funnier if you play it seriously.”
Frayn said of Cambridge: “I absolutely love it. I’m an honorary fellow of my old college, Emmanuel, and my granddaughter has just graduated from Emmanuel, so there are a lot of reasons for coming back.”
He added: “The most colossal change in Cambridge, as at all other British universities, is that there are now roughly equal numbers of men and women. I think when I was at Cambridge, there were 10 men to every woman and only two women’s colleges.”
Michael Frayn’s talk, From Stage to Page, will be held in the Palmerston Room at St John’s College on Saturday, November 25 at 3pm-4pm.
He will be in conversation with literary critic Alex Clark and tickets are priced at £13 and £10.