Still monkeying around: writer-director Ray Cooney with theatre memorabilia at his Essex home
Ray Cooney’s knack, he says, is writing comedies that look as if everyone is making it up as they go along.
It has made his name, not to mention his fortune, as the undisputed king of farce for more than half a century.
His 22 plays, with jauntily suggestive names such as Wife Begins at Forty, Why Not Stay for Breakfast? and Not Now, Darling, have filled theatres around the world and been translated into more than 40 languages.
It means that he stands alongside William Shakespeare as the only other English playwright to have had a production staged in a major city, somewhere on the global map, every week for the past 53 years.
‘All the former Soviet states are catching up now, so that’s a new audience,’ he says wonderingly. ‘The plays have been translated into Chinese, too. I’ve no idea what they make of Chase Me, Comrade. I always try to be careful who adapts what.’ Ray, who at his peak in the mid-Eighties had five plays in the West End simultaneously, controlled four theatres, and became Britain’s top writer on Broadway, is still demonstrating that his appetite for new challenges has not diminished. At the age of 80, he has made his debut as a film director with his biggest stage hit, Run for Your Wife, transferring to the big screen with what must be one of the most glittering senior casts ever assembled for a British movie.
A teenaged actor who became a writer, producer and theatre owner, Ray has been married to actress and artist wife Linda for 50 years, has lived in the same elegant house in Epping Forest, Essex, for 47 years and writes plays with a generous dose of double entendres but no gratuitously offensive language.
‘Theatre is best when it’s for the family,’ he insists. ‘The most fortunate thing is that I am a working-class Cockney. When I started acting, I had all the Cockney knocked out of me. You had to speak like Dame Celia Johnson, like “thet”, or be out of work. But, at heart, I am a working-class kid who is able to relate to ordinary people. I left school at 14, was not over-educated and have retained those roots. I know what makes people laugh.’
He’s been managing to make people laugh since his debut play, One for the Pot, written for his old acting partner, Brian Rix (now Baron Rix, 89) who was then one of the most famous names in British entertainment as a result of his live televised comedies from the Whitehall Theatre, London.
‘The best farces are tragedies,’ he continues. ‘The basic theme of them all is the struggle of an ordinary individual against forces that are overwhelming. The individual is usually tortured, too, because of his own character flaws – and he can’t control those flaws under stress. The more real the situation, the better the audience reaction.’
Ray’s own family overcame personal tragedy at the time of his birth. His mother had been permanently confined to a wheelchair from the age of 15, following a workplace prank, and his father was a carpenter from Jarrow who was the family lodger. ‘My grandmother told him that my mum was 16, and a paraplegic who was currently in hospital. Dad offered to come along during her afternoon visits to tell her “a few funny Geordie stories in order to cheer her up”.’
They fell in love and decided to marry, a development that was not welcomed by his grandmother, who feared for their future. When his mother became pregnant at just 18 – his father, Gerry, was 22 – there were inevitable concerns. ‘Doctors told her that, given her condition, she should abort the baby,’ he says. ‘Then they discovered it was twins and she was given a stark warning: “Abort – otherwise this will kill you”.’
Ray and his mother survived. ‘My twin died after three days,’ he says. ‘I think, during times when I need that extra bit of energy, I can hear him say: “Come on, Ray, carry on”. I was lucky to live and have always tried to make the most of life. I have the feeling that I should get on with things, not give up, look optimistically at every situation and try to discover laughter. I think that comes out of what was a tragedy for my parents in losing a baby.’
Ray clearly could not wait to get started. ‘I was one of those lucky people who knew what he wanted to do from the age of about ten,’ he says. ‘I was hooked on the power of making people laugh from then on.
‘My dad loved Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello. He’d take me to see shows and I remember him falling under the seat in laughter watching Sid Field. I picked up what an audience liked. What happened up there on stage or screen would affect people in the audience. I wanted to be up there.’
Ray made his stage debut in 1946 in Song of Norway at the Palace Theatre, London, while taking elocution lessons to lose his Cockney accent.
Ten years later, aged 24, he joined Brian Rix at the Whitehall Theatre. ‘In the Fifties, you’d be signed for the length of the play.’ One of them, Simple Spymen, ran from March 1958 to July 1961. ‘That was my full-time job. The reason I started writing was that I thought I ought to do something else rather than play tennis and chase girls.’
He began his writing career working alongside the late John Chapman with hits such as Move over Mrs Markham and There Goes the Bride. He also stopped chasing girls when he met comedy actress Linda Dixon. ‘We met thanks to Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers, with whom Ray had acted in the late Fifties) and it was love at first sight for both of us,’ he reflects.
With two sons in their forties (Danny, who lives in Australia, and Michael, a screenwriter), and a marriage that has endured happily for over half a century, he feels that he has refined the formula for the perfect work-life balance.
‘True love is vital,’ he says. ‘After that, it’s the need, a feeling of comfort, a share of joy in the value of work and admiration of talent. As for fitness, it’s important to stay involved. I’ve never thought about retirement – I enjoy what I do.’
He also makes light of recent heart problems. ‘I had to be on a film set every morning at 6.30am for Run for Your Wife, so there was no time to think of such things.’
The film’s plot revolves around a bigamist taxi driver (Danny Dyer) who has two unsuspecting wives (Denise Van Outen and Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding). The cast reads like a Who’s Who
of British acting.
‘I kept on asking various friends if they wanted to be in it – and every one of them said yes,’ says Ray. ‘They each worked for a bottle of Pimm’s and a box of chocs, with their modest fees going to charity. And some of them can actually get £20,000 for a day’s work!’
And his view of the film itself? ‘My aim has never changed. I just want to give people a laugh.’
Spot the stars
Sharp-eyed viewers will be able to identify many famous faces in Run for Your Wife, including Sir Cliff Richard, Sir Donald Sinden, Sylvia Syms, Maureen Lipman, Geoffrey Palmer, Barry Cryer and Ray Winstone. Some don’t have any lines. Some who do, describe what it’s like to work with Ray:
Dame Judi Dench, 78
‘I used to go and watch my husband, Michael Williams, in Ray’s plays, such as Two Into One and Out of Order. There is no better feeling than seeing an audience rolling around with laughter and Ray has always had that effect on people.’
Prunella Scales, 80
‘Ray said I had only one line – and there was one for my husband (actor Timothy West), too. We were there like a shot. It meant a day among friends and plenty of laughter. Ray’s ability is to get us to laugh at ourselves.’
Russ Abbot, 65
‘I was in Ray’s Caught in the Net, which was the sequel to Run for Your Wife. It’s only when you are performing his plays, night after night, that you appreciate the detail and why it takes two years to complete each project.’
June Whitfield, 87
‘Having worked with Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Terry Scott and, more recently, Jennifer Saunders (in Absolutely Fabulous), I know that you can’t be funny without good writing. That is what Ray always serves up.’
* Run for Your Wife is released on February 14.