‘You dare speak to an officer of the law like that and I’ll scream the place down.’ So says Captain Dennis of SADUSEA, Song And Dance Unit South East Asia, in Nichols’ autobiographical play ‘Privates On Parade’, his best known work. It’s a bravura piece that’s funny, gruesome, tragic and moving. ‘Vaudevilian’ is a good way to describe Nichols’ work. The root of this is easy to locate. As a young man he was part of a combined forces entertainment troop stationed in Singapore, whose members included Stanley Baxter, Kenneth Williams and the film director John Schlesinger.
‘Privates On Parade’ rendered Nichols’ ENSA experiences into dramatic form as the ditzy members of SADUSEA, under the command of queeny Captain Terri Dennis, end up running guns on a hellish tour of Malaysia that sees most of them shot dead or wounded. Dennis is a glorious creation, camp and brave, with a penchant for the dressing-up box and a disrespectful range of one-liners; ‘That Bernadette Shaw, nags away from arsehole to breakfast-time but never sees what’s staring her in the face.’ It was filmed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films with Dennis Quilley and John Cleese, but bombed, and despite the play’s regular revival success the film remains virtually missing. Partly this is because it was very cheaply made and looks it, but also it captures Nichols’ disconcerting habit of slamming together comedy and tragedy. The film has preserved some brilliant performances and is definitely worth finding.
Nichols was born in Bristol in 1927, which threw him into the war in his teens. A contemporary of the equally brilliant Charles Wood, he began writing television plays (when there were such things) but where Wood frequently wrote about war and survival, Nichols has always been harder to pin down in choice of subject matter.
His work was often autobiographical. ‘A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg’ had been inspired by his own experiences of raising a handicapped child, and although a human and compassionate piece, it’s still deeply shocking today, especially as the leads break the fourth wall and address the audience directly.
Nichols enjoys making audiences uncomfortable. ‘The National Health’ was a zeitgeist play presenting Britain as an ailing patient, as soap-opera medics fall in love while, in the real world, an imploding NHS hospital proves unable to cope with the sick, who die in an atmosphere of indifference.
Nichols’ most subversive and peculiar play is ‘Poppy’, which reimagines the Chinese opium wars in the form of a Christmas pantomime complete with panto cow, dame and cross-dressed principle boy. At one point the audience is encouraged to rise and join in a singalong about the racist behaviour of British troops, while Dick Whittington’s sister ends up a junkie. That this could be installed at the Adelphi in a spectacular RSC production says a lot about theatreland’s present low ambitions.
A terrific autobiography, ‘Feeling You’re Behind’, followed together with an excellent set of diaries covering Nichols’ key years. Clearly, the West End needs his angry humanity more than ever. His writing is taut, moral and brave, and he’s someone I greatly admire.