Peter Nichols enjoyed great success in the 1960s and 1970s as a playwright and screenplay writer but will perhaps be best remembered for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, his hit 1967 play that challenged taboos about children with disabilities.
Nichols, who has died aged 92, produced a huge amount of work over the decades: 32 stage plays, 25 television plays, 11 films, seven novels, an autobiography, a collection of poems and a book of his diary entries. He was never shy about letting the media know his thoughts on British theatre – and the grandees who ran it. At one point, frustrated by what he considered a lack of respect, he announced he would never write another play. Inevitably he did, but by then he was no longer seen as a pivotal figure in British theatre. Yet his best work has continues to be produced here and internationally, with a staging of his debut stage play, The Hooded Terror, at London’s Trafalgar Studios in late September.
Nichols was born in Bristol and educated at Bristol Grammar School. He served his national service in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit in Singapore – here he entertained the troops alongside Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter – and went on to study acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre.
He would later mock his own efforts, telling The Stage that when he played Count Dracula at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, “the headline the next day was ‘Count Dracula no longer so fearsome’”. He later worked as a schoolteacher and wrote in his free time, submitting work to local theatres and the BBC. His first produced play for the stage was 1964’s The Hooded Terror, part of a season of new plays at the Little Theatre in Bristol.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg premiered in Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre in January 1967 and won such a powerful review in The Scottish Guardian that London’s Comedy Theatre arranged to produce it. The play centres on a British couple, Bri and Sheila, who are struggling to save their marriage while trying to raise their only child, a small girl named Josephine, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.
Joe Egg was based on Nichols’ own experience of raising a daughter with disabilities (she died aged 11) and he managed to incorporate a good deal of black humour. No playwright had previously tackled the subject and Joe Egg proved a huge hit with critics and audiences. It was performed on Broadway – where it was nominated for four Tony awards – and filmed twice (firstly in 1970, though it was not released until 1972, then again in 2002 as a television movie), Nichols writing the screenplay on both occasions.
Nichols’ other screen work of the era included the Dave Clark Five swingin’ London vehicle Catch Us If You Can (1965) and the four-times Oscar-nominated Georgy Girl (1966). Meanwhile, his next stage outing, the hospital-based comedy The National Health (1969), confirmed his status as one of the UK’s most in-demand playwrights, premiering at the Old Vic to much acclaim and subsequently made into a successful 1973 film, for which Nichols wrote the screenplay.
Privates on Parade (1977), a musical comedy about a largely gay military entertainment group in Malaysia, was based on Nichols’ time in the forces. The Royal Shakespeare Company gave it a lavish production at London’s Barbican theatre and it won that year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. But the 1982 film version, scripted by Nichols and starring John Cleese, was not a success.
Passion Play (1981) is considered by some to be Nichols’ masterpiece, while Poppy (1982), a musical comedy set during the first Opium War that satirises the British colonial mindset, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and ran in London theatres for 14 months.
Nichols fell out with Poppy’s director Terry Hands and subsequently conducted a very public spat with Richard Eyre, then artistic director at the National Theatre, due to the National’s reluctance to produce his plays. He announced he would never again write for theatre and began producing novels – later claiming he did so because publishers offered him far more generous advances than what he could earn from his plays. He did return to writing for the theatre – Show Of Strength Theatre Company in Bristol produced three new Nichols plays between 1995 and 2000.
Nichols was appointed a CBE in the 2018 new year honours list for his services to drama. He is survived by his wife Thelma and three children.
Peter Nichols, playwright, born 31 July 1927, died 7 September 2019