Jan/Feb 2016 Reviews & Interviews

The Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir

The Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir
David Hare.
Faber. 2015. 347 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 29433 6.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! I only really became aware of David Hare when I saw his trio of plays performed at the National Theatre in the 1990s. I found Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and Absence of War pithy and enjoyable, and they left me with interesting questions to ponder about Great Britain's national institutions—the Church of England, British justice, and Labour Party politics. Amy's View, which I saw later, also dealt with thorny cultural and political issues, but I was completely unaware of Hare's long experience in radical experimental theater, and of the way in which his strong socialist beliefs have shaped his career and his work.

The Blue Touch Paper is a memoir that covers Hare's childhood, his education, his early fascination with film, his involvement in co-operative theatre, and his life up to the early 1980s when he became Associate Director of the National Theatre. It is, he says, "the story of my apprenticeship"—of the way in which "a young man became a dramatist" and of "the cost and effect" of that. He ends his "Foreword' with the claim his life "has been no different from anyone else's: both everything and nothing." Few, however, have crammed in so much creativity and achievement.

Hare describes his childhood as having been shaped by the absence of his father, who was purser on a P&O liner and was away for 11 months of the year, and his mother, who was "intelligent and sensitive" but naturally nervous. His own insecurity and over-sensitivity was shaped, too, by life in suburban Bexhill-On-Sea, where everyone was class-conscious and watchful and critical of their neighbors. His greatest pleasure at that time was to get lost, something which caused no particular distress to anyone else.

School days, first at local prep-schools, then as a bright scholarship-boy at the prestigious Anglican public school, Lancing College, did nothing to make him more confident. Lancing, initially, felt like a foreign country in which everyone else knew, quite naturally, how to behave. However, he did make one friend with whom he shared a passion for film and, being close to London, they would spend their holidays seeing as many films as they could afford.

Hare's account of growing up and of schooling in those years shows just how much society and education have changed. At junior school, there were teachers with homosexual tendencies but parents were watchful and the boys knew who to avoid. He was aware of one teacher who "fled town in the manner of schoolmasters at that time, without notice and for no given reason"; of one who was platonically in love with a boy in his class and who transferred this love to him; and his mother ended his friendship with a teacher who would take him to concerts, films and plays. There was no fuss and no particular worry about these situations, as there would be now. Lancing was "as austere as its purpose." There were no lavish brochures, and no luxurious accommodation to attract overseas students. The school was cold, the boys often dirty because of few laundry facilities, and the food "would have provoked a mutiny in a mid-Victorian poor-house." But the education there was liberal and good, and debate and independent thinking were encouraged. At Lancing, Hare became skeptical of authority and began to question religious practices. He began, as he says, to scrutinize the authenticity of public performance—to become "a voyeur"—a practice which became invaluable to him as a director when any falseness in the acting or the play was immediately apparent to him.

From Lancing, Hare won an open scholarship to Cambridge University. He chose Jesus College, because he had been deeply impressed by the writings of the eminent New Left thinker, Raymond Williams, who taught there. First, in order to make money for a trip to America, he became a relief teacher at Cranleigh School, where a fellow teacher introduced him to traditional jazz and this, like film, became a lifelong passion. In America, he traveled the country by Greyhound bus; spent a week in New Orleans living on "oysters, doughnuts and jazz"; and had a short, unsuccessful career as a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Manhattan. Political dissent in America was, he says, an eye-opener for him.

Cambridge was a disappointment. Raymond Williams palmed off his teaching to others and the teaching of literature seemed to be impossibly rigid. Hare quotes Ted Hughes as saying that you could only come out of Cambridge a creative writer by "scrambling through the barbed wire and the camp searchlights." Yet, the opportunities Hare had there through film and other clubs which exposed him to the newest ideas; through the experimental theatre group which gave him his first experience as an actor; through the friends he made, many of whom went on the have highly successful creative careers; all these were invaluable.

After Cambridge, Hare and some friends established The Portable Theatre—a co-operatively run theater which had no fixed home but traveled around the country producing and performing old and new plays and sharing the expenses and the profits (if any). This was the first of many times Hare put his socialist principles into practice in his career. It was the first time, too, that when a promised script did not eventuate he wrote a play. In four days, on a portable typewriter perched on his knee as they drove "from gig to gig," he wrote a script from which he learned that he had the ability to write dialogue.

Hare writes interestingly and with flair about his experiences in radical, experimental, fringe theatre, in film-making and in directing and writing plays. He is equally interesting discussing theatre politics at the time when he became "Literary Manager" at the Royal Court Theatre, then later a Director there. He notes the changes which have taken place in the theatre world, the energies which were encouraged and allowed to flourish and the freedoms which have been lost.

He writes of the friends, colleagues, well-know and less well-known actors, directors and others with whom he has shared ventures which sometimes flopped and which were sometime hugely successful. At the same time, he writes of his own life, his marriage, fatherhood, and the love affair with Kate Nelligan which destroyed his marriage.

Always, he writes honestly and revealingly about the world and the experiences which have made him a playwright and director. And he ends this memoir with the death and funeral of his mother just as a new phase of his life is beginning.


Previous Piece Next Piece