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The play­wright and pro­ducer gives Brian Beacom the low­down on how to write a hit farce

WHAT a life Ray Cooney has, you sug­gest, when his first thought upon wak­ing is how to con­jure a scene with a young woman in her un­der­wear, or cre­ate a sce­nario where a mid­dle-aged buf­foon finds his trousers draped ig­no­min­iously around his an­kles.

“It’s not quite like that,” says Cooney, smil­ing. “The process of writ­ing farce is rather dif­fer­ent.”

Cooney should know. In his ca­reer, the actor-turned-writer has cre­ated 17 West End hits. Now that Brian Rix is gone, Cooney is the undis­puted god­fa­ther of farce, a man who un­der­stands im­plic­itly the world of door-slam­ming, win­dow­jam­ming, un­der­wear-re­veal­ing chaos.

Farce, of course, has ex­isted since cou­ples be­gan tak­ing their clothes off in places and with peo­ple they shouldn’t, but when it comes to tales of mis­taken iden­tity, mis­hear­ing, un­ex­pected vis­its and so on, Cooney has no equal, cer­tainly in terms of box-of­fice suc­cess. His play Run for Your Wife showed in the West End for an in­cred­i­ble nine years and was per­formed in New York. Chase Me Com­rade ran for three years.

Now his lat­est of­fer­ing, a re-stag­ing of the 1990 Olivier award-win­ning Out of Or­der (fea­tur­ing a ju­nior min­is­ter and an at­tempt at an af­fair with a typ­ist) is tour­ing Scot­land from next week, and au­di­ences will pour out to see it. Among the cast are Shaun Wil­liamson (Eas­tEn­ders, Ex­tras), Susie Amy (Foot­ballers’ Wives) and Sue Hold­er­ness (Only Fools and Horses).

But how has Cooney man­aged to pro­duce so much com­edy madness? The bright trousers and blue shirt the 85-year-old wears to­day sug­gest an en­ergy, and per­haps a lit­tle dev­il­ment about the man.

He cer­tainly lives for the­atre. “I love it,” he says in a quiet corner of the quaint Rich­mond The­atre in West Lon­don, where he ap­peared as a child actor. “It’s given me a fab­u­lous life.”

He cer­tainly loves writ­ing farce. But in ex­plain­ing his process, he re­veals he doesn’t – at least not to be­gin with – worry over ways in which to dis­robe his ac­tors. “I don’t set out to write funny plays,” he says. “What I start with is close to tragedy. Run for Your Wife, for ex­am­ple, is about a bigamist taxi driver. I start with a tragedy like this and work from there. If Ib­sen got hold of that idea it would turn out very dif­fer­ently in­deed.”

Cooney reads news­pa­pers for ideas, not­ing how politi­cians are par­tic­u­larly in­clined to stray from their loved ones. “Then what I’ll do is make notes. And once I have a year’s worth of notes, I’ll take them out of my pock­ets and draw­ers, bun­dle them up and go up to the at­tic and write ev­ery day for about six months.”

Cooney writes with a Biro. No lap­tops for him. “When I did my na­tional ser­vice I was a typ­ist in the Royal Army Ser­vice Corps. But I need the pen to make the con­nec­tion with the pa­per. Then I’m into that world.”

In com­ing up with Run for Your Wife, Cooney found him­self in his at­tic one day writ­ing, “Here’s your cup of tea, dar­ling.” “I thought the char­ac­ter on the page was ac­tu­ally talk­ing to me. Then when I looked around my wife was stand­ing there of­fer­ing me a cup of tea.” Linda Cooney un­der­stands her hus­band im­plic­itly. Mar­ried to Cooney for 55 years, she was an ac­tress who ap­peared in one of his first plays (“Now she’s an artist. A very good one”).

Cooney’s work doesn’t end in the at­tic. “Af­ter that, we do the work­shops. With Funny Money [in 1995], for ex­am­ple, the work­shop re­vealed to me the sec­ond act just fiz­zled away. The prob­lem was I’d al­ready com­mit­ted to a try-out in four weeks time in Guild­ford so I sat down and rewrote the en­tire sec­ond act in a month. Neil Si­mon would have been proud.”

Si­mon, the cre­ator of such clas­sics as The Odd Cou­ple, once wrote of the pres­sure of dead­lines heaped upon him by im­pa­tient pro­duc­ers, anx­ious for the de­liv­ery of the next smash hit. “I’ve never suc­cumbed to any pres­sure like that,” says Cooney. “It’s partly be­cause I’ve pro­duced my own plays so of­ten. I don’t feel un­der pres­sure to write to dead­line. I write be­cause I love it.”

Cooney’s suc­cess sug­gests that as a young man he was des­per­ate to be­come a writer, but Ray­mond Ge­orge Al­fred Cooney was noth­ing of the sort.

“I wanted to act from the age of 14,” he re­calls. “All I ever wanted to be was Mar­lon Brando or Danny Kaye. So I an­swered an ad in The Stage to join a com­pany in Cardiff, or at least I thought it was in Cardiff. It turned out it was in a nearby vil­lage, and was set in a vil­lage hall. We did a dif­fer­ent play ev­ery night of the week, with a reper­toire of 50 plays, and we’d tour the Welsh vil­lages. I soaked it all up. I loved this tour­ing com­pany and I’d have stayed with them, but they went broke when tele­vi­sion came in.”

Cooney ap­peared in al­most 200 plays in rep, learn­ing much about writ­ing by os­mo­sis. But the turn­ing point came in 1958 when he joined Brian Rix Pro­duc­tions at Lon­don’s White­hall The­atre in Sim­ple Spy­men, cast with An­drew Sachs and Joan San­der­son of Please Sir! fame.

“A run-of-play con­tract was ex­actly that, what­ever the length ran to,” he re­calls of his stint. “I could see this one would fol­low in the di­rec­tion of Brian’s last play. It would run for years.”

To most ac­tors, the guar­an­tee of nights work­ing in the­atre would have been a god­send. But not this one. “I de­cided I could no longer spend my days chas­ing girls and play­ing ten­nis.”

That seems a per­fectly plea­sur­able way to go about one’s day. “Not for ever,” he says, smil­ing. “But with all this time on my hands dur­ing the day, and Brian’s en­thu­si­asm and help, an­other actor and I de­cided to try to write a play.”

It had to be a farce, and the re­sult was One for the Pot. But what made Cooney think he could write? “I hon­estly don’t know,” he ad­mits. “I guess I felt I must have soaked up so much from be­ing in the the­atre all these years, which I loved, so I’d have a go at writ­ing a play, for Brian.”

Cooney’s suc­cess sug­gests it all came rather eas­ily, but that wasn’t the case at all. “Neil Si­mon says plays aren’t writ­ten, they’re rewrit­ten. And that’s the case. We kept tak­ing our play to dif­fer­ent the­atres for try-outs and we’d re­write it each time.”

He worked on his model. Start with tragedy, end in chaos. Use lots of stereo­types; hus­bands are brow­beaten, French­men randy, mother-in-laws sus­pi­cious dragons and gay men in­vari­ably minc­ing. But women al­most al­ways come off best; the men lose their dig­nity along with their trousers.

An­other rule was don’t cast co­me­di­ans. “You don’t want co­me­di­ans in farce, al­though Roy Hudd and Terry Scott were good in the plays,” he says. “In my plays you be­gin with pleas­ant chuck­les and then it builds up, you hope, to big laughs. But if you put a co­me­dian in a play, they start to panic if there aren’t laughs in the first 10 sec­onds and they pull faces. You need peo­ple to play it ab­so­lutely truth­fully – let the au­di­ence find the laughs.”

Cooney wouldn’t put up with corps­ing, the likes of which you see in TV farce Mrs Brown’s Boys (“It’s a very funny show but you won­der why he doesn’t em­pha­sise more dra­matic plot lines”). His ac­tors have to re­main straight-faced. “Trevor Ban­nis­ter [Mr Lu­cas in Are You Be­ing Served?] would carry a four-inch nail in the palm of his hand to stop him­self corps­ing. But he some­times failed. I can re­mem­ber once see­ing the blood drip from his hand.”

The farceur’s for­mula worked. The hits kept com­ing. Af­ter One for the Pot Cooney wrote Chase Me Com­rade in 1965, in­spired by the Ru­dolf Nureyev de­fec­tion story. It was an­other mas­sive hit, an Aus­tralian tour of which starred Stan­ley Bax­ter.

But what did Brian Rix think when his pro­tege, as Mel Brooks once said of Gene Wilder, “opened up a gro­cery shop across the street”? “We never fell out,” says Cooney. “He was great. And what I learned from Brian is that the the­atre de­mands you work as a team. Per­haps that ap­plies to life as well.”

Cooney went on to be­come a suc­cess­ful the­atre direc­tor, work­ing with the likes of Peter O’Toole in Pyg­malion. “We hit it off re­ally well. I learned a lot from him and ac­tors such as Don­ald Sin­den, who would come into the the­atre ev­ery night and go round ev­ery dress­ing room say­ing, ‘We’re go­ing to have a won­der­ful night tonight.’ He cre­ated a ter­rific at­mos­phere.”

Farce still packs the­atres, ev­i­denced by the likes of One Man, Two Gu­vnors, an adap­ta­tion of the 18th-cen­tury Ital­ian play Ser­vant of Two Mas­ters. Yet there are ar­gu­ments that farce is too silly to be taken se­ri­ously by work­ing-class au­di­ences, that it es­sen­tially ap­peals to the friv­o­lous mid­dle­class sen­si­bil­ity.

“I’ve never thought about that,” says Cooney, look­ing sur­prised, “but I re­ally don’t know. I’m just pleased if the the­atre is nice and full.”

Pleased doesn’t tell the half of it. Cooney

If you put a co­me­dian in a play they start to panic if there aren’t laughs in the first 10 sec­onds and they pull faces

turned to pro­duc­ing plays and put his money where his Biro was. “I bor­rowed money from my mother’s burial fund, my wife sold her ear­rings and we put the money into a show,” he re­calls. And he went on to make – and lose – mil­lions over the years, ei­ther pro­duc­ing or run­ning his own the­atre.

He cer­tainly lost the money he put into the 2013 film of Run for Your Wife, star­ring Danny Dyer and Denise Van Outen, which took just £700 in its open­ing week­end. “I think the mis­take was in show­ing it to the crit­ics at a pri­vate screen­ing. We should have shown it be­fore a pub­lic au­di­ence who would have been howl­ing with laugh­ter. But bad re­views are some­thing you just have to deal with. And we had great fun mak­ing the film.”

The loss shouldn’t sug­gest Ray Cooney’s bank bal­ance has fol­lowed the adul­ter­ous boyfriends in his plays out the back win­dow. The writer lives in a lovely house in Ep­ping For­est, just a kick of a ball away from Sir Rod Ste­wart and round the corner from Bradley Walsh. “I’ve been so for­tu­nate in that the plays are be­ing per­formed all over the world, in China, Rus­sia, Ja­pan. The roy­al­ties keep on com­ing in.”

He adds, with an ap­pre­cia­tive smile, “Rus­sia, you know, is the best country for pay­ing roy­al­ties. In­dia doesn’t pay. I once got a let­ter from a chap in Bom­bay. ‘Dear Mr Cooney, I want you to know Run for Your Wife has been our big­gest suc­cess ever with 1,000 per­for­mances. We are so thank­ful. I en­close my gift to you.’ The gift was a scarf and a box of marsh­mal­lows. It shows you how mar­vel­lous, Rus­sia, Ja­pan and China are.”

Ray Cooney loves his life and it’s not hard to see why. He has a great mar­riage and al­though his two sons and grand­chil­dren live in Los An­ge­les and Sydney (“We go round the world ev­ery year to see them”) he’s been able to work in ev­ery area of the­atre – act­ing, writ­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­ing. “My life has all been about segue­ing from one thing to an­other. Now I can live off the lovely roy­al­ties and I sup­port younger pro­duc­ers.”

But al­though he’s a Neil Si­mon fan, he hasn’t fol­lowed the New Yorker into sen­ti­men­tal­ity. “Neil can throw in mo­ments of cry­ing, as does Alan Ay­ck­bourn, but I don’t go down the cry­ing route at all.” Has he been tempted to try? “No, not at all, al­though I’ve been in­volved in a cou­ple of mu­si­cals with a gen­tler side.”

As sure as living room doors in farce will open and shut re­peat­edly, Cooney has no plans to put his feet up. “I love both act­ing and writ­ing,” he main­tains, smil­ing. “Stand­ing at the back of the au­di­to­rium hear­ing the ap­plause is fan­tas­tic. And very rarely do the­atre peo­ple re­tire. You ei­ther flop dead or go mad.” Out of Or­der, star­ring Shaun Wil­liamson, Sue Hold­er­ness, Susie Amy, James Holmes and Arthur Bostrom, is at the The­atre Royal, Glas­gow, April 18-22.

Right: Shaun Wil­liamson and Susie Amy in the new pro­duc­tion of Out of Or­der, writ­ten in 1990 by Ray Cooney (above)

Clockwise from top: a scene from Out of Or­der, which won an Olivier award in 1991; orig­i­nal posters for Cooney’s hits My Giddy Aunt and Chase Me Com­rade; and Stan­ley Bax­ter, who toured Aus­tralia in a pro­duc­tion of the lat­ter play

Left: the poster for the 2013 film of Run for Your Wife, which took just £700 on its open­ing week­end. Above: Cooney found the late Don­ald Sin­den’s zeal for the the­atre in­spi­ra­tional

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