This year is the 75th anniversary of the birth of one of the country’s leading playwrights of the past 40 years, but few people know of his local origins.
Hayling Island-born Simon Gray’s hit 1971 play Butley has just been revived in the West End and his life is being celebrated in this year’s Portsmouth Festivities, so a look at his Portsmouth-area connections is timely.
Simon Gray was born in 1936, the son of a Hayling GP. At the age of four he was evacuated, with his older brother, to Montreal to be looked after by their grandmother. Three eventful years later, after the smoke over Portsmouth had cleared, the boys were despatched back to their home, Mallows in Ferry Road.
Their shocked mother, who ‘had sent off a pair of Christopher Robins and got back a pair of Bowery boys’, began a programme of rehabilitation.
The boys were sent to a local girls’ school, the Priory, in the hope that it would be a civilising influence. But the experience appeared to compound the boys’ sense of disorientation.
They were enrolled at Portsmouth Grammar School in September 1945 when they were still, according to Gray, ‘Canadian louts’ but had acquired ‘girlish manners’.
School archivist John Sadden, who provided the pictures and details here, said Gray was taken in hand by teacher Miss Foster who, the playwright later recalled, ‘helped me to catch up to where I would have been if I’d started my education there’.
Gray’s other favourite teacher was an elderly cockney, Mr A G Watson, who was the Master of the Lower School.
He was remembered by Gray for his enthusiastic readings of classic novels. Watson read Great Expectations ‘with gestures, growls and a great range of facial expressions’. As Magwitch he ‘turned the whole class upside down in the graveyard and dangled us by our ankles, every one of us, by the sheer power of his reading personality’.
In the two years that the Gray boys were at the grammar school, they were successfully rehabilitated into ‘basic English males’ and they added Sir and Miss to their vocabulary, as Gray recalled in his memoirs.
He went on to Westminster, Trinity College Oxford, and then worked as a lecturer in English at Queen Mary’s College, inspired, perhaps, in some small way, by Watson. He wrote many plays for the theatre, television and radio, and published his famous trilogy The Smoking Diaries when he was terminally ill.
John said: ‘It is clear that Gray’s two years at the school, from 1945 to 1947, were a stable and happy time.’
Shortly before he died in 2008, Gray wrote: ‘I sometimes think that the most important days of my life were spent at Portsmouth Grammar School.’
As part of the Portsmouth Festivities, the actor Toby Stephens and BAFTA award winning film-maker Margy Kinmonth will be celebrating Simon Gray’s life and work at a special event at Portsmouth Grammar School on June 18 at 6pm.