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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Ghost Boy: a playwright’s progress

Richard Crane

Genre: Biography, Historical, Literature, New Writing

Venue: Richard Crane


Low Down

If you want a single account of the heady days of 1960s-70s British theatre, this has to be it: it’s detailed, punchy, rich in famed characters rather than just name-dropping, painfully funny. Published 2020, 535 pages. Available from Richard Crane.


No, ‘I’d had sodomy and the lash. Now there was rum’ isn’t quite the expected public schooldays recalled at the start of a chapter by playwright, actor, director Richard Crane in Ghost Boy. At seventeen he’s off on a boat to Jamaica with his parsonic family, by the way. As the family relocate. Hence rum.

Ghost Boy though traces a very different fate. It comes wild with praise by Miriam Margolyes, Richard Eyre, Howard Brenton, David Edgar and others who’ve known Crane from student days and seem not to have regretted it.


Navigating Ghost Boy

If you want a single account of the heady days of 1960s-70s British theatre, this has to be it: it’s detailed, punchy, rich in famed characters rather than just name-dropping, painfully funny at Richard Crane’s expense – say with Frank Sinatra and Bette Davis in 1972. I’m just dropping, but read the story; or why that Peter Ustinov cartoon of Crane got into the book: plenty of photos and reproductions too. There’s snatches of verse and poetry throughout, studding the prose like eruptions of joy or lament. And tense phone conversations reproduced like dialogue. Or as Crane might put it, a Bildingsroman in buggery.

But it isn’t. That chapter ends discovering heartrending letters Crane thought were burnt. And older Crane makes quite sure young Richard comes out of it very badly. Despite all the headlong narrative – often in breathless present tense episodes, recapturing the youth he’s never left – Crane doesn’t spare himself either.

And with sex education we really don’t end there: it studs the book. There’s hetero-shock too, another deflowering with a leading lady in the Dream, where they have the stage to themselves. Wild-spearing nights in 1968 Brighton with raucous Flo, with sudden shock-stop consequences when they reunite years on. Crane’s at it with calls from his mother, or key career moments down the line has him just coming – down.

Despite comedy, there’s fearless self-revelation, the pain it causes to others. That includes his family, threaded sometimes distressingly alongside Crane’s headlong career.

Most of all it’s the account of a man who saw two paths before him. The Cambridge Marlowe Society and grand theatre, where he meant to go. And Cambridge Footlights, which chose him. And that, as Robert Frost said, made all the difference.


Crane’s Style

Crane is perhaps by temperament a Footlights actor turned theatre activist; irreverence and jokes break out and you feel an off-kilter brilliance never quite settling to poise. He’s capable of classic, certainly, but his gift is edgy, always looking in, a ceaseless experimenter, never quite at home and never landing as a classic himself, despite all the residencies at the National and elsewhere.

Despite 535 pages ending in 1974 with the author turning 30, the distillation cited above is typical of his honed style: pithy, concentrated, never padded, as Crane insists on leaving nothing of his life out.

You might feel that’s the trouble. Crane’s recall for masters and masturbators, parents, privates, private and public schools, is daunting; it forms though a fascinating social history in miniature. A class devoted to service with a father who at Clare, Cambridge turned against law who embraced theology in the fervidly political 1930s. His son followed him to Jesus… Cambridge and doubt, despite Augustine and Pascal. Questions of theology infuse the earlier portion of this absorbing autobiography. But don’t worry, sex triumphs.

And theatre. It’s difficult not to quote. I’ll try. Crane deploys two types of narrative in a book subdivided into navigable bite sizes; thankfully. There’s Five Acts, various Scenes which subdivide again with headings in bold often with photographs of people, places, things. Half-famed actors like Alan Webb who here live again with Crane their memorialist.

And there’s that manic tense change, tightly handled, edgy present and past imperfect. A coruscation of facts interfused with imaginative reconstructions on occasion: a master committing suicide; though there’s no information, you go with this. Later, Crane turns more specific as Cambridge offers so much that’s quite fantastical enough.



At Cambridge, ex-rowing cox and boat-crashing Crane details his attempts to get into the Marlowe, and when he does succeed as Feste, finds the Footlights wants him more.

It’s a glittering prize of student actors and politics, portraits of beautiful people who die younger even than the perpetually boyish Crane. The first of them dives into the Cam. Youth knocking at the door even, as his junior by nearly three years crashes into Crane’s rooms one night: it’s he who’ll change theatre. David Hare, who the hell are you?

And elders. Crane’s a Classics scholar; it slowly un-inspires him but leaves its mark as we’ll see. Cue one of his magnificently reconstructed discussions, Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations in reverse: this time it’s with the great critic and academic, occasionally superb novelist Raymond Williams; who as it happens is Director of English Studies at Crane’s college, Jesus.

There’s two pages of amicable grilling and Crane’s portrait is an absolutely authentic slice of Williams’ humanity. This is the man who wrote in My Cambridge: ‘We hear much of golden recollections, by the successful and privileged of course. But…. I have to record this other reflection. Cambridge can confuse you, to no good purpose, turn you around and inside out; wring you dry.’

Crane was compared by a reviewer to Germaine Greer, coming a close second as performer. He himself expressed regret that Greer and his friend Miriam Margolyes didn’t perform together. They were he adds the two greatest Cambridge actors of his generation.

And perhaps Margolyes’ own uproarious memoirs inspired Crane to at least complement hers in outré revelation. Not long after Cambridge he spots Howard Brenton and another friend coming in the opposite direction. It’s St James’ Park, it’s dark, it’s 1966. It’s illegal. ‘Hi Howard, this is Louis, I’m just going to fuck him in a tree.’ No, he didn’t quite say it; but platonically, as it were, Howard was told when he read this work. And to prove it here’s Brenton on the front cover above the title: ’Very, very funny and beautifully written… a recollection in laughter.’


St James Park

But there too Crane plunges into intensely personal witness, unflattering to himself, with no concession to tidy anecdotage: he’s indeed a classically taut writer of a memory that yammers for admittance and the two fight it out.

Louis’ letters to Crane provoke painful awakenings about responsibility in love. Through that lusty encounter with his Dream actress Crane relates a sexual crisis and how, perhaps, not to handle it.

There’s plenty to laugh at too: the odd resting jobs to bring classic Crane-balls to a head. Problem? That’s a company specialising in rapid solutions; they hire Crane and his sub-let Cambridge friend to a series of odd jobs including removing all Sean Connery’s carpets. Knock knock. No answer. What would James Bond do? Find a half-opened window. Carefully all carpets are taken up, furniture replaced. Exit. Later Connery phones to ask why his old carpets are still there. Guess you the rest. The miracle is Crane went on working for Problem?, now immortal in pratfalls.


And a Careering…

But we have to fast forward, and Crane speeds through the tortuous reasons why first he had to become Richard Harbord as another Richard Crane does commercials. There’s a denouement, wait for it. And how he and Richard Warwick are mixed up on a pre-audition for Lindsay Anderson’s If… and it’s not our Richard who makes the cut. Warwick is one of many Crane litanises as victims of AIDS later on. But there’s far more.


Brighton and After

Crane’s Brighton period becomes in his words a portal as he leaves the railway station – and much later his permanent home. Joining a very Arts-Lab Combo or Combination (this is his Flo moment) he gives his best performance to date in Hello and Goodbye Sebastian, a young gravedigger with a secret life as a hairdresser to which he longs to return.

There’s Crane’s manic Rasputin and a push both for plays on the Fringe and an actor rushing to West End auditions, or acting in Brighton, rushing up to sign on in London (Crane dislikes the Labour Exchange, his single bourgeois moment). But it’s here that we see more of Crane the playwright, less of the actor, and though he moves into rep writing begins to dominate.



For those who want to read of a stunning year in rep Crane’s 1968-69 year at Nottingham reads like a critic focused vividly on his earlier self. Michael Blakemore’s Macbeth gains cubits when Dennis Quilley replaces another famed actor in the title role: but Crane shows actor by actor how this happens. He’s Donalbain by the way and we get all the motive. There’s a section on the theatre’s The Seagull, and each of these plays feeds self-reflection.

There’s bafflement that Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Classes is regarded as one of Harold Hobson’s four great postwar epiphanies (Godot, Look Back in Anger, The Caretaker) as even after editing it to half, Crane doesn’t see anything but splenetic moments. In the words of Barnes’ mother of King Carlos in The Bewitched, as the king fails to consummate: ‘Carlos, you’re not concentrating’ – one of Crane’s few blind spots. But structurally, he has a point.



Should he really take up Bradford University’s offer of a Fellowship in 1972? FFS Richard, you’re not yet twenty-eight I shout, shaking page 380 ready to hurl it at my bed. Happily despite havering and a wrong toss of the coin, fate decides it and Crane’s really set on his playwriting and incipient pedagogy.

There’s the delicacy of honeymooners in Decent Things, turning serious after fragile farce that critics suggest marks a transition between perfectly formed minor work and major work to come. There’s by this time and soon after Crippen, with Crane’s fascination with the central love interest, The Blood Stream, an updating but also equivocal reworking of Orestes and the Aeschylus Trilogy; there’s Mutiny on the Bounty, and David, King of the Jews. Crane’s clearly settled into Tragical-Epical-Historical.

David’s an explosive reworking of the Biblical thrilling and revolting the audience by turns, a reflection on violence recollected finally in a shudder of age: acted by student Pete Brent. And after a hectic writing, it’s all over in three nights. Crane invokes that sense of how everything’s up and then suddenly it’s over – every acting memoir has it. But few have it combined with a playwright’s sense of the same thing, cheek by his own jowl. The best of these embody their time, but one or two transcend it.

Then one of those Crane obsessions: with Branwell Bronte in Thunder, which took a few years to get on the stage. This is something very different: rapt, disturbed.

Trouble is, three of these plays had dopplegangers. Ned Sherrin helmed a musical Crippen, and a play with West End cast about Branwell Bronte gets reviewed. Crane’s are praised as finer, but…. You get the picture. And it doesn’t get better when freeing himself from literary agent Serena Rampton to audition (successfully) for Peggy Ramsay. He arrives, Rampton on the phone points at his binned scripts, then the door. He picks them up, walks into the rain, for the moment unrepresented.


Peter Hall and the National

Crane’s still at Bradford directing a lauded Wedekind’s Spring Awakening when mentor Professor John Russell Brown who thinks he’s even finer as a director than writer, sort of reluctantly gets him a lunch with Peter Hall at the Savoy. In a way Crane might have ended it here.

Crane’s reassembled the conversation; it’s fascinating. The point of playwriting, where it starts, a need, Crane carefully answers Hall. Hall’s probing paradoxical, summary personality is there in miniature. Crane has to beard him. ‘Twenty-nine? At your age I founded the RSC.’

Again there’s crossroads: Crane’s recent play Secrets about Northern Ireland is proclaimed a bombshell (and Thunder isn’t!), there’s a lurch as he’s persuaded (still at Bradford) to dramatise Tennyson’s Idylls! Amazingly The Quest garners great reviews and we’re now padded with excerpts from Hobson, Billington et al. In a 2012 revival it causes the student playing Arthur to suffer a breakdown.

So Crane gets the National with the Thames TV bursary, This sounds a boring litany of success. It isn’t. Crane’s news is patterned with talk. He’s take-away currying with other playwrights including friend David Edgar and Snoo Wilson. Each peel off, accepting jobs or being told they’re not the chosen one. It’s a microcosm of friendship, rivalry, theatre at full experimental stretch.

And now annointed, Crane meets Olivier. Yet again Crane traces how much of a spiky encounter each of these titans prepare for young morsels like him. How it all turns on a right answer about pitch, the play, why do it, what you believe.

But earlier on p. 413 is a true end – because it’s 1975 and for thematic not structural reasons Crane tells it there. A man knocks on his door. He’s noticed posters on the wall from outside, who Richard Harbord is. He’s come to give something back. Crane stares. The man could be his doppelganger. And he is, Richard Crane, the man who worked in adverts has quit as work dried up. He hands Crane back his name.



Do all British revolutions end in cups of tea with matrons? Probably. It’s how this book ends. But I’m leaving the last few pages to the reader. A new life’s marked out at the National, and a different Crane, the major phase. Moss Hart says there’s no Act Two. Don’t believe it.

Coming away from this absorbing memoir you also feel Crane’s the same brilliant deviser, the impersonal dramatist who takes materials, myths, histories, bends them to his dramaturgy. He’s thematically unpredictable. It’s why his work so far as I’ve seen it, lacks a personal arc and as yet selected corpus because he’s superbly elusive, fits from an actorly perspective projects, players’ talents, shafted through with sudden inspirations.

Crane’s work vividly runs up like a curtain on the Fringe, yet there’s these embedded, epic pieces languishing. It’s how the Elizabethans worked; you can see Crane flourishing there. It’s a varied, mercurial, above all protean output. Here in Ghost Boy you get it, see the connections, chances and timing that created it all.

There’s no doubt that despite Crane’s craft and tight writing, there’s so much vivid detail you begin to drown in it. Garnered with praise it’s a book to live with, but to read straight through you need Crane’s energy, and you don’t want to miss anything.

Above all there’s a lucid portrayal of the author’s humanity vexed with paradox: his unforgettable portraits of others, prodigally offered up in sub-sections passim, a court of appeal against oblivion; Crane’s championing of forgotten plays and damning several; a go-getting relentlessness; palpable fright in the wings; sex in shared digs; existential terror in an empty space; laughter sliding from limelight.

‘To have reached thirty is to have failed in life’ Saki has his character Reginald pronounce. Crane’s not quite reached thirty here, but there is, we’re promised, a sequel. No doubt years in the galleys: fire-fighting theatre during and after Thatcher. The Arts Council Strikes Back anyone? ACE has reared its head already.

Will we learn secrets unworthy of The Da Vinci Code, interminable meetings dispatched as Crane surveys British theatre stripped of its revolution? A guerrilla-rich parallel to Scenes From an Execution as Michael Billington heads the chapter of his magisterial State of the Nation dealing with 1979-90.  It’ll be worth the wait.