Peter Barnes

b. 1931 – d. 2004

Peter Barnes was an Olivier Award-winning playwright and screenwriter. Barnes achieved critical acclaim and box-office success with his baroque comedy, The Ruling Class, in 1968. He later adapted his play into a 1972 film which garnered Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination before becoming a cult classic. Known best as a playwright of dark historical comedies, Barnes wrote widely for films, radio, and television – his screenplay for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April earning him a nomination for the best adapted screenplay Oscar in 1992.

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Peter Barnes remembered – by Simon Callow

When I saw The Ruling Class at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1968, I had no doubt whatever that I had witnessed the work of a genius, an authentic modern masterpiece. Pinter and Bond were the heroes of a slightly older generation than mine: they were already established and revered and had around them an aura of profundity; their very crypticness and unknowability put them in the running to be the heirs of Beckett, and though I made the conventional obeisances in their direction, I was secretly frustrated by their lack of communicativeness. The Ruling Class was what I had been craving for: eloquent, anarchic, theatrical, hilarious, exhilaratingly anti-Establishment.

It was designed to get up people’s noses – ten people walked out at the performance I saw – their seats thrillingly springing back ‘Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!’ – when Jack Gurney’s marriage vows commenced with the phrase ‘From the bottom of my heart to the tip of my penis’. But for me when Tuck the butler confessed to having peed in the thirteenth Earl’s soup every day for 40 years, when Jack came on for his wedding night on a tricycle singing Verdi, when the House of Lords was pushed on from either side of the wings bearing their lordships’ skeletons draped across the benches, the serried ranks of corpses covered in cobwebs, I felt that as long as writers of this vitality, passion and rage continued to write for the theatre, it would live forever. Indeed, I wrote to the author to tell him so, at the same time writing to his agent Peggy Ramsay to ask if I could stage the play at Queen’s University in Belfast where I was then studying. Peggy wrote back to say that there was such a thing as rep rights, dear, and when they had been taken up, perhaps I might be allowed… but two days later, another letter from her arrived, saying that the author had given his personal permission for me to do the play without conditions and never mind about the royalties.

I didn’t meet Barnes for some years, but when I did I realised that that was him all over: he didn’t care about the money, he didn’t even care whether the plays were done to the highest level of professional polish, he just wanted them done, wanted to be allowed to tell his hilarious ‘anecdotes of destiny’ (his admiration for Isak Dinesen, whose phrase that is, was absolute) – above all, to make ’em laugh. On the whole, he felt that Macbeth had got it more or less right: life was indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, but somehow this fact – far from depressing him – gave him endless satisfaction. His own life was a perfect case in point: dozens of brilliant plays and adaptations piling up which no one who had any money would put on, though stars were queuing up to play the parts, plays crying out for the resources of the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose actors and audiences would have revelled in them; while television companies simply couldn’t pour enough money into his bank account for writing the screenplays he turned out before breakfast and the serious work of the day had begun. He actually tried putting up the money out of his own pocket for a production of Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, one of his most delirious and outrageous inventions, but somehow they even managed to stop him from doing that.

In his domestic life he watched his beloved first wife Charlotte slip away mentally, and would sit stoically and practically as she succumbed to paranoid delusion, reasoning with her, supporting her, feeding her, all the while behaving as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. ‘That’s life,’ he seemed to be feeling. Ben Jonson was his great hero, but it was the language, the energy, the invention that he loved, not Jonson’s dark and bitter heart. Peter had no judgement to offer on his fellow human beings: ‘We’re all in it together,’ was his view. ‘None of it makes any sense, let’s have a laugh.’ He winkled out laughter from the most unlikely places: Belsen, the court of Ivan the Terrible, the bubonic plague, horrors to which the only possible human response was a joke. He was astonished, and delighted, when American companies suddenly started performing his plague play Red Noses, Black Death because they construed it as a response to AIDS. His point had simply been that purity of heart and a good belly laugh can cure the world. ‘I jest, therefore I am’ are the words that should be inscribed on his tombstone. When he died, I sent flowers with the card: ‘Was it something I said?’ I like to think he saw the card from the great Reading Room in the sky, and let out one of his great banshee laughs.

This rare man leaves behind him a beautiful wife, four bonny babies, and a leg-acy of plays produced and unproduced – including his stupendous adaptations of the other Great Unperformed of dramatic literature – which could keep a theatre company going for half a century without once repeating itself. His voice is to be heard in all of them, loud, profane and clear; how we need that voice as the coalition of the correct goes about its business of extinguishing all traces of the great medieval carnival world that Peter never ceased to celebrate. Now he’s swapping jokes with Rabelais, Chaucer, Marie Lloyd and Max Miller. Lucky them, poor us.

Image credit: Peter Bayliss