Paul T Davies reviews Peggy to her Playwrights, The Letters of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent, published by Oberon Books.
Peggy to her Playwrights. The Letters of Margaret Ramsey, Play Agent, Edited by Colin Chambers.
Publisher: Oberon Books.
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Peggy Ramsey was the preeminent, foremost and legendary play agent of her time. She was at the centre of the British new wave of the late 1950s and Sixties, and her clients included Edward Bond, Ann Jellicoe, David Hare, Caryl Churchill, Peter Nichols and Joe Orton. If a play was causing waves during the Sixties, there was a pretty strong chance Ramsey was representing the playwright, encouraging and forthright, always being truthful, and always fighting the corner for the writer. Colin Chambers has curated an eclectic range of letters, and they record a fascinating time of British theatre through the pen of one remarkable woman.
I became aware of Peggy Ramsey through Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of her in Prick Up Your Ears, Alan Bennett’s film about Joe Orton. Her support and care for Orton shine through here, both in a warm, supportive letter to him, but also after his murder, in which she takes John Lahr to task for the use of her material that he used in his biography and play about Orton. She frequently berates directors and producers for not understanding her clients, or their work, and her opinions about critics are probably best not repeated here! But she had a knack of recognising genuine writing talent, and many of her clients stayed with her until Ramsey’s death in 1991. I love that she wrote to Caryl Churchill, in an early letter, “Have you thought of writing a novel? Or a children’s book? I have the feeling you will find it easier.” Despite that, the two remained loyal to each other. The largest correspondence contains her letters too, and about Robert Bolt, and reveals the stress and intricacies of negotiating screenplays. (Bolt won two Oscars, for Lawrence of Arabia and The Lion in Winter.)
She is often scathing about the West End and commercial theatre, “This fetish of success and money is ludicrous. Work must be done for its own sake, and everything one writes should say something that concerns us all.”, and I loved a 1977 letter to Times critic Irving Walsh that begins, “When are you guilt-ridden middle-class critics going to grasp that the working classes have joined the human race?” (This in response to a bad review for Breezeblock Park by Willy Russell) Her generosity of spirit shines through, but I don’t think anyone relished being on the wrong side of her! Above all, she was true to her beliefs and opinions, and much is revealed about the state of the nation, as well of the nation’s theatre, in these letters.
Throughout, if a playwright reads carefully, she gives solid and concise tips about playwriting, she had a gift for spotting original voices and encouraging development and structure. In a wonderful tribute of an introduction, Simon Callow says he had “never known another human being so fundamentally alone.” I find that, sentimentally, sad, as she had such a profound influence on British theatre. But her life force and passion was theatre and her playwrights, and this excellent collection goes far to preserve the memory and times of a singularly remarkable woman.
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