Back in December 1971, Emanuel pupils Gareth Hammond, Colin Doak and David Norrie visited the BBC Television Centre to interview comedy legend John Cleese who was the star of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the three budding writers, whose work was later in The Portcullis of 1972.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and there is a fascinating sequence in the interview we would like to highlight, as the discussion turns to an obscure playwright whom nobody involved realised was an Old Emanuel.
Let us pick up the interview when the boys ask John Cleese about his major influences….
Boys: “Have you been inspired by anyone in particular?”
JC: “I think when I saw One Way Pendulum, it influenced me or struck a chord when I saw it in the theatre in 1957. It was on the television the other night. Did any of you see it?”
Boys: “Well, I saw the write-up”.
JC: “What did you think of it?”
Boys: “It was all right. But I was not particularly struck.”
JC: “The first act – I did not like the second – but the first act was definitely one of those things that struck a chord and there were exciting moments when I suddenly thought this was… I don’t know why it was exciting me, probably the same reason I actually finished up in this business something I don’t quite understand, but that play really influenced me.”
John Cleese is referring to the cult play One Way Pendulum which the teenage interviewees probably were not familiar with. By amazing coincidence this work was written by an Old Emanuel, NF Simpson, 13 years earlier whom Cleese was obviously a major fan of. In subsequent years John Cleese spoke of this rather obscure, but very influential, playwright many times.
Film version of 'One Way Pendulum'
Multi-talented playwright Norman Frederick “Wally” Simpson (OE1930-37) certainly was not a household name, but in in literary circles he is recognised as a major influence on many comedy writers, playwrights and the theatre of the absurd.
When the widow of long-serving English teacher and novelist Mr Charles Cuddon (staff 1954-93) visited the library a few years ago she noticed a display of one of our One Way Pendulum posters noting “Charles worked here for 39 years but never knew NF Simpson was an OE. He would have been touched”. It transpired that Simpson was a literary hero of Cuddon, so perhaps somewhere in literary heaven these two great writers are having a pint reminiscing about the old days at Emanuel.
The coincidences do not end there; in 2014 we held our Emanuel School at War exhibition which commemorated the beginning of the First World War. On the opening night I was introduced to the wife of one of the guests; it turned out she was the daughter of NF Simpson and had no idea she was visiting the school her father attended over 70 years earlier!
NF Simpson (Norman Frederick "Wally" Simpson) in 1975
“Wally” remains best known for One Way Pendulum which has been revived many times since the 1960s and the absurd style of comedy is widely credited for influencing the likes of John Cleese. In the five years before Simpson’s death in 2011 there was a major revival of his work which also resulted in his first new play in over 30 years – If So, Then Yes. It premiered when Simpson was 91, making him the second-oldest playwright to have a new play performed in the West End, after George Bernard Shaw.
Wally passed away in 2011, but over the last five years of his life we struck up an occasional correspondence and we have several hand-written letters stored in the school archive. Over this period Wally sent us many signed new books and I was invited to the reading of what would be his final play If So, Then Yes, where I Had the genuine pleasure to meet him. After his death the Dr Brian Last (the late Director of Drama), the Headmaster Mr Mark Hanley-Browne and I attended his memorial which was held in his favourite theatre The Royal Court, Sloane Square, with many distinguished faces from the theatre world.
The Emanuel School archive features many objects relating to the career of NF Simpson.
Tony Jones (Senior Librarian and Archivist)
NF Simpson's final play