Obituary: Playwright James SaundersBy Times reporter
James Saunders, the playwright, died on January 29, writes Sam Walters.
He found great success with his startling play Next Time I'll Sing to You, which premiered at the Questors Theatre in Ealing and then played in the West End with a cast that included Michael Bryant, Michael Caine and Barry Foster and won Saunders the 1963 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. He continued to write challenging and original plays into the 1990s.
Saunders, with his wife Audrey and children Sarah, Jane and Matthew, moved to East Twickenham in 1965. During the 1970s and 80s he was an integral and influential figure in the growth and development of the Orange Tree Theatre.
The success of Next Time I'll Sing to You was followed the next year by A Scent of Flowers, which brought the young Ian McKellan to the London stage for the first time, but after that he had to wait until 1977 when Bodies premiered at the Orange Tree, went into the West End.
His play Fall (1980), again written for the Orange Tree, received a second production at Hampstead, while Making it Better (1992) was the first play that brought attention to a young local actor called Rufus Sewell.
His final play was Retreat, premiered at the Orange Tree in 1995 with Tim Pigott-Smith and Victoria Hamilton.
James Saunders was born in London in 1925 and took a degree in chemistry at Southampton University, but always intended to pursue a career as a playwright.
Saunders was heavily involved with the Orange Tree Theatre right from its beginning. He was the first person that the infant theatre asked to become a patron and he and his wife attended the very first performance on December 31, 1971. Within a few months, the new theatre had staged After Liverpool and Games and before the first year was over had produced a five play lunchtime Season of Saunders'. The Orange Tree Theatre had become Saunders' playwrighting home.
Over the years, Saunders wrote Bye Bye Blues, Play for Yesterday, Mrs Scour and the Future of Western Civilisation, Bodies, Fall, Birdsong and his final play Retreat especially for the Orange Tree. It was of huge importance to the theatre to have the support of a writer of such distinction. But he was more than a playwright to the theatre. He was a father figure, supportive and caring, there with advice, generous with his time and his country cottage in Gloucestershire.
As well as the plays he wrote for the Orange Tree, he created a new prologue for Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, wrote a documentary about the famous Grosvenor Road squat in Twickenham, appeared in the Biko Inquest and even went on a tour of Belgium and Holland as an assistant stage manager. He was also for a time chairman of the theatre's board of directors. The Orange Tree Theatre will be ever in his debt.
He also wrote for radio and television, where his adaptations of D H Lawrence and H E Bates were particularly admired.
But he was essentially a man of the theatre, continually fascinated by the line between illusion and reality. He was a unique and original writer whose work was a continual quest to stretch and develop what can happen between the actors and the audience.
James Saunders is not an easy playwright to classify. Perhaps that is one reason why he has not received the true recognition that those who know his work believe was his due. But Saunders was very much valued and loved by all who knew him. His many friends from the Orange Tree and Questors and from Richmond and Ealing will join those in Eastleach, where he died, in remembering a fine writer and a special man.
The Orange Tree Theatre will be holding a memorial evening on a date to be announced and also plans to restage some of his plays.
Audrey Saunders died in 1993. James Saunders is survived by his three children.
- Richmond & Twickenham Times