James SaundersJames Saunders, who died on Thursday aged 79, was one of the most prolific, and unpredictable, dramatists of his generation.
Among his scores of plays for the stage, television and radio the best known were probably Next Time I'll Sing To You (1962), which won the Evening Standard award for the year's most promising play; A Scent of Flowers (1964); and Bodies (1977).
He also adapted Don Quixote, under the title The Travails of Sancho Panza, for the National Theatre in 1969; and his dramatisation with Iris Murdoch of her novel The Italian Girl (1967) had a successful West End run.
Yet despite his considerable and varied output, Saunders's work achieved only intermittent popularity with the public and the critics. One reason may have been a cerebral slant in his writing, however brief or superficially comical. His characters were not averse to thinking aloud, frankly philosophising (as in Next Time I'll Sing To You), or seeking some meaning in their misery (A Scent of Flowers) or in their marriages (Bodies).
Many of his plays were thinly disguised conversation pieces. He had found his feet as a playwright on the wireless, and his dialogue could be unusually imaginative and evocative. His appeal as a dramatist was verbal rather than visual, and the best of his writing demanded, and usually repaid, close attention.
A wiry, bearded, rather earnest-looking man whose most cerebral effusions were usually laced with wry humour, Saunders found his art more honoured abroad than in his own country. Although two of London's small outlying theatres (at Richmond and Ealing) staged everything he wrote, he came to depend increasingly on his royalties from France and Germany, where his intellectual curiosity and constant flow of ideas, however abstract, found a faithful audience.
The son of a London dyer and presser, James Saunders was born on January 8 1925 at Islington and grew up, as he once put it, "in class enmity, unemployment and poverty"; his childhood was overshadowed by his parents' struggle to raise a family of four on £2 10 s a week. After attending Wembley County School, to which he won a scholarship, James began work at a coach-builders; but aged 18 he joined the Navy, serving in the Arctic and in the Pacific as a petty officer in the torpedo division. After the war, he studied Physics and Chemistry at Southampton University.
Then, for more than 10 years, he worked as a teacher; but he began writing plays and - after receiving an Arts Council bursary in 1960 - he was able, two years later, to become a full-time writer.
Most of Saunders's early works were one-acters for radio, such as Dog Accident (1958), Barnstaple (1959) and Alas, Poor Fred; but this last piece, subtitled A Duologue in the Style of Ionesco, was also staged by Stephen Joseph's Library Theatre Company at Scarborough in 1960. It not only caught the spirit of the Theatre of the Absurd, with its comic, cliche-ridden picture of a humdrum marriage held together by the mysterious, off-stage, eponymous and symbolic Fred, but it also had a dark, engaging flavour of its own.
Similarly, the title character in Barnstaple, although on everyone's lips, remained invisible, as a group of conventional English house-party guests kept on chattering while the house itself crumbled around them - an allusion to the contemporary fear of nuclear war which informed another of Saunders's comedies, The Ark.
The Ark was his first play to reach the West End (Westminster, 1959); but although it demonstrated his capacity for playing with ideas - he retold the story of Noah in terms of an imminent global catastrophe - it hardly caught on with the public.
He nevertheless returned to the theme in Return To a City (1960), in which a man and a woman are discovered amid post-nuclear ruins. And in The Pedagogue (1963), the protagonist preach obedience to those in authority while the world is visibly coming to an end.
Despite this doom-laden material, Saunders managed to retain a certain lightness of touch. But it was only when he began to echo Harold Pinter in Double, Double (1962), in which off-duty busmen in their canteen fret about a missing double-decker, or when he began to juggle with the idea of actors acknowledging that they were actors throughout Next Time I'll Sing To You, that his dramaturgy started to strike a popular note.
In Next Time I'll Sing To You, Saunders risked being labelled pretentious as five actors on a bare stage gave up all pretence of being anything but actors striving to create a play. But the production moved from the Questors at Ealing into the West End (Arts and Criterion, 1963), and then to Broadway. As Rudge, the cockney leader of the merry, plotless search for the unattainable, the then unknown Michael Caine was enough of a success to be snapped up by the cinema.
Saunders promptly followed up this hit with another unusual, full-length work, A Scent of Flowers (Duke of York's, 1964), which some critics preferred. As the curtain rises on a funeral party, the pretty protagonist emerges from her coffin to assist in the evening's discussion about what has driven her to suicide. Saunders's technique for evoking, through cross-cut dialogue and monologue, the girl's history of familial and religious conflicts was again impressive; this play, too, transferred to Broadway.
Although both The Italian Girl (Wyndham's, 1968) and The Travails of Sancho Panza (Old Vic, 1969) were successful, it was not until 1979 that his next important work reached the West End. Bodies had seen productions at the Orange Tree, Richmond, in 1977 and at the Hampstead Theatre the next year before going to the Ambassadors in 1979.
It dealt with the marriages of two middle-aged couples, and was considered Saunders's most accomplished work to date, as well as his most accessible. An adaptation of Ronald Harwood's novel, The Girl in Melanie Klein, which had been broadcast on radio in 1973, was staged without creating much of a stir at Watford in 1980; while Fall (Hampstead, 1984) was a typically thoughtful and complex study of three sisters baring their souls as they awaited, with their mother, the death of their father.
Among Saunders's many other plays for the stage were Who Was Hilary Maconochie? (1963); Neighbours (Hampstead Theatre, 1964); Trio (1967); The Borage Pigeon Affair (1969); After Liverpool (1971); Games (1971); Hans Kohlhaas (Greenwich, 1973); Bye Bye Blues (1973); The Island (1975); Random Moments in a May Garden (1977); Nothing to Declare (1983); and Making It Better (Criterion, 1992).
His original plays for television included Watch Me I'm a Bird (1964); Plastic People (1970); The Unconquered (1970); The Healing Nightmare (1977); Bloomers (a series, 1979); and The Magic Bathroom (1987). He also adapted for the small screen stories by D H Lawrence, Henry James, V S Pritchett, R F Delderfield and David Garnett.
In 1951 James Saunders married Audrey Cross, with whom he had a son and two daughters.
- The Telegraph