Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg (1994) by Samuel Adamson

As the 2023 Kevin Elyot Award writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, I have written a series of articles on the original plays of the playwright and screenwriter Kevin Elyot (1951-2014). Here is my third, on his second and most famous play My Night with Reg. A general reflection on Elyot is here. My piece on his debut play Coming Clean (1982) is here.

Rejection and triumph

Kevin Elyot’s second play My Night with Reg took him twelve years to write. It made his name.

Set in the 1980s, it is a tragicomedy about seven gay men in North London living in the shadow of Aids. One of them, Reg, never appears though his impact on the others is profound – a Waiting for Godot-like conceit in a play built upon several elegant formal conceits.

Elyot was commissioned to write the play by London’s Hampstead Theatre, but in mid-1993 it was rejected: my analysis of that rejection, according to my reading of the relevant documents in Elyot’s archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, is here.

Since I wrote that piece, Sebastian Born, Elyot’s agent, told me that a reading of the play at Hampstead was ‘for some reason the worst, flattest experience of any reading I’ve ever attended.’ After Elyot and Hampstead parted ways, Born ‘tried to reassure a depressed author that there would be interest elsewhere.’ He sent the play to the Royal Court Theatre, then under the artistic directorship of Stephen Daldry, and a few days later, the literary department expressed an interest.1

On 31 March 1994, My Night with Reg premiered at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in a production directed by Roger Michell.

It was critically acclaimed, transferred to the Criterion Theatre in the West End, published by Nick Hern Books, garnered Elyot the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, and was filmed for the BBC by Michell with its original cast.

The play: a play with time

My Night with Reg is a beautifully constructed play in three scenes.

In Scene One, old University of Bristol friends Guy, John and Daniel (the allusions to Elton John are deliberate) gather for a housewarming at Guy’s flat. When Daniel leaves, John confesses to Guy that he is having an affair with Reg, Daniel’s boyfriend, who is due at the housewarming. This is a terrible blow to Guy, as he harbours a secret love for John.

With Scene Two comes the first of two coups de théâtre, and Elyot’s own words in one of his notebooks can convey it:

at the start […] we think it’s the FLATWARMING, but are jerked on a year or so to realise it’s a WAKE + Reg’s at that!!!2

Reg has died of Aids – and gradually, we understand that everyone at the wake has slept with him.

Everyone, that is, except for Guy.

In Scene Three, all of Reg’s lovers are still alive – but now, ironically, it is Guy who has died of Aids (the result of non-consensual sex in Lanzarote with ‘a mortician from Swindon’).3 The setting remains Guy’s flat: he has left it to John. This second time-jump is even more startling than the first, and particularly heartbreaking, as Guy is so dedicated to safe sex that according to Daniel he ‘masturbates in Marigolds.’4

The fate of the play’s central figure, a self-conscious and good-natured chap inhibited by his unrequited love for John, lends the writing a deep – Chekhovian – sense of yearning and sadness.

Sex in a time of Aids

Obviously, much of this is tragic, and by the end of Scene Three, the audience feels the terrible weight of the men’s collective losses.

And yet at the same time, it has experienced a play that is a celebration – a celebration of gay friendship, and of gay sex. Throughout, Elyot’s characters, most of whom came of age during the heady 1970s, are brazenly sexual, wittily gay in all senses, even in the face of the new and cruel threat to their erotic lives after the liberations of their salad days. Double entendres in both the stage direction and dialogue in the fourth line of Scene One tell the audience what to expect –

GUY: (Taking it off [an apron]. I was just stiffening some egg whites.

– and this passage reflects the general tone:

They embrace again. DANIEL mauls JOHN’s backside.

DANIEL:  Darling, it’s dropped!

JOHN: Fuck off!

DANIEL: Dropped, dropped, dropped! At least two inches! It’ll be dragging on the floor before the night’s out.

JOHN tweaks one of DANIEL’s nipples. DANIEL shrieks. ERIC looks on.

DANIEL: No, it hasn’t! It’s perfect! I promise!

JOHN lets go.

DANIEL: The Flying Fuck of the First Fifteen!

They embrace again.

DANIEL: Darling, be gentle! I’m still intacta.5

The sexual freedoms gay men discovered in the 1970s had been celebrated and interrogated by Elyot in his first play Coming Clean, which premiered at London’s Bush Theatre at the end of 1982, just before Aids had really made its terrible mark. In the twelve years between the two plays, a busy Elyot wrote several adaptations, and Killing Time, an original and award-winning film for the BBC. But there is a sense in his notebooks that the Aids crisis was unsettling to his playwriting: he struggled to deal with the shock of loss – the loss of lovers and friends, and the loss of sex without consequence. He was a writer interested in shame-free gay sexuality who wanted to

MAKE THEATRICAL POETRY out of casual sex, a casual pick-up.6

‘FUCK THE MORALISTS!’ he wrote,

Ruffle the feathers of the activists. Make it dead dangerous.7

For some time, he imagined Reg as a sequel to Coming Clean, with some of the same characters and arguments in that play about the gay ‘scene’ and promiscuity. Over and over in his notebooks he took the ‘non-monogamy’ position of Coming Clean’s Greg:

The thesis is that gays shouldn’t regret their lifestyle prior to Aids.

Non-monogamy – show it as a positive way of life, warts + all.

Remember, I’m not only showing gays being lustful + potentially promiscuous, but they’re being so at a wake of a guy who’s died of Aids! This is a good, exiting idea – don’t be despondent.8

Handwritten notes on lined note paper
Elyot imagining a production, when his idea was a sequel to Coming Clean (UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 3 of 6 [n.p.])

A unique Aids play

The knotty question Elyot grappled with here is not so different from the central question in Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, the third film in Six Moral Tales which gives Reg its title: can we reconcile the physical and the moral? As the years passed, Elyot refined his ideas and abandoned the notion of the play as a sequel – and what he ultimately shaped dramatises the terrible new reality of the 1980s, a reality that does not complicate the question for Rohmer’s 1960s characters: the physical can equal death.

Write a gay play for today – the threat of Aids and the ensuing temptation + frustration.9

But – and such dramaturgical subtlety is an improvement on Coming Clean – Aids is never mentioned by name. It hovers in the background as the interconnections between the men become clear to the audience in a paradoxically light-hearted, La Ronde-like fashion.

My Night with Reg is, then, unlike other great Aids dramas of the 1980s and early-90s such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: it is not agitprop against government inaction and systemic homophobia. Elyot even went so far as to claim, ‘It’s not “about Aids”. I can’t do that sort of writing.’10

It is, in Alan Sinfield’s words, an ‘unAmerican, unheroic version of AIDS – wry and understated, furtive and thwarted.’11

A serious comedy

And, with its killer lines, funny. The comedy – like all of Elyot’s plays, it can be described as a comedy of manners – upset some sections of the gay press, and in an interview with Elyot in 1998, a scolding Gay Times quoted a passage from Edmund White’s 1987 article ‘Aesthetics and Loss’:

Avoid humour, because humour seems grotesquely inappropriate to the occasion. A sniggering or wise-cracking humour puts the public (indifferent when not uneasy) on cosy terms with what is an unspeakable scandal: death. […] Humour suggests that Aids is just another calamity to befall Mother Camp.12

Since the play’s premiere, other writers have criticised it for political tameness, and anti-queerness: as every character is likely to have Aids, and the final effect is one of loss, it has been accused of being excessively pessimistic or even, as Enric Monforte argues, ‘a metaphor for the erasure of gay subjectivity’ since one by one the characters ‘disappear in a literal sense.’13

But why should My Night with Reg take White’s position concerning Aids and comedy? Why should it take the political position of Kramer or Kushner (both exhilaratingly angry in their landmark plays about heterosexual indifference or hostility towards one of the great health crises of the twentieth century)? There are different kinds of playwrights and plays, different responses to the same human predicaments. As an actor, Elyot had acted in the political theatre of Gay Sweatshop in the 1970s and early-80s, but as a playwright, he could not find meaning through agitprop:

Been there, done that. I enjoyed acting it, but I can’t write it because I find that rather simplistic. Life is too full of shades of grey. Some writers can write a state-of-the-nation piece, or a political work – I can’t. As for writing a ‘gay’ play, like say Normal Heart, I just can’t bear that sort of preachiness. Normal Heart is a terrible play.14

Elyot was a gay man who came of age in the 1970s, and he was dubious of monogamy, and Reg scrutinises what he saw as the necessity of lies in human relationships. It shows gay men who betray themselves and each other – as all human beings do – and these betrayals are dramatised in a camp, funny, knowing diction familiar to many LGBT people. Even in the face of death, the play refuses to preach. Even in the face of death, it refuses to let go of the language of gay sexual liberation that defined Elyot’s characters in the 1970s, and defined Elyot himself.

The meeting of that language with Rohmer’s moral question, in a world complicated by Aids, is authentic: to use that vapid contemporary phrase, it is a meeting forged from ‘lived experience’. ‘If you are writing well,’ Elyot argued, ‘you are touching on something that resonates with you and then it’s a truthful piece of writing.’15 He was evasive when asked whether his plays were autobiographical, but he defended himself to Gay Times:

One of the starting points for writing Reg was personal experience. I’ve suffered in similar ways to other gay men of my generation, experienced the same grief, loss and trauma.16

Ultimately, Elyot’s position in Reg (and other plays) is a tragicomic position true to himself – and that position is, in any case, Shakespearean. In the words of Alan Hollinghurst,

Elyot himself has gone, but his plays survive, to haunt, to disconcert and, in a favourite line of his from Love’s Labour’s Lost, ‘To move wild laughter in the throat of death.’17

Sometimes, Reg argues, the tragedy of Aids – the pain of any tragedy – can be conveyed by the ways people emerge from their grief, loss and trauma, or fight them, with camp, with wit, with double entendre.

Two front covers of playscript 'My Night with Reg' by Kevin Elyot
Play texts published by Nick Hern Books in 1994 and 2013

Inexpressible loss

And sometimes, there are no words to be found, comic or otherwise, for the sheer scale of the tragedy.

For many words about Aids, important words, we have plays by Kramer and Kushner. For the sense of the inexpressibility of loss in the time of Aids, we have the plays of Elyot; and in the end, I most admire his writing for the same reason as the journalist David Benedict:

The distinguishing mark […] is his rare confidence in leaving things unsaid, allowing the actors to finish the thoughts.18

In My Night with Reg’s final scene, there’s a wonderful example.

Guy is dead, and Daniel has visited John in what is now John’s flat. It is early morning and the birds are singing. Eric, the play’s archetypal gay youth, is in the kitchen making coffee. We know that both Daniel and John have slept with Reg. John has not admitted to his friend his betrayal. We also know – somehow we just know – that both men are likely to have contracted HIV, and that in the play’s unseen Scenes Four, Five, Six, the wakes will continue. The stage direction says the men ‘kiss affectionately,’ then:

DANIEL:  I think I’ll go. I’m suddenly very tired. Apologise to Eric, will you?

JOHN: Yes.

DANIEL goes to the door.

JOHN:  Dan?

DANIEL stops and turns. They look at each other. A couple of other birds have joined in the singing.

DANIEL:  Yes?

Beat.

JOHN:  I’m pretty tired, too. I haven’t been sleeping too well lately.

Beat.

DANIEL:  We’ll speak later.19

I will never forget this moment in Roger Michell’s original production. I remember it particularly because of John’s line, ‘I’m pretty tired, too,’ which from the actor Anthony Calf was, to my ears, a primal scream, ringing with subtext:

I want to be honest with you, my dear old friend, honest with you about my betrayal of you with Reg – but I also want to tell you that I think my body is being attacked, that the physical in fact leads to sickness, that my exhaustion tells me I’m dying, are you dying too, what happened to our glorious youth, Dan, help me please, my dear old friend, poor Guy, what are we all going to do?

It takes courage to write like this – to keep so much unsaid – even though such dialogue holds a mirror to the games of intimation, elusion, allusion and self-delusion that human beings play every single day of our lives.

Anyone interested in playwriting, or how plays reflect life, should study the passage: it’s a superlative example of less is more, of showing not telling, of Elyot’s great talent at compassionately and truthfully depicting flawed human beings trying to come to terms with things outside of their control.

This work was inspired and developed through the generous support of the Kevin Elyot Award at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

1 Sebastian Born, email to me, 7 March 2024.
2 University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/19/1, 1 of 6, p. 105.
3 Kevin Elyot, My Night with Reg (London: Nick Hern Books, 1994), p. 24.
4 Ibid, p. 23.
5 Ibid, pp. 5, 16.
6 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 4 of 6, p. 41.
7 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 1 of 6, p. 133.
8 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 5 of 6 pp. 16, 49, 56.
9 UBTC, KE/3/19/1, 3 of 6 [n.p.].
10 Elyot to David Benedict, ‘Theatre: National debut? Time to put the record, er, straight’, Independent, 12 January 1998.
11 Alan Sinfield, Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 328.
12 Edmund White, quoted in James Cary Parkes, ‘A comedy of terrors’, Gay Times, January 1998, pp. 16-17 (p. 17), UBTC, KE/3/23/5.
13 Enric Monforte, ‘English Gay/Queer Theatre in the 1990s: Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking’, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 54 (April 2007), pp. 195-206 (p. 201).
14 Elyot to Veronica Lee, ‘Putting “Reg” to bed with a bit of mouth-to-mouth’, [n.p.; perhaps The Times] [n.d.], interview at the time of Mouth to Mouth, 2001, UBTC, KE/3/26/5.
15 Elyot to Lee.
16 Elyot to Parkes, p. 17.
17 Alan Hollinghurst, Introduction to Elyot, My Night with Reg (London: Nick Hern Books, repr. 2013), p. 8.
18 Benedict.
19 Elyot, My Night with Reg (1994) p. 81.

Artist-in-Residence Placement – A Matter of Mould

Hello again, it’s been around a month since my last blog post and I’d like to update you with what’s been going on in my artist-in-residence placement with the Theatre Collection, because lots of amazing things have happened!

When we last left off, I spoke about the discovery of an incredible series of photographs taken by the photographer John Vickers. Upon finding them, I have undertaken extensive periods of research to specifically pinpoint the dates and locations of the work, all of which will serve as groundwork that I can build on artistically when creating my final public installation. Alongside this, I have been working closely with Assistant Keepers Jill Sullivan and Laura Dow, who have provided me with invaluable expertise in the world of archival research and analogue photography. Although carefully catalogued and stored within the safety of the John Vickers archive, the re-discovery of this glass plate series has caused quite a buzz in the Collection as the incredible details and colours of the mould-fill glass plate negatives have come back into the light.

After such an intense and well-needed exploration of the glass plates in the archive, I have now entered into my experimental phase: a period of time where I try out a range of ideas and concepts. In any project that I work on, this period of time is both incredibly exciting but also quite unnerving, especially working with such a wealth of source materials. My time in this placement has really allowed me to reflect on some of my own practices as an artist and to be critical about how I engage with elements like problem solving and generating ideas. It’s something that would not have been nearly as poignant to me if it wasn’t for this connection that I feel for the archival materials that inspire me.

Moving forward into a more hands-on production phase, I’m bringing in ideas and plans to encompass the world within this series of photographs. There are ideas of bold splashes of colour in the form of mould, once on the photographs and now going to be digitally presented in the installation to emphasis its beauty and incredible composition. I plan to bring in projections to display Vickers’ work in a much larger scale and, after careful curation from myself and the incredible video editing talent of another freelance artist, I will show this photography series in a completely new light.

 

Early concept art of the installation space. Image Credit: Bobby Joynes

I’m incredibly proud and excited of the work that has been going on recently to begin to tie everything on this project together and to reinvigorate glass plate negatives that are over 100 years old, so that you can also see the beautiful images that originally captivated me. I have every assurance that the big ideas that I am bringing to this project can be realised with the support of the incredible technical team in the Wickham Theatre, and the continued guidance from the Theatre Collection.

The last month hasn’t been without its twists and turns, but the journey has been really positive and productive, moving me ever closer towards curating a powerful installation that will be open to the public very soon.

In my last blog for this project, I will reflect on my placement and offer my final thoughts about my work with the Collection. But, in the meantime, I hope to see you at my installation in the near future!

Bobby

The challenges (and rewards!) of preserving video from MiniDV tapes

DV or digital video tape is a format that was launched in 1995 and remained popular until the late 2000s. There are a few varieties of this type of tape but I want to discuss the consumer format known as MiniDV.

Video cassette and Mini DVD cassette
1 – VHS cassette and Mini DV cassette

DV technology brought a considerable jump in quality from previous camcorder formats such as VHS and Hi8 with more compact and relatively affordable equipment. This made MiniDV a popular choice for arts organisations to document their work so we have a lot of these tapes in our more contemporary theatre and live art collections.

During 2023/24 I worked on the preservation of the audiovisual material in the Rideout collection which includes around 150 MiniDV tapes. Rideout, subtitled Creative Arts for Rehabilitation was established in 1999 by Saul Hewish and Chris Johnston to develop innovative, arts-based approaches to working with prisoners and staff within UK prisons.

The condition of the tapes indicated that they had been stored fairly well with no signs of physical damage or mould which can often be a problem when tapes are stored in conditions with varying temperature and relative humidity.

The process of preserving the audiovisual material on DV tapes involves copying the digital information encoded on the tape to a digital file on a computer. This differs from the process for analogue tape such as VHS which requires a digitisation process i.e. analogue to digital conversion. Copying the data from tape gives the optimal audiovisual quality and also has the benefit of retaining metadata such as the time/date of the recording, camera settings used, and error information. The tape must be played back in a suitable DV playback machine aka “deck” or camcorder in real time and the digital information on the tape can be copied directly to a computer using a Firewire cable connection or IEEE 1394 to give its correct technical name.

electrical cable
2 – Firewire (IEEE 1394) cable

The first challenge is that Firewire technology is obsolete. It used to be a fairly standard interface, especially in Macintosh computers but now you need to install a Firewire card to your computer or use some kind of converter cable. We use the first option.

The second challenge is that playback decks or camcorders for DV tapes are no longer manufactured so second-hand units must be purchased. The price for professional decks is rising as the demand for preserving DV based material increases. We currently have four pro decks which all need occasional servicing to keep them running properly. Engineers familiar with this type of equipment are also getting harder to find.

piece of equipment for digital videocasette recording
3 – Sony DSR-1500P DVCAM deck

So we have our deck, firewire cable and computer – this is the basic equipment needed to copy DV tapes. I also use a video monitor, amplifier and speakers to monitor the off-tape signal directly during playback.

Another challenge I discovered with this particular collection of tapes was that a fair proportion of them had been recorded in long play (LP) mode. None of my four professional DV decks are long play compatible so it is not possible to make a good quality digital copy of those tapes with them. There are a couple of professional decks that will play long play tapes but they are extremely hard to find and are accordingly very expensive. The solution was straight forward – most Mini DV camcorders will play Long Play tapes back well and are still an affordable option (£100 or less on eBay).

One of our main challenges with the tapes themselves is that they are prone to errors caused by signal dropout of video and audio from dirty or damaged tape. DV uses a technique called error concealment to try to disguise this dropout – this can include replacing the affected area with the same corresponding pixels of the previous frame or next frame (most common). Sometimes this strategy works so well that it is not noticeable in the resulting file, especially with static frame shots that contain a high degree of visual similarity from one frame to the next. However, when there is lots of movement, error concealment can cause the image to appear glitchy or blocky.

image with errors blocking
4 – Error concealment causing blocking effect on person’s face

Audio errors can result in jarring clicks or loss of signal. Sometimes fast forwarding or rewinding a tape can remove errors, on other occasions manual cleaning of the video heads may be required. Even where the errors cannot be eliminated by these methods, tapes often don’t behave consistently when played back – they can display errors over certain sections and on subsequent plays fail to display the same errors or show errors in different sections of the tape. This behaviour can actually be used to our advantage in creating the best preservation copy possible which I will explain shortly.

In order to copy the information from the tapes to create our digital preservation files we need suitable software. Most Non-Linear Editing (NLE) software packages including Adobe’s popular Premiere Pro no longer support tape-based workflows. There are some older freeware options but these are no longer technically supported and can be unstable or unavailable for certain operating systems. Thankfully, the international community of video archivists and engineers has come to the rescue (literally) with a versatile free open-source solution called DVRescue. Open-Source means that end users and developers have the freedom to study, improve and redistribute the software.

screenshot of outdoor event with timecode and date
5 – Detail of DVRescue capture interface

DVrescue supports many of the commonly used professional DV playback decks and its capture interface displays timecodes, time & date of recording as well as a real-time graph of errors detected during the capture. Once your tape capture is completed the software has an analysis tool that pinpoints the position and nature of each error so that you can examine the effect on the video/audio in your file. Finally, there is the option to package the captured raw DV stream into a suitable file container – we use Matroska which is an open standard media container commonly used in video archives.

There are additional features in DVRescue that can be accessed via the command line, most useful of these for me is the merge function. This allows you to take two or more separate passes of the capture and combine them. The process takes advantage of the inconsistency of error display on subsequent plays, mentioned earlier, to return one file containing the best frames from each pass. By capturing short sections of video over known error regions and merging these with your master capture you can create the optimal preservation file.

command text
6 – DVRescue merge command

So far so good, we have a set-up that can optimise our DV captures and produce greatly improved results from previous workflows. However…remember those Long Play recordings I mentioned earlier? The ones we have to play back with a camcorder? Well the camcorder is not supported by DVRescue so we have to use an alternative capture software. I use a discontinued software called Scenalyzer for Windows, this doesn’t have any of the sophisticated error reporting or analysis tools present in DVRescue but it does allow us to capture the tape in AVI format and retain the recording’s metadata. The files can then be analysed using a standalone piece of open-source software called DVAnalyzer.  Errors can be identified and located and further corrective tape passes can be made. The resulting files must be converted to a raw DV stream before they can be merged with DVRescue to produce a best quality master copy. This conversion is done using an open-source command line tool – FFMpeg. We can then merge the files as before and re-package the master to a Matroska container.

So we have our workflow for producing preservation copies of these digital tapes. This is all great as long as your tapes are behaving but amongst any collection of DV tapes you will inevitably find problems.

  • Tapes that are dirty. Playback may be improved by cleaning – I do this by using one of my decks that I can open up to access the tape path, I then hold a special cleaning swab lightly against the tape and fast forward and rewind it. This isn’t always successful but has definitely improved the performance of some tapes.
  • Tapes causing “head clogs” – within seconds of playback the picture and sound will drop out due to particles shedding from the tape. The deck will not play back any tape until the heads have been manually cleaned. Cleaning and sometimes “baking” i.e. heating the tape to 54°C for a few hours) can improve performance. Where the head clogs are severe, tapes will have to be captured in sections with manual cleaning of the heads in between – a laborious and time-consuming process.
  • Damaged cassettes – the cassette shell may be damaged and prevent it from playing back or even being accepted by a deck. For these, the tape reels can be removed and transferred into a replacement cassette shell to achieve playback. Due to the size of the tapes this can be a fiddly process.

All that remains after our digital preservation copies have been produced is to create access or viewing copies for each file. These are smaller, more manageable files suitable for easy playback or sharing. I create these using a Non-Linear Editing (NLE) Software e.g. Premiere Pro or Shotcut which allows me to make adjustments for optimal viewing before creating the access copy file. All the digital files are then securely copied to and stored on the university’s Research Data Storage Facility.

I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to produce digital preservation copies of every DV tape in the Rideout collection. Some are perfect with no errors whatsoever, the majority have a few minor errors which may or may not be noticeable and just one has substantial errors throughout, although most of the contents of the tape can still be viewed and listened to. A fair bit of painstaking work was carried out to preserve the collection but I believe the additional effort required to get the optimal results is well worth it. Overcoming the challenge of obsolescent technology to preserve and do justice to these unique cultural works and their creators brings its own rewards.

Nigel Bryant – Audiovisual Digitisation Officer, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Kevin Elyot’s ‘Coming Clean’ (1982) by Samuel Adamson

The Kevin Elyot Award is given annually to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, where the archive of the playwright Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) is housed. 2024 is the tenth anniversary of Elyot’s death, and the thirtieth anniversary of My Night with Reg, his most famous play. In response to my time in the archive as the recipient of the 2023 Award, I have written a series of articles on Elyot’s six original plays. Here is the first, on his debut Coming Clean. (I have also written a general reflection on Elyot here.)

An actor writes a play

Kevin Elyot began his playwriting career at the Bush, London’s famous new-writing theatre, where as an actor he appeared in several productions between 1976 and 1984. Circa 1981, the Bush’s co-artistic director Simon Stokes suggested to Elyot that he write a play, which, Elyot told Plays and Players in March 1983, he did while

ill with hepatitis. I don’t know whether you’ve ever had it, but you just have to sit around until you get better. I had nothing much else to do, so I wrote the play.1

Entitled Cosy upon delivery, then Clean Living during its development at the Bush, this tale of infidelity in gay relationships premiered as Coming Clean on 3 November 1982.2 David Hayman’s production played to packed houses, though reviews were mixed: here polite, there homophobic. The New Statesman claimed that were the play’s all-male love triangle ‘translated into heterosexual terms,’ it would be ‘universally shrugged off as psychologically and theatrically humdrum.’ The Mail on Sunday prophesied that ‘in time, it will be recognised as the first mature play about homosexuality.’3

The text attracted the attention of the legendary play agent Peggy Ramsay, who subsequently represented Elyot for a short time, and it won the 1982 Samuel Beckett Award.4

An open handbill for Coming Clean at the Bush Theatre
Handbill for the original production (University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/5/4)

The play: monogamy v. open relationships

At the heart of Coming Clean is a ‘happily married’ gay couple in North London, Tony and Greg. They have an ‘open’ relationship:

TONY:  […] infidelity is a fact of life. We both enjoy the occasional one-night stand. We don’t do it all the time, and we’d never bring anyone back if the other one was here. Perhaps it’s not ideal. But I think it’s realistic. I’d much rather have that than be deceitful to one another – pretending we were faithful when we weren’t.5

This arrangement is tested when Tony engages a cleaner named Robert. Greg and Robert have an affair, and after Tony walks in on them having sex, Greg announces to Tony that he loves Robert – and Tony. For Tony, ‘the whole point’ of their arrangement ‘is that we shouldn’t have to lie to each other’; but for Greg, ‘[t]he whole point is that we should stick together! And if that means we have to lie to each other, then that’s fine by me!’6

The central question is encapsulated in one of Elyot’s notebooks, held in his archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection:

[…] theory of an open relationship + the practice of it – the two don’t mix + leads to destruction.7

Ultimately, Tony admits to Greg that Greg is the only man he wants, but Greg can’t abide anything so ‘domestic’:

GREG: […] I still love you. I still want us to be together. But I’m not suddenly going to ask you to lay out my pipe and slippers. And I doubt that Robert will suddenly disappear into thin air.8

In the poignant final scene we gather that Tony has been unable to accept being one of Greg’s two objects of love. He has a heart-to-heart with Jürgen, a German pick-up – but neither speaks much of the other’s language. As Schubert plays on the stereo, Jürgen, himself hurt by some relationship, stammers, ‘Und … now … no more love … never!’ ‘You can’t say that,’ Tony cries, ‘I can see why you should but … no, you can’t say that.’9

A close-up of notebook listing names
Elyot’s casting ideas. Clive Mantle played Jürgen (not Jörgen) in the original production. (UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 4 of 5, p. 29)

Elyot’s voice

Like many first plays, Coming Clean feels autobiographical; Elyot admitted that he could not act in it because it ‘would have been too close to the bone.’10 Yet the play is a statement of intent. There is a sense of autobiography in all of Elyot’s writing, and his debut sounds the personal, Proustian notes of friendship, loneliness, sex, survival, music and memory that he will sound throughout his career. It has the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy seen in his later plays (he described his second play My Night with Reg as a ‘serious comedy’).11 Tony is the first in a series of guarded, obsessive, lovelorn and lonely gay protagonists. And, although not as formally inventive as RegThe Day I Stood Still (1998) and Mouth to Mouth (2001) – with these plays Elyot became a master at the manipulation of stage time, in J.B. Priestley’s league – Coming Clean skilfully employs dramatic techniques that Elyot will utilise again and again. Take, for example, his use of music to complicate the central dramatic question.

At the opening, the audience hears something clichéd: the famous Adagio of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet. Before he learns of Greg’s affair with the cleaner, Tony confesses to his friend William that Greg has been distant. William tells Tony to prepare a ‘really romantic evening,’ and ‘when [Greg] walks in, have that piece of music playing – you know, the dreary piece, the one that you both call “our tune” … the Barbirolli …’ Tony corrects him: ‘Barber.’12

Lots of couples share an ‘our tune,’ and William’s inability to remember the composer, and his characterisation of the music as ‘dreary’, immediately destabilises Tony and Greg’s.

The next scene begins with Greg and the cleaner Robert having it off – while the Adagio plays on the stereo. ‘Our tune’ has ironically – cruelly – become the soundtrack to an affair. To intensify Greg’s betrayal – sex and music – and to foreshadow that Tony and Greg’s open relationship cannot survive it, Elyot then reveals that Greg hates the Barber: ‘Would you mind if I turned this off? It’s like a fucking funeral.’13

After Tony and Greg argue the play’s central question in the wake of Tony’s discovery of the affair, Tony goes to the record collection to find something to play. When he sees that the Barber he wants is already on the turntable, there is a moment between the doomed couple. ‘Obviously, a popular choice,’ Tony says, ruefully.14

‘Our tune’ is dead.

Elyot’s notebooks reveal just how dramaturgically calculated all this is; how alive he was, even at the beginning of his writing career, to the power of subtext and allusion. Tony’s sentimental attachment to, and Greg’s rejection of, the Barber symbolise the opposing positions in the play’s argument. Contrasting Barber with the more radical and tragic figure of Schubert (whose music accompanies the final scene), Elyot wrote, ‘Barber is a musical reactionary, which fits Tony’s position (esp. as Barber was gay).’ The play’s ‘archetypal clash’ between ‘a socialist theory’ (represented by Greg, advocate of the open relationship) and a ‘reactionary lifestyle’ (represented by Tony, who cannot curb a desire for monogamy – a conservatism ‘EMBODIED IN  HIRING A CLEANER FOR FUCK’S SAKE!!!)’ is reflected by the couple’s attitudes towards the Barber – by the ways the play interrogates the Barber as a cliché.15

It’s not the point that an audience should be conscious of such layering, but that the layering should work upon the audience’s unconscious, and deepen the somewhat shallow scenario. Elyot started as he meant to go on: such attention to detail, such allusions to musical and literary worlds beyond the world of play, are hallmarks of his writing.

Front covers of Coming Clean book
Coming Clean published by Faber (1984) and Nick Hern Books (2017)

Critical homophobia

Where Coming Clean stands on the clash between lifestyles – the ‘scene’ of clubs and one-night stands on the one hand and monogamy on the other – is unclear. Elyot himself said that ‘there’s no positive answer’ to the clash, and Tony, the play’s most sympathetic character, is a fascinatingly ambiguous protagonist: Elyot’s descriptor for him as ‘reactionary’ is hardly complimentary.16 The clash is Elyot’s dramatic provocation, his specifically queer question – though many of the original reviewers were incapable of seeing this.

Irving Wardle in The Times is worth quoting at length:

My test for homosexual plots is to see how they respond to heterosexual conversion. You can get three possible results: either the story will ring as true with women as with men; or it will be so specifically homosexual as to resist the change; or it may be unmasked as a parasitic copy of a heterosexual model.

So far as plotting is concerned, Coming Clean belongs to the third category; and I resent the force of the Gay Lib movement in getting stage space for plays that would stand no chance whatever if they featured triangles of debs and stockbrokers. Mr Elyot’s chart of ‘contemporary sexual mores’ takes you straight back to the world of commercially packaged sex comedy.17

Putting aside the sexism (no such thing as gay women in Wardle’s World, or gay stockbrokers, or female stockbrokers), as well as the telling choice of the word ‘conversion,’ Wardle of course put the play into the wrong category of his three. So far as plotting and everything else about Coming Clean are concerned, it belongs to his second category, because this play by a gay playwright about gay men explores the ‘conflict between theory and practice’ in open relationships as a gay conflict.18 It doesn’t mean the play isn’t universal: Elyot recognised that his theme is explored in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, he wrote, ‘beautifully expresses the argument between ideal + actual, love + lust, the appeal of marriage v. the appeal of promiscuity.’19

But to put Coming Clean into his second category would have required Wardle to remove heterosexual spectacles, to do something we now take for granted: give a queer play a queer reading. He would have had to interrogate the cruising in the play (‘I just popped into the cottage for a tea-time quickie’) as gay.20 The music (Barber, Village People, Voggue) as gay. The queer-bashing (William is assaulted by ‘a bit of rough trade’) as gay.21 The sex (sodomy, blow jobs, rimming) as gay. William’s hilariously camp diction (‘Loose? I expected to find half of London up there [a man’s arse]. Do you want a jammy doughnut?’) as gay.22 Tony’s inability to reconcile his feelings with Greg’s world-view, and his characterisation of parts of the gay scene as ‘disgusting, unamusing, unentertaining, mindless, sexist, repressive drivel’, as politically charged gay disputes.23

Too hard for Wardle. Homophobia was easier.24

In fact, Elyot resisted the term ‘gay writer’. He told the journalist David Benedict at the time of The Day I Stood Still, ‘Of course I am a writer, and I am gay, but that kind of characterisation is a way of belittling the writing.’25 To Time Out, he said he wanted The Day I Stood Still to be judged as a play, not a gay play:

I think that sort of categorisation is very restricting. I don’t want to be compared to other gay writers, I want to be compared to other writers. I’ve noticed recently that the ‘gay writer’ nomenclature has tended to disappear – I know this sounds terribly politically incorrect – but I find that a bit of a relief, not because I’m not proud of being gay, but I think one is taken more seriously.26

Perhaps reviews like Wardle’s still smarted – even if, in 1983, he had fought back rather magnificently:

If he had thought it through it would have been an even more radical play if it had been about a heterosexual couple – because I’ve not seen a straight play where you have the partners sleeping around, then a third person coming along and the husband saying, well, not only am I going to continue sleeping around but you’ve also got to accept that I’m in love with this other woman and I also want to continue my marriage with you. What you get in straight plays is a third person breaking it up and then an ensuing fidelity with the new person, which is not what my play was about.27

Typed programme for Bush Theatre
Bush programme (UBTC, KE/3/5/4)

A remarkable letter

Wardle’s review is, of course, little more than tedious bigotry, and in the archive is a response to Coming Clean of much greater interest to any student of Elyot, or of the history of British playwriting.

In his Introduction to a collection of his plays, Elyot says that Peggy Ramsay, the famous play agent who read countless first plays over her career, was in tears at the Bush when she saw the final scene between Tony and Jürgen: ‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.’28

What Elyot does not mention is a remarkable letter Ramsay wrote to him before she visited the Bush but after she’d read the play, in which she acknowledged his competence as a playwright, and the sexual frankness in his writing, but reproached him for a ‘holding back over exactly how people behave in these circumstances.’ She saw in Elyot a restraint, a cowardice, and in a handwritten addendum, eulogised Thomas Mann for his preparedness, presumably in Death in Venice,

to plunge into the abyss of filth & deviation, & the result was a kind of purity, since NOTHING IS DISGUSTING – the only disgusting thing is NOT to face the truth; right down to the lowest depths! This takes great courage, & you need to explore it.

Ramsay did not think Coming Clean a good play, did not think it art. Her letter, entirely encouraging, was a cri de cœur to the first-time playwright: ‘if you write another Play about homosexuality I beg you to make it deeper.’29

How to survive a plague

In the 254th edition of Gay News, dated 25 November 1982, there is a review by Roger Baker of Coming Clean that takes a similar line to Ramsay. Baker praises Elyot for his plotting and characterisations, and condemns Wardle for missing the point:

the handling and resolution of the crisis are expressed in terms which are uniquely gay. Debs and stockbrokers, on or off stage do not, indeed cannot, talk, act, think or see their lives as Greg and Tony do.

But Baker says that ‘ultimately [Coming Clean] is slight, lacks weight.’ Like Ramsay, he encourages the first-time playwright ‘to extend his undoubted ability and vision next time.’30

In the 255th edition of Gay News, dated 9 December 1982, there is an article titled ‘DISEASE FEARS HIT UK: Prepare for shocks in ’83’:

BRITISH GAY MEN had better prepare themselves for some major shocks in the months ahead. They will be under a double-edged attack from both disease and media coverage if recent American experience is repeated here.31

It would take Elyot twelve years to write his second play My Night with Reg. It was finally produced in 1994, and though it shares many qualities with Coming Clean, it is a much more sophisticated play. In it, Elyot faces the truth and extends his vision, just as Ramsay and Gay News had hoped he would. But its subject is tragic: the lives and deaths of gay men during the age of Aids.

In 2004, Elyot looked back on the final scene of Coming Clean and said, ‘it has an elegiac quality – in retrospect, almost a sense of foreboding.’32 There were no revivals during the worst of the Aids years, or during Elyot’s lifetime, though at a 1997 gala to celebrate 25 years of the Bush (at which I was present) a scene was performed by the original cast. ‘I was pleased to discover that it still packs a punch,’ Elyot said in 1998, even if it felt to him ‘a sort of period piece’.33

In 2017, the play was successfully revived at the King’s Head Theatre, London, and as I write this, there is a revival at Turbine Theatre, London. Of the King’s Head revival, Exeunt Magazine found the play’s central question – ‘Can you ever really have your cake and fuck it (and the rest of the bakery)’ – ‘as current now as it was 35 years ago.’34

An autobiographical first play that announced a major talent – a play about gay sex and infidelity that premiered before everything changed for gay men – had survived both critical homophobia and Aids, and its pre-Aids question had become pertinent again.

This work was inspired and developed through the generous support of the Kevin Elyot Award at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

1 Kevin Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays (London: Nick Hern Books, 2004), pp. ix-x; Elyot to Christopher Edwards, ‘More Promising Playwrights’, Plays and Players, March 1983, pp. 23-4 (p. 24), University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/5/15.

2 UBTC, KE/3/5/3.

3 London Theatre Record, November 4-17 1982, pp. 615-16, UBTC, KE 3/5/6.

4 Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays, pp. ix-x; UBTC, KE/3/5/13.

5 Elyot, Coming Clean (London: Faber, 1984), pp. 37, 49.

6 Ibid, p. 58.

7 UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 3 of 5, p. 59.

8 Elyot, Coming Clean, p. 64.

9 Ibid, pp. 71-2.

10 Elyot to Edwards, p. 24.

11 Elyot to Sue Summers, ‘Day follows Night with Reg’, Daily Telegraph [n.d.: interview at the time of The Day I Stood Still, 1998], UBTC, KE/3/23/5.

12 Elyot, Coming Clean, p. 50.

13 Ibid, p. 52.

14 Ibid, p. 65.

15 UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 3 of 5, p. 59.

16 Elyot to Bob Workman, ‘Kevin Elyot Comes Clean’, Gay News, 255, 9-22 December 1982, pp. 38-9 (p. 39), UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

17 Irving Wardle, Times, 8 November 1982, [n.p.], UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

18 UBTC, KE/3/5/2, 2 of 5, p. 95.

19 Ibid, p. 95.

20 Elyot, Coming Clean, p. 39.

21 Ibid, p. 39.

22 Ibid, p. 13.

23 Ibid, p. 46.

24 Intriguingly, Wardle wrote in 1973 a play called The Houseboy with a scenario not dissimilar to Elyot’s; its television adaptation was broadcast a few months before Coming Clean’s premiere.

25 Elyot to David Benedict, ‘National debut? Time to put the record, er, straight’, Independent, 14 January 1998.

26 Elyot to Jane Edwardes, ‘Life after Reg’, Time Out [n.d.: interview at the time of The Day I Stood Still, 1988], UBTC, KE/3/23/5.

27 Elyot to Edwards, p. 24.

28 Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays, p. x.

29 Margaret Ramsay to Elyot, 17 November 1992, UBTC, KE/3/5/13. Sadly, this letter does not appear in Colin Chambers’s Peggy to her Playwrights: The Letters of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent, a book I recommend.

30 Roger Baker, ‘Coming Clean’, Gay News, 254, 25 November – 8 December 1982, p. 29, UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

31 Bob Workman, ‘Disease Fears Hit UK: Prepare for shocks in ’83’, Gay News, 255, 9 December – 22 December 1982, p. 3, UBTC, KE/3/5/6.

32 Elyot, Introduction to Four Plays, p. x.

33 Elyot to Edwardes.

34 Francesca Peschier, Exeunt Magazine, 31 July 2017.

Artist-in-Residence Placement: an introduction to the project & a working relationship with the archive as a resource

Hello, my name is Bobby and I’m a third year joint honours student in the Department of Theatre and Performance, and the Department of Film and TV here at the University of Bristol. As a part of my final semester with the University, I have chosen to work on a unit called ‘professional development in theatre and performance’; a unit that is designed for students to connect with organisations outside of the academic context of the course, and to learn to develop soft skills relevant to working in industry as an artist and creative. After conversing with the brilliant staff at the Theatre Collection, I chose to work as a Artist-in-Residence with them. The project aims to create a performative installation work at the end of an archive-based research and experimentation period.

As a third year Theatre and Film student, I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to the archive in previous units and have gained an understanding for both how their systems work, but also the process of thought required to interrogate material and to carefully piece together the histories of productions, projects and people. A previous project titled ‘Awaiting its Fate’ was performed last year at the Bristol Old Vic and was designed by myself. Aimed at blurring the history of the theatre into the buildings’ foundations, I worked closely with archival materials to inform a soundscape of an auction for the building in 1942 and the final performance allowed audiences to imagine that they were listening through the walls of the BOV at events that happened in the 40s. It was the first time where I had found the value and interest of the cross section between archival materials and technology; the blurred lines and creative possibilities that it holds as a way of reinvigorating once forgotten material, but also showcasing to others the capabilities that the archive itself holds.

Production image of Awaiting its Fate. Image Credit: Bobby Joynes

My own passion in theatre is rooted in set and AV design. I have experimented with technologically mediated spaces and performances that utilised elements like projection and three dimensional audial soundscapes as a way of world building but also informing creative choices to highlights relationships, themes and motifs. I strongly feel that a playful perspective on bringing technology into performance is a brilliantly versatile way of doing this, while also allowing that traditional ‘magic’ held at the theatre to continue.

Before I pursue a postgraduate degree in performance design, I’m taking time to broaden my understanding of how we can use the past as a way of informing our future artistic expressions, and how archives such as the theatre collection aren’t just valuable for researchers, but also for active and freelance artists. During the first few months on my placement, I have taken time to dig deep into materials otherwise unknown to me.

Beginning with an interest and past experience in analogue photography, I began there, exploring key individuals that may have led lives as photographers. This is where I discovered John Vickers, an experimentalist photographer right from the age of 12 when he picked up his first ever camera at a church jumble sale.

 

John Vickers, self-portrait. Image credit: University of Bristol Theatre Collection (JV/1/6/2/127)

The life and work of Vickers is extensive, and the Theatre Collection’s archive of his prints and negatives drew a kind of curiosity out of me, and led to my choice to centre my installation around his work. Namely, there is a fascinating collection of glass print negatives from early in his life that left me speechless when they were uncovered. Described in the Theatre Collection catalogue as 27 monochromatic exposures, what I discovered was something far more amazing. As I begin my experimentation process with these prints, I’m excited to not be able to see what unique twists and turns are in my creation process. It’s a brilliant example as to why rabbit holes in the archive aren’t so bad after all, in fact they can sometimes be quite the opposite and find you somewhere you would never expect.

Keep checking the Theatre Collection’s blog page for updates about this exciting project!

Bobby

Staff visits to Bristol Museum and BECC

Lucy Allen, Archive Assistant at the Theatre Collection, discusses two recent professional visits to Bristol heritage institutions.

In the four months since Joanna Gauld and I have joined the team as Archive Assistants, we have already been extremely lucky to be invited on two visits: the first, to the Conservation Department of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and the second, to the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection (BECC) at Bristol Archives.

Conservation at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

In December we were kindly invited by Eleanor Hasler, paper conservator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, to a tour of the museum’s conservation department. This was a fascinating insight into the world of conservation, as we visited labs dedicated to objects, paintings and paper conservation, and were able to peek at the projects underway in each.

Of particular interest was a project to conserve an enormous album of building plans belonging to Bristol Archives – one of more than 300 in the collection – dating from 1911-1912. The album included plans for many well-known Bristol buildings, among them plans for the Bristol Hippodrome designed by Frank Matcham. We listened to a talk from Aina Berenguer, the conservator who had been working on the project, explaining the four months of work she had put into the project – documenting, cleaning, flattening and repairing the plans.

Aina Berenguer, the conservator of the building plans. Photograph credit: Daly, R., 2023, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Other highlights we saw were a number of Japanese woodcut prints, with Eleanor Hasler providing some insight into the creation of these artworks, their historical context and how they came to be at the museum. Eleanor explained how at the time of production, the durability of the woodcuts meant they could be reused to make countless cheap prints. These now highly valuable prints were once worth about the same as a bowl of rice!

A final treat was a trip down to the art store beneath the museum, where we witnessed the hundreds of paintings, sculptures and other artworks held there by the museum when they are not on display. It was fascinating to how the museum ensures that these artworks are stored responsibly, and protects them for a future date when they will be brought back into the public eye.

British Empire and Commonwealth Collection

Our second trip followed in early February, when alongside colleagues from Special Collections, we were invited by archivist Jayne Pucknell to visit the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives.

Jayne explained the background to the collection, and how it came to be held by Bristol Archives after the closure of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in 2008. She had selected a few key items from the collection for us to view, and explained to us the history behind these pieces. These included a selection of photographs taken by J A Green (Jonathan Adagogo Green), born in the late 19th century and believed to be the first professional photographer of Nigerian birth. Jayne pointed out Green’s strategic use of initials in his business proceedings, which obscured his Nigerian identity and played a large part in his ability to work with both colonial and indigenous clientele.

Palm nut cracking, New Calabar by J. A. Green, c.1900 (ref: 2003/174/1/24). Photograph credit: Bristol Archives: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

Whilst the J. A. Green photographs are an invaluable insight into life in colonial Nigeria from an indigenous perspective, many items in the collection depict life from the standpoint of the coloniser. For example, we also saw a late 19th century album of photos taken by a plantation owner in Jamaica. Many of these photographs depicted local Jamaicans in posed scenes, and often drew upon reductive stereotypes in order to appeal to a colonial audience.

Eight boys in a field eating watermelons, c.1860 (ref: 2005/001/151/1). Photograph credit: Bristol Archives: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection.

We also viewed a 20th century album of paintings by a woman living in a Prisoner of War camp under Japanese rule in China. These scenes gave the misleading impression of a pleasant environment and of positive relationships between prisoners and guards. The reason for this became clear to us when Jayne pointed out that, had the paintings instead depicted the harsh realities of prisoner life, they would undoubtedly have been confiscated. Photography within the camp was forbidden; sketching and painting were the only options available to record the experience, even if they must be done from a falsely cheery perspective. One sketch, depicting a guard from the camp, hinted at the harsher reality, reading: “pestered me to do his portrait, was advised to do so less something bad might happen to me”.

Final thoughts

These visits were both wonderful experiences as they allowed us to gain insight into the collections, work environments and roles of our colleagues within the heritage industry. It’s always such a treat to see “behind the scenes” and to hear about collections directly from the people who work so closely with them. We are extremely thankful to Eleanor Hasler, Jayne Pucknell, and the teams at Bristol Museums and Bristol Archives for generously inviting us to visit their sites and engage with their collections.

On Kevin Elyot and My Night with Reg by Samuel Adamson

Samuel Adamson is the current recipient of the Kevin Elyot Award, an annual award given to support a writer-in-residence at the Theatre Collection. It is given in memory of the renowned playwright, screenwriter and Bristol Drama alumnus, Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) and the influence he has had on writing and the Arts. The award has been generously funded by an endowment given to the University by members of Kevin’s family.  The endowment was gifted along with the Kevin Elyot Archive, which is held at the Theatre Collection, and comprises scripts, correspondence, manuscripts and publicity material detailing Elyot’s working process from initial idea to finished product.

One summer’s day in 1995, I met my agent Sebastian Born for the first time. After our meeting in his office in London’s Holland Park, he joined me on my walk to the Underground and on the way told me something about his client Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg. This play – which had premiered to huge acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre in March 1994, was still doing great business in the West End, was in development as a film for the BBC, and was attracting interest from around the world – had been rejected by Hampstead, the new-writing theatre that had commissioned it.

Sebastian is a phlegmatic man, and over the years I’ve interpreted his story as a lesson to me, the smug young playwright who’d just secured an agent. The theatre is fickle. Some people will like your work, some won’t. Nobody knows anything. Be philosophical about the inevitable disappointments if you can.

Still, there was a faint trace of ‘sucks to Hampstead’ in Sebastian’s tone that at the time I relished as I’d seen My Night with Reg three times and considered it a work of genius.

A handbill advertising the play 'My Night with Reg' by Kevin Elyot
Handbill for Royal Court Theatre premiere, 1994. (University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/19/3)

My memories of Roger Michell’s original production are vivid. It starred David Bamber, Anthony Calf and John Sessions as Guy, John and Daniel, old university friends and gay men living in the shadow of Aids. I remember Bamber’s perfectly timed delivery of the play’s first double entendre: ‘I was just stiffening some egg whites.’ I remember the friends roguishly raising their glasses to ‘sodomy’. And I remember, after Aids had killed both the title character and Guy, the terror behind Daniel’s line to John, ‘I’m suddenly very tired,’ and John’s deceptively simple response, which, from Anthony Calf, was in fact a primal scream: ‘I’m pretty tired, too.’

I also remember my excitement as I realised that Reg, Daniel’s boyfriend – who like Samuel Beckett’s Godot never appears – has slept with every character except Guy, the self-conscious single man at whose flat-warming the story begins. Whether Reg has passed on HIV to the others is ambiguous. What is unambiguous is that Guy, who harbours a secret love for John and barely sleeps with anyone, contracts HIV after being raped in Lanzarote by ‘a mortician from Swindon.’ In one of the play’s deftest structural conceits, the character who does not have a night with Reg is the only character who dies.

As the 2023 recipient of the Kevin Elyot Award, given annually to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection where Elyot’s papers are housed, I’ve learned that Elyot was proud of this superior craftsmanship. ‘[T]he STRUCTURE is a COUP!’ he wrote in one notebook – and the play does indeed have two coups de théâtre when time jumps forward and Guy’s flat-warming becomes a wake: first for Reg, then for Guy himself.[i] Elyot storms his comedy of manners with tragedy, and it is surprising, thrilling and heartbreaking. Reg is a funny play about serious things: the randomness of disease, the necessity of lies, the pain of unrequited love – and the cruel threat to gay men’s sexual freedom after the liberations of the 1970s (the subject of Elyot’s first play, Coming Clean, which premiered in 1982, just before the Aids crisis).

Two front covers of playscript 'My Night with Reg' by Kevin Elyot
Play scripts published by Nick Hern Books to coincide with the play’s West End transfer in November 1994 (L), and with its twentieth-anniversary Donmar Warehouse revival in July 2014 (R)

In 2004, Sebastian Born retired from agenting, and at his farewell party at a bar in the Portobello Road, I noticed Elyot. I wanted to approach him and say how much I admired Reg, as well as Coming Clean and the two other plays I’d seen in their original productions, The Day I Stood Still (National Theatre, 1998) and Mouth to Mouth (Royal Court, 2001). I wanted to say how much I was looking forward to his new play Forty Winks, due to open at the Royal Court that October. I wanted to say I was looking forward to many more plays.

Unfortunately, like Guy in Reg, I was too self-conscious to act on my desires – though I went to Forty Winks, which, sadly, was the last of Elyot’s plays to be produced in his lifetime (he died in 2014 at the age of 62; his sixth play Twilight Song premiered posthumously in 2017). Forty Winks is a troubling piece, inspired by the Don Juan legend and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s extraordinary 1968 film Theorem. Although these references are explicit in the text, most critics missed them, and felt that Elyot was repeating himself. It was his least successful play.

Handbill for 'My Night with Reg'
Handbill for West End transfer with original Royal Court cast, November 1994. L to R: Kenneth MacDonald (Benny), Roger Frost (Bernie), David Bamber (Guy), John Sessions (Daniel), Anthony Calf (John), Joe Duttine (Eric) – yes, the allusions to Elton John (and Éric Rohmer) are deliberate. (UBTC, KE/3/19/3)

If Isaiah Berlin is right that writers are either foxes who range over a large landscape, or hedgehogs who stay close to home, then Elyot, like his hero Proust, was a hedgehog. In the last ten years of his life, he adapted nine Agatha Christie novels for ITV and Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind for the BBC – all to considerable acclaim. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he was hurt by the failure of Forty Winks, and by the critical insinuation that he lacked the ambition of a fox. His papers are full of reminders to disregard critics, and one is striking: ‘FORGET fashion, what’s expected, comedy per se, rivals – WRITE what’s true, what’s true to you, ignore EVERYBODY, write a TRAGEDY, reach for the truth of life, aim high, write a masterpiece. Amaze + surprise them.’[ii]

I think Elyot wrote three masterpieces: My Night with Reg, The Day I Stood Still and Mouth to Mouth. Yes, they plough the same territory over and over: loneliness, friendship, music, memory, the passing of youth, betrayal, guilt, mortality, time. But these are the truths of life, and I can’t think of a writer I admire who, in the search for ultimate meaning, does not write about them.

At the Royal Court’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, Roger Michell said of Reg that it arrived on his desk ‘almost perfectly formed: I cannot remember a single significant change that we made either during preparation or rehearsal. It is that odd thing, a most beautifully crafted and constructed modern play…’[iii]

Elyot’s papers reveal the sweat behind that perfection. He began the play as a sequel to Coming Clean, and it took him over a decade to let that idea fall away and find something new – a decade during which Aids changed everything for gay men, including Elyot, who told Gay Times in 1998, ‘One of the starting points for writing Reg was personal experience. I’ve suffered in similar ways to other gay men of my generation, experienced the same grief, loss and trauma.’[iv] He wrote many drafts, and my reading of the relevant correspondence is that Hampstead Theatre’s rejection of the play had a lot to do with ‘draft bog’ – that indissoluble problem in new writing. For a playwright, old drafts are discarded clay on the floor. But some early readers, even if they are the playwright’s champions, find their feet stuck in the bog.

Thankfully, Roger Michell and the Royal Court saw My Night with Reg as it stood before them, sculpted to perfection. 2024 is the play’s thirtieth anniversary, and the tenth anniversary of Elyot’s death. I hope it brings a revival of at least one of his six exquisite plays.

Headshot of Kevin Elyot leaning on elbow with hand held next to face
Kevin Elyot in 2007. Image credit: Phil Fisk

[i] University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/19/1, Book 1 of 6, p. 105.

[ii] UBTC, KE/3/26/1, Book 2 of 3, p. 58.

[iii] Roger Michell, in programme for Royal Court Theatre ‘Look Back: 50 Readings, 50 Writers, 50 Years’, My Night with Reg, 9 March 2006, UBTC, KE/3/19/11 (2 of 2).

[iv] Kevin Elyot to James Cary Parkes, ‘A comedy of terrors’, Gay Times, January 1998, pp. 16-17 (p. 17), UBTC, KE/3/23/5.

Archives – A Dynamic Living Body: A View from a New Archive Assistant

Benjamin Park, Archive Assistant discusses his first impressions as a new member of the Theatre Collection and what he has learned from his colleagues around him. 

I joined the Theatre Collection during the middle of September as a maternity cover for one of the Archive Assistants. It is the first time I have worked in an archive and the past couple of months has been an insightful period, full of discoveries and curiosities.

I was not a stranger to archives before this, and neither a stranger to the Theatre Collection. My background was varied, and many threads seemed to lead me here. Prior to this role I was a Library Assistant, working just up the hill from the Theatre Collection at other sites within the University of Bristol. That was my first experience professionally working with collections. During and before this point, I was a student of literature and most recently a PhD researcher writing on Samuel Beckett. This necessitated many visits to archives and gave me an understanding of their value and function from the perspective of a user. The final thread leading me to this archive was my previous work as an amateur playwright and director in Edinburgh for a span of two years.  That experience concreted my respect and admiration for the ephemeral art of theatre. I first discovered the Theatre Collection itself during an oral history research project I undertook with the university. During this project, my fellow researchers and I spent a day in the archive and were introduced to some of their brilliant objects. Later, I interviewed the former Director of the Theatre Collection, Jo Elsworth, in which she showed me a digitised piece of toast from 1994 held by the archive. This innovative piece of marketing was created by Julie Flowers and Rosalind Howell for their performance Grill. I never stopped thinking about that toast and hoped one day to work closer with the Collection.

A Piece of Toast at the National Review of Live Art 1994 by Julie Flowers and Rosalind Howell. [Theatre Collection Reference: RLAP/G/94] A 3D Model of the Toast can be found on Sketchfab.  

Fortune was in my favour, and here I am. These months have taught me a lot about archives and collections, and many things that I could only glean hints of before as a user. In my first few weeks, I was introduced to the current team of archivists, and each guided me in their own way to the tips, tricks, and skills required to be a great archivist, as they all are. Jill Sullivan was of particular help in my training and led me to discover the first incredible idiosyncrasy that separates work in an archive collection from my previous work in a library collection, that being the importance of the working mind of an archivist.

As Jill and I would be working on a retrieval together, going through a list of items that a researcher had requested, I would see a sudden flash in her mind as she remembered a particular item of special relevance to the research. An item, tucked away in a folder, in a box amongst hundreds of other boxes.

I would come to learn that the primary and most important role of an archive is to protect and preserve materials to be safely stored in perpetuity. The safety of the item comes first, the next (huge) task is the project of cataloguing so that these items are known, publicly facing, and of easy discovery to researchers and enthusiasts alike. However, the second part of this process takes time, time to secure funding and resources for the detailed cataloguing of these unique collections. Therefore, in archives across the world there are items that are safely stored, waiting for the appropriate funding and allotment of time to be catalogued onto a public-facing database. Bundles of letters, marginalia in private books, early sketches and drawings of obscure artists, and countless other items lay safe on the shelves of many archives, almost a secret. To mitigate this situation, the Theatre Collection currently has a project to box list any uncatalogued collections and it creates web pages and collection-level catalogue descriptions for the public of these collections. But what is most striking to me, is that the collections are intimately known by staff; many of these items are ‘catalogued’ in the working mind of the archivist. At the Theatre Collection, when a person makes an enquiry to explore our holdings and search for material related to their research, in addition to the catalogue, the importance of this mind comes to the fore, unlocking items that may, just possibly, hold the long-searched-for secret to their question. Only three months in, it will probably take me quite a few many more months, if not years, to get close to the working knowledge of some of the archivists here.

Although in that time, what I have discovered has been brilliant and fascinating. And I have learned that that working knowledge can only be obtained by getting lost in the archive yourself. Each week, the researchers, students, historians, working dramaturgs, and other enthusiasts have their items retrieved for their visits. This is one of the highlights of my week. I must always fight against my own curiosity, to retrieve the items in a timely manner, and to not become lost in the interest of their topic. And it is a fight I often almost lose. From Laurence Olivier’s gloves worn in The Entertainer, to Sir Henry Irving’s preparation book for the 1885 production of Faust, to Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs for chocolate box lids, to hundreds of playbills from the late 18th and 19th centuries, there is an endless stream of wonderful distractions and discoveries during the process of retrievals. The most recent discovery placed before me was the conceptual designs by Ralph Adron for La Creation Du Monde – a ballet by Darius Milhaud which outlines the creation of the world according to African mythologies.

[Conceptual Design by Ralph Adron. Theatre Collection Reference: BTC71/1/6/1/4]

[Conceptual Design by Ralph Adron. Theatre Collection Reference: BTC71/1/6/1/8]

These were brought to my attention during this most recent month, in which the distractions and discoveries of the archive found further use as I took more responsibility in my role managing the Theatre Collection’s social media communications. With immense help and support from the working minds of these archivists, and particularly Laura Dow, the Theatre Collection has shared a range from our wonderful items to our social medias and recently launched Instagram. Two of these items were the above Ralph Adron paintings. This past Monday, as I returned the items that had been taken out for use in the previous week, I picked up these paintings, and felt an instant subconscious thrill at the prospect of what others lay in the drawer they were to be returned to. And as I carefully found the correct position to return each painting to, I discovered a whole host of other fantastic creatures and designs inspired by African creation mythology, and I felt very fortunate have the job that I have.

There is still much more for me to learn in my time here with the Theatre Collection. But as a first lesson I was glad it was this. Namely, the discovery of the living quality of an archive. At times there seems to be an unfortunate public image that archives are rows of dusty shelves filled with untouched tomes. This could not be further from the truth of the true nature of an archive. An archive is a dynamic a living body of materials that must be set in motion as they are explored by researchers and the priceless stories and information contained within them spiral outwards into our collective cultural narrative. And this character of an archive is embodied in the working mind of an archivist, and their particular, irreplaceable relationship to the materials for which they care.

 

Happy World Digital Preservation Day!

Emma Hancox, Digital Archivist writes about World Digital Preservation Day and our recent steps in digital preservation.

Today (2nd November) is World Digital Preservation Day: an international date to celebrate digital preservation. This year’s theme is ‘Digital Preservation: A Concerted Effort’ and the focus is on the interactions and relationships that make for success in this area. Digital preservation is a key part of the work we do in Special Collections and Theatre Collection to ensure our researchers have access to important digital collections now and in the future.

When you think of archives, old handwritten documents such as letters, diaries, minute books or even a photograph album probably come to mind. Materials such as these created in hard copy in the past (which form a large part of our collections) are almost always created digitally nowadays. Organisations and individuals who approach us to enquire about depositing their archives are increasingly offering us material in digital form and it is imperative that we collect and preserve this material to have a comprehensive archive in the future.

As well as these original or so-called born-digital materials, we hold digital copies or digital surrogates of some of the physical material in our collections. These may be digital photographs of the hard copy material we hold or digital audio or video files from carriers such as cassette or video tapes which have been digitised because of their fragility and the risk of loss.

Although digital archives are still archives, and there are many similarities with our physical collections in terms of how we manage them, they have their own distinct set of challenges. It is very easy to create massive amounts of digital files and to save multiple copies of the same thing. Traditionally archivists appraise collections to select the material suitable for preservation, but this task becomes much more difficult and time consuming in a digital environment. Being able to validate files and check their integrity (whether or not they have changed over time) is vital as we need to be able to demonstrate the authenticity of the materials in our care. File format obsolescence and software dependencies are other potentially problematic areas. A particular file format may be more at risk than another and we cannot always ensure that we will have access to the correct software to be able to make a particular file accessible.

So what are we doing to improve our capacity to deal with digital archives? Towards the end of 2018 I was recruited as the first Digital Archivist and the first member of staff with a completely digital preservation-focused role. Since then, we have joined the Digital Preservation Coalition meaning we are part of an international digital preservation community and network, which is a brilliant opportunity for training, reciprocal support and learning. With the support of the DPC we participated in a booksprint in 2019, which enabled us to write the digital preservation policy that underpins our everyday decision making and an accompanying case study. 2019 was also the year we acquired Preservica as our digital preservation system and since then we have been familiarising ourselves with different types of ingest workflows and ingesting collections with the aim of making them accessible online via Universal Access.

In 2021 we were fortunate to be successful in our application to be one of the partners in the Bridging the Digital Gap scheme run by The National Archives making it possible for us to have a Digital Archives Trainee working with us. Our trainee progressed to the role of Digital Archives Assistant following the traineeship and his work has enabled us to expand our capabilities in terms of the amount of material ingested, compiling a digital asset register, being able to experiment with more complex workflows, using Python to assist with tasks as well as expand into other areas such as web archiving and the consideration of issues around the management of 3D data.

World Digital Preservation Day gives us the opportunity to look back at what we have achieved so far and to think about our future steps. It also reminds us that we are part of an international community facing similar challenges and obstacles and that sharing with each other is the key to overcoming them.

Digitising for the new virtual museum: The Uncertain Space

As the Digitisation Officer at the Theatre Collection, I’ve been working on various funded projects that have allowed me to explore and test different 3D capture techniques, including using a DSLR and a 3D model building application to create 3D versions of items in the collection. For example, I was involved in the ‘Making A Scene’ project where I digitised set models from the Bristol Old Vic archive. I photographed and created 3D versions of set model pieces from ‘Babes in the Wood’ (2000), which could then be used in an AR environment for participants to engage with and understand the process of organising a theatre production.

More recently, I’ve been working as part of the team 3D scanning objects for The Uncertain Space, a virtual university museum, where items from across the university’s collection can be explored in one place.

Initially, I was provided with a list of items that needed 3D scanning. Working with my colleague in Library Services, we divided up the scanning work and grouped objects from different departments together.  We each contacted the various departments involved to gain access to the material and arrange times and locations for the scanning to take place.

I began by scanning the items on the list that were held at the Theatre Collection. However, some of these items were particularly tricky to scan due to their textural qualities, including shiny and reflective surfaces.  Different capture techniques were implemented depending on the items being scanned, as the two approaches I use have different benefits depending on the qualities of the item. The items scanned included objects discovered under the Theatre Royal auditorium during excavation works (ref no. BOV/12/5) and additional archaeological findings discovered under Theatre Royal auditorium (ref no. BOV/12/6).

Findings discovered under Theatre Royal auditorium

Another item scanned was the ‘brick on wheels’ (ref no. WSI/UNCA/11) from the archive of the arts organisation, Welfare State International (WSI). It was made by John Fox, one of the founders of WSI, in response to the Arts Council’s ‘Housing the Arts’ (HTA) programme in the 1970s.  HTA was funding capital projects to improve and construct new buildings to showcase art and performances.  John didn’t want funding for ‘bricks and mortar’, but rather a vehicle that could take WSI’s work around the country to share performance more widely.  John’s request with the ‘brick on wheels’ was presented at the committee meeting, and suffice to say, WSI got the funding they needed to get a vehicle! 3D model of the ‘brick on wheels’.

In addition to the Theatre Collection, I also visited other university departments to scan objects.  I had the opportunity to spend the day at School of Earth Sciences, where we scanned a range of objects from their collection. This included fossilised items, a piece of malachite, 3D large maps and animal skeletons.

Arrangements were also made to visit the University’s Botanic Gardens. A range of capture equipment was taken to the Botanic Gardens to see if a vasculum, a container used for collecting plants and whitebeam tree branch could be captured on location.

Vasculum at the Botanic Gardens
Whitebeam at the Botanic Gardens

I had the chance to work in one of the greenhouses using the Artec Leo scanner and DSLR camera, using both capture techniques to see if a usable model could be created. When these files were returned to the Theatre Collection and processed it was identified that a different capture set up would be needed. It was then arranged to get the items and bring them to the photography studio, where I could suspend the vasculum and fix the strap in place so it didn’t move during the capture of the item.

Vasculum captured in the photography studio

The whitebeam was also lit in the studio and recaptured using the DSLR camera, as the fine detail of the plant was not possible to capture using the Artec scanner.

Whitebeam captured in the photography studio

I also worked with different collection specialists, including the Public Art Coordinator, and arranged to visit the Hiatt Baker Halls of Residence to capture an installed Sarah Staton print. The print was captured and the files checked, although a second trip was required to ensure reflections and light falling onto the framed print were blocked and not visible in the final digitised copy. The work created by the young participants involved in the project was scanned to be included in the virtual museum, adding another element to The Uncertain Space.

The project included lots of experimentation and learning using both techniques of photogrammetry and structured light scanning, as well as finding ways to manipulate light. As with all projects, it would have been beneficial to have extra time to continue capturing and processing models, including finding ways to capture shiny objects, such as the mirror curtain fragments.  But it was such a great experience to work with staff from different departments across the University, who were excited to share their knowledge and support the project.

I really enjoy the dynamic aspect of the virtual museum and everything the experience includes, such as the 3D models, photographs of collection material, images of the public art, scans of new material created by the participants and video elements. I feel the ability to move through the space and interact with the different elements, as well as hearing the audio information and opinions, adds to the virtual museum experience.

You can visit the virtual museum and the first exhibition by using a laptop, PC or mobile device via The Uncertain Space webpage.  Alternatively, you can download the spatial.io app onto a phone or VR headset.  There are also VR headsets available onsite for anyone to view the exhibition, please get in touch and book a visit to the Theatre Collection or Special Collections.

You can read more about the making of The Uncertain Space and its first exhibition on the blogs of our colleagues from Library Research Support and Special Collections