Kevin Elyot’s The Day I Stood Still (1998) by Samuel Adamson

As the Kevin Elyot Award writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, I have spent time researching the papers of the playwright and screenwriter Kevin Elyot (1951-2014). Here is my fourth article in response to Elyot’s archive, in which I discuss his third play – my favourite Elyot play – The Day I Stood Still. A general reflection on Elyot is here. My article on his debut Coming Clean (1982) is here. My article on his second and most famous play My Night with Reg (1994) is here.


It seems to me a lot of yearning goes on in your plays.

I think you’re right.

[…] It’s very obvious in My Night with Reg, isn’t it, where this poor guy has been living for God knows how many years on this moment where something could have happened that didn’t.

You should read The Day I Stood Still!

Kevin Elyot interviewed by Harriet Devine in 20051

The post-Reg syndrome

Kevin Elyot’s third original play The Day I Stood Still premiered on 22 January 1998 in the Cottesloe (now Dorfman) auditorium of the National Theatre, London. It was directed by Ian Rickson and starred Adrian Scarborough and Callum Dixon as old and young versions of the title character ‘I’ – that is Horace, a self-conscious single gay man in the mould of Guy in Elyot’s second play My Night with Reg.

Sebastian Born, Elyot’s agent, told me how Rickson came to be the director:

Kevin was always cautious about to whom he would entrust his work and neither of us had seen anything directed by Ian. So we went to the spellbinding first preview of his production at the Ambassadors [Theatre] […] of a new play by an unknown Irish writer – The Weir [Conor McPherson]. Afterwards, Kevin didn’t say anything, just went up to Ian who was waiting in the foyer and said yes.2

Although The Day I Stood Still was well received – The Guardian thought it ‘an intelligent play about a common experience: the Proustian notion that the true paradise is the one that we have lost’ – there has been no major UK revival.3

It is possible that the much-acclaimed My Night with Reg has obscured Elyot’s other achievements: in 2014 The Telegraph thought so in a piece on theatrical ‘one-hit wonders,’ and recently a theatre producer I know of, when presented with the idea of The Day I Stood Still, responded, ‘I can’t sell that, but I can sell Reg.’4

Elyot himself told Veronica Lee in 2001,

I knew that Reg was always going to be a hard act to follow and the response would be more muted. I was anticipating the post-Reg syndrome and certainly never tried to cap it.5

It is a shame The Day I Stood Still is somewhat forgotten, because with it, in my view, Elyot did cap My Night with Reg. This beautifully constructed Chekhovian meditation on our yearning for youth as we age, and on the exquisite pain of unrequited love, is the apotheosis of Elyot’s career as a dramatic poet.

Headshot of Kevin Elyot leaning on elbow with hand held next to face
Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) photographed by Phil Fisk

The play: that awful moment

The play begins circa 1983 in Horace’s North London flat. He has just opened the door to an unexpected guest, Judy, the widow of Jerry, Horace’s old school friend; Jerry and Judy’s four-year-old son Jimi is Horace’s godson.

Horace loved Jerry – and just how immobilising this love has been is explored as the play jumps forward to 1996, when the 17-year-old Jimi visits Horace; then back to 1969, when Horace, Jerry and Judy are 17 and have the world at their feet.

The ‘crux,’ to use Elyot’s own word in his papers at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, comes on that day in 1969.6 While the Jimi Hendrix-obsessed Judy dozes (she’s drunk half a bottle of Dimyril), the talented pianist Jerry, stoned and with the munchies, shares a Mars Bar with Horace. ‘Go with a girl,’ Jerry says,

It’ll change your life.

HORACE (coping with Mars in the mouth):  But I don’t want to! You must know that! I want to do it … I want to do it with you. Sorry.


JERRY:  You’ll meet loads of people.

HORACE:  Yes, I might –

JERRY:  Loads.

HORACE:  But that wouldn’t change – doesn’t change – what I feel.

JERRY:  There’ll be someone else.

HORACE:  No, I don’t think there will.

They look at each other, face to face. Pause. For a second, they seem to get fractionally closer.

JUDY (coming round, in a strong Birmingham accent): Fucking beautiful!

HORACE and JERRY’s moment is broken.

JUDY:  I fucking love you, Jimi!7

This turning point was sketched by Elyot in one of his notebooks for the play:

[Horace] can’t rid himself of Jerry, whereas Jerry’s on verge of moving on (with girls / Judy). THAT awful moment when when [sic] you realize someone’s developed, moving on to next stage, + you’re still in the same place. **THIS CRUCIAL.8

By the time we get to this ‘awful moment’ in the play’s third scene, we know the Horace of 1983 and 1996, so we know that he’s right when he says there’ll be no one else (and that he will always have an unhealthy relationship with Mars Bars).

In the opening 1983 scene, a masterclass in the art of subtle dramatic exposition, Judy captures Horace’s character in two crisp insults. Concerning the flat, which he inherited from his parents and which has seen better days, she says, ‘You’ll take root.’9 Upon learning he is still in the same job – in a museum, if the point that he is one of life’s museum pieces has been missed – she says, ‘You’ll ossify’.10

As a character, Horace never ossifies because Elyot’s three scenes are always alive with promise, danger and poignancy. In 1996, the arrival of the 17-year-old Jimi, AWOL from boarding school after being rejected by a boyfriend (a story that mirrors Horace and Jerry’s), ignites in Horace a sense of godfatherly responsibility and transgressive possibility – as well as stirring nostalgia. ‘There was one day,’ he reflects, after Jimi asks about the father Jimi never knew,

one day we had – when I met your mother, actually – which was sort of complete. One of those moments in life when you realise, ‘Ah, that’s what it’s like to be happy.’ […] When I’m dying, it’s that moment that’ll make me think it was all worthwhile. My life crystallized in the memory of a moment. It was like we were outside time.11

In 1969, this idyll of youth – ‘idyll’ is Elyot’s own descriptor for the scene – is vitalised by youth’s romanticism, then destroyed by youth’s unthinking cruelty when Jerry goes off with Judy.12 His act, ‘that awful moment,’ paralyses Horace forever. And yet – partly thanks to the scene with Jimi, partly to a subplot involving interrupted sex with a prostitute – Horace’s life always feels on the verge of movement, of something ‘worthwhile.’ Elyot pulls off a sophisticated trick: dramatic momentum in a play about inaction.

open promotional brochure with text relating to the play The Day I Stood Still
National Theatre brochure, original production (University of Bristol Theatre Collection, KE/3/23/4)

The painful craft of playwriting: leitmotifs, irony, coincidence

It is Elyot’s crafty manipulation of stage time that lends The Day I Stood Still much of this vigour: in its director Rickson’s words, we as audience are put ‘in a very empowered position’ because as the first two scenes give way to the third, we know more about the characters’ fates than they do – a dramatic technique that recalls J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.13

This is inevitably affecting – the dreams of youth look pitiable when we know they won’t come true – and our feeling for the characters as subjects of Time is intensified by Elyot’s careful orchestration of leitmotifs, of recurring themes and artefacts. The Mars Bars are like Proust’s madeleines: they – along with a perilously rickety chair, a chain Jerry gives to Horace, and the Beethoven Jerry plays on Horace’s piano – keep reappearing, building into a kind of symphony of memory and irony.

At the centre is the most ironic thing of all, a Wildean tragedy: Horace kills the thing he loves. In 1969, Jerry suggests to Horace he ‘could write a novel.’14 He does, and thirteen years later, sends Jerry a copy. This is the cause of Jerry’s death: he gets blood-poisoning after nicking his finger on ‘the silvery thing […] holding together [the] manuscript.’15

Elyot loved coincidence, and arguably this is a coincidence too far; perhaps Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times thought so when he objected to the play’s ‘excessive neatness.’16 Yet as contrived as Horace’s (accidental) complicity in Jerry’s death is, it is so subtly embedded into the play’s texture, and so tragicomically right for both the hapless Horace and the romantic Jerry, that it works.

I view it as a supreme piece of dramaturgical handiwork, and I found it fascinating to discover how this kind of elegant formal conceit, typical of Elyot, belies his unsystematic writing process. Notebooks in his archive scrawled with ideas support his comment to Rickson that

I started coming at The Day I Stood Still from several angles and made copious notes for a couple of years. Then little catalysts would happen – a photograph, a piece of music – and gradually I saw a pattern emerging.17

This was his method for all of his original plays: ‘you put pieces together over a length of time,’ he told Harriet Devine in 2005, ‘and shape something out of it.’18 My sense – and this is hardly a surprise to a writer – is that this process could be painful. On page one of the first The Day I Stood Still notebook he wrote, ‘“Vanya” as model,’ then, perhaps overwhelmed by his invocation of Chekhov, told himself, ‘DON’T TURN another play into an Everest!’ Later, his playwriting competition tormented him: ‘Pinter wrote play in 4 weeks!’ Elsewhere, he girded himself in the red pen he saved for his most important notes:

GET ON with play. DON’T tell anyone. Take them by surprise.19

An artist of survival

Elyot did get on with it, and in the four years after My Night with Reg fashioned a most moving play, one that shares with Uncle Vanya a love triangle in which the title character is the loser – to use one critic’s phrase, Horace is, like Uncle Vanya, ‘one of nature’s Plain Jane gooseberries.’20 Devine told Elyot ‘that tears were just pouring down [the] face’ of a friend who saw the original production; Elyot responded that ‘it did seem to have an effect on people.’21 I remember being one of them: even in my cheap seat in the gods of the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, I was touched by Horace’s tragic yet still somehow sardonic, somehow optimistic loneliness.

In Scene One, Judy tells Horace he should be ‘doing things and going places,’ but he responds,

I don’t want to. I’m fine as I am. I like this place, and I’ve got my music, my books, a friend or two. Honestly, Jude, I’m okay. I’m fairly happy.22

In his notes, Elyot quoted Clive James:

Beethoven wrote the Appassionata because he had no one to be passionate with – as any kind of artist, that’s your consolation.

and he reworked this into his play:

HORACE:  What would I write a novel about?

JERRY:  I don’t know. Love, death, murder, passion –

HORACE:  I don’t have anyone to be passionate about, do I?

JERRY: That’s no excuse. Beethoven wrote the Appassionata and he had no-one to be passionate about.23

Outwardly, Horace is not an artist – the novel that kills Jerry is the only thing he ever writes. But in fact I think he is: he is an Artist of Survival, as we all must be if we are to live in this world. He survives on Mars Bars, that is, on his love for Jerry – even though that love is unreturned and Jerry is dead for two thirds of the play. He has no ambition, and returns over and over to ‘that awful moment’ when he stood still (Elyot considered the title Square One).24 Yet he is ‘fairly happy,’ and it’s hard not to admire a chap so cheerfully philosophical about life’s anti-climaxes:

I’m not that keen on travel, you know. I like watching travel programmes and I find that kind of enough. Going’s always a let-down, don’t you think?25

This is relatable, bittersweet stuff, and after he saw the play, the composer Gary Yershon wrote Elyot a letter in which he asked, ‘Ah, Kevin […] Who since Chekhov brings laughter and tears together as powerfully as you?’ He answered his own question: ‘No one. I am lost in admiration.’26

I would love to see a revival.

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

1 Harriet Devine, Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006 (London: Faber, 2006), p. 112.
2 Sebastian Born, email to me, 8 March 2024.
3 Michael Billington, Guardian, 23 January 1998, University of Bristol Theatre Collection (UBTC), KE/3/23/5.
4 Dominic Cavendish, ‘All hail theatre’s one-hit wonders’, The Telegraph, 12 June 2014.
5 Kevin 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.
6 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 2 of 3, p. 17.
7 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still (London: Nick Hern Books, 1998), pp. 83-4.
8 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 3 of 3, p. 13.
9 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 13.
10 Ibid, p. 14.
11 Ibid, pp. 56-7.
12 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 1 of 3, pp. 5, 79.
13 Ian Rickson in ‘Ian Rickson and Kevin Elyot in conversation’ (November 1997), National Theatre programme for The Day I Stood Still, UBTC, KE/3/23/4.
14 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 81.
15 Ibid, pp. 39-40.
16 Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 24 January 1998, UBTC, KE/3/23/5.
17 Elyot in National Theatre programme.
18 Elyot to Devine, p. 111.
19 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 1 of 3, pp. 1, 32, 35.
20 Paul Taylor, Independent, 26 January 1998, UBTC, KE/3/23/5.
21 Devine to Elyot and Elyot to Devine, p. 112.
22 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 15.
23 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, Book 2 of 3, p. 23 [Clive James interviewed in The Guardian, 12 October 1996]; Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 81.
24 UBTC, KE/3/23/1, 3 of 3, p. 13.
25 Elyot, The Day I Stood Still, p. 12.
26 Gary Yershon to Elyot, 4 February 1998, UBTC, KE/3/23/6.

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


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.



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


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!


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