Fourteen years ago, almost to the day, Lloyd Evans and I received a note from Boris. It was the press night of Who’s The Daddy?, our play about the various sex scandals that had engulfed The Spectator in the previous 12 months, and we were terrified about how he’d react. As the editor of the magazine, he would have been within his rights to sack us, given how disloyal we’d been. We had portrayed him as a sex-mad buffoon with a portrait of Margaret Thatcher on his office wall that turned into a pull-down bed — in constant use throughout, needless to say. Not only that, but we’d sent up numerous other members of staff, including Kimberly Fortier, the publisher, Petronella Wyatt, the deputy editor, and Rod Liddle, the magazine’s star columnist. (Of the three, only Rod survives at The Spectator.) At that time, Lloyd and I were sharing the drama critic beat and if we’d behaved this badly at any other magazine we would have been crucified. How would Boris respond?
I’ll get to that in a minute, but first a bit of background. The Spectator found itself in the news in the second half of 2004 thanks to a string of scandals. First, Rod fell in love with Alicia Monckton, a 22-year-old staff member, and left his wife Rachel Royce, who vented her rage in the Daily Mail. Then the News of the World revealed that Kimberly was having an affair with the home secretary, David Blunkett.
And finally Boris was sacked as shadow arts minister by Michael Howard after misleading him about his affair with Petronella (‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’). It was as if the plot of a Carry On film was unfolding at the world’s oldest continuously published magazine, with Boris as Sid James, Petsy as Barbara Windsor and Rod as Jim Dale. Lloyd and I became convinced some enterprising playwright would write a comedy set at ‘The Sextator’ offices and we thought: ‘Bugger that. Let’s do it ourselves.’
Neither of us had much experience, but having sat through hundreds of dismal, unfunny comedies in the West End, we decided it couldn’t be that hard. In fact, it was. The difficult thing, we discovered, is to create three-dimensional characters who seem to be autonomous, living beings while at the same time constantly making decisions that move the elaborate, mousetrap-like plot in exactly the direction you want.
That’s a problem when it comes to writing any play, but it’s particularly acute in the case of a farce, because you frequently have to have these comic explosions going off, each bigger than the last, until the whole thing seems to pop like a giant champagne cork. Lloyd and I spent about three months holed up in my office in Shepherd’s Bush, sweating over every detail. It was like playing three-dimensional chess with Star Trek’s Mr Spock. At points we were concentrating so hard that we thought our brains would start to bleed. But in the end we had something we were both happy with.
We sent it to a string of producers, including, rather ambitiously, the artistic director of the National Theatre, and eventually hit pay dirt. Nica Burns, one of the West End’s biggest names, offered to put it on in a pub in Islington called the King’s Head, where she was on the board. At that point, things began to move quickly, with a director agreeing to do it, actors being cast, costumes and sets being designed… the whole nine yards. Lloyd and I hadn’t told Boris what we’d been up to, not wanting to risk his retribution in case it all came to nothing. Now we had to break it to him — and fast.
We waited until a week or so before the first night, not wanting to give him time to put his lawyers on us if he took against it, and sent him a copy along with an invitation to come and see it. We didn’t hear anything back until we got the note. It read as follows: ‘I always knew my life would be turned into a farce. I’m just glad it’s been entrusted to two such distinguished men of letters.’
If there was a typeface called ‘irony’ he would have used it, but we were mightily relieved. He’d clearly decided to take it on the chin. And that remained his position throughout the play’s eight-week run and afterwards. He didn’t fire us, didn’t cut our pay, didn’t disinvite us from the annual summer party. I doubt any other editor would have been so sanguine. We loved him for it and still do to this day.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.