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Hugh Leonard, playwright

About his work for stage, page and screen

Award curios and questions

There is at least one curiosity and one question in the awards listed in our page on Hugh Leonard’s “Awards and Honorary Degrees” –  an impressive scan of four decades and mix of the Irish and the international.

The question is this: by the evidence of the photograph above, HL won the Jacobs Television Award twice.  The older award, on the left, dates back to 1969 and HL’s adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Nicholas Nickleby (he did indeed set the gold standard for TV adaptations and classic serials at time) but what was the second, later Jacobs TV award for?  This is the post 1981 award designed by Theo McNabb.  It does not feature in the best listing that I can find – here.

The second curiosity is the “Award of Merit” from the Writers Guild of Great Britain in 1966 for Silent Song.  I have been in touch with the Guild and they advise that awards were made throughout the 1960s but no systematic record was kept.  So the actual framed award is the only evidence of its existence.  “Silent Song” is well evidenced:  it was a big deal in its day and deserves its own, future post.  Meanwhile I reproduce the award here for the record.

writers guild of gb award

For the true TV historians among you, the award and its signatories are a glimpse at pioneers of television.  “Willis” refers to the screen dramatist Ted Willis, best known for writing Dixon of Dock Green – that set the style for so many police /crime dramas to come –  and elevated to a life peerage in 1963.  David Whitaker was the founding script editor and an early writer of Doctor Who.

Mick and Mick – and other names

Mick and Mick, Hugh Leonard’s play of 1966, provides a good example of the difficulties of cataloguing his work.

In Mick and Mick Fran Corish returns home to Ireland after eight years in England and discovers that, emotionally, she never left home at all (“I never left them… all the nice people”) and tries to face up to hard choices (“A choice between Micks is no choice at all, Fran”).  The play was staged in the Dublin Theatre Festival in October 1966 – the programme for that production is illustrated here.  But a version of the same play with the same cast and the same director, Guy Verney, had already been produced for television’s Armchair Theatre in August 1966 as Great Big Blonde.  This is misquoted in some sources as “The Big Blonde”.  And to cap it all in 1976 the stage play was produced at Olney Maryland as “All the Nice People”.

MickandMick1966 edited

This is not an isolated instance.  John Keyes Byrne wrote A Nightingale in the Branches but it was as Hugh Leonard that he submitted the same play as The Big Birthday to the Abbey Theatre in 1956. Irishmen (Olney 1975) and Suburb of Babylon (Dublin Theatre Festival 1983) have surely both been used to present the same trilogy of one act plays.

And so the disentangling continues and the “Compleat Hugh Leonard” remains, for now, a work in progress. The best effort will be posted to the Links and Resources page of this site.

 Notes

The large cast and good cameo parts means that Mick and Mick remains popular especially with community theatre companies.  It has been presented in 2012 by Square One Theatre group in Bray, who have lent the image used here.

Maureen Toal who died in 2012 was the original Great Big Blonde of TV and stage.  She appeared in many HL plays in the 1960s – and in the original production of A Life and Pizzazz.

Suburb of Babylon is being presented at the Ilkley Playhouse in April 2013.  Individual plays from this trilogy are regularly staged.

Summer

Summer

Towards the end of Hugh Leonard’s life he expressed the view that Summer was his best play. This article notes what he and some critics have said about it.

HL wrote disparagingly in an unpublished memoir “Critically, my play Summer far outdid Da at Olney – I have noticed that if a play features a number of characters lying on grass, one of them strumming a guitar, the critics rave and dust off the superlative “Chekhovian.”

Some years earlier he also wrote “In my play Summer, I began with the idea of two picnics six years apart.  I wanted to see what time had done to my people.  At the beginning, a metaphor was in the back of my head, and it was that at a certain point in our lives we move from a bus to a tramcar which travels along an ordained route, unable to change its course.  We, the passengers move around inside it, giving ourselves the delusion of freedom of choice and destination.”

summer by hugh leonard

The illustration accompanying this article is, I believe, from the 1980 off-Broadway production at the Hudson Guild Theatre.  The New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote of this scene : “the lights come up on a grassy hill high above Dublin, and we find eight people relaxing after a picnic lunch, reclining in the sod, saying nothing.  It’s obvious that these people all belong to the same part, but, for this extended instant, each character is isolated, staring off into a lonely space of his own choosing… And while no one has spoken a line, the audience has already been treated to a poignant foreboding of the evening’s subject.  The tranquil hush of the hill, the beatific stares on the faces, the translucent glow of the sky all summon up an utter stillness that cannot be confused with anything but death”.

In his obituary and evaluation of Hugh Leonard in 2009, the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole wrote “For the second half of what is perhaps Hugh Leonard’s best play, Summer, three married couples reassemble at a beauty spot in Dalkey where we have seen them have a picnic six years earlier. As they take stock of the landscape, they are struck by the changes. The Celtic cross that had marked the spot has been removed to the National Museum. A crane dominates the horizon. The talk is of the property boom and political cronyism….The remarkable thing about this scene is that it is set not at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but in 1974, the year the play was first produced. That it could be cutting-edge contemporary theatre reminds us of the neat dramatic timing of Hugh Leonard’s final exit.”

Summer was first produced at the Olney (Maryland) Theatre in 1974 and staged again in that year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.  It was produced off-Broadway in 1980 at the Hudson Guild Theatre with a  cast that included Swoosie Kurtz, Pauline Flanagan and Mia Dillon.  A rehearsed reading was staged at the New Theatre in Dublin in 2007 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival 50th anniversary programme.

Illustrating this site

Sorrento Park bandstand

Depending on the device that you are using, you may see less or more of the background image for this this site, so it is illustrated in full above .  This old photograph  – it looks 100 or more years old –  is taken from the top of Sorrento Park in Dalkey, looking down on the bandstand with Dalkey hill in the background.  HL’s play A Life opens with the principal character Drumm addressing an unseen audience “To conclude. I have chose to terminate today’s walk in this park which is remarkable for its view of sea and mountains, such as may have inspired Bernard Shaw’s observation that whereas Ireland’s men are temporal, her hills are eternal.  Any child familiar with the rudiments of geology could have told him otherwise, but then even Shaw was not immune to his country men’s passion for inexactitude.  These few acres have more than a scenic claim on our attention.  This hillside is all that remains of what was called the Commons of Dalkey…”

Leonard’s one act play A View from the Obelisk is set on Killiney Hill that can be seen in the distance on the left.

The photograph in the page “About Hugh Leonard” is a rediscovery kindly supplied by a friend of the playwright.  He is seen working in his office, a studio in the garden of his house in Killiney, in an image from the early 1970s.  This is the desk he wrote at for nearly 50 years.  To the left of the door, you can just about see his Prix Italia awarded in 1967 for the television play Silent Song.

This site uses the WordPress theme “The Columnist” – chosen for its magazine format but a nice verbal fit with the subject.  The monochrome in these initial illustrations picks up on Hugh Leonard’s important work in the early years of television and his love of old fillums.

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