Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991) was the foremost play agent of her time. Her list of clients shows her to have been at the centre of British playwriting for several generations from the late 1950s on.
To her remarkable array of clients, her letter writing was notorious, marked by searing candour, both a wondrous motivation and an unforgiving scrutiny to be feared. To mark the release of Peggy to her Playwrights, the new book compiling a selection of Peggy Ramsay’s most notable exchanges, Simon Callow looks back on his friendship with one of the most influential agents in theatre history.
As one descends into the vale of years, family, lovers, friends, colleagues inevitably and increasingly fall by the wayside. This is a source of real distress, which becomes worse rather than better as time goes on. As the sonneteer says,
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Among the most precious friends thus hidden are my grandmother, Vera; the playwright Simon Gray; the actor Angus MacKay; and the play agent Peggy Ramsay. There are many, many others, of course, but when I lost those four I felt with each one that something of myself had gone, an important part of me that would never return. And so it has proved. Sometimes, without warning, any one of them will suddenly fill my mind and the terrible frustration of not being able to pick up the conversation where we left off gives me pangs of real physical pain. It passes, but, like the poet, I find myself drowning an eye. What’s to be done? Nothing, really; c’est la vie. One can at least write something, try to catch them on the page, keep them alive, somehow, convey to others who never knew them what it was like to be around them.
I have, indeed, written about all of them: most of all about Peggy, who is the heroine of my memoir Love is Where It Falls. Our relationship was particularly intense, a sort of love affair, unconsummated, physically, but profoundly fulfilled in many other ways. She was 70 when I met her – I was 30 – and within days and for the rest of her life we were as passionately close as any two people could be without actually being lovers. Knowing her was an intoxication: her beauty, her vitality, her mercurial impulses, her wisdom, her poetry, her pain. I wrote my first book as a result of her connecting me with my first publisher; at a stroke she gave me a career as a writer. By the time my second book appeared, she was in decline, though still devoured it as avidly as ever. But her input was merely that of an interested reader. The truth is that she was essentially a play agent, and there was little for her to do for me, professionally speaking.
I knew many of her clients, of course, had acted in or directed many of their plays – Bond, Hare, Hampton, Ayckbourn, Russell – and they had told me of her astonishing interventions on their behalf, her uncommon proactivity with managers, directors, critics. They spoke of (and sometimes showed me) astonishing letters, inspiring, berating, mocking, consoling. I knew already how exacting her standards were, both literary and personal: she demanded that her writers judge themselves against the most exalted models, that they live and write from a position of profound engagement with their own humanity. She was also a demon negotiator, seeing the bargaining process as great sport. I wrote a little about all of this in my book; Colin Chambers, in the authorised biography, covered it in much greater depth. But if you wanted to know about Peggy as an agent, as she understood the job, you really needed to have read her letters. Very shortly after her death, before I had ever thought of writing anything about her myself, Willy Russell suggested to me that someone should put together a selection of her letters. The idea – so obvious, and so obviously right – stayed with me, but for all the usual reasons I did nothing about it.
Meanwhile, Laurence Harbottle and I created the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, using Peggy’s fortune to benefit playwrights – with the additional purpose of keeping her name and what it stood for alive. In this I think it has succeeded; over the 25 years of its existence, innumerable writers and theatres have been helped – in some cases, saved – by infusions of dosh in times of need or distress. But I have often wondered whether the recipients of the awards have any real idea of the woman after which they are named. Colin’s book and mine are a help, I think, in giving an impression of what she was like, but nothing we wrote can fully convey her unique approach to encouraging writing for the theatre, and how far beyond conventional agenting it went. Only her letters can really do that. And so I started, some years ago, to mount a campaign to get then into print, and thence into the hands of writers and managers and directors, and, yes, agents. Finally, after overcoming doubts, resistance, even, from various quarters – who, they not unreasonably asked, would want to buy a book of letters by a long-dead agent? – we have a splendid and representative selection of her correspondence, edited by Colin, which not only brings Peggy back to life, they give a glimpse of what being an agent could possibly be. Of course the world of the theatre has changed. The world has changed. Forces of nature like Peggy are no longer easily accommodated. Nor were they then, truth to tell: her passion, rooted in a hard-won sense of the meaning of life and the purpose of art, often prevailed, but she fought many desperate battles before it did. And when it did, her extraordinary charm made her victories endurable to the vanquished. All this is in Peggy to her Playwrights, to which I can now at last turn when I want to have a conversation with her. They ring out across the years; Peggy lives.
Peggy to her Playwrights edited by Colin Chambers and introduced by Simon Callow is out now at Oberon Books.
On Wednesday 30 May, join Simon Callow, Christopher Hampton, Maureen Lipman and Colin Chambers at the National Theatre to discuss and read some of Peggy Ramsay’s letters to her remarkable array of clients, taken from Peggy to her Playwrights.
Tickets can be booked here.