Agent: Sarah McNair
An English playwright closely associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, Norman Frederick Simpson was known to his friends as Wally Simpson, in comic reference to the abdication crisis of 1936. A Londoner by birth, Simpson studied at Emanuel School before taking a job as a bank clerk. During wartime he served in the Royal Artillery and Intelligence Corps, travelling to Italy, Palestine and Cyprus. Following a post-war degree in English Literature at the University of London, Simpson taught English in adult education for almost twenty years.
The turning point in N.F. Simpson’s life came in 1957 when he was awarded third prize in the Observer newspaper’s quest for new writers, spearheaded by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. A RESOUNDING TINKLE was premièred at the Royal Court Theatre, London on 1 December 1957 with Nigel Davenport and Wendy Craig, directed by William Gaskill, who truncated the play to a 50-minute one-act piece. 1959 saw the first complete performance of the two-act version by the Cambridge Theatre Actors, under the direction of John Bird and starring Peter Cook. The Royal Court belatedly presented a staged reading of the full rendition on 17 January 2006 as part of their 50th birthday celebrations.
A close relationship between N.F. Simpson and the Royal Court continued after TINKLE, encompassing the plays THE HOLE (1958), key work ONE WAY PENDULUM (1959) and THE CRESTA RUN (1965). He wrote THE FORM (1961) for the Arts Theatre and contributed to West End revues ONE TO ANOTHER (1959), ONE OVER THE EIGHT (1961) and ON THE AVENUE (1961), which variously involved Peter Cook, John Mortimer, Harold Pinter, Beryl Reid and Kenneth Williams. Following a long break from substantial theatre writing, Simpson returned to the Royal Court in 1972 with WAS HE ANYONE? This play would form the basis of HARRY BLEACHBAKER, a novel first published in 1976. In November1976, Simpson was appointed Literary Manager of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court. Having supported new work by Barrie Keefe, Sam Shephard and Snoo Wilson, he departed the post in April 1978, returning to the theatre once more for an Eduardo De Filippo translation, INNER VOICES, at the Royal National Theatre in 1983.
The Theatre of the Absurd arrived on television in 1961, with productions of N.F. Simpson plays on both British networks. BBC TV produced a live performance of ONE WAY PENDULUM, now lost, whilst Granada Television mounted a shortened version of A RESOUNDING TINKLE for ITV.
Hot on the heels of his Summer Holiday success, director Peter Yates agreed to shoot Simpson’s most celebrated stage play ONE WAY PENDULUM for cinema release in 1964, starring Eric Sykes, George Cole and a mute Jonathan Miller.
In1965, acting as the corporation’s Assistant Head of Light Entertainment, Frank Muir invited Simpson to write for BBC2. Across seven half-hours, the central characters of TINKLE were expanded upon for THREE ROUSING TINKLES (1966) and FOUR TALL TINKLES (1967). He followed this with WORLD IN FERMENT (1969), a six-part parody of current affairs programming starring John Bird, Eleanor Bron, Jack Shepherd and Angela Thorne. His final series for television was CHARLEY’S GRANTS (1970), co-written with John Fortune and John Wells starring Hattie Jacques and produced by Ian MacNaughton, fresh from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Plays followed, including a satire on advertising, THANK YOU VERY MUCH (1971), and a three-hander for ITV, SILVER WEDDING (1974), directed by Mike Newell. Simpson’s most high profile production for television was ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON (1973), a Sherlock Holmes parody for BBC1’s Comedy Playhouse starring John Cleese and Willie Rushton. It has been screened several times at the National Film Theatre in London.
As Simpson’s work also operates extremely well in small doses, it is natural that he should have produced so much sketch material for television, which included: Beryl Reid Says… Good Evening (1968); World in Ferment (1969); But Seriously – It’s Sheila Hancock (1972); Ned Sherrin’s A Rather Reassuring Programme (1977) and The Dick Emery Show (1977–1980).
A radio documentary about his life and work, Reality is an Illusion Caused by Lack of N. F. Simpson, produced by David Quantick for Curtains For Radio and aired on BBC Radio 4 on 5 April 2007, featured contributions from Eleanor Bron, Jonathan Coe, John Fortune, Jonathan Miller, Sir John Mortimer, David Nobbs, Ned Sherrin, Eric Sykes and the man himself.
His last stage play, IF SO, THEN YES had a staged reading at the Royal Court in July 2007 and was premièred by Presence Theatre Co at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010.
Wally died on 27 August, 2011.