Born July 31, 1927;

Died September 7, 2019

PETER Nichols CBE, who has died aged 92, was a master of serious fun in his plays, which combined auto-biographical material with a relish for popular theatrical forms. Nowhere was this more evident than in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, his 1967 hit which premiered at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and focused on a young couple’s travails in raising their disabled daughter. As they tend to Joe’s needs, both the couple, individually, and their marriage survive through a series of comedy routines that barely disguise the cracks in their relationship.

Directed by Michael Blakemore, and with Joe Melia and Zena Walker playing the couple, its mixture of music-hall style addresses to the audience and, at times, heartbreaking seriousness was genuinely taboo-busting, and had to circumnavigate the Lord Chamberlain’s office, which still had the power to censor anything deemed ill-fitting for a respectable stage.

Nichols’ debut stage play was drawn from his own experience raising his disabled daughter, Abigail, who spent much of her life in hospital before passing away, aged eleven. While Nichols was keen to play down his play’s real-life roots lest he be accused of emotional blackmail, as Blakemore related, after watching a run of the play’s opening act for the first time, he turned to Nichols to see tears streaming down his face, the floodgates of his own experience finally burst.

Herald interview with Peter Nichols, 2011

As Nichols’ debut as a stage writer , Joe Egg’s mix of lacerating one-liners and inherent theatricality made quite an impact, and was picked up by Albert Finney. The show transferred first to the West End, then to Broadway, where it ran for 154 performances, with Finney playing Joe’s father. The play was filmed in 1972 by Peter Medak, with Alan Bates and Janet Suzman as the leads, and has been revived numerous times since. It came home to the Citizens in 2011 in a production by Phillip Breen that starred Miles Jupp and Miriam Margolyes. In a guest blog for the Citz’s website, Nichols wrote: “It’s marvellous to have it done at its birthplace, and we’ll be there at its rebirth”.

Peter Richard Nichols was born in Bristol to Richard, a sales rep, and Violet, who gave piano lessons at home. He was introduced to theatre by his father, a keen am-dram actor, who took him to shows at the behest of his talent-seeking theatrical agent uncle. He attended Bristol Grammar school prior to National Service, first as a clerk in Calcutta, then in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit in Singapore, where he performed for the troops alongside Kenneth Williams, Stanley Baxter and John Schlesinger. This became much of the inspiration for Privates on Parade, his 1977 play for the RSC, which won an Olivier award for best new comedy before being adapted into a 1982 film.

Demobbed, Nichols trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He taught English as a foreign language, and, as an actor, played Dracula at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. One review declared that “Count Dracula no longer fearsome. There were no gasps, no shrieks last night.” In his Citizens blog, Nichols wrote of the premiere of Joe Egg, ‘there were a few gasps, but far more laughs, which was our intention….I always suggest to directors fresh to the work that they should think Noel Coward rather than Strindberg.’

Nichols won a BBC writing competition for his first screenplay, A Walk on the Grass, in 1959, and over the next five years a dozen of his scripts were screened. His work moved onto the big screen in 1965, care of director John Boorman, who drafted him in to write the screenplay for Catch Us If You Can. Nichols received a writing credit for Georgy Girl, adapted by Margaret Forster from her novel, in which Lynn Redgrave played a misfit cast adrift in swinging London.

For the stage, Joe Egg was followed by The National Health, a hospital-set black comedy. Other plays included Forget-Me-Not-Lane (1971), Chez Nous (1974), Privates on Parade (1977), Passion Play (1982), which looked unflinchingly at the effects of adultery, and Poppy (1982), which used a pantomime framework to look at the opium trade, and won an Olivier for best new musical.

As he became isolated from the changing of the guard within mainstream British theatre institutions, Nichols turned to prose, writing an autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind (1984) and a typically acerbic book of diaries. He was appointed CBE last year.

Three later plays were produced by the Bristol-based Show of Strength Theatre Company, while Lingua Franca was seen at the Finborough, London, in 2010. While other works remain unproduced, latterly there were several revivals of his best-known plays. Prior to its Citizens revival, Joe Egg was produced on the West End and Broadway. A new production with Toby Stephens, Claire Skinner and Patricia Hodge opens in London later this month, and should reveal Nichols once more as a writer who saw the funny side in the most painful of truths. He is survived by his wife, Thelma, and children Dan, Louise and Catherine.