Playwright and screen-writer

Born: October 31, 1945;

Died: December 10, 2019

BARRIE Keeffe, who has died aged 74, was a writer who once said he wrote plays for people who wouldn’t be seen dead in the theatre. Throughout the 1970s, Keeffe’s work acted as the liberal conscience of a nation. His plays were shot-through with a street-smart aesthetic at a time when he and other British writers were exploring stories of working class lives on the margins.

Gotcha (1977) formed part of the Gimme Shelter trilogy with Gem and Getaway, and focused on a disenfranchised teenager threatening to blow up his school from astride a motorbike. Sus (1979) dissected the institutionalised racism of the law which allowed the police to stop and search people for no reason, with black youth in particular frequently detained. Set on the night of the 1979 General Election, Sus proved instrumental in the law being scrapped.

It was Keeffe’s big-screen debut with the screenplay for The Long Good Friday, however, that left its mark on a wider audience. Directed by John Mackenzie, it was filmed prior to Margaret Thatcher being elected Prime Minister, and opened in 1980, during her first year in office. What was essentially a hard-boiled and very British pulp fiction gangster flick about a London crime boss attempting to gentrify a then derelict docklands was fired by a socio-political undercurrent that now looks like prophecy.

Keeffe and Mackenzie set up a conflict between gangsterism, terrorism and capitalism, with a conspiracy between corrupt councillors, bent coppers and a construction industry run on Irish migrant labour thrown into the mix like a live grenade. Bob Hoskins’ mercurial little Caesar, Harold Shand, envisions a waterfront lined with shiny centres of international commerce and an Olympic stadium, paid for with mafia money. Like a psychotic Del Boy, his aspirations are steeped in working-class Tory bluster.

Keeffe was living in Greenwich at the time, and through his window could see a dilapidated docklands ripe for redevelopment that would eventually result in an actual stadium for the London 2012 Olympics. After meeting an Irish republican in the pub, he wrote the first draft of what was originally called The Paddy Factor in three days.

Harold’s closing speech in the film as he berates his American partners for pulling out of the deal casts him as an East End Henry V, his patriotic fighting-talk loaded with pugnacious Dunkirk spirit. “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world,” says Harold. “Culture. Sophistication. Genius. A little bit more than an ‘ot dog, know what I mean? We’re in the Common Market now, and my new deal is with Europe.”

Harold sees Britain’s place in Europe as an opportunity he can profit from. The film’s final wordless scene, however, reveals a more complex world that leaves him isolated and under siege. There are some forces, it seems, even empire builders like Harold can’t control.

Barrie Colin Keeffe was a London boy who grew up in Forest Gate, the son of Edward, a telecommunications engineer descended from Irish migrants from Cork originally named O’Keeffe, and Constance (nee Marsh), a Women’s Voluntary Service worker. Keeffe attended East Ham grammar school in Barking, and during school holidays joined the National Youth Theatre. After school, he spent a decade as a grassroots reporter on the Stratford Express, experiences which were channelled into his 1975 play, Scribes.

Keeffe’s first TV play, Substitute, was produced in 1972, and his first theatre piece, Only a Game, a year later. Much of Keeffe’s work premiered at Soho Poly (now Soho Theatre), co-founded by Verity Bargate, who nurtured Keefe’s talent. Keeffe and Bargate married in 1981, shortly before her untimely death. After turning fully professional in 1975, Keeffe became writer-in-residence at the Shaw Theatre in 1977, and resident writer with the Royal Shakespeare Company the following year.

Keeffe’s work was laced through with a punky energy that gave voice to his tearaway heroes, with Barbarians (1977), another trilogy featuring Killing Time, Abide with Me and In the City, addressing class directly. Having grown up in a post-war period when London swung for some and social mobility seemed easy, pop culture influences ran throughout his work. Gimme Shelter (1977), I Only Want to Be With You (1995), and TV play, Waterloo Sunset (1979), all took their titles from iconic 1960s pop songs.

When Here Comes the Sun was produced at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in 1976, Keeffe couldn’t have predicted it would be ex-Beatle and unsung saviour of the British film industry George Harrison who would eventually bank-roll The Long Good Friday through his HandMade production company. This came about after Lew Grade insisted on major cuts to the film, fearful that its content might incite real-life terrorist attacks on cinemas where it was shown.

Bastard Angel (1980), originally written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, featured Charlotte Cornwell as a rock singer in freefall. It was rewritten in 1983 as an eight-part TV series under the name No Excuses. In 1981, Keeffe wrote Chorus Girls with Ray Davies of The Kinks for the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The play reimagined Lysistrata in a job centre, where a band of militant women hold Prince Charles hostage. With Keeffe joining the theatre as associate writer, he wrote Better Times (1985), which looked at the 1921 rates rebellion in Poplar. More plays followed, including a musical, Not Fade Away, in 1990.

Keeffe was named by Led Zeppelin’s larger than life manager Peter Grant as screen-writer on a proposed bio-pic of him, but the film never materialised. Neither did a sequel to The Long Good Friday which Keeffe spoke of, in which Harold Shand had seemingly survived his previous ordeal and got himself mixed up with Yardie culture in Jamaica and London.

Keeffe became a United Nations ambassador, taught creative writing at City University, London, and was given an honorary doctorate from Warwick University. He was a Judith J. Wilson Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, a visiting lecturer at Ruskin College, Oxford, and writer in residence at Kingston University, London.

In the current political climate, Keeffe’s work remains as urgent as ever, and over the last decade younger theatre makers have continued to look to his work. Barbarians was seen in London in 2012 and in 2015 at Tooting Arts Club and the Young Vic, where Sus was revived prior to a UK tour and a TV version screened in 2010. At the time of his death, Keeffe was working on a new TV play, Betty, and a commission from Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Keeffe married four times, first to Dee Trueman, a social worker, from 1969 to their divorce a decade later. He then married Bargate in 1981. Keeffe’s third wife was Julia Lindsay, a pop music agent he married in 1983 before they divorced in 1993. In 2012 Keefe married TV and film producer Jacky Stoller, who survives him along with his sister Sue and his stepsons Sam and Tom.

NEIL COOPER