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The thrills keep on coming from a tricky classic; Playwright Anthony Shaffer talks to Terry Grimley about the remarkable success of his first play, Sleuth.

Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth is one of the most spectacularly successful thrillers in stage history, clocking up more than 2,000 performances in both the West End and on Broadway.

It was filmed with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine as the manipulative Andrew Wyke and his young rival Milo Tindle and it has even been claimed that it has been continuously in production somewhere in the world ever since it was first staged at the Theatre Royal, Brighton in January 1970.

Now it has been given a major revival by Mobil Touring Theatre, with Peter Bowles and Michael Maloney as the game-playing protagonists. The play's longevity seems the more remarkable when you reflect that it hinges on a simple and, you might have thought, fragile theatrical device.

"I think the reason for its survival is that the nature of the device or trick is such that if you know it the play becomes even crueller, in one way," Anthony Shaffer suggests.

"It's an act of retaliation and because Wyke is altogether a really foul fellow, we want him to get it for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

"I've recently seen it after some interval in San Francisco with Stacy Keach; half the audience knew the play and the other half didn't. It seemed to me that the half that didn't got the original shock and the one that did were quietly pleased with what was happening."

Wyke, the obsessive, game-playing control freak, is not exactly a portrait of a real person but he was inspired by someone Shaffer knew.

"He was a games player; he's a very famous fellow and he's enormously litigous, so I'd better not mention his name. I used to go and see him on a regular basis and have dinner with him - the walls, by the way, were covered in games going back to prehistory. He was never ready, and he always used to say 'Good gracious, is it 7.30 already? I'll just go upstairs and have a shower'. He would always give me a drink and some little puzzle to do while I was waiting."

To make a long anecdote brief, it eventually occurred to Shaffer to ask why this routine was invariably repeated, whereupon he discovered the drinks with which he was being plied were 200 per cent wood alcohol. This planted the seed of a plot revolving around a games player who would do anything to win.

And did Shaffer's acquaintance recognise himself in Sleuth?

"Yes he did. He believed he had written the whole show, which he hadn't."

At the time Sleuth opened, Shaffer desperately needed a hit, though perhaps not quite as big a hit as this turned out to be. He had just embarked on a third career as a full-time writer, having previously been a barrister and then had his own film production company making documentaries and commercials.

As a boy, he had collaborated with his twin brother Peter, now well known as the author of plays like The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus, on writing mysteries. He had also done some writing at Cambridge, where he edited the literary magazine Granta.

"There are only so many commercials you can make and my brother Peter was very helpful at the time. I told him I was going to Puerto Rico to make a commercial for Coca Cola - or Pepsi, I forget which - and he said 'Do you propose to spend the rest of your life doing this? You should stop and go into the theatre - you're a natural playwright.'

"So I went home and told my partners I was going to leave the company, gving them a couple of months' notice.

"They wanted to give me a safety net, so that after a year if I wasn't making a living I could go back but I told them that would be hopeless - I would end up dawdling and fiddling for a year and then going back.

"It's very difficult just to become a writer and I had a couple of young kids at the time. My previous wife, Carolyn, was very good about it; I told her we were going to have to give up the expense account and fancy perks and she said 'Good - I thought you would never do it.'"

Arguably Shaffer's other big hit of the 1970s, although it was far less obvious at the time, was the film The Wicker Man . British Lion disliked it so much they tried to bury it but it has gone on to achieve cult status, to the extent that BBC Scotland recently made a documentary about it.

"There's a Wicker Man Appreciation Society in America - they keep sending me a fanzine," Shaffer said. "Do you know what a fanzine is? I didn't."

The Wicker Man, in which Edward Woodward plays a policeman who travels to a remote Scottish island community to investigate a missing child and finds himself embroiled in a pagan plot, was, Shaffer says, a film on the nature of human sacrifice.

"What I wanted to do was make a more intelligent type of horror film because what you mostly see is something stupid and fill of cliches. So did Christopher Lee. He was really fed-up with Dracula films. We formed a consortium with the managing director of British Lion, Peter Snell, who suggested my partner, Robin Hardy, should help with research and even direct the picture.

"British Lion weren't keen on it - they weren't used to anything more serious than On the Buses. Peter Snell was replaced by someone who hated the picture and it was cut. The story takes place over two nights but it was cut to one. There is a restored version which is much better."

Incredible but true, Shaffer completed the script for a sequel to The Wicker Man last year. He is optimistic that it will be made, as he believes there is a ready-made audience, though he doubts that the provisional title, The Loathly Worm of Lombton, will survive. On the other hand, it is not likely to be called The Wicker Man II, either.

At about the same time, Shaffer scripted Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film Frenzy - the only film Hitchcock returned to make in Britain after he moved to Hollywood in the 1930s.

Sleuth had just made its splash on Broadway and Shaffer initially suspected a practical joke when a New Year's Eve party was interrupted by a phone call and a lugubrious voice said: "This is Alfred Hitchcock and I would like you to pen my next oeuvre."

"When he came over to look at locations, chiefly around Covent Garden, a man came up to him and said 'Mr Hitchcock, I knew your father when he was a porter here in this market.' Hitchcock was delighted. And thanks to Frenzy we have a film record of how those markets were.

"He shot it precisely as written. On one occasion, to teach the young Jon Finch a lesson, he got him to call me up to ask whether it was 'didn't' or 'did not'.

"He was very supportive. He could be tough but I very much liked working with him and he was very interesting, obviously, because he knew exactly what he wanted.

"The scene in the truck (where Barry Foster's murderer searches through sacks of potatoes for the body he has dumped, in order to retrieve a piece of evidence) is a set piece and after the murder, there's a very remarkable camera movement downstairs and out into the street.

"He was very good on these things - like in Foreign Correspondent , where one car is chasing another and when the second car comes round the corner there's no sign of the first one. There's just a flat landscape with windmills. There's a long pause until you notice that the sails on one of the windmills are turning the wrong way."

Anthony Shaffer's collaboraton with him will figure in the autobiography he is currently writing, which should be out by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, he is also marking his 73rd birthday this month by writing a new play.

"It's a rather cold-hearted melodrama, written in the style of Patrick Hamilton, who wrote Gaslight," he said. "It's called The Thing in the Wheelchair. That gives you an idea of how cold-hearted it is."

Sleuth is at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, from Monday to Saturday next week.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Grimley, Terry
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 5, 1999
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