If life at times is magnificent or disastrous I do not believe that it is due to good or bad luck but rather the management or mismanagement of opportunities. However, shortly after my new friend and mentor, Jimmy Eilbeck advised me to go into advertising and I was puzzling over how I could extricate myself from the family firm without causing a cataclysmic upheaval, I received what can only be called a "lucky" phone call. It was from a senior manager at Waitrose, the supermarket people, who was head hunting capable young men with knowledge of the luxury food trade. I went secretly for an interview, was offered a trial period of employment in their buying department for three times more than I was earning, and gleefully informed Eddy who, though incensed, realized that I might be seriously tempted to take up the proposal.
A conference of V.Benoist.Ltd shareholders was convened. My worth to the company discussed. I was bi-lingual, knew my foodstuffs, knew the trade, was popular with customers, so was offered an adequate increase in salary and a directorship with a few shares thrown in.
If I had been at all entrepreneurial I would have been over the moon about the appointment, but the fact that I was now a company director meant remarkably little to me except that I now had to attend board meetings which I found extremely tedious. Eddy sat at the head of the table as Chairman and Managing Director, while other directors did their best to look interested in what the accountant had to say about profits and losses though probably day dreaming about their forthcoming week-end golf.
I then made an astonishing discovery.
Eddy was not the major shareholder he had led me to believe. If, for instance, a take over was approved by others, we Launays could be booted out at the drop of a bowler hat. All he had put me through to keep the business in the family was based on a fantasy of his wishful thinking. The firm had never been a family concern.
It was my turn to be incensed.
I had mismanaged an opportunity and could not reasonably leave for at least a year, but I now had an office of my own, and a typewriter, so I vented my discontent by writing a very angry play - The Aimless - about a widowed father and his three sons who live in a state of deadlock in an old country house till one of them burns the place down.
At the time, Kenneth Tynan of the Observer, considered by the majority of people in the theatre business to be one of the fiercest dramatic critics of the twentieth century, organized a play competition to encourage new work, so I sent in my opus not at all confident that it would even be read.
A month or so later I received a letter from Mr Tynan himself congratulating me on being one of the finalists in the competition out of two thousand entries. My play had come third, a cheque was enclosed, he was sure I would have no problems getting a production. I was stupefied.
Within a week I received another letter, this time from a Mr John Duncan of Newcastle who had read of the award and got my address from the Observer. He was taking a company of semi professional actors to the 1958 Edinburgh Festival to perform a play on the Fringe and was looking for something new. Could I send him a copy of The Aimless ?
I did this immediately and got a long answer by return which astounded me.
Mr Duncan wanted to produce the play, would not be able to offer me much more than a chance to see it in performance and went on to analyse it with stimulating perception. He had detected some of the more abstract ideas I had had trouble insinuating in the dialogue and his suggestions on how certain scenes could be staged, the way the actors should express the lines, were impressive. He was clearly an astute theatrical director.
He wanted to meet me before the next `term’ began, which suggested he was a professor at a drama school. I imagined him to be an elderly academic gentleman from whom I would learn a great deal and wrote back that I was available at any time he chose.
In his next letter, with more incisive analysis of the play, he named a date. Would it be convenient to meet outside the Collegiate Theatre in Bloomsbury ? The venue fitted my idea of the type of character he would turn out to be.
On the appointed day at the appointed hour I drove round Bloomsbury Square in my open car, parked outside the Collegiate Theatre and waited. The only person in sight was a long haired youth in an old threadbare overcoat, nervously pacing up and down the pavement massaging his neck as though he had mumps.
This uncouth youth, eighteen years old if a day, suddenly stopped to stare at the car, looked at me quizzically and in a Geordie accent that would have made Eve’s father suffer an apoplexy, addressed me.
'Are you Aundrey Loonay?'
Professor Duncan, I decided, had obviously been delayed inside the Collegiate Theatre and had sent one of his students to tell me.
'Yes, I am,' I replied.
'I’m John Dooncan,' he said and stretched a long arm across the passenger seat to shake my hand.
I was so taken aback that it obviously showed..
'Were you expecting someone older?' he asked, grinning 'Most people do. But then you don’t look mooch like what you write, I thought you’d be a bit more untidy, like me.'
We went to a pub and sat down in a corner.
'We’ve got a problem,' he started straight away.' I don’t think the Lord Chamberlain will allow the queer lad to kiss the farmer’s boy.'
We were in 1957. The Sexual Offence Act decriminalising homosexual acts was not to be passed for ten years, and the Theatre Act, abolishing censorship on stage was not to come into effect till a year after that.
'I’ve got just the right actor for the little poofter,' he went on, 'and I’ll play the older brother myself so we only need to find the Dad and the middle son.'
He would rehearse in Newcastle. He had an architect student friend who would design and build the set, a printer friend would take care of the programmes. He had already booked the venue in Edinburgh, all he wanted from me was an alternative to the homosexual content without losing the quirky element of the plot.
My mind drifted. I wasn’t sure that putting the play in his hands for a whole year was a good idea. I could wait for a more professional offer, but then none might be made. Apart from his letters, which suggested he knew what he was doing, I didn’t know anything about him.’
'What do you do in Newcastle?' I asked.
'Teach geography and history to eleven year olds, and drama. I’ve produced lots of plays before with amateurs and semi pros, if that’s what you’re worrying about. And I’m twenty six. And I rang Kenneth Tynan who said a Fringe production of the play would be ideal to gauge an audience’s reaction.'
On the strength of that, I committed myself there and then and worried for a year whether I had managed this opportunity correctly.
Kenneth Tynan, dramatic critic