Renowned journalist, playwright and novelist Michael Frayn is one of York’s recent honorary degree recipients. First year student Chris Owen chats to the man of many talents about student life, Sylvia Plath and the fine art of farce.
At 81, Michael Frayn is the kind of man one can only hope to become. If such a statement borders on sycophancy, it’s a testament to the attraction of the former Guardian journalist’s legacy to a student hack.
As I stand, notepad of questions in hand, at the back of the lecture theatre to which Frayn has just delivered a talk on everything from arguing philosophy to translating Checkov, I’m struck by the daunting fact he’s written more works than I’ve had birthdays.
Yet I’m soon put at ease by a jovial smile. Frayn is in York receiving one of four honorary doctorates to be awarded by the University this year.
“The honorary degree from Cambridge,” he tells me, “was special because it was from my old university and you can’t help being attached to it. I’m equally honoured to be given one by York, though.”
The man-with-two-doctorates and I have relocated to the back room of an administrative office. He seems relieved by the informality of the setting.
He also looks tired – clearly from the demands of a wildly busy schedule. I’ve managed to secure a 30 minute window between his talk and a formal University dinner. But despite this frenetic turnaround he is always forthcoming in answer to my questions.
I’m reminded that he himself worked in journalism whilst at university, and so I plot our course for some common ground. “It was difficult to get jobs in journalism then,” he says sagely when I ask how one made their way from a student paper to a national in the ’60s.
“The Editor of the Guardian was coming down to Cambridge to interview potential candidates for a six month trial. I didn’t know much about the Guardian at the time, so when I got to the Appointments Office and I was interviewed by a young man who didn’t seem much older than I was, I assumed he was an Editor’s assistant doing the groundwork. So I was very relaxed about it – I sat back and chatted easily.”
“Afterwards, when he said, ‘could you start in October?’ it came to me that this was the editor of the Guardian – they’d just appointed this very young man called Alastair Hetherington. If I’d realised he was the Editor I would probably have been tongue-tied and overcome. So I got the job.”
It’s hard to imagine this stately man ever being tongue-tied or overcome. The author of 11 novels and over 30 plays and translations, including the canonical Noises Off, Democracy, Copenhagen and Headlong, Frayn is made something of an anomaly by the breadth of his achievements.
Also a master linguist, screenwriter, and practiced dabbler in moral science (he politely shirks off my attempt to label him a philosopher, and is “extremely cautious” about claiming to write philosophy, despite having authored an acclaimed non-fiction study called The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe), I can’t help but be fixated with the order of events that led to such multi-faceted success.
“The philosophy I learnt at University has absolutely affected everything I’ve written since,” he tells me when I ask about the influence of his university days. Frayn studied French and Russian before switching to what was then called Moral Sciences – he jokes that no one outside Cambridge had the “faintest idea what ‘Moral Sciences’ were”, lending its students an air of unfounded mysticism.
“Writing for student publications and reviewing the theatre were also particularly formative processes. And also what I learnt from my friends, because at university one of the great sources of education is the people you know who are reading other subjects, as you can’t help discussing their subjects with them. You don’t become a great expert but you find out about something that you wouldn’t have come across otherwise.”
I can’t help but dig for some 60s Cambridge celebrity gossip – I ask him about any notable contemporaries. He smilingly offers a titbit: “Sythia Plath was there at the same time as me. And Ted Hughes. I didn’t know Ted Hughes very well – I knew Sylvia slightly better.”
Every turn of phrase heralds another charming anecdote overflowing with the vibrancy of a life and career well lived. I ask again of Frayn’s time at The Guardian: how does one so young adapt to working in such a pressurised environment?
I sense that this is a period in his career of which he is particularly fond: “They didn’t give you any training at all. You just did the job, and you either did it or didn’t. It was a good way of learning – just having to do it rather than being given formal training.
“And you did everything. You were expected to report on local news, to do some reviewing of local theatres, cinema reviewing, book reviewing, and even occasionally write leaders. All in all it was a good general introduction for working for a high-brow newspaper, though it wouldn’t have been much use on a popular paper.”
Ever meticulous, Frayn is quick to correct me when I try and broach the topic of his career-long fascination with farce by setting it in a wider British comic tradition. It owes, he tells me, as much to the French and a ‘history of classic farce’ in Europe as it does to the hallmarks of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Chaplin.
I ask instead if he has, in the 20-plus years since his most prolific farcical outing Noises Off debuted, been able to pin down the root of this particular play’s success.
“Most farce involves panic of some sort. It involves someone getting in a state because they risk making fools of themselves or risk being caught out in some shameful, disgraceful situation.
“And they panic. And in their panic they find a solution – usually by telling a lie – which, far from solving a problem, makes it worse, because then they have to conceal the lie as well. So you get that sense of escalation and it works in getting more and more complicated, and worse and worse.
“Which reflects something that can happen in life. It’s a formalisation of it, but we all get in messy situations and try to get ourselves out of it by ways that make the problem better rather than worse.
“And I think everyone has got an unconscious fear inside themselves that they may not be able to go on with the show. We’re all keeping a performance going of one sort or another, and I think we’re all terrified that we may one day break down. And it does happen.
“People often have breakdowns when they can’t face the world. They’ll sit in the corner and cry. And I think when you see it happening to somebody else – these ridiculous actors on the stage making fools of themselves and not being able to go on with their act – I think it is perhaps a release for this fear inside you.”
I offer that what he is describing is, essentially, a catharsis. Or even, I go on, a ‘ca-farce-is’. Michael is merciful enough to laugh.
I finally ask what he considers to be his singular proudest achievement to date. He smiles, brow furrowed. “Oh I don’t know. I’m very pleased that Noises Off has caught people’s fancy and makes people laugh. I’m pleased that Copenhagen works and interests people. I think one of my better plays is Here, which other people don’t like so much. I think there’s something to be said of The Human Touch – I think there’s some interesting stuff in there.” It seems there’s too many achievements to choose from.
As we pack up to leave, the Guardian veteran kindly asks about my own ambitions in journalism. I tell him broadly what they are. He wishes me luck. I thank him, only the slightest bit tongue-tied and overcome.