‘Isn’t that a bit disloyal?’ That was the reply I received at a recent show of mine when I answered a question about my next project.
Yes. For the first time in 20 years I am preparing a non Dickens show and it is one that I am excited about and nervous about in equal measures.
As I enter my last 2 weeks of rehearsal let me try to tell you how it has all come about.
2 years ago I received the weekly e-newsletter from my golf club in Oxford and it had details of a forthcoming social event: a tribute act to Abba or Queen or some such, if I recall. The Oxford Golf Club has a constant programme of social events for the membership and as well as tribute acts there are quiz evenings, after dinner speeches, celebrations for Burns Night, Valentine’s Day and so on.
As I read, a thought suddenly came to me, why don’t I offer one of my shows? The idea rolled around for a while and I came to the conclusion that instead of suggesting one of my regular theatre scripts, why not prepare something specifically for golf clubs that I can then market across the country?
Charles Dickens was not known for his work on golf. A little bit of cricket, yes, but no golf that I could think of, so I began to think about who HAS written about golf and the answer came to me faster than my golf ball disappears into the left rough at the first: PG Wodehouse.
In 1922 Wodehouse started to write a series of short stories set in a golf club. He was a member in le Touquet and although not a terribly good player, he was certainly an expert observer and soon realised that every human trait was laid bare on the links.
The majority of his tales were written from the perspective of ‘The Oldest Member’, sitting quietly in the clubhouse and regaling anyone who was there with his memories of life at the club. The fact that Wodehouse’s plots were based in a golf clubhouse and that I wanted to perform in a golf clubhouse seemed to make this the natural path to follow.
As with any new project my first action was to announce to Liz my eureka moment and get completely carried away with the idea: generally planning world domination, long theatre tours, no doubt a television series followed by the movie version. As the idea took hold more firmly I began to plan where we would moor our luxury yacht, which great cities we would have apartments in and which classic cars I would buy – all purchased with the takings. That moment past, I let the project slip away into the depths of my mind and there it lay dormant, almost forgotten.
In this case Liz gave me the necessary prod by buying a small collection of old golf clubs to use as props in the yet to be created show. Although the clubs didn’t have an instant effect, they nagged away at my conscience for months. There they were mocking me from their corner in the shed.
About a year after first having the idea, I came back to it. I analysed it again and once more came to the conclusion that it was an interesting plan and that it would be a good challenge for me to adapt and learn the work of a different author.
Of course the first thing to do was to read the full collection, firstly in a small volume called ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golfing tales’ and then in the larger ‘Golfing Omnibus’. Wodehouse is always a delight to read, his use of language is brilliant and there are phrases at which you shake your head in disbelief and revel in their wit and conciseness.
Although each story features a different approach, they all follow a fairly similar path: a young, successful golfer, his character usually flawed in some way, inevitably in love with a young beauty, plays a round of golf which not only cures his flaw but wins him the girl. There are many brilliant variations on this theme, but it is the recurring one.
Having read the stories a few times I narrowed them down to 6: ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ , ‘The Long Hole’, ‘The Coming of Gowf’, ‘Ordeal by Golf’, ‘The Letter or the Law’ and ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’. This collection I felt gave me a good spread of golfing characteristics and situations which would appeal to my target audience: golfers.
Having settled on my short list, then next thing to do was to learn more about Pelham Grenville Wodehouse himself. I purchased a recent biography and began immersing myself into his world. Any life story is fascinating, of course, but in this case it wasn’t the anecdotes and the factual accounts of his movements between Britain, America, France and Germany that interested me. It was his method of writing that became important.
Wodehouse simply lived to write. He wasn’t a gregarious outgoing party animal, enjoying lavish parties the like of which Bertie Wooster might attend; he was a somewhat withdrawn fellow and was at his happiest in his study with his typewriter. He took huge care with his art, which is belied by the carefree and flowing language of his novels. He wrote quickly but revised and improved constantly.
His attention to detail, the need to craft the perfect sentence, became very important to me, and I realised that I could not ‘play’ with his work, I couldn’t make my show a pastiche, it had to be an honest, respectful performance of Wodehouse’s own words.
With all of this information in my head it was now time to start working on the script itself. How to present the stories? It quickly became apparent that 6 stories were going to be too many. Each one has a fairly detailed scenario running through it, so to do them justice I wouldn’t be able to edit too much. I decided to use only four of the stories but which two to drop?
Rather than thinking about what not to include I decided it was better to decide what I definitely did want to include and see where that left me. ‘The Coming of Gowf’ was a shoe-in. It is in the form of an ancient tale told from the pages of history as to how the game of golf came to the mystical land of Oom. How a stranger – a bearded Scotsman, captured from an inhospitable coast near to the spot known to the natives as Snandrews – shows the King how to play ‘gowf’. King Merolchazzar sees this strange ceremony as a religious rite and adopts the new God Gowf for his land.
Because ‘The Coming of Gowf’ is presented as a story from history it sets up a good way of starting the show. The Oldest Member has been asked by the club committee to give a lecture on the history of golf and he begins by reading the account from the land of Oom. By taking this stance it means that Tom (as I have christened him from the initials of The Oldest Member) has a perfect excuse to talk directly to the audience and begin his recital.
From the other stories I wanted to depict the characters and situations that will be instantly recognisable to those who play the game.
All golfers know the danger of losing their temper on the course and all will have winced as a player screams obscenities and hurls his clubs about. Every course will have a litter bin next to a tee with a bent or broken club angrily discarded in it. ‘Ordeal by Golf’ deals exactly with this as Mitchell Holmes is to play a round of golf as a test of his character to see if he can control his passions enough to be considered as the Treasurer for his company. Holmes, however, has only one fault: he loses his temper on the golf course. I have met Mitchell Holmes many times. He has to be in.
Another major irritant on the golf course is someone who constantly offers unsolicited advice. You have made a complete hash of a shot and all you hear is: ‘Ah, what you did there is…..’ and so a soliloquy on the theories of golf, not to mention your own shortcomings, follows. In ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’ the main character discovers the art of eloquence and becomes a ‘tee talker, a green gabbler, a prattler on the links’. He certainly needs to be part of the script.
‘Those for whom the rules are the best club in the bag.’ Ah. We play this game (or at least I do), for fun. So when some studious know-it-all points out that I have played out of order or from the wrong place or have said the wrong thing or have not said the right thing…….well, a story about someone who lives by the rule book is a necessity and it is here where I must make a decision.
Two of the stories that I have selected cover the rules issue: ‘The Long Hole’ and ‘The Letter of the Law’ and it will be pointless to include both of them. ‘The Long Hole’ is a very funny story dealing with a grudge match played from the first tee of a course all the way to the front door of a hotel in the centre of town. Much underhand play takes place as the two players hack their way towards the wining post. The match is resolved when one player casually asks an errand boy what club he should use for his final shot, his opponent leaps on the indiscretion ‘Seeking advice from one who is not your caddy!’
The other possibility is ‘The Letter of the Law’ in which Wilmot Byng drives his ball into four geriatric golfers, known as The Wrecking Crew, hitting Joseph Poskitt (the father of the girl he wishes to marry), on the leg thereby causing him to halve The President’s Cup, rather than win it. The bulk of the story concerns the playoff for the cup and especially the rule book shenanigans of Poskitt’s rival, Wadsworth Hemingway.
Which to chose? Well, ‘The Long Hole’ was my first choice but on closer inspection it rambles a bit and actually there is no solid resolution to the tale, whereas ‘The Letter of the Law’ is neatly structured by the geography of the golf course and has a perfect denouement. It also features a description of Joseph Poskitt’s swing:
‘He brought to the tee the tactics which in his youth had won him such fame as a hammer thrower. His plan was to clench his teeth, shut his eyes, whirl the club round his head and bring it down with sickening violence in the general direction of the sphere.’ Which, as it happens, is a perfectly accurate description of one of the members’ swing at Oxford Golf Club, which is where I shall be perform for the first time.
And there were my four stories. A bit unfair on ‘The Clicking of Cuthbert’ but I can always use that in the future.
So. To write. Blank page. The best thing, I have found, when faced with a blank page is to do something else and it suddenly became vitally important to me to have a title, I couldn’t possibly write an untitled script. ‘The Golfing Stories of PG Wodehouse’ was accurate if not exciting. ‘The Oldest Member’ didn’t capture the spirit and feel of Wodehouse’s work. ‘Right Ho, Jeeves!’ is one of the most famous and memorable book titles, while one of Bertie Wooster’s favourite sayings is ‘Top Ho!’ could I use that? Not really for although Wodehouseian, it says nothing about golf. And then all of a sudden, there it was, at the forefront of my mind: ‘Top Hole!’
I had now no excuse but to write the script.
The first draft was very ordinary indeed. The Oldest Member enters and recites the story of ‘The Coming of Gowf’. When he has finished he starts to tell the story of ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’. When he has finished that there is an interval. In the second half he tells the story of ‘Ordeal by Golf’ followed by ‘The Letter or the Law’. Very uninspiring, very ordinary, very dull. Actually, that takes some doing: to make Wodehouse dull, but I had succeeded. A rethink was definitely necessary.
For a while I pondered just telling one of the stories, but I felt that there would not be enough variety, nothing for the audience to do and an audience will never enjoy a script if they are not thinking about it and involved with it.
The solution came from my main character, the oldest member. Surely this elderly man sat in the clubhouse will be a little confused, a little befuddled. Why not, then, have him mixing up his favourite stories? That way the audience will never have the chance to settle down into a single narrative, there will be different characters, different situations and different outcomes.
Suddenly the script began to fall into place easily. Starting with ‘The Coming of Gowf’, I found a natural moment in the narrative to drop straight into ‘The Salvation of George Mackintosh’ then another natural spot for the poor old boy to remember that he should be talking about King Merolchazzar before drifting into ‘Ordeal by Golf’ .
Sometimes a script only works because of sheer hard work and more work, then reworking and starting again. However, Act 1 of Top Hole! just arranged itself in front of me. By the time I reached the point where I wanted the interval to be I discovered that, purely by a happy accident, each of the four stories had arrived at the point where their respective golf matches were just starting out at the first tee, giving me a perfect point to break and ensuring two acts of very different styles.
In Act 2 all of the action takes place on the links and, with the exception of ‘The Coming of Gowf’, Wodehouse uses the same course for each match and so, as the stories continue to intertwine with each other, the audience will get a feel for the course itself. They will recognise the short second over a lake. They will fear the drive across the ravine to the par 5 third. The dogleg fourth, the ninth back over the water again, the tricky eleventh and the objectionable freak hole that is the eighteenth.
I continued to work my way through each of the plots winding them up one by one until the only one unfinished is back where we started, in the kingdom of Oom and the end of ‘The Coming of Gowf’, which wraps up the whole affair very neatly.
And that is where I shall wrap this up too. In my next blog I shall tell you how I am approaching this project as a performer, as opposed to as a script writer and also some of the production challenges that have arisen out of it.
In the meantime, Top Hole!
Top Hole! is to be performed on 3&4 April at Oxford Golf Club, Oxford.
Tickets, although limited in numbers, are available from: firstname.lastname@example.org