2020 is going to be another busy year for Sir Roger Hall. New Zealand’s most successful playwright plays his favourite tunes and tells us about his upcoming world première.
Sir Roger Hall’s career has spanned more than 40 years and he has more than 40 titles to his name.
He says there’s no secret formula but "putting your bum on the chair in the morning and working hard".
The 80-year-old was knighted earlier this year for his profound impact on New Zealand drama and theatre. Over the years his work has appeared on stages across the country, on our small screens – including his break-out public service satire Glide Time - London’s West End and Middle Age Spread was adapted to film.
He also organised the first New Zealand Writers’ Week and campaigned to have the New Zealand Theatre Month introduced.
In 2020 Sir Roger isn’t slowing down. The Auckland Theatre Company will host the world première of his latest work Winding Up in February and March. It follows two retirees as they navigate overseas travel plans, family feuds, health problems and the death of a friend.
Winding Up stars Mark Hadlow and Alison Quigan and is described as a “hilarious testament to the lighter side of the golden years”, with Sir Roger “once again demonstrating his inimitable wit and knowing insight”.
“When I began to write my latest play Winding Up, I wrote about a couple in their seventies. They developed slowly. Then Gen and Barry knocked on the door, and once they had arrived there was no getting rid of them. And I’m pleased; they are a terrific couple,” he says. “Anybody in a long-term relationship recognises them and what they talk and argue about.
“At one performance of Conjugal Rites a couple left at half time saying ‘we can get all this at home…’.”
Roger Hall joined us in the studio to talk about his career, what’s next and his musical inspiration.
Sixteen Tons - Tennessee Ernie Ford
This was the sort of music Sir Roger grew up with in his “middle-class” home in the UK. He says it was a mix of classical and some pop music. Sundays it was Family Favourites, often played for servicemen who were serving in post-war Germany.
“We had a few records, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ (which I now find tedious), but also ‘Mule Train’ by Bing Crosby with a line: ‘Some rheumatism pills / for the settlers in the hills’ which for some reason I thought was rude,” he says. “And one day in the mid-fifties on the radio I heard this song. ‘Sixteen Tons’ was electrifying in that it was so different.
“Not life-changing but different.”
Zorba The Greek - Mikis Theodorakis
In 1958 Sir Roger headed to New Zealand, then spent a year in Australia followed by a year in the UK before starting Teachers' College in 1962. In 1964 he got a bursary to go full time at Victoria University in Wellington.
He left his Teachers' College boarding house and moved into a flat in Kelburn with “interesting people”; two of whom would go on to write for The Listener, he says.
“It was a wonderful four years, during which among other things I began to take writing and performing seriously. “Capping and revue sketches; I had a short story accepted by The Listener; a sitcom script sent to a UK agent. Music was played all the time in that flat, mostly classical."
“And 1964 was also the year of Zorba the Greek.”
Graceland - Paul Simon
In 1982 Roger and his wife Dianne took their children out of school and travelled around the United States. His success from Middle Age Spread funded the travels. They drove from LA to DC, via the southern states bordering Mexico, then went onto the UK, returning to live in Washington DC for three months.
Follow that the family went to New Mexico, where Sir Roger took up a Writer in Residence in Las Cruces.
“On the way to Las Cruces we stopped at Memphis. Did we visit Graceland? Alas no,” he says. “It was about $US20 to get in; more than we could afford. We gazed at the exterior…and drove on."
“The song Graceland had to make up for it.”
When I’m 64 – The Beatles
Sir Roger once asked for the rights of this tune. The television company who he was commissioned to write for thought it would make a great theme song.
“I wrote a TV script. One couple. Gen and Barry. Set only in their bedroom. This was fairly brave stuff, restricting it to such a small cast and one space. A pilot was made,” he says. “TV turned it down. A huge favour as it turned out. I made it into a play called Conjugal Rites. The play went around the country, then got performed at Watford in the UK, where a TV producer saw it and I was commissioned to write a series for Granada TV.”
So in 1992 the family moved to London to write the commissioned series. He says it was a nightmare! He was told he needed more than two characters, it had to have their kids, then their live-in father. And then a dog. “Every script had to be completely re-written,” he said. “The obvious theme song for the British TV series was ‘When I’m 64’. Granada TV asked for the rights.
“The answer was…very expensive.”
The Angel's Farewell (Dream of Gerontius) - Edward Elgar
"We come almost full circle. My parents took me to a concert in 1953," he says. "Before it began the conductor announced that Kathleen Ferrier had just died. A great sigh/moan went around the audience."
"This piece (Janet Baker version) I used in Middle Age Spread. It is music to go out by…"