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R C Sherriff was born in Hampton Wick, and was educated at Kingston Grammar School. He left school in 1914 to work as an insurance clerk, but joined up as an officer in the East Surrey regiment in 1915. He was wounded at Passchendaele (near Ypres) in 1917, and returned to his job at the insurance company. He overcame his wounds to become an accomplished rower (and eventually Captain) at Kingston Rowing Club, and it was in order to raise money for the club that he wrote his first play, “A Hitch in the Proceedings” in 1921 (see copy of original programme).
In his (1968) autobiography, “No Leading Lady”, Sherriff tells us that the experience gave him the itch to write more, and over the next few years he wrote another four plays for KRC’s drama group, The Adventurers. The plays became steadily longer, and he sought to have them professionally produced, but with no success.
Sherriff had tried on a number of occasions to write about his experiences in World War 1, in particular in a novel based on his war letters home. But he found that the writing of plays came more easily to him: “Dialogue came easily,” he wrote, “I merely had to write down what people had said.......(and) the characters walked in without invitation. I had known them all so well in the trenches that the play was an open house for them.”
When he had completed Journey’s End he sent it to the agents Curtis Brown, who tried to secure a performance with the Incorporated Stage Society, ISS, a private group which put on “plays of merit” on Sunday evenings, when other theatres were dark. They were not wholly convinced, but Sherriff had also sought the advice of George Bernard Shaw, who, in a generally lukewarm response, wrote: “As a ‘slice of life’......let it be performed by all means......”. Sherriff quoted the line (out of context) in his discussions with the ISS, and they agreed to go ahead, giving the play its premiere on 9 December 1928, with Laurence Olivier in the role of the young officer, Stanhope.
The play was a great success with the critics, but that was still not enough to guarantee a transfer to the West End. The action takes place in a dugout in the trenches over a four day period, as the officers are waiting for an imminent German attack. The strain of the war has given Stanhope a drink problem, and one of the officers is killed, one wounded in a patrol. The play ends with the remaining officers mounting the dugout steps to face the oncoming Germans. For producers already wary of war plays, this was strong stuff. Nevertheless, one rather eccentric producer named Maurice Browne did eventually take up the option, and the play received its West End premiere in the Savoy Theatre on 21st January 1929. It played to packed houses for two years.
The success of Journey’s End opened up a lucrative career as a screenwriter through his contacts with James Whale, who had directed the play. Whale had gone to Hollywood, and quickly made a reputation with films such as Frankenstein. He called on Sherriff to write the script for The Invisible Man, which was a great success, opening the doors for Sherriff to write movies as memorable as Goodbye Mr Chips (1939, for which he was nominated for his only Oscar), the Four Feathers (1939), Lady Hamilton (1941 - reputedly Churchill’s favourite movie), Quartet (1948) and later movies such as Dambusters and The Night My Number Came Up (1955, for both of which he received BAFTA screenwriting nominations).
Despite his misgivings over his novel writing abilities, he had great success with the first novel he wrote after Journey’s End. A Fortnight in September (1931) was the simple account of a family’s annual holiday to Bognor, but, according to the Reviewer in the Spectator it contained “more human goodness and understanding than anything I have read in years”. He was a skilled chronicler of the quotidian: his themes were typically small - an insurance clerk’s retirement (Green Gates,1936), a love story (Chedworth, 1944), the sudden development of a small town (The Wells of St Mary’s, 1962) - but his observations of ordinary people were astute. Even in his science-fiction novel (The Hopkins Manuscript, 1939), about the moon colliding with the earth, his skill lay in mapping the emotions and responses of his middle-class narrator, and the people of the local village.
The same skills are clear in the plays, which continued after Journey’s End with Badger’s Green (1930), which examined the tensions created by proposed development in a small village. It was not a commercial success (a gentle comedy of village life was not what theatregoers expected from Sherriff), but many of his subsequent plays - Miss Mabel (1948), Home at Seven (1950), White Carnation (1953) - were set in similarly middle-class environments. He had a social conscience, too, evident in his book Another Year (1948) and his play The Telescope (1957) (made into a musical called Johnny the Priest - labelled Britain’s answer to West Side Story, but withdrawn after 14 performances) about attempts by socially concerned Vicars to engage people in inner-city parishes. The same social conscience is evident in his generous support of local organisations - including the school - which continues long after his death.
Roland Wales, November 2010
R C Sherriff was an old boy of Kingston Grammar School who, having found considerable success as a playwright and screenwriter, bought the land for the school’s boathouse and helped fund its construction.
He wrote may plays, screenplays and novels and is best known for his play Journey's End, which was based on his experiences as a captain in World War I. He was nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTAs. For more information please see www.rolandwales.com.
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