On 12 March, we finally got to show an extract from my comedy, So Bad, at a scratch night at the Old Fire Station. There was a disappointing absence of cigar-smoking impresarios ready to grab our hands and offer to make us all stars and no hard-bitten critic was present to lead a standing ovation and write us a rave review, but a decent-sized crowd turned out, everybody laughed in the right places, and the actors did their normal brilliant job with the script. So, mission accomplished, I guess.


But boy, was it hard work! I had to race back to Oxford the moment school finished; Fred and Ross had to rush over from London for a 15-minute performance; Ellen had to turn up and act her socks off after a long day in a brand-new job; and the cast only had four hours’ rehearsal time on the eve of the scratch night. It was, to put it mildly, pretty damned exhausting for everyone.


And so, one thing we really didn’t need was the lambasting we got from a couple of Ellen’s close friends during the feedback after our performance. One laid into the scandalous sexism of a female character, Rose, tidying up a few things when she arrives in a slobby, rubbish-strewn apartment, seeking clues to explain her boyfriend’s disappearance.


Of course, I explained Rose was seeking order in a world that suddenly seemed terri-fyingly unfamiliar and chaotic, and pointed out that the arc of Rose’s character would see her emerge as much stronger and more resourceful than the male character, Sid. But Ellen’s friend did not sound convinced and said she’d have probably set fire to the rubbish—and then pointed out she and her mates were more than capable of drinking me and anyone else in the room under the table. I wasn’t quite clear about the relevance of this last observation, but I let it pass. Then Ellen’s other friend chipped in and took me to task for including a gag that mentioned 2Pac in passing. This joke, she outlined in a lengthy lecture on the popular misconceptions that surround the late lamented rapper’s career, was deeply offensive to the entire black population.


To be frank, I agreed with neither criticism, but they were extremely hurtful to Ellen, who was already utterly frazzled by her long day and overwhelmed by the slog of putting together a performance in a few hours the day before.


Well, this unexpected debacle got me thinking about what’s offensive and what’s not offensive, and the whole problem of negotiating our way through the delicate sensibilities of today’s audiences. Ellen’s right-on pals were apparently offended by the racism and sexism they detected in the script, which certainly came as a surprise to me. But I know for certain that many others, like my mother, would be equally offended by the foul language in the script and the casual references to illegal drug use and to kinky bedroom shenanigans. Others might find offensive a plot that relies on the threat of violence and taboo sexuality, whereas yet others might well think that the caricatured depiction of an East End gangster perpetuates an offensive stereotype.


Of course, So Bad is just a very silly comedy about smiling and winking emoticons, squabbles over adverbs and adjectives, a disappearing Lothario, a cardboard cut-out villain, and a hungover waster in a giraffe onesie. But comedy needs taboos to transgress, just as it needs stereotypes to recognise and bugbears to ridicule. Comedy is neither social documentary nor moral sermon nor political polemic: it laughs at the earnestness of the liberal; blows raspberries at the pompous conservative; drops its trousers at the prude and the killjoy; gets drunk on the communion wine.


Our negotiation with offence is doubly tricky today. For, we’ve all learnt to roll our eyes at what’s safe and what’s cosy: the buzz words of today’s puff pieces are subversive, transgressive, shocking, visceral, in-yer-face. We want Closer, not Still Life; Fleabag, not The Importance of Being Earnest; Jerusalem, not As You Like It; Glengarry Glen Ross, not The Winslow Boy.


So, it was a nice irony that I was dragged—not too unwillingly—to the Playhouse a few days later to see Terence Rattigan’s 1946 drama about a 14-year-old school boy expelled from an elite naval college, having been accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. Rattigan’s place in theatrical history is unusual: first, there is the length of Rattigan’s career and the sheer breadth of his output, ranging from the frothy wit of French Without Tears (1936) to his T.E. Lawrence melodrama, Ross (1960); second, there’s the fact that this long career meant that he came to stand for all that was stayed and old-fashioned when Beckett, Pinter, Shaffer, Osbourne, and Bond arrived to shake everything up in the 1950s and 60s; third, there’s a certain grudging respect that Rattigan has always commanded as the acknowledged master of the well-made play: from his heartstring-tugging school drama, The Browning Version (1948), to his droll farce of romantic misunderstandings, While the Sun Shines (1943), Rattigan approaches the construction of a play with the hands-on skill of a master mason and the mathematical precision of a great architect.


The Winslow Boy (1946) is no exception, as it’s another beautifully designed piece. The first act is funny, touching and highly dramatic. We really feel for poor shame-faced little Ronnie, skulking in the garden in his rain-drenched uniform rather than admit to his stern, but adoring, father the reason he’s back home from college early. There’s plenty of humour to be enjoyed in the banter of silly-ass Dickie and his socialist and suffragette sister, Catherine, and the fuddy-duddy strictures of their straight-laced father. And there’s real drama to be discovered in Arthur Winslow’s touching faith in his son and his unswerving determination to prove his innocence.


Once Sir Robert Morton has taken on the case, after his climactic cross-examination of the distraught Ronnie, there’s perhaps a slight loosening of tension, as so much of the action takes place off stage: the Winslows can only discuss what’s happened in the House of Commons or at the Attorney-General’s office, as Sir Robert pursues his long crusade to compel the Admiralty to prove its charges against Ronnie in court.


But the genius of the play lies in how Rattigan finds in a case about a stolen five-shilling postal order sufficient ‘jeopardy’ to satisfy even the most exacting Hollywood script executive: for, Arthur Winslow is willing to sacrifice everything, and everyone, to prove Ronnie innocent. First, his dilettante son, Dickie, is persuaded to give up his place at Oxford to pay the legal fees; then, his daughter loses a prospective husband, as the Winslows are ostracised for their vociferous campaign against the establishment; then, we learn Sir Robert was willing to decline the post of Lord Chief Justice rather than relinquish the case. By the end of the play, when the Admiralty finally decide to withdraw all charges against Ronnie, the family has impoverished itself and has lost its place in society, whilst Arthur Winslow’s health has declined with the strain of the long fight for justice. It’s hard not to see his as a pyrrhic victory, and yet we cannot help but admire the determination and the sense of principle that has led Arthur to stake everything on the honesty of his much-loved son.


The members of the cast in this touring production were uniformly excellent, although perhaps the cold-fish QC, Sir Robert Morton, was initially just a little too cold and just a little too fishy for my taste, as he was served up by The Archers’ Timothy Watson. But Aden Gillett was truly outstanding as Arthur, bringing surprising tenderness and warmth to his role as the stern patriarch of the Winslow family. Also good value were Dorothy Myer-Bennett as the feisty Catherine and Theo Bamber as Ronnie’s n’er-do-well brother, Dickie, as was Tessa Peake-Jones (Raquel from Only Fools and Horses) as the mumsy mother.


Of course, there was nothing in this tale of honour and honesty in Edwardian England that could be offensive to anyone, but how would The Winslow Boy appeal to Ellen’s PC pals or to those who like their drama down and dirty, rough and ready, edgy and punchy, and in yer face?


Well, the last person to direct a film version of this theatrical warhorse was, in fact, David Mamet, back in 1999, and Mamet has made a point of expressing his admiration for Terence Rattigan on numerous occasions since, going so far as to describe The Winslow Boy as ‘one of the most immaculately written texts in theatre history’. Personally, I don’t think Mamet’s admiration for Rattigan should surprise us in the least. For the brilliance of Mamet’s greatest play, Glengarry Glen Ross, did not simply lie in the foul-mouthed, tough-guy dialogue of his down-at-heel real estate salesman; it was also built into the beauty and elegance of the plot design.


Terence Rattigan may be old-fashioned, but this powerful drama about a young boy and a postal order reminds us that Rattigan only became old-fashioned because his plays have shown such extraordinary staying power. Go and see this revival as it tours the country! It’s certainly worth the ticket, given that So Bad won’t be touring any time soon, because The Winslow Boy is a powerful reminder of how you can build a great play out of the lives of an ordinary middle-class family. There’s nothing subversive, transgressive, visceral, shocking, or in-yer-face about The Winslow Boy—nothing at all—but it’s a play ultimately about the terrible price one must sometimes pay for justice, and its greatness lies in rooting this timeless theme in something as apparently light and inconsequential as a five-shilling postal order.

"We’ve all learnt to roll our eyes at what’s safe and what’s cosy: the buzz words of today’s puff pieces are subversive, transgressive, shocking, visceral, in-yer-face"

"Rattigan approaches the construction of a play with the hands-on skill of a master mason and the mathematical precision of a great architect"