A tribute to Alan Plater from Ann Cotterrell, who published Alan Plater’s autobiographical book Doggin’ Around, a book he called the “memoirs of a jazz-crazed playwright,” with many of his cartoons, including the one above, in 2006.
Alan Plater, who died on 25th June, was well-known as a superb writer for television, radio and the theatre. His wit, gift for dialogue and empathy with the lives and language of ordinary people gave him a distinctive voice, which also resounded with his love of jazz.
The only full-length biography of Plater is his own book about his life, and this centres around his love of jazz and the use he makes of jazz as a key component in his work. He first approached Northway Publications with a collection of his previously published articles about jazz and suggested a compendium of reprints. While I was delighted to meet someone whose work I admired so much, I thought that this book would work much better if it were rewritten as a continuous autobiographical work. We did not hear from him for a while and assumed that he might have done a lot of work and taken it to a bigger publisher for a much better return than we could offer.
I had misjudged him. He contacted us again saying that he had finished the book. It was a wonderful manuscript. I read it on a plane while going on holiday and probably looked like a dangerously demented woman grinning at Alan’s recollections and beautifully turned sentences. There was barely any editing to do. Not only that: the book included his lyrics and cartoons. He prided himself as a playwright in leaving space for the actors to perform and his drawings too are clear and witty with no excess lines.
Doggin’ Around had also been the title of one of his televison plays. Perhaps Alan and I were both unbelievably naive but neither of us recognised that the title had sexual connotations until we were well into the publishing process. He then considered changing it, but decided, unsurprisingly and with some humour, to keep the title regardless.
Alan loved Ronnie Scott’s and he and Shirley Rubinstein held their wedding reception in the club. In Doggin’ Around he tells a story about Ronnie in 1989:
“The BBC celebrated the club’s thirtieth anniversary with a documentary and I was interviewed as part of the programme … I said: ‘There’s only thing that could spoil it. A single shaft of sunlight.’
A couple of weeks later we were in the club and Ronnie displayed, by his standards, an enormous outpouring of emotion.
‘Hey, that was really nice what you said.’
Later a bottle of champagne arrived at our table with the message: there’ll be another one in thirty years time. Then, a few days later, I received a gold membership card in the post, entitling us to free admission for life. If that isn’t a special relationship, I don’t know what is; and there was much more as the years passed by.”
His plays focusing on jazz include The Beiderbecke Trilogy and The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, the latter shown on television with an all-star cast including Judi Dench and Cleo Laine in 2000, followed in 2006 by a stage play about jazzwomen during World War Two, The Blonde Bombshells of 1943. But Plater also wrote lyrics and spoke on stage about jazz, as evidenced by two wonderful CDs of his work with Alan Barnes, Songs for Unsung Heroes and The Seven Ages of Jazz.
One of many major problems in the publishing world is that books have to appear on the shelves of one department in a bookshop. Doggin’ Around is about jazz and drama and it is an autobiography. It defies the bookshop categorisation, just as he defied any pigeonholing: lyricist, dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, wit, socialist, architect and cartoonist. And yet, more than any of these, he was someone who showed great warmth and understanding of human emotions whether expressed through words or jazz. And most of all, he could communicate these emotions, like the best writers and musicians, to people from a whole range of backgrounds and levels of sophistication, with deceptive simplicity and great subtlety.