Playwright’s moving tribute to ‘beautiful friend’ Arnold Wesker
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
West Hampstead playwright Bernard Kops has paid a moving tribute to his great friend and fellow dramatist Arnold Wesker who has died aged 83.
Kops, Wesker and Pinter were of the same generation of playwrights who transformed British theatre. All three were the children of Jewish immigrants and both Kops and Wesker grew up in the East End.
Mr Kops, 89, who spoke regularly to his friend and shared poetry with him, said: “I will miss his very beautiful and lovely way of dealing with people and friendship. I will miss our friendship. We spoke monthly and would talk about poems. I feel very sad.”
Sir Arnold Wesker, who had previously lived in Highgate before moving to Hove with his wife Dusty, was one of Britain’s most prolific playwrights. His three most renowned works made up what became known as The Wesker Trilogy - Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem.
After winning acclaim for the trilogy he founded the Roundhouse’s first theatre company, Centre 42, in 1964, first reopening and adapting the space as a performing arts venue.
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He was part of a group known as Britain’s “Angry Young Men” – which included John Osborne, N. F. Simpson and John Arden. Their original and unexpected writing in the 1950s challenged audiences’ traditional view of theatre.
They were know as the New Wave – social realists bringing new things to the stage.
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On the eve of his 80th birthday in 2012 when a season of his plays was staged at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington, Wesker, who was knighted in 2006, told the Ham&High about his life as a playwright.
During the interview, Wesker was quick to point out that every decade brings a New Wave but admits that they were the first to write plays about the working classes – the “kitchen sink” drama.
He started writing plays aged 24 and laughed when he described reading his first (Chicken Soup) to his mother and her friend Mrs Harris in the front room of the family’s council flat in Clapton.
“I knew it was a good play and was really excited to finish it. I read the whole play to them and my mother said, ‘It’s not bad but who’s going to be interested in that?’
“It drew on our working class Jewish background. The Kitchen similarly drew on my experience of working in the kitchen at the Bell Hotel in Norwich where I might have ended up a chef.”
Wesker’s father was a Russian-Jewish tailor and his mother a cook of Hungarian-Jewish extraction.
He failed his 11-Plus exam and was sent to a school “where they sent students who fail their 11-Plus”, where he learned basic things like typing to equip him to become a clerk or similar.
His typing later became a godsend when he developed Parkinson’s disease and his hand would shake too much to write with a pen.
Wesker’s colourful life includes being sentenced to a month in prison (together with Bertrand Russell and others) after demonstrations against the use of nuclear weapons in 1961.
Wesker wrote 42 plays in all, as well as poetry, essays and an autobiography, the result of a life spent involved in social projects and observing cultural horizons.
Mr Kops, who has lived in Canfield Gardens for nearly 50 years, said: “We became great friends. We both grew up in the East End in some poverty. We were all political and involved in a real change in the theatre. He was always more political than I was.”
Wesker married wife Dusty in 1958. The couple had two sons and a daughter.