Peggy Ramsay, play agent
Last year, Christmas shopping was the easiest it's ever been, ever will be. A bulk order of Simon Callow's Love Is Where It Falls - I must've bought up every copy in London. Not out of laziness, you understand, although I am lazy about Christmas shopping, Christmas anything - disinterested frankly - but because I want everyone I love to read it, because everyone I love will want to read it, because everyone I love will love it, because it's just about the most beautiful book ever written. I felt like 18 staying up half the night before an 'A' level reading Breakfast At Tiffany's, fresh through the post from someone I'd never met but was in love with all the same, under the bedclothes. Like I'd discovered a wonderful new special world. Like life would never be the same again.
But rewind. Peggy For You came first, the play. But I knew I wanted to see that because I'd heard Simon Callow talking about Love is Where It Falls on Front Row, and had made the connection somehow. No, let's start at the beginning.
Peggy Ramsay. Margaret Ramsay of Margaret Ramsay Limited, born 1908 in Australia. Play agent. I'd never heard of her. Well, I must have heard of her, because I'd read The Orton Diaries and Prick Up Your Ears, of course. A long time ago, but not as long ago as Breakfast At Tiffany's. Re-reading them, I don't get much of a sense of her, not of what impresses and excites me about her now. What I don't get, I think, is an awareness of how extraordinary she was, how unlike other women of her generation - or unlike what we're told they were like anyway. I guess she was just a bit-player in those books is all. "Peggy Ramsay was extraordinary" is, in fact, the way Colin Chambers opens his slightly long-winded biography.
So, she represented Orton. David Hare. Alan Ayckbourn. Stan Barstow. Eugene Ionesco. Plater. Oh, everyone. Plater. Plater wrote a play about her after her death - an impression, a day in the life of, a snapshot, a comedy - Peggy For You. This is what made me fall in love with her - love, not love, awe - I don't know. I wouldn't have wanted to meet her - no, I'd have given anything to have met her - no, I don't know. Maureen Lipman played Peggy and was perfect, irreverent, all open legs and chaos and infuriatingness - sending her authors each other's cheques, not knowing her assistant's name, thinking a new playwright she had arranged a meeting with had come to lay a carpet. Margaret Ramsay, the way she seems to have been.
And Simon Callow, in Love Is Where It Falls - her words to explain this peculiar love affair between a thirty year-old gay man and a seventy year-old straight woman - writes her a posthumous love letter - although, to a large extent he lets Peggy - through her thousands of love letters to him - speak for herself. We fall in love with her, and through her we fall in love with Callow, as she did. When they met in the early eighties, he was an actor beginning to make a name for himself, newly in love with an Egyptian film maker, and she was at the height of her profession and reputation as a theatrical agent. After their first meeting, when they spent an hour or so together talking, he left her office and, catching the receptionist's eye on the way out, blushed - "it was as if Peggy and I had been making love". The three-way relationship wasn't always straightforward, and Callow's lover's manic depression, visa problems (which forced him to live outside of Britain) and eventual suicide didn't make life easy, but their passionate friendship endured up until her death a decade later. And Callow succeeds in what so few ever do - writing about love and happiness in a way that isn't smug or pompous or just plain irritating.
Perhaps for me there's an added charm in the fact that the relationship is played out less than 15 minutes walk from where I'm sitting writing this, just round the corner from Earl's Court tube-station. So I can see Peggy, up at six, dropping a note into the hall of Callow's flat on Finborough Road (part of the Earl's Court one way system linking Embankment with the Westway, and backing onto West Brompton cemetary), before she sets off - aged seventy plus - to walk into town to work. And then him, getting up an a hour or so later, dropping a reply off into her basement on Redcliffe Square on his way out. They each wrote as many as three letters a day, met for lunch and supper, talked on the phone when he was backstage in the evenings and between scenes, went to concerts together, exchanged presents - she even bought him the Finbourough Road flat - and did everything lovers do. Except have sex that is.
Peggy comes across as - let's see - highly intelligent, witty, honest, dramatic (she had previously been an actor), and a very good writer herself. Her authors are described as looking like condemned men (most of them were men) when they mounted the stairs to her office to deliver a new manuscript. "Do you think Ayckbourne will ever write a great play?" she asked Callow at their first meeting; Callow was at a loss because Ayckbourne was her biggest client and he was acting in one of his plays. She's outrageous and indelicate - Peggy For You is full of indecorous poses and flashes of ageing thigh; when she's asked about knowing Beckett she says, "I saw more of him when I lived in Paris. He lived two streets away from my abortionist". At their first meeting she said to Callow of Halliwell and Orton, "I always thought how touching it was that when Ken and Joe couldn't find anyone else to fuck, they would fuck each other". There are beautiful lines in almost all her letters and a philosophy of life and a passion that I admire. She pursued whatever she wanted, in this case a man forty years her junior, without a care for what anyone else might think. "The people one remembers", she says "are the ones one didn't have", putting a brave face on it, "THIS IS AN INDISCREET LETTER - BUT AREN'T ALL MY LETTERS TO YOU." "I hope we can sustain that most beautiful and elusive thing, a passionate friendship."
"My passion for you is like an airship" she says to Callow "it is separate from me and I have to hang onto it or it would pull me into the stratosphere". "I think about you so much of the day and night that you fill my secret life. But I have to keep it secret - from you too."
© Clare Wadd 2001
Simon Callow - Love Is Where It Falls