I Love John Osborne


One of my hobbies is making up jukebox musicals in my head. For years I’ve teamed up The Pet Shop Boys with The Blackheath Poisonings (I think it would be epic) and Pulp with Look Back In Anger (although I’ve never managed to keep the plot exactly the same).

Look Back In Anger is the seminal 1956 play by John Osborne that introduced The Angry Young Man, The Kitchen Sink and the personal invective of lead character Jimmy Porter.

Jimmy is a sweet-stall sales staffer (WHAT IS THE WORD FOR THIS) living with his posh wife and Welsh best-friend in a crappy midland town, who has an affair with a snobbish actress. Most of the time on stage is taken up by Jimmy insulting everything he hates about Britain (which is everything – but mainly the class system, losing the Empire and newspapers), and wishing misery on his miserable wife, who indeed ends up miserable.

In my head his wife kills him with an iron and runs off with the actress or Jarvis Cocker depending on my mood.

John Osborne himself was famous for his rudeness, his fights with his wives, his estrangement from his only daughter and for dwindling spectacularly from Polemicist of the Zeitgeist to Pootering Old Establishment Fart. This was before social media so there was no relentless monstering or huge scandal, just a few snarky reviews and gleeful features.

His work is mostly out of fashion. It’s time-specific. It belongs in that era of post-war austerity, shiny 60s satire and 70s paranoid chic; when I think of his work I see: donkey jackets, pullovers, kipper ties, cravats, polyester maxi-dresses, big hair, pan make-up and tatty furs. I expect everything to smell of boiled cabbage or prawn cocktail. His characters are raging egotists, camp dandys, repressed hags, and Martin Luther needing a poo. His polemics are out-of-date, beside-the-point or viciously-spiteful.

But they’re brilliant.

Deep down – who doesn’t want to spend 2 hours in front of an audience slagging off every last thing that comes into your proxy hero’s head? If the audience hates it – then you’re an Enfant Terrible. If the audience loves it – you’re the Spokesperson of Your Generation. John Osborne had the – great, fabulous, fantastic – founding career of our New Writing Theatre World but – in our climate of story re-armament – it’s just not on.

So I will wander around abandoned 1980s children’s parks making Jimmy sing Common People to his wife.


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