Peter Egan: 'John Osborne was like a wounded animal, an exposed nerve'
I knew the Look Back in Anger sequel Déjà Vu wouldn't work, but I couldn't turn it down. I knew John deserved to be presented again – and that it would be his last play
The very first play I saw was John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in the 1960s. By then the play had opened the door to a less polite form of theatre and a generation of writers including John Arden and Harold Pinter. As a society we were moving away from repression and a certain social acceptance to a time of huge social change.
Osborne's antihero, Jimmy Porter, spoke in such a powerful way. It led me to see all of Osborne's plays in the 1960s – Luther, A Patriot for Me and Inadmissible Evidence, which I saw Nicol Williamson do on six occasions. Osborne's career was powerful up until the early 1970s and then he went into a kind of decline. People loved or hated him – he was described as a "dandy with a machine gun".
Many years later, a script arrived in my letterbox from the producer Bill Kenwright. It was Osborne's Déjà Vu: the sequel to Look Back in Anger. It's 30 years on and Jimmy is living in a country house, divorced and drinking claret. There were some wonderful flourishes in the script – big statements about the English language and the state of England. It was informed by John's love for the King James Bible and English classical music. The script had been offered first to Peter O'Toole – John called him Gloria O'Swanson – and then Barry Humphries. Then it fell in the lap of John Standing, who was going to do it with TP McKenna. But it was a very long play – about three and a half hours long – and John refused to cut it so the production didn't work out.
It had been booked to start in Leatherhead before going into the West End. I knew the play wouldn't work but I couldn't turn it down. I knew John deserved to be presented again – and that it would be his last work. We trimmed about an hour out of the play and when we opened in Leatherhead I had to read the last scene because I'd only had time to learn 90% of the script.
I knew I couldn't play Jimmy Porter so I played John Osborne instead. But they were really one and the same. When I left the theatre each night, the paparazzi would mistake me for John – I'd grown a beard like his and I played the part with the same kind of nasal camp delivery that he had.
John had really put himself up as a dartboard for people's contempt. He was a bit like a wounded animal, an exposed nerve. His skin was very thin. The Royal Court had rejected Déjà Vu, which they found old-fashioned, and that damaged him. I felt a great sympathy and sadness for someone who had done so much yet drifted so far. He used to write to me – "My dear old cock", his letters began – and he made me laugh a lot.
The play was a commercial failure but it reawakened people to the great energy and power of Osborne. And it engaged me again with that appetite I'd had for theatre as a young man in the 1960s.