Revival of play about the Regency dandy reminds its creator of its unusual birth
Any promising career can falter when an unguarded remark goes down badly. For the Regency buck “Beau” Brummell, the most celebrated model of style in the early 19th century, the instinct to mock proved disastrous. “It changed the whole course of his life,” said Ron Hutchinson, the Emmy award-winning writer, ahead of a London stage revival of his acclaimed black comedy Beau Brummell: An Elegant Madness.
When Brummell was ignored one evening by the Prince of Wales, who was wearing a particularly tight pair of knee breeches, he notoriously called out to the prince’s companion, Lord Alvanley: “Who’s your fat friend, Alvanley?”
In that moment, “the Beau’s” social standing plummeted and he was later to die in penury. It was this impulsive side of the famous dandy, rather than his continuing influence on British male fashion, that drew Hutchinson to write the play 15 years ago.
The incident reminded him of a major faux pas he had just made in Hollywood. “Although Brummell was a man of fashion, what attracted me to him was that his downfall was occasioned by a quip. My own work with Steven Spielberg dried up when I said something stupid, but it was something I could no more resist saying than I could resist falling if I was pushed off a cliff,” the Belfast-born veteran screenwriter revealed.
Hutchinson, 69, is to bring out a memoir, Clinging to the Ice, this year about his time working with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. His career in Hollywood was later permanently damaged by a jokey comment he made at a crucial preview screening.
“I worked at DreamWorks for a while, writing on various projects, and they would send me $1,600 every Wednesday. Then one day, at a small screening in Los Angeles with Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg [co-founders of DreamWorks] and an entourage of powerful producers, we were given an early look at American Beauty, Sam Mendes’s first film. When it ended and the lights went up, all the others were crying.
“In the silence that followed I found myself saying: ‘Cheer up. It’s not as bad a movie as all that.’ After that I didn’t really get another proper job from them. It went quiet. For a while I still got my cheque, but it was just for rewrites or for taking a look at a script that was lost in turnaround, that kind of thing.”
Many people, Hutchinson believes, let such chance comments slip out, only to later regret it. The incident that stalled Brummell’s glittering trajectory was, he feels, a kind of self-sabotage. Oscar Wilde, he added, infamously suffered in the same way for making a joke at his 1895 libel trial. “Asked if he had slept with a servant boy, Wilde told the court flippantly that he would not have slept with someone so ugly. From then on it was a long slide down.”
The play about Brummell, who was born in 1778 and educated at Eton, begins in 1819 when he was living in exile in a French asylum, suffering the mental effects of syphilis. “He was a man with a lot of addictions and obsessions,” said Hutchinson. “But he was also a revolutionary in a revolutionary age. The world was in ferment and Brummell moved things on in public taste, in reaction to the excesses of the previous era. His statement was to dress well, but soberly in the two- or three-piece suit with the notched lapels that we still know. There was an insistence on craftsmanship and a clean line.” Brummell also introduced the idea that men should regularly clean their teeth, shave and bathe, exerting his influence over London’s aristocratic elite, known at the time as “the ton”.
The curtain goes up on Hutchinson’s play on Monday at the Jermyn Street theatre, an area of London where Brummell once held sway and where his statue now stands.