Peter Barnes, the award-winning playwright and screenwriter of “Enchanted April” and “The Ruling Class,” died July 1 in a London hospital after a stroke. He was 73.
Barnes’ work was admired across all disciplines in a career spanning some 40 years. And though it was the theater where Barnes first made an important mark in the 1960s, he went on to arguably greater success (certainly financially) in TV and film, as a prolific writer both of sweet-natured character studies like “Enchanted April” and of 14 Hallmark-backed TV projects, from “Merlin” and “Noah’s Ark” to “Arabian Nights” and “Leprechauns.”
He received 1992 Writers Guild of America and Oscar noms for his “Enchanted April” screenplay, adapted from the Elizabeth von Arnim novel about a community of repressed Britons displaced to sun-drenched Italy, and an Emmy nom as co-writer of Hallmark and NBC’s “Merlin” mini. “Merlin” and its sequel were among the many Hallmark co-productions scripted by Barnes.
Hallmark’s Robert Halmi Sr. told Variety, “He did something very important, which few writers can do: No matter what the subject matter, no matter how serious, he brought a certain humor and relief, a sense that people didn’t have to live through ancient history frowning all the time.”
Barnes was born in January 1931, in Bow, East London, and grew up by the seaside, where his parents worked the amusement arcades.
London native left school at age 18 but educated himself afterward through various correspondence courses.
It was after early stints as a film critic and story editor that Barnes made his impact as a screenwriter with the Peter Medak-helmed “The Ruling Class,” adapted from Barnes’ own stage play about a British aristocrat who harbors delusions that he is Jesus Christ one minute, Jack the Ripper the next.
The play opened at the Nottingham Playhouse, north of London, in late 1968, transferring to the Piccadilly Theater the following February. Onscreen, Peter O’Toole earned an Oscar nod in the demanding central role of the mad, and often madcap, Earl of Gurney. Variety called the film “brilliantly caustic” and “frequently hilarious,” and the pic remains a cult classic.
“Peter was always trying to break all the rules,” said “Ruling Class” helmer Peter Medak. “He was wonderfully original.”
At once ferociously comic and politically loaded, “The Ruling Class” won Barnes the 1969 Evening Standard Drama Award for most promising playwright. And in 1985, he won the play Olivier — London’s equivalent of the Tony — for “Red Noses.” The Royal Shakespeare Company epic told of a monk known as Father Flote (played by Antony Sher) who took to the road during the Black Death in 14th-century France to spread cheer with a troupe of lunacy-prone cohorts.
In his autobiography, “By Myself,” Sher recalls his delight in the play, which the actor performed in rep with Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” “Red Noses,” Sher writes, was “a rich, savage, comic epic, typically Barnesian.”
Indeed, that was one of several plays — an earlier RSC effort, 1974’s “Bewitched,” was another — to prompt comparisons between Barnes and British satirist Ben Jonson, whose 17th-century comedy “The Devil Is an Ass” Barnes adapted for both radio and the stage. He also penned new versions of plays by Feydeau and Wedekind.
Barnes was less successful in recent stage outings, finding greater favor of late in his screen work, large and small. He was last repped on the West End as both writer and director of “Dreaming,” a historical drama that begins at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471: The play did a fast fade from the Queen’s Theater in the summer of 1999, having preemed that same spring at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Barnes’ RSC “Jubilee” in 2001 was among the few productions of the troupe’s repertory that year not to transfer to London from Stratford, where the play opened to mostly poor reviews.
At the same time, however, much of Barnes’ other work, such as popular BBC radio series “Barnes’ People,” was garnering raves, and the writer was a self-described workaholic who would spend his days writing in longhand at the British Museum Reading Room. Eventually, he switched to McDonald’s, where he would sit for hours with the burger cooling over a cup of coffee. (“The bun went in the bin, and the meat went home with him for the dog,” wrote director Terry Hands, who staged “Red Noses,” in an appreciation in the Guardian.)
And with two screenplays turned in the week before his death, Barnes was nowhere near retiring. One of those projects, a semi-autobiographical two-parter called “Babies,” is about a man who fathers triplets late in life; it’s set to air on Granada Television. Barnes himself found belated personal happiness as a father: At age 69, he had a daughter, Leela, by Christie, his second wife. Two years later, Christie gave birth to triplets: Nathaniel, Zachary and Abigail. (Barnes’ first wife, Charlotte, pre-deceased him.)
Hallmark also has two of Barnes’ last scripts, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Pirates,” on its slate.
Other recent credits include co-writing (with Nicholas Meyer) the 1995 film “Voices” (aka “Voices From a Locked Room”), which starred Jeremy Northam as Brit composer Peter Warlock and music critic Philip Heseltine. Onstage, he adapted Kunio Shimizu’s “Tango at the End of Winter” for Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa; Alan Rickman headlined the 1992 production at the Piccadilly Theater.
A book on Barnes is due to be published in August.(Justin Chang and David S. Cohen in Hollywood contributed to this report.)