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One Man and a Boat Club

It is a fairly well known story that R C Sherriff wrote his play, Journey’s End, to raise money for his rowing club. Or at least, that is what most people think. So, how exactly did this come about, and is the story really true?

After the First World War, Sherriff had gone back to work for Sun Insurance, but wanting something to do in his spare time, he joined the Kingston Rowing Club near to his family home in Hampton Wick. In 1921, it became clear that the Club needed to raise money for boat repairs and the Committee, of which Sherriff was a member, decided to put on a staged entertainment over two evenings on the 18th and 19th November, for which tickets would be sold. They selected the Gables Theatre in Surbiton as it had sufficient capacity and set about finding the necessary acts. Various people sang and danced, or played musical instruments, but they needed something dramatic to close the show. Sherriff was charged with finding a one-act play to fill the slot, but this proved difficult, so he suggested they write something themselves. His friends agreed and sent him away to do so – it had, after all, been his idea.

After much deliberation, Sherriff decided on a plot and presented his idea to the Committee, who rejected it. However, as no-one had any better suggestions, they agreed that Sherriff should work up a script and they would try some rehearsals. The “actors” all began to enjoy themselves and, before long, the performances were sold out. On the opening night, the play, entitled A Hitch in the Proceedings, started slowly and Sherriff worried that he’d gone wrong somewhere, but all was saved by the performances of two schoolmasters from Kingston Grammar, who very effectively played the roles of two humorous drunks. Sherriff and his younger brother, Cecil, took minor roles in the farce, the former playing the part of a vicar, by the name of “The Reverend Teddington Locke”.

This play was so well received that the Committee decided to make it a regular feature, launching the Adventurers Dramatic Society the following week. Sherriff wanted to write more plays, but the other members also wished to perform in established, well-known productions, so a compromise was reached, whereby three one-act plays would be produced, two by established playwrights and one by Sherriff. His next offering, entitled The Woods of Meadowside received excellent reviews and the Society members readily agreed that Sherriff should write the whole of the next production, which he entitled Profit and Loss. Once again, the play was well received and a further three years of amateur productions followed, during which Sherriff also took over the captaincy of the rowing club. However, with many of the other members having moved on, once this time was over, Sherriff no longer found the club or the performances so exciting, and decided to leave.

Having made this decision, Sherriff now realised how empty his life would be; his evenings and weekends had been filled with rowing club matters and playwriting for the last five years: he needed another distraction. At first, he contemplated going for a promotion at work and began working on the necessary exams. All the while, however, he was haunted by the idea of writing another play, and possibly having it produced in London. He decided to send the script for Profit and Loss to the agents Curtis Brown, who liked what he had written, but rejected it. Undeterred, Sherriff sent them a further manuscript entitled Cornlow on the Downs, which was, again, returned. Meanwhile, Sherriff had also given up on his Insurance exams; the prospect seemed just to daunting now that he was over thirty.

With his empty evenings stretching ahead, Sherriff decided to write a novel and his thoughts turned to a plot he had outlined several years earlier. This involved the story of two schoolboys: Dennis Stanhope – a handsome, sporty, popular hero; and Jimmy Raleigh – a plodder, who hero-worships Stanhope. Upon leaving school, Stanhope drifts along, achieving nothing, while Raleigh succeeds, becoming a wealthy businessman. He then tries to help his old friend Stanhope, who despises Raleigh’s success. Sherriff found, however, that novel writing was not so easy as he had thought and began to wonder whether he might be able to turn this plot into a play and whether the war might prove a useful setting or subject. He still had all the letters that he had written home during the war, kept by his parents, and knew that he would be able to make use of them. Slowly the gem of an idea began to develop, until, rather than the war playing a minor part in the play, he had decided to set it entirely in a dugout. Everything else then fell into place quite easily: the characters were people he had met; the dialogue was derived from his own experiences. Each day, he longed for the evenings, when he could work on his play, which would transport him back in time, occupying him through to the early hours of the morning.

However, having written the first few scenes, Sherriff realised that the story had nowhere to go: Raleigh and Stanhope, schoolboy friends, meet in the trenches: but then what? Sherriff had absolutely no idea. Night after night, he sat in front of blank papers, willing a plot to appear. For a brief while, he gave the whole thing up and took to reading some of his old history books, at which point he suddenly realised that the play wasn’t about a plot: it was about the characters and their relationships. Sherriff then rewrote the first act and went straight on to the second. He fumbled a few times, before moving on to the third and eventually, a year later, the play was complete. All it now needed was a title. Initially, Sherriff contemplated “Suspense”, but decided this was misleading, since the play lacked any. Next, he thought of “Waiting”, but felt this was rather too commonplace. Then, one night, while reading a book, he happened upon the following words: “It was late in the evening when we came at last to our Journey’s End”. He’d found exactly what he was looking for.

Having discovered his title, Sherriff sent the manuscript to Curtis Brown, who responded positively within a week, saying that they would do their best to ensure its production. This proved harder than anticipated, as the theatre managers shied away from war plays, believing that, ten years on from the conflict, the public was looking for something more cheerful. After several months, Sherriff had all but given up when he was told by Curtis Brown to meet the war poet, Geoffrey Dearmer, who was then a member of the Incorporated Stage Society, renowned for its highbrow weekend productions. The Society were, after some negotiations, prepared to put on the play for two performances at the Apollo Theatre on 9th and 10th December 1928. They had selected the unknown James Whale as director and when Sherriff met Whale, the author was left in no doubt that the Society had only selected his play because nothing else was available and that they expected it to fail, although Dearmer himself was a supporter of the play and Sherriff’s cause.

Whale wanted the cast to be made up of unknown actors, so that the audience would focus more on the characters and he selected 21 year-old Laurence Olivier to play Stanhope. Props and costumes were improvised or borrowed, with Olivier using Sherriff’s uniform, which only needed the addition of an MC ribbon to make it perfect for Stanhope – Sherriff having achieved the rank of Captain during the war. Sherriff didn’t attend any rehearsals after the first read-through because he still had to go to work at Sun Insurance.

On the opening night, Sherriff was so nervous, he missed sections of the play; wandering around outside the theatre and backstage to avoid seeing any potential mishaps. At the end, the applause was restrained, leaving him concerned that the play had failed, until his mother, who had been watching from a box, pointed out to him that people find it difficult to clap whilst they are crying.

The dreaded London critics were due to attend the second, and final, performance and the next morning, Sherriff anxiously awaited the arrival of the newspapers. He need not have worried: the reviews were all favourable. Later that day, James Agate, theatre critic for The Times gave his weekly radio review, in which he normally spoke about three or four productions. On this occasion, however, Agate dedicated his entire programme to Journey’s End, which he praised throughout.

With such rave reviews, Sherriff and Whale expected the play to be snapped up by a West End manager and were, therefore, disappointed when nothing immediately happened. Days turned to weeks and Sherriff began to think the play had been passed over, when Curtis Brown called, instructing Sherriff to send his manuscript to a Maurice Browne, who was interested in producing it. Sherriff only had one clean copy left and was reluctant to part with this, but there was no time to make another. It was December 23rd and Browne was going away for Christmas, wanting to take the manuscript with him. Sherriff parted with it, fully expecting that he had seen the last of his play, but the very next day he received a call from Browne to say that he would produce Journey’s End in January. So it was that the play went into the West End, opening at the Savoy Theatre on 21st January 1929, initially booked for three weeks. The original cast took their parts again, with the exception of Laurence Olivier, who had been outstanding as Stanhope, and had been offered the lead in Beau Geste at His Majesty’s Theatre. Everyone was disappointed to lose their leading man, although his place was ably taken by Colin Clive and Sherriff was greatly heartened in later years, upon reading a biography of Olivier, in which he stated that his favourite role in the theatre had been that of Stanhope in Journey’s End.

The opening night went well and, at the end of the performance, the curtain fell, leaving the theatre in complete darkness and absolute silence. As it rose again, the audience remained silent and then, very slowly, the applause began, building into a loud crescendo that Sherriff could hardly believe. The next morning, the reviews showed that the audience had not been alone in their appreciation.

Within days, Maurice Browne had done a record deal with the ticketing agents and before long, the play had been translated into 27 languages and began touring around the world. Despite this success, Sherriff retained his job at Sun Insurance, uncertain how long his good fortune would last. Suddenly, however, he was forced to make a decision that would change his life.

Maurice Browne did a deal with American producer Gilbert Miller to take the play to Broadway, but one requirement of the agreement was that Sherriff must go too. This left Sherriff in a quandary: nothing in the theatre was certain and he had a steady and secure career with Sun Insurance, but it seemed ridiculous to give up this opportunity for the sake of a job paying him £6 per week. He was beginning to despair as to what he should do, when his boss at Sun Insurance saved the day. Sir William Goschen offered him a year’s leave, during which the company would hold his job open, should he wish to return. This meant Sherriff was free to try his luck with the play, safe in the knowledge that he could return to his old job, if it failed. For this generosity, Sherriff would remain eternally grateful.

An all new British cast was selected and these men, together with the necessary props and equipment, plus Sherriff, Browne, James Whale and Gilbert Miller set sail for New York on board the Aquitania on March 13th 1929. As they neared New York, several reporters came aboard wanting to interview Sherriff. They had been told by Miller that Sherriff had written the play to raise money to buy a boat for his rowing club and it had turned into a West End hit. Sherriff, knowing that Miller had used this story to drum up press interest, hadn’t the heart to disillusion them, and so the myth of the creation of Journey’s End was born and was repeated so many times that even Sherriff began to believe it.

Sherriff returned to England after a few weeks in America and never did go back to Sun Insurance. Journey’s End ran for eighteen months in the West End, transferring to the Prince of Wales Theatre when the Savoy was closed for refurbishment. In 1930, it was made into a feature film, directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive from the original cast. Once the play closed, Sherriff went on to write novels, further stage plays and screenplays, including The Invisible Man, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Dambusters.

He would, however, always be known as the author of Journey’s End. In the mid 1950s, he wrote a play entitled The Long Sunset, which was broadcast to a radio audience of five million by the BBC and became a studied text on one of the examining boards. Schoolchildren flocked to the Mermaid Theatre to see a production of the play by Bernard Miles and Sherriff attended twice a week to give talks and answer questions. When Sherriff describes these outings, he seems genuinely surprised, and perhaps a little humbled, that so many people should be so interested in – and indeed be studying – his play. But The Long Sunset was only studied for one year: Journey’s End has been on the syllabus at GCSE and A-Level for at least fifteen years and shows no sign of being withdrawn. We can, therefore, only imagine how proud Sherriff would be to know that Stanhope and Raleigh, and their story of hero-worship still lives on; that Hibbert still claims to have neuralgia; Trotter still eats too much and talks wistfully of home; Mason still makes onion-flavoured tea and Osborne is still everyone’s “Uncle”; and that, wherever the play is performed, audiences still find it difficult to clap when they’re crying.

Source: No Leading Lady: An Autobiography by R C Sherriff