Award-winning radio and stage playwright John Petherbridge first joined AWL in the 1990s when it was known as the Hammersmith Actors’ and Writers’ Group. He remained an active member and regular attender until shortly before his death in 2014. Several of his plays, including The Pub Lunch, Bomb on the Doorstep and Goddess... Or a Pile of Old Scrap, were given rehearsed readings by the group. Other plays by John have been broadcast on BBC Radio Four and Capital Radio, and performed at venues including the Soho Poly, The Latchmere, Bude Jazz Festival, and the Royal Court. He won prizes in the London Play Awards and the Brighton New Ventures Theatre Competition. John’s other work included teaching creative writing at the City Lit and Crisis, helping to run a hostel for homeless teenagers in Sydenham, and looking after children in a hostel for women survivors of domestic violence.
John was always warm, engaging, egalitarian and intelligent. These qualities were underscored by a pleasant, sardonic and often self-deprecating sense of humour. When he had something important to say in feedback after play readings, he never hesitated to say it, feeling it was his duty to make the writers’ play better if he could do so.
A great member of AWL - he will be very much missed by all of us.
I first met John at the orgPlaywrights’ Co-op c.1978. The Co-op was a group dedicated to putting playwrights in control of their readings, their productions (where possible) and their scripts via a self-publishing venture called The Playwrights’ Press.
I’m looking at a Playwrights Press script of John’s play Sentences (published 1986) as I write these notes. The Playwrights Press also published Karim Alrawi, Johnathan Gems, Brian Oliver, Harriet Cutler, Juliet Ackroyd and myself, amongst others. They were one of the first groups to support women playwrights in their early struggle for equality of recognition in writing plays. Again I’m looking at the volume called Female Voices (published 1987) and featuring five women playwrights.
John was an AWL member for more years than I can remember, almost unfailingly present at Monday evening readings, and always ready with thoughtful and thought-provoking comments for the writer whose work was being read. He always spoke truthfully and fearlessly, and never minded disagreeing with others’ comments, or everyone else’s comments for that matter.
Always a modest man, he was quietly instrumental in bringing many new writers to AWL, notably people who attended his famous writing classes at the City Lit, which he conducted for many years.
There are others among us who owe John a great debt of friendship. John changed my life, for one, by asking me to teach his class at the Crisis Skylight centre in Spitalfields from August 2005 until the summer of 2006, while he was away doing other things. When he returned, the centre manager asked me to stay on, and so it came to pass that John and I continued to work there, in our respective slots, for a further eight years until his sudden resignation in March 2014, just a few weeks before his death. I could never have hoped to thank John enough for opening my eyes to the plight of homeless people and actually making it possible for me to play a small part in ameliorating the problems of at least a few people in need.
When the 2014 resignation came, I knew the end must be near. John had previously given up his Crisis class for a single term a few years ago, to make way for his battle against the cancer. He told me afterwards that he wished he had just kept on keeping on. He was a fighter, and he seemed so determined not to give in to the illness that I was sure he was going to defeat it. Sadly it was not to be.
I shall never forget John, not least because of his wonderful play, Goddess or a Pile of Old Scrap, read at AWL and subsequently transformed into a beautiful radio recording with full soundscape. That recording is one of my greatest treasures.
Nor shall I forget his repeated declaration, in the early stages of our friendship, that WRITERS SHOULD ALWAYS BE PAID. He was ever mindful that language is increasingly devalued in this turbulent world, where words pour out faster than thought and, too often, without thought. If the value of language is to be preserved, the craft of writing must be constantly nurtured, and given due recognition. John knew that better than most people, and lived by it.
Farewell, dear old friend.
John.... bright, insightful, opinionated. His criticisms were trenchant, and could be acerbic but never cruel or destructive. Often all too bloody right. His advice to writers was hugely helpful and his support robust and unfailing. He was always interested and interesting. Discussing a project with him was something I approached with an insecure joy. He took time to listen, ask questions, read and research - then he would offer help, encouragement, criticism and if all else failed, commiseration.
In difficult times, his quiet unshowy kindness shone through. I gave a talk at the City Lit in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. I was terrified. I needn’t have worried. John skillfully steered me through the rapids of question time, held my hand throughout and then congratulated me afterwards!
His warmth, humour and intelligence made him a joy to be with. The cafe is horrid without him. I miss him already and suspect I will for a long time to come.
Ave atque vale.
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