The popular playwright who filled Belfast theatres for months on end
The career of Sam Cree, the much-loved playwright and comedy writer who was born in 1928, began rather riskily.
As a young man in charge of a drawing office in Lisburn, Co Antrim, he was asked to ‘do something entertaining’ for the firm’s annual dinner. He duly obliged, writing a sketch called A day in the life of a managing director. Everyone laughed, except the managing director.
Cree managed to survive the MD’s opprobrium but hardly learnt his lesson. The next year he wrote a sketch sending up the staff, who didn’t speak to him for two or three weeks.
Somebody suggested that he write for the theatre and he took some work to show Denny Willis, who was appearing on stage in Belfast. Willis said, ‘this is good but I can’t afford to pay you what it’s worth’ and generously passed him on to Jimmy Logan, a well known comedian. He liked the script and offered Cree a job in London.
This must have been a big decision for Cree, who only a couple of years before had been quietly getting on with life in the drawing office, but he took the chance and went across the water to be a full time gag writer. Determined to be a professional he even appeared in Yellow Pages under ‘Writers’.
This was the early 1960s when Flower Power was flowing out of San Francisco, political tensions were easing and the world wanted to laugh. James Young, a well loved local comedian moved into the Group Theatre and asked Cree to adapt an English play, The Love Match, for a local audience.
The popularity of the play led Cree to try one of his own and in the summer of 1960, his play Wedding Fever was given a gala opening in front of Lord and Lady Brookeborough, the Lord Mayor, the Attorney General and many other VIPs.
Cree wasn’t one to cower nervously in the dressing room wondering how it was going. If the audience laughed it was all right with him, and laugh they did. It was a first night to remember. Cree wore a carnation in his buttonhole and a broad smile, there were speeches in front of the curtain and flowers for all the ladies. The play ran for 42 weeks, with half the population of Belfast going to see it.
If Wedding Fever hadn’t been a success Cree says he would have given up, but an agent offered him £500 for it. In 1960 that was a lot of money. Luckily he didn’t sell, as later one of his plays was taking £3,000 a day at the box office and he had offers of £80,000 for his farce Cupid Wore Skirts as a film-script.
He went on to write a string of comedies that were produced all over the world. They easily translated to Yorkshire, Glasgow, or Cockney humour and played to family audiences everywhere. They might have been thought suggestive, but though the scantily clad actress was chased round the bedroom, she was never caught.
Cree confessed that he often turned off the television at home as the programmes were too embarrassing to watch with his family. His humour was of the naughty seaside postcard variety – a little risqué but never pornographic.
He was a disciplined author with an office, typewriter, drinks cabinet, large fish tank for calming his thoughts and a nine to four routine. His plan was to get a laugh every three lines and a belly laugh on every page. His characters were memorable. Everyone recognises his neighbour in them, never themselves of course.
His best work was written for local actors James Young and Leila Webster, and for local venues like the Group Theatre. Today they are a godsend for local amateur groups.
‘The Arts‘ in Belfast, which was run by ‘Hibbie’ Wilmot, premiered 12 of Cree’s plays. The two became firm friends and never signed a contract, with everything being done on a handshake.
Pyjama Tops was considered too naughty for Belfast but ran in the West End. Let’s Get Laid (about a chicken farm of course), played the famous Windmill Theatre in London.
Cree also wrote for the Carry on films, George Formby and Arthur Askey. Can anyone over 40 say they have never heard of The Love Nest, Don’t tell the Wife, The Mating Season, Stop it Nurse, Separate Beds or Married Bliss?
An American company read a three line synopsis of one play in Variety, and on the strength of this, and a review, he was invited to Hollywood. He spent three weeks going round the studios meeting Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Lisa Minelli. Unfortunately for him, films like Easy Rider were becoming popular and though it would not have been beyond Cree to write a play on a ‘sex and/on motorbikes’ theme, the project was shelved.
The wind of change was blowing through the theatres of the world. His farce The Bed was pushed off the stage to make room for a new sensation, Oh Calcutta, a play he certainly wouldn’t have taken his family to. He often said that playwriting was like begging in India – an honourable but humbling profession.
The critics, who perhaps were seeking an Ulster Shaw or Yeats, were not always kind. The audience’s reaction should have been enough for Cree – after all he could fill a Belfast theatre for three months – but the criticism hurt and he never grew a thick skin.
In 1971, civil strife was causing things to go very badly Belfast. The Arts Theatre staged a Sam Cree play, thinking he was the only playwright who could pull the audiences in. The play only lasted for two weeks and the theatre closed for the duration.
Some time later I stood in the street with Hibbie’s wife and watched as a bomb lifted the theatre’s roof. It flew up in the air with a tremendous thump then settled back on again, as if to say ‘the show must go on’. However, it was a bad time for playwrights as well as theatres. Cree decided to try his hand at promotion, at which he was not a great success.
The best days were over. His friends say that Cree was a man who always said ‘yes’ to life, but illness, his wife’s unexpected death, the failure of his promotions business, and the general gloom, was a sad end to all that had gone so swimmingly before. He died in 1980 at the early age of 52, having written 22 plays, two pantomimes and thousands of sketches.
Right to the end, he was still writing for Leila Webster’s one woman show. She would go to the hospital and read the material to him. He could even laugh about death, claiming he had ‘one foot in the grate’.
‘Don’t you mean one foot in the grave?’ she asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘One foot in the grate. I want to be cremated.’
By Shirley Bork