Terence Frisby obituary

The actor and playwright Terence Frisby, who has died aged 87, wrote There’s a Girl in My Soup, the longest running comedy in the history of the West End until it was overtaken by Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife; it opened at the Globe in 1966 starring Donald Sinden as a middle-aged celebrity chef embroiled in a swinging 60s tug-of-love triangle with the young girlfriend (played memorably by Barbara Ferris) of a middle-class hippy, and closed at the Comedy more than six years later.

The social significance of the piece was entirely traduced in the 1970 movie version starring Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn, but Frisby had written a “play for today” that its producer Michael Codron, champion of Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn and Simon Gray, defined as a “bridge play” between the old world of theatre and the new (this was the play that made his whole West End operation commercially viable). Sinden improvised the famous “chat up” catchphrase, “My God, but you’re beautiful,” which he reprised as his own epitaph, alone with his looking glass, as the curtain fell.

Frisby had learned how to write and construct plays as an actor in rep and had been influenced by the whirlwind impact of John Osborne and Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1956. He gave a modern twist to the Strindbergian obsession with matters of the heart, and with sex, that ran through all his writing, though he never repeated the success of Soup.

His towering achievement was his book Outrageous Fortune (1998), a bitterly enthralling account of his 15 years as a high court litigant at the Old Bailey following his divorce in 1971 from Christine Doppelt, a photographic model; it was addressed to their son, Dominic, who grew up to be a writer and comedian, and whose custody he had contested along with the financial terms of the separation.

The only winners in the case were the lawyers, and Frisby reserved his highest scorn for them as the wrong sort of people to be involved in marital crises. He had not helped his own case by returning to Britain after several years in a French tax haven – the consequence of Soup’s success – and the admission on both sides that this was an “open” marriage. Frisby really did land in the soup of a different and smothering consistency. What a play all this would have made as a West End farce, or tragedy.

Terence Frisby outside court during his divorce and child custody battle, 1971, which he chronicled in the book Outrageous Fortune.
Terence Frisby outside court during his divorce and child custody battle, 1971, which he chronicled in the book Outrageous Fortune. Photograph: Express/Getty Images

He did not so much mishandle his sudden wealth as mismanage it, but there was something honest and endearing about his collapse, and he never stopped working, and in many interesting directions. He acted in Osborne’s A Sense of Detachment at the Royal Court in 1972, and in Barry Reckord’s sexually explicit X – just him and a nude female actor – in 1974; he wrote a television comedy series for David Jason, Lucky Feller, in 1976, and a second West End play (though not a successful one), Rough Justice, in 1994 in which Martin Shaw as a liberal-minded journalist on trial at the Old Bailey for allegedly murdering his disabled child was given the third degree by Diana Quick’s pro-life prosecuting counsel.

Born in New Cross, south-east London, Terence was the second son of William Frisby, a railwayman, and his wife, Kathleen (nee Campbell), who worked in a department store. On the outbreak of the second world war, Terence and his brother Jack were evacuated to Dobwalls, near Liskeard, in Cornwall. He memorialised the experience in an award-winning radio play and the 2009 book based on his own 2004 musical, Kisses on a Postcard, which was revived to some critical acclaim – but no West End “takers” – at the Queen’s theatre, Barnstaple, in 2011.

Returning to London, he studied at Dartford grammar school and left, aged 16, to take up an apprenticeship in tailoring. He stuck at that trade for six years before deciding to be an actor, and paid his way through the Central School of Speech and Drama as a factory hand, omelette chef, chauffeur and Hammersmith Palais bouncer.

From 1957 to 1966 he worked as an actor and director in rep under the name Terence Holland, writing his first play, The Subtopians, an Osborne-ian study of domestic tensions in suburbia, for the Bromley rep in 1962; Codron facilitated its London presentation at the Arts theatre in 1964, with a cast led by Bill Fraser, but it was only a moderate success, and Frisby lost his investment (his own money). Codron, however, told him to send him his next play, which he promised to produce. And he did. It was There’s a Girl in My Soup.

By now Frisby was writing and acting in television, and his next stage play, The Bandwagon (1969), at the Mermaid theatre, starring Peggy Mount as the matriarch of a family where every woman was pregnant, came about because the BBC, who had commissioned it for television, would not countenance the line – which Frisby refused to cut – “My friend Sylve told me it was safe standing up.” The play never reached the West End.

Nor did It’s All Right If I Do It (1977), also at the Mermaid, though, reworked, it was the source of another ITV sitcom, That’s Love (1988-92), starring Jimmy Mulville and Diana Hardcastle in a middle-class wedlock chat between a tax lawyer and a liberated interior designer extended over four series.

Frisby was someone who used every aspect of his private life in his writing, and he was a dedicated recycler of his own material. He retained a capacity to surprise, appearing with the outrageous Ken Campbell Road Show in the early 1970s; playing the lead in a West End revival of Ben Travers’ great farce Rookery Nook at Her Majesty’s in 1979; and producing in the early 80s a UK tour of Mary O’Malley’s coruscating Once a Catholic and a West End season of Woza Albert, from the Market theatre, Johannesburg, in which Christ returns to earth in an apartheid-riven South Africa.

He is survived by Dominic.

• Terence Frisby, actor and playwright, born 28 November 1932; died 22 April 2020