Sir Arnold Wesker, who has died at the age of 83, first came to prominence in the late 1950s as one of the playwrights dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, though he later rejected this label. I would say advisedly so, for his famous trilogy of plays drawing on his background in the Jewish East End and upbringing in a family with a strong Communist identity, introduced one of the most memorable positive heroines of post-war literature. Beatie Bryant, the Norfolk-born heroine of the middle play in the trilogy, Roots (the first being Chicken Soup with Barley, and the last is I’m Talking About Jerusalem).
I was lucky enough to meet Sir Arnold when Roots was wonderfully revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and I was invited to meet this great, delightful and erudite man at the Brighton home he shared with his beloved wife, the supremely resourceful and devoted Dusty, on whom the radiant Beatie was modelled. I say invited, because the hugely hospitable Dusty made what she called "a light lunch", to which my husband Steve was also invited and it was truly memorable – both for Dusty’s cooking and for the conversation over lunch. And that’s on top of what I was privileged to record for JR OutLoud with Arnold while lunch was cooking, when he spoke at length about the inspiration for Roots and much more about his life and work.
Arnold was still supremely articulate despite the Parkinson’s Disease that dogged his later years. I had also had the pleasure of speaking to him on the phone some years before about Shylock, his take on The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and the Merchant of Venice are close and supportive friends and the pound of flesh the result of a nonsensical bond, genuinely made as a gesture to the draconian Venetian authorities, that goes horribly wrong. But meeting him in person and being welcomed into their home by this wonderfully complementary pair will always be a very special memory for me. My heart goes out to Dusty and I am sure all readers will join with me in wishing her long life.
By Judi Herman
Listen to Sir Arnold Wesker discuss his life and works in 2013 on JR OutLoud.