The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at 40th Anniversary of Mousetrap Play – 25 November 1992

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech made during his visit to mark the 40th anniversary of the Mousetrap play on 25th November 1992.


May I thank you for your splendid invitation and for the warmth of your hospitality at this very remarkable occasion today. If I may say so about the Mousetrap, it is unlike other plays, it is unlike almost anything else we have seen before. It has become quite literally over 40 years a British institution in the way no other play has previously done. I believe that is something well worth celebrating on this remarkable occasion today.

I, as a politician, have a special affinity for long runs and doubtless to say Peter, yours is a run I have no wish to emulate. You have entertained audiences six nights a week at matinees twice a week for 40 years. I have audiences to entertain twice a week at 3.15pm on Tuesday and Thursday. It is just conceivably possibly they are occasionally tougher audiences than you have to face, but certainly I have no wish to do that for 40 years. I am very happy to see your record remain as unique as it has become. I suppose if we look round this room at the people here and the millions of people beyond here who instinctively know when you say Mousetrap what you’re talking about. There is something very remarkable about it and I asked myself when I contemplating what I might say on this occasion what it might be and I suppose perhaps it’s this. Most of us here have grown up with the Mousetrap, it has been an inevitable backdrop perhaps in lower case, perhaps sometimes in higher case depending upon how our individual lives have run. But there it has been as a backdrop through our lives, a constant in a rapidly changing world, so we’ve grown up with it.

When the Mousetrap opened I was in short trousers at Cheam Common Primary School. Hitler had only been dead for 7 years. We had ration cards, we had identity cards. There was no colour television, Everest was unconquered, the four minute mile was unrun, the moon was unexplored and nobody had ever heard of Maastricht or any Treaty. They were I remember happy days. But it had a special appeal that play. I suppose you could look at it time and time again and try and analyse it but you won’t quite catch the essential nature of what has made this play last in a way no other play in the history of our theatre has ever lasted. A certain simplicity, a certain straightforwardness.

Certainly of course the quality of acting right from the beginning with Sheila Simm and Dickie Attenborough, a splendidly acted play with an enormous talent that I believe is more evident in this country as a theatre, than in any other country around the world that has ensured [inaudible] has that gift that Agatha Christie, not uniquely, but certainly had to a very high order, that gift of reflecting two things. A Britishness that Matthew referred to a moment ago and also a particular period, you can read an Agatha Christie book, see an Agatha Christie play and the period itself comes to life in a quite remarkable and evocative way and that is certainly true with the Mousetrap over the years. But then of course it has other very distinguished figures who are inexorably connected with it and sitting on my left of course is one of the most distinguished of them, Peter Saunders. There are many reasons to admire Peter and there are many people in this room who know him far better and for far longer than I have. A very long connection with the theatre, but that isn’t unique. But I think there is a quality about everything that Peter Saunders has done in the theatre that very few people can match and I believe that is evident in the long run that the Mousetrap has had and the care and the skill, not just in the play but in the marketing of the play that has been so evident throughout those long years in which it has entertained London and visitors to London from throughout the world.

Right from the first night onwards three names have been synonymous, the Mousetrap, Agatha Christie and Peter Saunders as well. I believe there is a small niche of our history that is there solid and secure for the future and for Peter, I believe, we should offer principal thanks for the fact that the Mousetrap has been such an outstanding success for so long. I of course am jolly lucky to be here today, particularly when I think where else I might have been, no, no, you misunderstand me, at least I hope you do. But I am by no means the first Prime Minister to be here on these occasions, Jim Callaghan was here, as you mentioned on your 25th Anniversary. Now I’m a great admirer of Jim Callaghan, we had some differences, there are many things about him to admire, but I believe alas he has one great deficiency, he has never seen the Mousetrap. I have not once but on more than one occasion and so have my family and I look forward Peter in due course to my grandchildren coming along to see it as well.

But of course there is also Agatha Christie to mention. I was not introduced to Agatha Christie via the Mousetrap, I perhaps, I don’t know how many people in this room would claim the same, I would certainly claim to have read every book that Agatha Christie has written and believe that I have most of them at home. I spent in my early 20s around about a year in hospital lying on my back after a very miserable car accident and during that period amongst other things I busied myself by reading everything that Agatha Christie had written, through phases of her writing you could date her books when you read them from the style of the writing and you can see them in quite different phases, quite different styles, quite different depths for the character sketches. And one learnt one thing from reading her books, you get an instinct for the way she constructs her plots and it is very easy sometimes for people to say, well Agatha Christie is a very easy read, she wouldn’t have been a very easy write, for there was a great and definite skill lurking under those easy books that we pick up and read with such pleasure so frequently. An instinct for how she constructed her plots, and that ruthless element of surprise often the double or triple surprise at the end of her books, evident in the Mousetrap and evident throughout that vast number of books that she produced in her very long life. But above that I think she has one other gift worth mentioning, many people over many years have written books that people like to own, there are an awful lot of books that are purchased and never read, Agatha Christie’s gift was to write books that people wanted not only to own but to read and then to read again and I believe she did that with very great skill indeed and not only to have written books that people want to read but to have written a play that people want to see and see again in a way that none of our previous playwrights in our history have managed to equal. That is a very remarkable thing for anyone to achieve, and she was by any yardstick a very remarkable lady indeed.

I think there’s one other thing that I would say about the Mousetrap and that is how clever it was to have selected London as its home and no other city in the world. I followed the point that Matthew made a few moments ago, I believe profoundly that we undersell what we have in this country, what we are in this country and what we can do in this country and I know of nowhere around the world that can match right the way across the spread of the arts, the theatre, painting, museums, musicians, orchestras, right the way across the spread of the arts and entertainment, I know of no city in the world that can beat what is available here in London day, day out and I would if I may say something else about the arts, the theatre of course, particularly in our minds now but the arts generally. I don’t regard the arts as an occasional optional add on extra to the life we have in our city or in our country, it is an integral part of our life in this country and it must remain so and become evermore enshrined in the future, that is what I certainly wish to see of the arts in the future and I believe it is what we will be able to achieve and one only has to go and see perhaps an unfashionable play with unfashionable names, young people not known through television, not known through mass media publicity to see the sheer rate of original talent that we actually have in this country. I believe one of our objectives in the next few years ought to be able to maximise that talent in this country and where we can export those skills for the benefit not just of this country but of the theatre going world wherever it may be and that I don’t [indistinct].

It is mainly of course for the great impresarios, for those who live within the theatre all the time, not those like myself who are theatre goers but have no integral part in it, to develop that great theme, but I do hope that if I can touch upon one thing that we will be able to help in one respect, controversial in some areas, I defend very strongly the Government’s proposal to produce a lottery to raise a large amount of money for the arts and other good causes in this country. I can’t be certain yet how much money it will raise. I do know it will raise more money for the theatre, the arts, heritage and charities than would ever be likely to be available to the coffers of any Government however benevolent and whatever its tax rate and if we are to have a lottery in this country and we will whether it comes from abroad or from home, I for one would rather that it was founded in this country with the proceeds of the generosity of people in this country actually going to the artistic and other institutions of this country and that is what is proposed in the Lottery Bill that Peter Brooke will present to Parliament before too long. I hope it will play its part in boosting the arts, our heritage and other important parts of our national way of life.

Let me just conclude with one further thought, I referred a moment ago to the number of remarkable people connected with the Mousetrap, Peter of course, remarkable actors and actresses who have appeared in it, but perhaps above all, the authoress herself, Agatha Christie, a very remarkable lady as I said a moment or so ago. Her life in many ways was theatre, there were many mysteries in her own life, not just a quite, secluded lady writing her books at that beautiful house in Devon, but also a lady in her own life who had a whole series of mysteries around the often and very high profile and public mysteries indeed. A lady who was a mystery in her own right. For who mysteries were her life, who left behind her a legacy of literature that we may treasure as part of our own heritage to the future. So it is partly to honour Agatha Christie, partly to honour the Mousetrap on this remarkable Anniversary of 40 years, never before equalled in theatre, and perhaps only by the Mousetrap ever to be beaten that we are actually here today. I would like to ask you if I may therefore, to drink a toast to somebody quite unique, not one thing perhaps but two, this most remarkable play, the Mousetrap and this most unique of all of those, Agatha Christie. So if I may I’ll ask you to rise and drink a toast to the lady who made it possible, Agatha Christie and the Mousetrap.