The Road to A Nighty before Christmas
John Fowles, the novelist, said the idea for The French Lieutenant’s Woman came to him via a single image. He pictured a woman in a hooded black cape standing at the end of The Cobb in Lyme Regis during a storm. He didn’t know who the woman was but it was that image that eventually led to the book, film and play.
Now, I am not comparing The Nighty before Christmas with The French Lieutenant’s Woman. After all, Fowles never intended his story to be a fun, interactive murder mystery game played by amateur detectives on the internet. But they do have that one thing in common; I had an image in my mind for months before I even began writing.
What was the image?
That’s a great question. Well done for asking. Unfortunately, if I gave you an answer, I’d give the game away. It would ruin the mystery, and the last thing I want is to dissuade you from is purchasing and playing (especially purchasing). So I need to be very careful about what I say.
I can’t tell you what that single image was. Suffice to say, it remained in my mind for a very long time. I would add bits to the puzzle now and again but it wasn’t really coming to me. I probably wouldn’t have written it at all if it weren’t for one person.
Kate White worked for one of the agencies that booked our live murder mystery shows. We still performed a five actor show, a Sherlock Holmes Unsolved Mystery, when audience sizes demanded but the two actor show (the plot of the Lockdown Murder Mystery) had become our staple. Kate asked me if I had a specific Christmas show.
I didn’t, but I said I might create one for the following Christmas (which, at that point, was ages away). She said if it was ready for September, she’d promote it.
It is not easy to write something Christmassy out of season. September came and went and I had no script (although the plot had developed). As I recall, and Kate remembers it differently, this went on for two or three years. ‘Next year,’ I’d say. ‘By September?’ Kate would ask. ‘Yes,’ I’d promise.
Septembers came and went.
In 2019, Kate had a client who’d done all of our shows and wanted the ‘new’ Christmas one. Their event was in September, so it would have to be ready. It was the push I needed and I made the effort to do just that.
By the end of August, I had a completed two actor show.
But then Kate announced the audience would be around 150 people. The two actor show works for up to around 100 (ideally for less) so I suggested we’d need some AV equipment, including a large screen, and I’d need an additional actor.
It was agreed. I found an actor (not allowed to call her an actress these days). I’d not employed her before but had been told she was funny and good at improvisation. Perfect.
I didn’t want to give her any specific lines as the script was written for two actors and it would be difficult to alter it. So we came up with places where she could improvise. She was experienced at Murder Mystery, having worked for a number of rival companies over the years, and she was very happy with the pay rate (a concern as it reflects the standards of the rival companies). She was also pleasantly surprised to have a script in advance. It was very common, she told me, to have no idea about plot or character until you arrived at a venue. I cannot begin to imagine how that works.
We were at a very plush hotel, a regular venue. Only recently, Donald Trump (remarkably the current President of the United States) had been holding talks there. It’s a very classy, 5 star hotel. My new actor was very, very impressed and said she was used to very cheap hotels (ding-ding; another warning sign).
The end client is very secretive about their company and what they do. Suffice to say, the employees are very young and very tech-savvy. The company had an ‘individualistic policy’. They actively encouraged you to walk out of their own conferences if you wanted to. We’d been told the company had an afternoon conference so wouldn’t be around until about 6.00pm. But most had clearly claimed their individualistic freedom rights as there were many wandering the hotel.
My plan had been to get some serious rehearsing done by arriving early. Unfortunately, Brian (my regular side kick on the two actor shows) was stuck in traffic following an accident. He kept updating us but it got later and later.
We did go through it but improvisation is improvisation and there is only so much you can plan for. We touched on the areas to cover but we didn’t go through specifics.
That was the biggest mistake.
It started well enough...
I like some, or all of the actors to mingle with the guests before we start. There are always latecomers and it’s nice to make a start rather than leave people wondering what’s going on. It also helps to see ‘the whites of the eyes’ of our audience. To gauge them, get to know them a bit.
And the start was pretty good. We had them laughing in small groups. Then we brought everyone together, ready for the premiere performance of The Nighty before Christmas.
We did our typical opening; the firing of a gun. Always a great way to quieten a noisy audience and draw attention. Brian and I exchanged our opening banter and all was well. When we get to our first section of improvisation, I hand over to the new girl; the actor who had worked on the cheaper murder mysteries at the cheaper hotels.
Her improvisation started well and the entire audience was engaged. They were standing up, they were active, they were hanging on her every word. Where would she take them next?
I can’t say the ‘joke’ that followed was particularly offensive. It was a standard joke back in the 1990’s. It wasn’t the sort of thing I’d say because I didn’t think it was funny, but it was a joke one of our regular actors (now, sadly, deceased) used to employ.
But this wasn’t the 1990’s. We’re in the age of offence where comedians get into trouble over the slightest slip.
And it was slight! It didn’t knock a specific group or ethnicity. It wasn’t making fun of any race, religion or sexuality. Nothing like that. It was, at worst, in mildly bad taste. We recognised that, but sort of laughed it off and carried on.
But times have changed. Smartphones rule the roost.
If…and it wasn’t anything we’ve ever done even when you could get away with it in the 1990’s… but if it had made fun of an individual or an ethnicity, then an audience may take offence. Fair enough.
But whereas before, they would need to register that offence at an appropriate time by PHYSICALLY approaching the organiser and telling them, in their opinion, the humour was in poor taste.
Not so today.
Not only do people take offence at the drop of a hat but they can do so anonymously. These are tech people. Rather than stand up and make a scene, a few of them tapped a message into their phones under the tablecloth. The organiser received these anonymous complaints of an inappropriate joke.
The agent approached me as soon as it was possible and said we needed to stop the show. We had just handed out the clue packs but had to announce the starter would be served and we were finishing for now. We were told not to say this was due to complaints for fear of embarrassing the complaintants.
We await our fate.
So we return to the dressing room as the agent holds emergency talks with the organiser (Thank goodness President Trump wasn’t still there).
After ten minutes or so, she returns to say the client wants to pull the show altogether on this, the FIRST showing of a script I’d been promising for years!
The complaints had developed. Some said it was racist due to the fact that all the suspects were white. I argued the setting was a small village in the far north of England. It wasn’t London. It is typical for such villages to have a predominantly white population, even now. I asked if, perhaps, I should have made the murderer black in order to feed on outdated stereotypes.
They weren’t happy with the title. The word ‘Nighty’ had sexual connotations, they said.
Another complained about Suzy Betts (they’d looked at the clue book then). They didn’t like the fact a woman should be a poker player! So that’s feminism out the window. Nor did they think it appropriate a single woman should have an affair with a married man! ‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘The very definition of an affair is that one or both parties are married to someone else. Otherwise, we are talking about a legitimate relationship.’ My argument being that, in order to spice up any story, you need some of the protagonists to have secrets.
I wanted to be clear. ‘They are complaining it’s racist because we don’t have an obvious, stereotypical black suspect, and sexist because a woman is having an affair with a married man AND she has money in her own right?’ And they say WE are in the wrong.
‘Has anyone complained about a man being brutally murdered?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Murder is OK because it’s a murder mystery night.’
‘Oh yes, that makes sense.’ I said. ‘So we pack up and go, do we?’
‘No,’ says the agent. ‘Because there are quite a lot of people who were really enjoying it and they are working on the clue book. They want to solve it.’
The suggestion was that, before the main course, we go out and give the answer. We are not to mention there have been complaints. Of course, the whole premise is that we don’t know whodunnit. That’s the game. That’s what the audience work on. How will we ‘suddenly’ have the answer.
‘My suggestion,’ she said, ‘Is you announce another detective has just called from Shallow Bottom and he’s solved the case based on new evidence. Then you can reveal those findings so that anyone who may have worked it out will have the answer.’
‘He?’ I ask. ‘This other detective is a ‘he’? Is that not a bit risky? What if they question why ‘he’ isn’t ‘she’ or ‘they’?’
‘Don’t be pedantic,’ she says. ‘Just do it.’
So we did.
Senior members of the company approached us as we were packing up and apologised for the behaviour of their colleagues. As far as most were concerned, they were enjoying the show, looking forward to solving it and disappointed that a small proportion of the audience had ruined it. They thought the decision to pull the show had been ridiculous.
They also pointed out that the individualist policy of the company may well have been a factor. By complaining, they could register the fact they didn’t want a murder mystery, or any other form of entertainment. By getting rid of us, they could just get on with the important side of the evening; eating and drinking.
We, according to these senior staff, were the victims. They apologised and thanked us.
The follow up.
We had a show booked in with the same company the following week. A far smaller audience and not the same people but very senior. We were a tad nervous but the show went really well (as it always does – except once).
However, the agency had a meeting with the company directors (who’d not attended either event). Having previously banned us from using fake guns (we had to use a banana once and shout ‘bang’) and, on another occasion, asked us not to pick a winning team as that suggests the others are losers, they thought the best option was to avoid murder mystery events altogether.
We learned that the morning after our banned show, the director addressed everyone on stage for their morning conference (assuming anyone turned up). Rather than apologising for the disgusting behaviour from the sexist, racist, riot-inducing mystery the evening before, he used the very SAME JOKE our 1990’s actor had used.
As Brian said, ‘If it was offensive, why repeat it.’
Apparently, he got a laugh.
I was nervous about selling the show again, naturally. But a while later, another agent asked if we could do a Christmas show (in December this time). I put forward The Nighty before Christmas but mentioned we’d had some trouble with the title, amongst other things.
The end client asked if perhaps we should change the title, so we came up with ‘Santa Slays‘, seeing as how the killer was dressed as Father Christmas (I’m not giving away any secrets there). In the end, they came back with, ‘Actually, we can’t see the word nighty is offensive in any way and we’re happy to go with that.’
We did the show and they had a great time. They got a bit rowdy and they (not us) threw in the sort of jokes we could never include (or would want to). We never swear in our shows but we cannot be held responsible if the audience do. And they did.
After that, it was put away until next Christmas (I almost said, ‘put to bed’ but you can’t be too careful). Of course, that didn’t happen because, even as we performed this one complete version of The Nighty before Christmas, thousands of miles away in a Chinese city a new virus was preparing to take over the world. When it hit London, I retreated to film my Lockdown Murder Mystery.
After that, I started to wonder if a Christmas follow up might be in order.
You have been warned.