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Profile: Patrick Marber
by Tim Adams of the Observer

Patrick Marber knows exactly what he is capable of. His new play, Howard Katz, which opens at the National Theatre next month, is the story of a man who at the age of 50 leaves his wife and kids and 'throws his life in the air to search for his soul'. Marber tells friends that he wrote it 'to give myself a warning'. Patrick Marber is 36 and currently lives happily in London with his actress girlfriend and his West Highland Terrier.

This time, it seems, he's getting his self-help in early. Marber's first play, Dealer's Choice, about a poker game, was, in part, an exorcising of gambling demons. He had been in the habit, before he wrote it, of losing in one night up to £10,000 he didn't have. He had tried Gambler's Anonymous but found drama more effective: he'll hardly ever play for more than £1,000 these days, and it's all his own money.

His second play, Closer, brought him nearer to home. 'In the summer of 1996, a bit of life happened to me,' he explained, deadpan. 'Romantic stuff, a series of events in my personal life. I thought, this is good stuff, I can use it.' The play, a savage, compressed comedy of sex and betrayal, threw up a series of epigrams for modern romance - 'Kind is dull, kind will kill you. Anyone can be fucking KIND' - and left its audience with a lasting image of love. 'Ever seen a human heart?' it asked. 'It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.' When Closer transferred to Broadway, the New York Times critic observed that 'Mr Marber is a dramatist to make Racine, the classic chronicler of fatal passion, seem like an optimist.'

Marber said that when he wrote the play he had come to the conclusion that 'there is no such thing as an honest relationship. The best you can hope for is an honest relationship with yourself'. He long ago decided that the best way to pursue the latter was to write about it. His subject has always been how much of ourselves we are prepared to risk giving away, and the consequences of that self-exposure. He writes, in other words, like a poker player.

It is tempting to think of his character at the card table as revealing. The columnist Victoria Coren recalls how, as a player, 'he always reminded me of the opening lines of Cincinnati Kid: "He was a tight man. Everything about him was close and quiet, his gestures were short and cleared with no wasted movement."'

Anthony Holden, who also shares Marber's obsession, suggests that 'his is the definitive poker face, often hidden behind a plume of cigarette smoke. For a witty guy, he can be quieter at the table than you might expect (much like his friend David Mamet)'.

Marber's weakness is that he sometimes gambles on hands he shouldn't. 'People like Patrick and me,' says Holden, 'who play poker to escape from the rest of our lives, tend occasionally to play too loose for the hell of it: it's a chance to defy rules we're not supposed to defy in other areas of life.'

Writing is, of course, another option. Marber grew up in suburban Wimbledon, but wished he could say he came from Camden Town or Islington. His father worked in the City; Marber knew, he says, from the age of 10, that words might prove an escape route. In his teens he was the kind of boy who would go to the National Theatre on his own and sit in the foyer writing notes in the margins of Camus or Bukowski.

At Oxford he was inspired by the Marxist critic, Terry Eagelton, and made an assault on his shyness by becoming a stand-up comedian. 'He had a big coat, too,' remembers one friend. 'And he tried that enigmatic, brainy thing.'

Eagelton recalls Marber as not a brilliant student 'but someone with a lot of imaginative flair, and always this wry and melancholic air'. He went to see him a couple of times in a revue called Dross Bros, which Marber performed with his friend, Guy Browning.

'It was a kind of toothless satire,' his tutor recalls, approvingly. He wouldn't have singled out Marber for greatness. 'He was too modest to have that theatrical flourish,' says Eagelton, 'like you saw, say, in David Hare.'

After university Marber followed his ambitions single-mindedly, writing and procrastinating by day, gambling at night. Having split up with one girlfriend, he went to Paris for six months, found a garret, and wrote the bulk of a sub-Martin Amis novel, which has never seen an agent's desk. At around this period Terry Eagelton bumped into him walking along the South Bank in London carrying 'an enormous suitcase', like a clown or a refugee, looking forlorn. 'He told me he had his "Children's Comedy" work in the case' Eagelton recalls, a little protectively. And then: 'I'm very pleased things have turned out for him as they have.'
As a comedian Marber was lucky and unlucky enough to share billing with Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard. It gave him a sense where his talent lay. His break came when he joined up with Coogan and some Oxford contemporaries, led by Armando Ianucci, to write the inspired spoof news show On the Hour for radio. Marber seized on one of Coogan's half-realised caricatures, an East Anglian sports reporter, and sketched out a detailed biography for Alan Partridge. Since then, as his creation might have it, the smell of greasepaint has become his literal oyster.

Working on Alan Partridge, Coogan and Marber were for a while the perfect comedy writing duo: deeply competitive, pettily knowledgeable of each other's weaknesses. Coogan suggests that Marber 'was always very aware that I was a more talented performer than he was'. Marber, for his part, has pointed out how Coogan 'recognises that his brilliance is imitative. All he needs is direction in life as in art.'

They both were more than smart enough, too, to escape from this relationship before they became Derek and Clive. David Schneider, who worked alongside them on The Day Today, suggests that of 'all of us, it was clear that Patrick was probably least satisfied with Light Ents. Very tight one liners were his thing then and his work still carries the same structure and tension'.

For Marber, being a playwright was also a chance to further loosen up, to become more honestly himself. 'It is my life's project to throw away my bags of irony,' he claims, and for all the wonderful smart-arsery of his radio and television work there has always been a humane, almost sentimental undertow in his writing.
In a column he wrote in The Observer, at the time he was writing Dealer's Choice, he tried more personal voices for size. In some, he'd make up lists like Woody Allen's from Manhattan - 'I like wearing ties worn by my grandfather who died before I was born. I like the clavicle, skimming stones, the absurd pomposity of the FA Cup draw, the idea of playing strip Cluedo' - experimenting with confession.

Behind his dryness, Marber gives the impression of vulnerability, of old hurts. Some acquaintances find him aloof; but friends assert his generosity. One, who went through a tough spell, mentioned how Marber had, among other things, sent him a reading list that was 'spot-on, from Graham Greene to Roland Barthes' to help him through the worst of it.

The opportunity to work through what he characterises as his own '10-year depression' was provided for Marber by Richard Eyre, a die-hard fan of Alan Partridge, who gave him a unique amount of time and space at the National to develop first Dealer's Choice (which explored, tellingly, the relationship of an indulgent, controlling father and a profligate son) and then Closer, which he ended up directing, too.

Betting duty will be abolished, perhaps as soon as the autumn, to be replaced by a 15 per cent tax on bookmakers' profits. 'If they hadn't done anything,' says Done, 'the number of betting shops would have been halved within five years. Now, I believe there will be an increase in the number of shops. It's an exciting time. I can't wait to get to work in the mornings.'

He is, by all accounts, an obsessive rewriter, ruthlessly shedding favourite lines for the sake of the whole: 'If it stops changing, it's dead.' He is as hard, or as clear-sighted, about the shape of his life, too. Courted by Hollywood since the extraordinary success of Closer he has decided to wait his moment to up the ante, and continue to learn his stagecraft, stay in control. 'Delete,' he says, 'is still my favourite key.'

Patrick Marber
DoB: 19 September 1964

Educated: Oxford (English)
Hobbies: Poker
Radio/TV: On the Hour, The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You, After Miss Julie
Theatre: Dealer's Choice, Closer, Howard Katz