fonds PW - The Peter Whelan Archive

Identity area

Reference code



The Peter Whelan Archive


  • c 1978-2004 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

0.22 cubic metres

11 boxes

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

Peter Whelan was born in 1931, the son of Tom Whelan, a lithographic artist in the Potteries, and his wife Bertha who worked for the Forestry Commission. Educated at Hanley High School, he spent his National Service in Berlin in 1950 before reading English and Philosophy at Keele University. After graduation he worked as an assistant surveyor in Stoke’s town planning office and later became an advertising copywriter in London.

Whelan’s interest in the theatre began at a young age. He often attended his local theatre at Hanley and attempted his three first plays before the age of 18. In the 1950s he and his wife became involved with the Questors amateur theatre company in Ealing, London, and he attended the Wedgwood Memorial College summer courses in drama near Stoke on Trent.

In 1964 he and several other Questor actors travelled to Berlin to present work by a group of young playwrights living there on Ford Foundation grants. Amongst them was the playwright Tom Stoppard and Whelan participated in the one-act forerunner to ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’ later a critical and popular success for Stoppard.

It was in the 1960s that Whelan began to write again. In 1970 he collaborated with Don Kincaid on ‘Lakota,’ a drama based on the massacre at Wounded Knee, and in 1975 he had his first commercial success with ‘Double Edge,’ a thriller co-written with Les Darbon that played in the West End.

In 1978 he submitted his first solo script, ‘Captain Swing,’ as an unsolicited play to the Royal Shakespeare Company, or RSC. Based on the farm labourers’ rebellion of 1830, it became a critical success at their Other Place theatre the following year and transferred to Covent Garden.

He followed this in 1981 with ‘The Accrington Pals,’ a study of the Lancashire Battalion and their wives back home in England during World War One, and then the Germany and Staffordshire set ‘Clay’ in 1982.

Whelan’s work was often influenced by historical people, events and movements. In 1991 his play, ‘The Bright and Bold Design,’ focused on factory girls in the Potteries in the 1930s, in 1992 he turned to the life of Christopher Marlowe in ‘The School of Night,’ returning to this period for ‘The Herbal Bed,’ staged by the RSC in 1996, a play based on a court case involving William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna.

His most recent plays, ‘A Russian in the Woods’ and ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ took post-war Berlin and the pre-Raphaelite artists respectively as their central themes.

Whelan also wrote for television, contributing several scripts to the Granada television series ‘In Suspicious Circumstances’ in the 1990s, as well as the script for ‘The Trial of Lord Lucan,’ again for Granada. In 2000 he worked on an ultimately unproduced story treatment for Richard Attenborough on the subject of Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

In 1996 Whelan was made an Honorary Artistic Associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company and in 2014 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Staffordshire University in recognition of his achievements.

Peter Whelan died in July 2014 at the age of 82.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The archive was purchased from Peter Whelan by the Borthwick Institute in 2006.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

Draft and published editions of scripts, production notes, photographs, publicity and correspondence for theatrical works by Peter Whelan, including ‘Captain Swing,’ 1979; ‘The Accrington Pals,’ 1981; ‘Clay,’ 1982; ‘The Bright and Bold Design,’ 1991; ‘The School of Night,’ 1992; ‘Shakespeare Country,’ 1993; ‘The Tinderbox,’ 1995; ‘The Divine Right,’ 1996; ‘The Herbal Bed,’ 1996; ‘Overture,’ 1997; ‘A Russian in the Woods,’ 2001; and ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ 2004. Unproduced draft scripts, including ‘Marx: A Farce,’ n.d; ‘In the Time of Good Neighbours,’ n.d; and ‘The Burnt Njal, taken from Njal’s Saga,’ n.d.

Material relating to television and film work by Peter Whelan, including television scripts for ‘In Suspicious Circumstances’ series 3, episode 2, and series 5, episode 7; television script for ‘Stories from the Bible,’ n.d; research, story treatments, notes and associated correspondence for unproduced film ‘Sisi,’ later ‘The Empress,’ in association with Richard Attenborough Productions, c.2000.


Further accruals are not expected.

System of arrangement

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

Records are open to the public, subject to the overriding provisions of relevant legislation, including data protection laws. 24 hours' notice is required to access photographic material.

Conditions governing reproduction

A reprographics service is available to researchers subject to the access restrictions outlined above. Copying will not be undertaken if there is any risk of damage to the document. Copies are supplied in accordance with the Borthwick Institute for Archives' terms and conditions for the supply of copies, and under provisions of any relevant copyright legislation. Permission to reproduce images of documents in the custody of the Borthwick Institute must be sought.

Language of material

  • English

Script of material

Language and script notes

Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Finding aids

This material has not yet been catalogued. A partial box list is available for consultation, please contact the Borthwick Institute for more information.

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

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Notes area

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Description control area

Description identifier

Institution identifier

GB 193

Rules and/or conventions used

ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2000); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).

Level of detail

Dates of creation revision deletion

Created by S. A. Shearn, 05.06.15




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