Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by June Hulbert was published in the November 1982 edition of Woman & Home magazine.

A Very Singular Person

After twenty-five years, Alan Ayckbourn still doesn't presume to be a Yorkshireman. "But I do feel Scarborian!"

Alan Ayckbourn is a house-hold, you might even say world-hold, name. His plays, which he lives, breathes, sleeps, writes and directs, meet themselves coming back in theatres right round the globe. They have been translated into 24 different languages. Back in the autumn of 1975, five of them were running in London's West End at the same time. Currently, his
Season's Greetings plays the West End.

He has been acknowledged as Britain's greatest living playwright, and his company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round, now involved in Ayckbourn's two-hander
Intimate Exchanges, adore him.
The whole world, it seems, is his for the asking. But he doesn't want the whole world. "Scarborough will do me very nicely."

But why Scarborough? That was the very question Alan Ayckbourn asked himself when, 25 years ago - a £7-a-week actor and assistant stage manager with no money but high hopes - he found himself a job at Scarborough, the first place in Britain to have theatre-in-the-round.

"But I'll never forget," Ayckbourn says now, "that first glorious train journey from York to Scarborough. Like a giant-sized scenic railway, it was." He knew nothing about the town then, he says, but "Well, you know how it is. I'd have gone to Brazil if that had been where the money was! And, I rather liked the idea of theatre-in-the-round because there wouldn't be any scenery to lug about!"

Scarborough, however, did not at all like the idea of theatre-in-the-round and when
Stephen Joseph (son of the delightful actress Hermione Gingold) had established it there, they made their feelings quite clear and stayed away in droves. [2] Although Stephen Joseph is dead now - he died in 1967, still in his thirties [3], the future of his theatre entrusted to his protege, Ayckbourn - stories are still told of him in Scarborough and thereabouts.

Tom Laughton, chairman of the Scarborough Theatre Trust which is the guardian of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round recalls, "When Hermione Gingold came to see her son's first show here, I owned and ran the Royal Hotel in the town. When I showed Miss Gingold up to her suite she remarked, 'I do so hope Stephen knows what he is up to.'"

Stephen Joseph certainly did know what he was up to, says his pupil, friend and admirer, Alan Ayckbourn: "He had the foresight to know that theatre-in-the-round was going to succeed. He watched it being revived in the States - it was a medieval form of theatre, you know - then he came back to a British theatre almost completely dominated by the proscenium arch and introduced it here. What a rumpus it caused…."

Alan Ayckbourn is talking to me in the sitting-room of his home, the handsome Georgian house in which Stephen Joseph himself once lived. The brisk and friendly Heather - part actress, part secretary, part press officer and part lady-in-his-life - brings lemon tea and gives the coal fire a familiar poke.

So Alan Ayckbourn, a gentle, tweedy, coffee-and-cream-coloured man in an elegant coffee-and-cream-coloured room, starts to talk.

The domestic side of his life he sums up naturally and neatly. "Yes, I live here with Heather. And yes, my wife and I separated amicably some years ago. I can't say quite when - we don't keep dates on the calendar for things like that. My wife lives in London with our youngest boy, Philip, who's twenty and burning to be a musician. Stephen, the elder one, twenty-two now, is in Denmark, working his way round the world, a very civilised thing to do. To know what one wants to do is being lucky, isn't it? Very privileged indeed, I think."

Alan Ayckbourn himself has known from the start although, in his ignorance, he says, he started off thinking that the only job in the theatre was acting. It was Stephen Joseph who persuaded him otherwise. "Write a play for yourself to act in," he commanded.

It was far from easy. "I was the wrong sort of actor to write plays for," Alan says. "There was a sort of parallel, perhaps, with Noël Coward but he was a very distinctive personality; I was more of a character actor. I was no Albert Finney."

But Stephen Joseph was the sort of man one obeyed. The play,
Meet My Father, subsequently became Relatively Speaking, [4] was talent-spotted by a West End impresario, put on in London and in 1969 was televised [5], the first public sign of the Ayckbourn success story. Play followed play after play, all dissecting the middle classes.

Any reason for that? Ayckbourn's reply is, "Oh yes. Because I am middle-class. And it covers such an enormous spectrum, doesn't it? I can't write about aristocrats - they are not people whose lives I know."

And the working class, he says, are already lovingly and painstakingly chronicled by many writers. "Occasionally people try to write about the middle classes but they don't, in my opinion, do it very well."

Ayckbourn plays make people laugh, a fact originating in the first briefing he had from Stephen Joseph: "We want to keep people happy on holiday on a wet afternoon in Scarborough" - but, he says, the humour comes coincidentally.

"I never sit down and say, 'I am going to write a very funny scene'," he tells me. "I tell a story and try to illuminate every corner of a relationship or experience between people and it happens that I usually see it from a comical angle," But he claims there is a measure of sadness in his plays, too.

His over-riding desire, he insists, is to be honest. He doesn't like plays that cheat or writers who say, 'Let's make it a happy ending.' The audience may leave the theatre satisfied but, twenty minutes later, they find they have eaten something with a very soft centre, "and they're ready for another meal."

Such a prolific writer, I suggest, obviously enjoys writing? But no, he hates it; he has been writing for 25 years and it gets worse all the time. "Writing," he says emphatically, "is the worst bit, a most painful business, very lonely, very desolate. I tend to put writing into as short a time as I can."

Colleagues and friends confirm this. He'll lock himself away a few days before a play is due to go into rehearsal and will write morning, noon and night, living on sandwiches, until he gets it finished.

And, as often as not, the title comes before the play. "Well, we have to have something to write on the posters, don't we?" one member of the company said.

If writing is the worst bit, then what is the best? "The best," he says, roundly and enthusiastically, "is finishing the play, then going into rehearsal with it."

Alan slowly developed from writer to director.
[6] When Stephen Joseph died, the manager asked Alan to take over the theatre for that season. Then the BBC asked him to direct radio drama for them in Leeds. [7] "Everything," says Ayckbourn, "seemed to point to me staying on in Yorkshire, in Scarborough."

Scarborough is a good place to be for a giant like Ayckbourn, a giant who doesn't want to stand out in the crowd. The Yorkshire temperament permits people their privacy - almost insists on it - no matter how big or famous. Alan can wander along the beach, play
Space Invaders on the front and relax, his own man.

"The nicest thing about being a writer," he says, "is that you can be reasonably anonymous. But, if you go into a crowded place with a well-known actor, you realise what it must be like; never any peace."

At home he relaxes with music - "Everything from Vivaldi to Led Zeppelin" - and with his cat, a Burmese called Bollinger (Bolly for short), so christened because he was the colour of champagne. Bolly was a gift from Andrew Lloyd Webber with whom Alan collaborated in the writing and direction of his only flop, the musical

Alan also enjoys the company of his Scarborough friends, but "I'm basically rather shy," he says, "and I don't like a crowd. Four or five people add up to a crowd for me."

Scarborough shows a real understanding of its great and its gifted. Smiles Ayckbourn: "I have been part of the furniture here for some time now. It suits me very well."

Website Notes:
[1] The UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company was founded by Stephen Joseph at the
Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1955.
[2] Whilst it makes good copy, this is not true. Although the first season made a loss - largely because of a heatwave which kept audiences low at the start of the season - the Library Theatre was turning a profit by its third year and full houses were the norm rather than the exception.
[3] Stephen Joseph was born in 1921 and died in 1967, aged 46.
[4] The play Stephen originally commissioned from Alan was not
Relatively Speaking but The Square Cat. This was his first play, premiered in 1959 at the Library Theatre. Relatively Speaking was Alan’s seventh produced play, first performed at the Library Theatre during 1965.
[5] Although a television adaptation of
Relatively Speaking was broadcast in 1969, the play’s small-screen debut came in 1967 with a 50 minute live recording from the West End production.
[6] Actually Alan’s writing and directing careers have run almost simultaneously. Stephen Joseph commissioned Alan to write his first play in 1959 and gave him his first professional opportunity to direct in 1961 with a production of Patrick Hamilton’s
Gaslight. By the time Stephen died, Alan was an experienced stage director.
[7] Alan was employed by the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer, based in Leeds, in 1965. Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and it was only in 1969 that Alan was asked to take the seasonal role of Director Of Productions for the summer season. He was later appointed full-time Artistic Director of the Library Theatre during 1972.

Copyright: Woman & Home. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.