Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by Peter Roberts was published in the February 1987 edition of Plays International magazine.

Plays International

Alan Ayckbourn's just-awarded CBE [1] comes at a time when the career of this 47-year-old playwright-director is riding particularly high even by his own extraordinarily elevated standards. Not only does he at present have two plays running successfully in the West End - A Chorus of Disapproval at the Lyric and Woman in Mind at the Vaudeville - but he is also running his own group at the National which opened at the end of last year with Ayckbourn's production of the first of the Aldwych farces, Tons of Money, and which is about to revive Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in the Cottesloe after which they will go on to unveil Ayckbourn's latest play, A Small Family Business which he wrote specially for the Olivier. Ayckbourn is free to take on this busy NT activity (which extends to work on the NT's fringe platform stages) because he has taken a two-year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round at Scarborough where he has been artistic director since 1971. [2]

Born a few months before the outbreak of World War Two, Ayckbourn shared the chequered boyhood of that generation of wartime children even though he came from a fairly well-heeled middle class background that has provided the subject matter for so many of his plays. His mother was a novelist turned short story writer who proved so successful as a writer for the women's magazines she went into the super-tax class. That was just as well as her marriage to a musician
[3], Alan Ayckbourn's father, broke down and ended in divorce leaving her as the family breadwinner. Her second marriage to a bank manager in the South East was stormy and ultimately also unsuccessful though it did bring Alan a stepbrother. He was sent to a boarding school when he was seven and his public school education ended at Haileybury when he left to join the theatre instead of going on to University. He started as a raw untrained actor with Donald Wolfit's touring company in a production of The Strong Are Lonely in which he played a sentry.

He went on to join Stephen Joseph's company at Stoke on Trent in the early 1960s
[3] as an actor and assistant director. After a spell with the BBC following the failure in London of his first play, Mr Whatnot, he took up his present appointment in Scarborough from which, after 15 years, he's taking his present busy holiday.

Keen to know how he was finding life on the South Bank far away from his Yorkshire professional roots, I went to talk to Ayckbourn at the National. Over a cup of tea one afternoon in one of the NT s offices overlooking the Thames we had the following conversation:

Did you decide to have the sabbatical from Scarborough in order to run this National Theatre Company or did you just decide to have the break whereupon Peter Hall leapt in with an invitation to come to the South Bank?
It sort of came together rather conveniently. I was getting to the point where the 15-year-old itch meant that I realised I would have to have a break from Scarborough. Peter, after the success of A Chorus of Disapproval, wrote to me shortly afterwards to ask if I would like to form my own company and do a season of plays here. I wanted to have two years off but at the same time I did not just want to sit about doing nothing so it worked out rather well on the principle that a change is as good as a rest.

To put it a bit pompously, what are the principles on which you have formed the company? Different groups here have had different objectives — the McKellen / Petherbndge company's main concern was to stretch the actors whilst the Hare / Eyre group has been dedicated to performing new work and reassessing the classics like The Government Inspector.
Well, something I think I do quite well is to breed a good atmosphere in the companies that I form and I thought that I would try to do that on a bigger scale here. I planned to get a company together that I thought would be mutually interesting and stimulating and with them to do as varied a bill as I could and explore the challenges of the three theatres here - the Olivier, Cottesloe and Lyttelton.
Tons of Money was chosen for the Lyttelton, the archetype proscenium-arch theatre. A View from the Bridge is a wonderful small-scale tragedy and, written in the 1950s, it betrays a lot of its 1950s origins with that period's low-key Method approach which asks for the eye-level contact that you can get in the Cottesloe. The third challenge was to write something myself for the Olivier. That was something that I had never done before. I'd had plays done there which had originally been performed elsewhere but I'd never actually written something especially for it as I have done with A Small Family Business.
Over the years I had developed a very good working relationship with Michael Gambon and it was he whom I first approached when I was setting up this company.

He's your leading man?
He's my leading man though of course Simon Cadell has that role in Tons of Money in which Michael Gambon features slightly less than he will in A View from the Bridge and A Small Family Business. With all this I'm forming a company which I hope has a strong sense of it's own identity. That's what I wanted to do.

Of course you are no stranger to this building are you since you first came here to co-direct with Peter Hall Bedroom Farce in 1975. [5]
Yes and then I came back later to direct Sisterly Feelings and later A Chorus of Disapproval. But this is the first time I have directed plays here other than my own, though I've done plenty elsewhere of course. [6]

Is Soupcons, the musical that you've just done with Paul Todd as a NT Platform presentation a part of your group's programme? [7]
Very much so - it uses members of the company who at the moment are not being overstretched in the rest of the programme. I would like to do more platforms - if I had the time and the opportunity I would do at least half a dozen things on the fringe here. I've got a company of 20 and I want to use them as much as possible as I believe that actors are happiest when they are busiest.

Do you feel with this move to the South that the metropolis is at last doing what it has long threatened to do which is to take you over? Is there perhaps something ironic in the fact that you grew up in the theatre with people like Peter Cheeseman at Stoke [8] and Stephen Joseph at Scarborough for whom the West End is an anathema yet your work in the regions has provided Shaftesbury Avenue with its most consistently rich pickings in the postwar years? Of course a number of regional companies, including you own, have also benefited but do you agree that there is an element of irony in your London successes?
Well, I should say there has been no London takeover. I have every intention of going back to Scarborough in 1988 and indeed we are already beginning to think of what will be in the repertoire there then. Also it is important to make the point that we do a lot of other people's work at Scarborough as well as my own plays. We do some eight new productions a year and I would have thought up to five of those would be new plays. We have a resident writer who has replaced me.
[9] Very rarely does anything new just come through the letterbox. But when something promising does, we suggest that the writer comes to have a look at our theatre and at our audiences. He may not necessarily much like what we are doing but I hope that perhaps the space and the audience will stimulate him to write something for us. There is of course a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a young writer coming up through your company but it does take quite a long time before you know how the new writer is going to run, so to speak. I don't think I would have got anywhere much without a lot of patience from Stephen Joseph at the beginning for there was absolutely no thought when I started that I was going to be a writer who was going to do as much as I have now. My first few plays served their purpose but they were not all that wonderful either. But they allowed me, the writer, to learn very quickly from what I saw as they were being put on. So what I try to do now with young writers as Scarborough is not to judge too much from a first play and I urge the writer when his play eventually gets produced to sit and watch not only the play but the audience too which, in an in-the-round theatre like Scarborough, it is easy to do.

Living in Scarborough yourself and having worked in the Stephen Joseph Theatre for so many years, you must know the composition of the audience well. It's a fairly posh middle class holiday resort isn't it and the composition will therefore be very different from what Peter Cheeseman gets in Stoke-on-Trent or what they have at the Liverpool theatres?
Scarborough used to cater for smart middle-class families with buckets and spades but Peter Cheeseman has pointed out how too lots of pottery workers from Stoke used to chunter up to Scarborough for their holidays. But I suspect that a lot of moneyed middle-class people now go abroad not only because that is smart but it is also in fact cheaper. As a result there have been great changes with the resort becoming a conference centre too. But we have become much more a regional theatre and much less a holiday season theatre in recent years. When I inherited the theatre from Stephen Joseph we had a 12-week season from early June to early September but now we are there and open for as long as we can stay financially which is from May to early February. Inevitably, with this extended season we pick up local as well as visiting holiday audiences and we pick them up not only from Scarborough itself but from places nearby like York, Pickering and even Sheffield and Hull.

Is the administrative side of running a theatre like that very time and energy consuming?
I've deliberately chosen to keep the operation small up there. That's only partly from a selfish point of view, it's more from the practical angle. I've always said that we must have an operation that can turn on a sixpence because if we are doing new work and we find that we've got to be able to get it out quickly. You cannot schedule 12 months ahead as you do in an Royal Shakespeare Company-type operation. We have to be a motor-boat compared to their liner operation so that if we see rocks we can turn round quickly. That enables us hopefully to venture from time to time a little bit nearer the rocks.

Is your Scarborough company ad hoc or do you draw on a permanent nucleus of players?
Drawing on a permanent nucleus of actors was one of the three planks on which the Scarborough theatre was built on - the other two concerned doing plays in-the-round and presenting new writing. Both of the latter concepts were Stephen Joseph's. What I added to them was offering six or nine month contracts so that actors could do a whole series of plays without entirely cutting themselves off from other work. As a result we have some people who have been there for six months and many more for something like six years. Having said that, we realised that it is quite important to keep the circulation going, for without change it becomes adulatory and self-congratulatory. So, though we do change, there are always enough people in the company to teach the traditions and pass on the style of the theatre to the next lot. And we do encourage actors to make their own contributions - if for example there are some who are keen on doing roadshows then we do roadshows. Some people prefer acting outside a building to performing inside it, though I'm not one of them.

Are some of your National Theatre group here recruited from Scarborough?
Oh yes. I think everybody in this company I have worked with before though not necessarily there.

When did you first meet Michael Gambon who, as you said, is leading your company?
He came originally at Eric Thompson's suggestion to do The Norman Conquests at Greenwich [10]. His career since then has come full circle because when I first knew him he was a classical actor doing things like Othello at Birmingham. Then he got known for quite a long time as a light comedian and it was only when John Dexter did Galileo here people threw up their hands and said 'my God where has this great classical actor been?' and then, of course, he went on to do King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now he's happily poised between the two which is probably exactly where he should be.

Lets talk now of the three plays you've chosen to do here with your company at the National Theatre. You decided to kick off with Tons of Money which was the first of the Aldwych farces which later became identified with Ben Travers.
I thought
Tons of Money would be less familiar and I wanted to do something unusual rather go for something like Travers' Thark.

You got to know Travers didn't you?
Yes. He was an extraordinary phenomenon. He had a huge success with those Aldwych farces in the '20s and '30s and then for years he dropped out of sight though his plays continued to pop up irregularly in the reps. Then when he reappeared in 1975 with The Bed Before Yesterday on the London stage many people like me were very surprised to find that he had not been dead for many years. He was in his 80s when he came back and a very hale and hearty old gentleman, appearing on the chat shows and so forth. Somebody - I think it was Irving Wardle - asked me if I'd like to meet him and we became very friendly. [11] He came up to Scarborough and saw a production I did there of his Rookery Nook. I knew him from then on to the day he died and as a result of knowing him in that way became more interested in his work and managed later to do Thark rather better than I had done Rookery Nook.
What he confirmed for me was something that I suspected all along, that there was a way to do his plays that was not perhaps the way everybody assumed that they should be played. Not knowing the originals, we all used to make assumptions about what Ralph Lynn, Tom Walls and Robertson Hare used to do with them. We assumed that they were done well over the top. But Ben himself was most adamant that they were done very truthfully and accurately and with a great deal of seriousness and thought. I became very interested in that.
When I was planning the season here at the National Theatre, I discovered that
Tons of Money was the original play round which the Aldwych Company was formed. It was, I suspect, one of those plays that rather came together than was written. Its history was that it was originally two plays but the writers Willis and Valentine put the two works into one and as a single play it had rather gone the rounds without anybody liking it. Then Tom Walls and Leslie Henson - joint producers - saw it and reckoned that with a little bit of reworking they could get it on. It provided Ralph Lynn with a character he had been well know for for many years without having found a vehicle for it. The play opened in Liverpool and when it was brought to Shaftesbury Avenue it was an amazing overnight success and when it eventually transferred to the Aldwych it inaugurated the Aldwych farces of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Ben Travers was generally considered to have worked better with the Aldwych farce team than when he went off and wrote alone. Did he confirm that to you when you got to know him in old age?
His working methods were terribly different from mine - or I would have thought - from most writers. He worked rather like a script writer writing for a couple of comics. He was very much dictated to by the Aldwych farce team and he had to supply what they wanted when they wanted it. In a sense his talent was to be able to put his identity on something that was in a sense supplied to actors on demand. He still managed to produce plays that were recognisably his.

You have yourself worked over the script of Tons of Money for the present production, haven't you?
What we had inherited was French's acting edition which was made up very obviously with what the stage manager had written down to record what had happened on stage when the plays were first done. Much of the dialogue was clearly ad-libbed and there were some inconsistencies.

Do you agree that you cannot really ever wholly recreate those farces because they were not only written for but also sometimes partly written by the actors who first performed them?
Well, it's hard to tell. All you can do is to try to give the flavour of them. What we said to ourselves was, lets try to do this one as accurately and faithfully and as honestly as we can. I think that the National Theatre is the place where this sort of heritage should be seen and examined even if it may not be a major literary contribution to English dramatic literature. Of course one of the problems compared to French farce was that the Aldwych farces were very limited in what they could say and portray about sexual liaisons because of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's office. It was very different when Ben Travers came to write The Bed Before Yesterday in 1975.
What interested me about Tons of Money was that it does not really have any sex. It's most extraordinary. One of the reasons for its great success, I suspect, was that until it appeared in this country we had mostly translated French farce by Feydeau and others where men were always trying to make it with somebody or trying to get rid of some discarded female. Now English farce, on the contrary, was much more concerned with a completely different ethos: trying to live the good life without actually having to work to make the money to do so. That's something that runs through all the Wodehouse books. Bertie Wooster's modus vivendi is an attempt not to work. Work is never mentioned apart perhaps for something like writing freelance articles. Even as late as the 1950s I remember my contemporaries at school wondering what to do in order not to work and thinking that going into their father's businesses was the best solution, I seemed to be the only one who actually wanted to do something, who actually wanted to work.

You became an actor before you became a director and writer. Do you still act like Pinter who treads the boards occasionally as well directing and writing?
No I don't act and will not go back to it. I think one has to detach oneself from acting in order to direct successfully even though I admit that Pinter does indeed manage to do all three very successfully. If you have a powerhouse like Michael Gambon in your company who seems to have most of the equipment I quite lacked as an actor you don't think of going back on the stage yourself.

Some directors admit to envying actors because their work goes on just as the exciting and rewarding contact with the public begins.
I think I can understand that but usually I'm well into the next project by the time the first night of the last takes place so that does not worry me much personally.

Was Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in the Cottesloe (which is your company's second presentation) chosen primarily with Michael Gambon in mind?
Well I do love the play. I remember seeing it first when I was 17 in a Peter Brook production that was banned and had to be done in club conditions to get round the censor. When I was asked to get this season together it was a play which immediately sprang to mind and I thought, too, that it was one Michael Gambon might be interested in doing, which he was. Having directed Miller's The Crucible I felt a great affinity with him as a writer. I do like his writing and admire him very much for his technical proficiency as well as everything else.

He is enjoying quite a revival here at the moment, isn't he?
I think there are comparatively fewer writers writing for the theatre than there were 20 years ago so when you get a thoroughbred like him it is likely that his plays will re-emerge. After all, it is not as though we are swamped by writing talents at the moment. So much of them is being diverted to television.

You yourself have remained very much a theatre man. You are very clearly fascinated by the cinema so are you not tempted to write screenplays loo?
I think theatre always. The best ideas I have are for the theatre. Often, as you imply, I whip things from the cinema and try to rescue them for use in theatrical terms. I am very interested in that but I've never felt the desire to launch into cinema. I think in the back of my mind the feeling is that, in the end, the single most powerful influence on an evening in the theatre is the writer - particularly if he is a writer / director. There is no doubt that, on the contrary, in the cinema the writer is secondary.

Is cinema-going one of your relaxations?
Yes, as a relaxation I enjoy it more than theatre-going. Funnily enough, I think one of the reasons is because I really know so little about it. The most boring thing I can imagine is sitting next to a really well-informed cinema buff who grits his teeth at a bad cut or something like that. Similarly, anybody sitting next to me at the theatre must have a terrible evening as I writhe and mutter at technical imperfections.

What are your other forms of relaxation?
I listen to a lot of music and like computer games. I like playing with my word processor and my games console.

I have tried to get a copy to read, of your new play, A Small Family Business, before coming to see you but was told the script could not be released. Is that because you have in fact not yet finished writing it? You have been known to cut things very fine on completion dates, haven't you?
The play is completed. When Peter Hall asked me to write for the Olivier it was the first time I had come up against a request to write for any theatre other than Scarborough. My usual way of writing there is to take a month off (three weeks worrying about the play and one week actually writing it) then we go straight into rehearsal. For the National Theatre, I had to write it much earlier, the deadline being last October. As it turned out I could not leave it that late because by then I was to be in rehearsal for Tons of Money. In fact I finished it in the Spring last year and it's the first time I've written a play that has been on hold for a year. [12]

Michael Gambon is to take the lead in A Small Family Business - did you write it as much for him as for the Olivier?
I try not to write a play with a particular actor in mind because I then write what I think he can do and get a sort of regurgitated feeling about it all. So what I did in fact was to write a play with a middle aged-actor in mind and it turned out to be quite a good Gambon part.

What is the family business mentioned in the title?
It's a family furniture business. I got interested in people's notions of honesty - what they consider to be honest and dishonest. We all have some measure of deviousness - does it really matter that we take home a few paper clips? That sort of thing. I wanted to take the audience by the hand and lead them to somewhere where they did not know they were going. In the play, I'm trying to say 'Let me take you on a journey and lets see how far we can go'.
It's about a man who takes on the responsibility for this small family business who says 'lets make an honest business of it' - the bosses won't fiddle the expenses and everybody will be absolutely honest and open. When this idea breaks down, the big question raised is 'how is it possible to remain honest in a society like ours today? Are there not too many pressures for people to withstand the feeling 'well, look, everybody else is doing it, everybody else is fiddling their income tax and the free bus ride so why shouldn't I?' The play takes you through every crime you could mention so that the characters ask themselves how on earth they get to the point that they do.
A Small Family Business is a fairly black comedy that lands up in an area of dead bodies and drug smuggling.

Is it one your technically virtuoso pieces with parallel time bands and split sets?
It has a very big set because I wrote it specifically with the Olivier in mind. I was able to write it for a two-storey theatre by which I mean a house with the audience on two levels which of course they are not at Scarborough. All the families in the play live in the same sort of house furnished in the same way because they furnish them in exactly the same style from the same family source.

Is the class structure important?
They are South London lower to middle class. First generation middle-class risen a little and rather ashamed of their parents who are from further into the East End from which they've moved to a slightly smarter area. The family business has started with the old man selling off the barrow. His son proves rather useless so it's his son-in-law who takes over the firm.

I know a number of people who get very shocked and upset at what they feel is the contempt and hatred you feel for some of your characters. Do you in fact feel that way about some of them?
No, I don't hate my characters. I think some of them have some terrible thoughts but I feel for them.

A n increasing number of them seem to be victims of the ethos of consumerism.
I think that they are subject to a number of pressures that are very strong and difficult to set aside. Television for instance today takes you instantly all over the world to the plight of people in Africa and Central America and you begin to feel a responsibility for those people in a way our ancestors never did. It can be a tremendous strain on the individual. It is no longer possible, unless you are remarkably thick-skinned, to enjoy yourself for very long without feeling guilty about in - in view of - what is going on elsewhere.
Then there are other pressures brought about by the fact that people's roles have changed so desperately. Men and women who formerly had clear-cut functions, find that all that has changed and so too have the old notions of what is working-class and what is middle-class. It's all very nebulous where one begins and the other ends. The difference was brought home to me recently when a painter who was doing up our house in Scarborough said 'when I was a lad we never walked across that bridge over there. We were working class and you never went across that bridge if you were working class.' Then, after a long pause, he added 'but you did know where you were in those days.' Another change that affects people very much relates to politicians. I remember the time when one assumed, for better or for worse, that politicians knew what they were doing and were doing what they were doing for the public good: they were there because they were the best people to do the job. But now the political thing has gone full circle. They are regarded as scoundrels the minute that they put MP after their names. There is such a feeling of scepticism about them. It is now assumed that they are all on the make. The truth, I imagine is that there are bent MPs who are there for the wrong reasons but there are still also MPs who are there to do their best. The greyness people feel about them today is another reason why people no longer feel quite sure where they are.
With the Christian ethic having disappeared, people also grab on to either foolish notions of some extreme sector or other or else they wander around looking for some touchstone to fill the vacuum.

One final question - about the musical. It does seem that you are finding this area stimulating in spite of the failure of your first musical Jeeves, in the West End no less. You have since then done quite a number with the composer Paul Todd at Scarborough and most recently as part of your group's participation on the National Theatre's own fringe, the National Theatre's platform performances.
Yes it was quite ridiculous really for me to start with
Jeeves at the top with a West End musical. I have been working ever since, back up to that point. Paul Todd came to me from a further education centre, Brecon Hall, near Wakefield. He wrote to me out of the blue saying he was a composer who recorded his own music and did we need any music for our shows at Scarborough. I began by commissioning some music for the play I was doing at the time. Then I asked him to do some more for the theatre because I like the sort of thing you get here at the National Theatre - foyer music before the show starts. After that we decided to write a revue together - a late night one with musical sketches rather than sketches followed by snatches of music. Since then we've done over 100 songs together.
The use of music (which he obviously has provided) for plays gave my stage writing a tremendously liberated feeling. Suddenly, through this music, I found a way out of pure naturalism in which I'd become increasingly stuck. I think, as a result, the last three shows I've written -
A Chorus of Disapproval, Woman in Mind and now A Small Family Business - I've managed to clear naturalism. The musicals I've done have enabled me to use another set of muscles really: lyric writing is a tremendous discipline. Also music and words together achieve different effects. Even when you take the music away you find the words you have written for the music float and do things which you didn't know before they could do.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn received the Honour of Companion of the Order of the British Empire in 1987. He was knighted for ‘services to theatre’ in 1997.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn was made Artistic Director of the company in 1972, not 1971.
[3] Alan's mother, Irene Maud Worley, did not actually marry Alan's father, Horace Ayckbourn, and he was born out of wedlock.
[4] Alan Ayckbourn originally joined Stephen Joseph’s company at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1955 as an actor and assistant stage manager. When - in 1962 - Stephen Joseph founded the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Alan went to the Victoria for two years as an actor, writer and director before joining the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer between 1965 and 1970. During this time, he also wrote and directed for the Library Theatre in Scarborough and was its annually appointed director of productions in 1969 and 1970 before being appointed Artistic Director in 1972.
[5] Although
Bedroom Farce premiered in 1975 at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, it did not open at the National Theatre until 1977.
[6] Alan Ayckbourn’s productions at the National Theatre began with
Bedroom Farce (1977) and - up to the time of the article’s publication in 1987 - also included Sisterly Feelings (1980), Way Upstream (1982) and A Chorus Of Disapproval (1985).
[7] The revue’s title was actually
Mere Soup Songs and was performed in The Restaurant at the National Theatre.
[8] Peter Cheeseman was appointed the Artistic Director of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, when it opened in 1962 and with whom Alan worked for two years at the venue.
[9] Whilst Alan Ayckbourn was on sabbatical at the National Theatre, Stephen Mallatratt was appointed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round’s resident writer. During this period he wrote his acclaimed and phenomenally successful adaptation of Susan Hill’s
The Woman In Black which premiered in Scarborough in 1987 before moving to the West End.
[10] The original text has been corrected here as it was published as ‘
The Norman Conquests at Scarborough’ when it should have read as ‘at Greenwich’.
[11] It was Sheridan Morley, nor Irving Wardle, who introduced Alan Ayckbourn to Ben Travers.
[12] Prior to 1987, Alan wrote his plays to the latest possible deadline, generally the day before rehearsals began. Following his experience of writing in advance with
A Small Family Business, he altered his writing pattern to complete the new play months ahead of productions.

Copyright: Plays International. 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.