Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

During February 2019, Alan Ayckbourn discussed his play Season's Greetings with his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, for a feature for his revival of the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

'The Worst Christmas In The World'

Season’s Greetings premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1980 and was so successful it was revived the following year. In 1982, Alan directed it at the Greenwich Theatre which led to an acclaimed West End transfer and it has subsequently become a perennial favourite with professional and amateur companies alike. Despite all this, Alan Ayckbourn has never spoken in-depth about the play. Here, for the first time and to mark the SJT’s 2019 revival, he speaks to his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd about Season’s Greetings.

Simon Murgatroyd: Was there a particular inspiration behind Season’s Greetings?
Alan Ayckbourn:
One Christmas, my boys - Steven and Philip - had been preparing a puppet show for the grandparents. I said, ‘if you want a hand, I’m around.’ So they said, ‘oh yeah, great.’ I said, ‘have you got a script?’ and they said no. I said, 'well I’ll write you one.’
I finished up taking the whole thing over and it got more and more complex with more and more scenes and more and more puppets. We pre-recorded the entire show onto a cassette and I wrote lyrics to exiting melodies from the Hit Parade at the time, which the boys recorded faithfully. By the end we had quite a complex tape, which we were supposed to match this puppet show to, which was pretty horrendous, quite difficult and very ambitious.
The technical rehearsals were akin to professional technical rehearsals in that there was a lot of me shouting and the boys crying. I remember Steven saying, ‘this is only meant to be fun!’ and running crying out of the room as I shouted, ‘it may be fun to you, but this is a show and we’ve got to do it professionally.’ By the time it went on, all the Christmas joy had gone out of it. Afterwards I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’

Is it true your literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, tried to discourage you from writing the play?
I wrote it much to the dismay of Peggy who implored me ‘Oh God, darling, plays set at Christmas are so boring.’ And I thought, ‘well not this one because it’ll be the worst Christmas in the world.’ I just filled the stage with contradicting personalities starting with the two uncles and spreading outwards to the two sisters who tussle over a newcomer; you always need a newcomer to represent the audience!

It also has an unusual setting, why did you choose a hallway?
This was also the second strand of inspiration - you always need multiple strands. People kept asking me, where are you going to set your next play? In the bathroom? I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to set a play in the bathroom!’ I’d written plays in bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and gardens and I thought, what else is left? What about a hall? If you’ve got a house full of guests at Christmas and it’s an open plan hall leading onto the front door and the dining room and the living room and into the kitchen and leading up the stairs, then it’s a multi-intersection location and it really worked dramatically. I had a houseful of visitors all traversing this hall and I decided to situate the Christmas tree as the focal centre of Christmas in the hall. It all followed on from there. It was a great, fun play to do.

How was it originally received at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round?
It was very successful in Scarborough and it had two productions in two years. We used to run a show for more than one season if it was proven to be successful and this one certainly was. I think everyone has had at least one disastrous Christmas and so the audience related to it. I used to say, you may think you’ve had a bad Christmas but wait until you see this one - none of your guests actually got shot!

Is it true that Season’s Greetings wasn’t a huge success when it first went to London?
It stumbled a little bit on its first showing in London. We transferred it from Scarborough to The Round House, which was a monstrous barn of a place, just vast. It took every actor about two or three minutes to get onto stage. So they had to prejudge or pre-time their entrances; the scene would be going on and the audience’s attention would be drawn away by somebody coming on stage from miles away. With this play, people need to be flying on and off-stage and in that monster of a space, it really didn’t work.

It later achieved success in the West End, what changed?
The play was going to get lost, but then Alan Strachan - who was at that point running the Greenwich Theatre - said to me, ‘would you like to do it with a new cast and a new format in Greenwich?’ I said, sure. It became a miniature of what happened to The Norman Conquests - which also opened in Greenwich before being picked up for the West End. We assembled a wonderful cast, starting with the uncles. Bernard Hepton was a wonderful Uncle Bernard and then for the archetypal figure of the demonic Uncle Harvey, we found Peter Vaughan, who was menace incarnate! We had people like Nigel Havers playing the witless rising novelist, Gareth Hunt, Brian Hall, Bridget Turner, Diane Bull, Marcia Warren reprising her role of Rachel from Scarborough and Barbara Ferris as Belinda. It was a great cast and it then got picked up for the West End after Greenwich.

Did the play alter during its transition from Scarborough to the West End?
It was one I was conscious about repairing and I modified it quite a lot for Greenwich. I neatened it up a lot. I had an off-stage character, Uncle Harvey’s wife - actually in the original Scarborough production - who sat in the other end of the sitting room and was never seen, but he kept directing lines to her. It was the ultimate off-stage character, but I soon established she didn’t really work. So she was one of the first casualties and Uncle Harvey directed most of his remarks out through to the hall to Belinda while she decorated the tree. It was originally three acts, but became two by London. So it tidied itself up.

Your previous two plays, Suburban Strains and Taking Steps, didn’t transfer successfully to London well. What was the reaction to Season’s Greetings?
I always joke that if you have a long career in the arts, be prepared to go in and out of fashion quite a bit as people’s tastes change and perception of you alters. I’m always reminded of Arthur Miller, who once responded when somebody said a production had revived his reputation and rediscovered him: ‘I never knew I was lost!’ And you’re aware of this. I suddenly had all these interviews and Barry Norman interviewed me for Omnibus He said, ‘its great you’re back’ and I said, ‘but I’ve never been away!’ He asked what was it like to be working in London! I’d had a couple of recent misfires and as soon as that happens, people go ‘oh, he’s gone.’ So I was back in favour again which was a nice feeling.

Moving forward to the present day, does it matter that Season’s Greetings is being revived during the summer?
No. It was originally performed during September and, for its second run here, in the summer too. It’s not really a Christmas play anymore than Absurd Person Singular is a Christmas play. It’s just an excuse for people who shouldn’t be getting together to get together (i.e. the average family). Any family has elements in it, I’m sure, where they should be kept apart. I have now limited my company at Christmas to just people I want to see! I think the more we do that, the better it will all be!

Do you have any memorably awful Christmas experiences?
This house has had one or two memorable christmases - particularly when my mother was alive. She used to be a person who could get under someone’s skin very quickly when in close proximity and two days of Christmas was quite enough. I remember once, a person was so angry they slammed the door shut and the door handle flew off and they got trapped in the room! I also remember a stand-up fight about a chair. This was disputed territory between two people, both claiming they wanted it and you just looked round at a room full of empty chairs and wondered why were they fighting over it. ‘That’s my handbag! It’s my chair!’ That was another door-slammer.
I think it’s the expectation of Christmas that is the problem. It’s something we as adults look forward to, that feeling of Christmas. We’re going through a ritual we remember as kids as being very, very exciting, particularly those of us who had a belief in Father Christmas. But I think we mostly remember a certain greed and longing for gifts that we never got, we had other gifts which our parents thought we should have, rather than the ones we thought we should have had. That lingers dangerously with us into adulthood.

What are your thoughts on returning to the play almost forty years on?
It’s fun. It’s a spiralling series of disasters and although it’s a tragic-comedy, in the end, I was quite pleased how it blended humour with sadness and sympathy for the characters in equal measure - particularly with Uncle Bernard, who is one of the worlds great failures but all done with absolutely the best will in there world. It’s a play I’m very fond of.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.