Interview: Radio Times (1979)

This interview was published in the Radio Times on 11 August 1979.

Radio Fun

by Paul Vallely

Brian Thompson's play
Patriotic Bunting centres on a group of adult education students who get more than they bargained for on a history field trip. Alan Ayckbourn directs, and here tells Paul Vallely about the experience

The electricity, the notice-board warned from its temporary position propped against the corridor wall, would be off on Thursday because of something to do with the sub-station. The old Scarborough school buzzed, slapped and thudded with the sound of drills, paintbrushes and hammers in the final chaotic stages of Phase Two of its conversion to a theatre. Only one classroom was spared the deafening industry. In it a homely figure cocooned in a tweedy grey polo-neck and wrapped around with a comfy old blue cardigan leaned, book in hand, against the classroom pillar and with an amiable grin regarded his charges as so many schoolmasters must have done there before him.

Alan Ayckbourn, probably Britain's richest and, some would argue, one of our finest playwrights, had returned from the dizzy heights of Broadway triumph to rehearse a routine production for the small east coast rep.

It was typical of the life of contrasts which he leads. One day he is with Sir Peter Hall sharpening up the all-British National Theatre cast of his play
Bedroom Farce for a Broadway opening which was to prove a smash hit and win him four New York Critics' Award nominations. The next he has flown home to the bread-and-butter work which a millionaire could avoid but which is the staff of life to a man driven by the love of the theatre.

It did not, therefore, come as any surprise to hear that Ayckbourn had managed to find time in a schedule packed with demands from the Scarborough Theatre in the Round, the West End, and writing his 24th commercial blockbuster, to produce a BBC radio play simply because he 'fancied doing it'.

Nearly ten years ago he left the
BBC in Leeds after a five-year stint as a radio drama producer working alongside the doyen of Northern radio drama, Alfred Bradley. 'I really enjoyed my time in radio. I only left because I was offered this place,' he said, waving his hand vaguely at the paint-fresh walls as he left rehearsals for lunch. 'Working in Leeds with Alfred is a terrific opportunity for any young drama producer to gain enormous experience at tremendous speed. In my time there I got through an inordinate number of plays. When I left it was said, as it always is when people leave places, you must come back some time and do something again. It's taken nine years to get around to it, but here we are.'

In that time Ayckbourn has established himself as a dramatist of worldwide reputation and considerable stature. His plays pull in big audiences in more than 27 countries with his hilariously acute observation of the absurdities, fatuities and cruelties of middle-class urban life which, beneath the humour, contains one of the most potent dramatic insights of his generation. But he has also continued as the
artistic director of the small seaside theatre for which his plays are written and where he directs.

'I'd kept regularly in contact with Alfred; his is the ear closest to the new writing scene in the North. Last year, for instance, we did two Alfred Bradley writers here in Scarborough.' One of them was Brian Thompson whose play
Patriotic Bunting, which Ayckbourn commissioned for his theatre, has now brought him back to radio.

It is a play which, to be grand, is about the way we see history. To be more obvious, it is very funny. Set in a small north-country seaside town not very unlike Scarborough, it depicts the skein of tangled emotions which motivate a group of adult night-school students and their WEA lecturer and eventually wreak havoc on their local history field trip.

Ayckbourn maintains it is nothing like his own work. 'It's a love story and it deals in a world I don't know much about.' But it captures the bizarre aspect of everyday happenings just as his plays do, and when Brian Thompson weighs the broad sweep of history against its tiny effect on the ordinary man he decides, very much as Ayckbourn would, that ultimately it is the minutiae of life which are really significant.

Website Notes:
[1] The original article was longer but the second part has been lost and is not held in archive.

Copyright: Radio Times. 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.