Interview: Publication unknown (1979)

This interview was published in an unrecorded publication on 7 September 1979.

A Dramatic Success

by Jenny Pearson

For a writer of comedy, Alan Ayckbourn looked surprisingly happy as he loped into the backstage room of the Yorkshire theatre where he is the resident bard. All preconceived images of Pagliacci with a typewriter, of the sad man nursing a solitary drink in the theatre bar on opening nights, were driven away by an infectious smile and a long, straight arm shooting out in a welcoming handshake.

It was a day bright enough to cheer the saddest clown. Scarborough's late holidaymakers were sunning themselves on cliff benches before that breathtaking sea view and the window boxes of the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round were brimming over with colour. But Ayckbourn, sporting a striped shirt the colour of the sky, "had something more than the weather to be happy about. He had just finished writing a new play.

"It's called
Taking Steps and its a FARCE!" he announced with relish. He had finished it two days ago and already the cast had read it through and were launching into a hectic round of rehearsals with opening night just three weeks away. That is how he always works. Posters advertising a new play frequently go up before he has written a word. Sometimes he doesn't know what it is going to be about when the tickets go on sale at the box office.

He was bubbling over with the new venture as we sat down to talk. It had reached the stage he really enjoys - unlike the actual writing, which he regards as "a tedious and necessary step towards getting the thing on".

It is partly because he dislikes writing so much that Ayckbourn goes for these hair-raising schedules, allowing himself no more than a four-week break from his regular work as a
director of productions at the theatre. In this way he traps himself into the necessity of delivering the goods.

At home in his Georgian vicarage, overlooking the sea, Ayckbourn is only too aware of the theatre company in the town below confidently expecting a play to arrive. He starts work with a new idea he is excited about but "as soon as I sit down I no longer like it, so that goes out of the window", he says, "I have a library of ideas which I regularly drag out when I am confronted with a vacuum. Like this time,
Taking Steps is an idea I've been approaching and retreating from for the past three or four plays, waiting for the moment when I wanted to do something light. This time I thought, right, let's get rid of it!"

The play was written in five or six days - "rather longer than usual". Once begun, he proceeds at a white-hot pace and usually reckons to be finished in three or four sleepless nights. He never writes more than one play a year; he says that if he did, he might find himself writing the same play twice.

Alan Ayckbourn is generally reckoned Britain's most popular dramatist. In 1976, the critic Stanley Reynolds complained, "It is sometimes next to impossible to go out to the theatre without running into one of Mr Ayckbourn's comedies." He has won numerous major awards and his plays have been translated into twenty-four languages. He is conspicuously reticent about money, but it's a fair guess that he is also Britain's richest dramatist and that his income from writing is several times what he earns in his regular, year-round job at the theatre.

Yet he shows no sign of uprooting himself to London, New York or any of the glamorous retreats favoured by successful writers. Every one of his plays has opened at Scarborough
[1] and opening nights at the small, intimate auditorium in a converted grammar school attract a galaxy of critics, the mountain dutifully making the pilgrimage to Mahomet.

His niche at Scarborough suits Alan Ayckbourn very well. How many playwrights since Shakespeare have been able to rely on the simple pressures that arise when you are yourself a member of the company that needs a play to perform on a particular night? And as he works at the lonely, unloved task, he knows that he will himself have the fun and satisfaction of shaping his script into a live performance.

Ayckbourn is very much a man of the theatre. Since leaving Haileybury School at seventeen he has made it his life and at forty he remains noticeably stage-struck. Theatre for him is a gregarious activity, a shared experience, and the written word is only a means towards that end. When he talks about his plays it is invariably in terms of performance, his view encompassing the audience as well as the players, as one might expect will someone who regularly directs theatre in the round.

He is fascinated by the way audiences vary from night to night, by the gratuitous comic effect that can arise from having ladies in summer frocks conspicuous among the props, by the way audiences react to the dramatic handling of time - the intense involvement that resulted from staging
Absent Friends in actual time, so that "there was this wonderful thing that silences which happen between the characters happen between the audience". One night a lady in the front row actually passed a handkerchief to a weeping member of the cast.

Writing for a particular company at a particular time imposes limitations that he actually prefers to the wide open canvas of total freedom, This year his new play couldn't have more than four men and three women in the cast because that was all that was left of the company at the end of the season. He had to keep the set simple so that it could go on tour.

He has on occasion made wistful reference to a "dream play", an unattainable ideal that hovers in the back of his mind while he actually writes something quite different which he says is "the best I can do in the time". It sounds like a complaint, but in fact it is said with relief. He doesn't really think it would work if he had time to polish his work, nor does he believe that it would bring him any nearer to producing the perfect play. With time pressing, he can say "That's it!' and return with infinite relief to the theatre. To remove him from this lifestyle would seem to be the surest way to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The small north Yorkshire seaside town serves very well as a source of raw material. "Living up here, it's a little microcosm. Sure, you're out of the mainstream of world events, but what does happen is that one closes in a bit on the couple at the bottom of the road and the people next door. The air is charged!''

Ayckbourn's sense of comedy, holding up the mirror to the unguarded self-revelations of the English middle classes, has its roots in theHome Counties where he grew up, a stepson of a bank manager. But the method transfers very nicely to the north east, as witness the success of
Ten Times Table in 1977 - a wild account of a folk festival that gets mixed up with politics in a small northern town. [2]

Four of the play's scenes take place around a committee table, with the agenda suffering tortuous detours as members discover their ideological differences to an accompaniment of failing lights, hammering workmen and a myriad of those personal foibles which serve to divert committees from the matter in hand.

Are people wary of Ayckbourn socially, knowing themselves to be so closely and critically observed?

"Well, yes, a bit, but there's a sort of double thing. I think a lot of people secretly hope they're going to be put in a play. People are pretty uninsurable, really. In fact there are bits of people in the plays but never, unless you are very unlucky, totally you.''

Ten Times Table has "a very accurate, devastatingly rude picture of a man who is on our theatre trust: one of those people who will point out all the misprints on all the memos."

The character was played by an actor who had never met the original and Ayckbourn was fairly confident when the play first went on that the man would in fact not recognise himself. Afterwards one person after another came up and congratulated him on the accuracy of the portrait. "Then he came, and I thought, oh God - there's no redeeming feature, the character is so monstrously boring, every time he opens his mouth everybody else starts talking. But this man was delighted. He had become a celebrity. He came back every night and when I told him it was going to London, he said 'Who's playing me?'"

It isn't only potential characters that suggest themselves as he goes about the ordinary business of living. A conversation or an attitude has been known to spark off a whole play.

Joking Apart owes a lot to an incident which arose when he was staying with some friends and a couple they knew came round. "She was a tremendously bubbly woman and he was very grand, very important. My friends asked, 'What's happened to so-and so?' - meaning the local vicar. And she said (Ayckbourn assumes a hurried, anxious voice), 'Oh, he's lost his faith!' And he went (in a gruff, pompous voice) 'I don't think that was called for.' She went 'Oh !' - as though he'd hit her, whack! Well, there were three things. He had put her down for blabbing: obviously she kept saying things that in his opinion she shouldn't have. Then there was the vicar who'd lost his faith, which fascinated me anyway, and there was the fact that this man wasn't going to talk about it; there were all those things going on, within just a few seconds."

Joking Apart has a doubting vicar and power games going on between three couples. Marital power games are a central Ayckbourn theme. They can be made to look very funny indeed by his trick of catching people off balance in those embarrassing moments that most of us prefer to forget.

In his recent "winter plays", written for production in January where previously he always wrote for a summer holiday audience, he has tended to follow through some of the darker implications of the recurring theme he sums up as "what people do to each other". For this he has been widely praised by the critics, while losing a lot of his audience.
Joking Apart, which despite a lot of funny lines is ultimately a sad play, closed in London after a run of only three months. [3]

Ayckbourn accepts it as almost a set law of the theatre that the darker you write, the less people go. He says, "I think the best comedy has to be based on truth and truthful things are often very serious.''

His method of writing is very free. Starting with an idea that interests him, he creates a few characters with which to explore it, then more or less allows them to take over. He has an almost puritanical aversion to the idea of manipulating characters and situations against what he sees as the truth about the way people behave.

It was this insistence on being true to his characters that produced the sombre ending which shocked the original audiences of
Just Between Ourselves. An insecure, not very competent wife is edged towards a breakdown through a series of conflicts with her over-jocular husband and jealous mother-in-law, which are only funny because of the petty nature of the weapons used. To make, or not to make, a birthday cake for the husband? He's always had a birthday cake, says his mother.

The play ends with the invalid wife being treated to the mockery of a small birthday cake of her own with one candle. She just sits there and takes it, while the curtain goes down on the rest of the cast singing ' 'Happy birthday to you ..."

People asked at the time why Ayckbourn didn't make the wife get up and bang the cake in her mother-in-law's face? He says, "That's what we all hoped she would do, but what we knew she wouldn't do. If one had done that it might have got a laugh, but it would have spoilt the whole thing that had gone before because we'd all have known we'd been cheating. We'd have betrayed the character. The dramatist's big boot would have come on and kicked her off.''

Irving Wardle, drama critic of The Times, wrote of
Just Between Ourselves, "For every belly laugh there are ten times when you crack a smile of rueful recognition." Do people recognise their own faults and foibles in Ayckbourn characters, since theatres are in fact filled with the very people he portrays on stage?

Ayckbourn laughs. "More often they recognise somebody they know! Frequently you can hear the characters going out to the bar in the interval and you hear someone saying" - he imitates a gruff, military voice - "I don't think there's anybody really like that, you know!"

He relishes gems like this with a collector's joy: the pompous and self-satisfied stand about equal with the over-articulate trendies as favourite targets of his humour. Only very occasionally do the plays hint at an alternative to all the hullabaloo, a breath of the possibility of peace. The slow, boring Tom in
The Norman Conquests speaks wistfully of camping alone under the stars. Ayckbourn himself seems to get a comparable thrill from the contemplation of space: the first moon landing excited him beyond measure, although he couldn't communicate his excitement to his two sons, when he dragged them out of bed to see it on television.

He would like more than anything to get on a Mariner space probe and "dot around the planets". He feels that the search for life in space is related to man's need for God.

Does he believe in God? "Well, I hope in God. I would hate the whole thing to be random."

Classical music is an abiding interest: he is currently excited about having discovered Vivaldi. He was delighted that I felt
Ten Times Table, with its conflicting noises and absurdities, was orchestrated like music.

"Music does everything so wonderfully," he reflected. "It's one of the things that makes one feel dwarf-like. It makes you feel you're working with an inferior material, like words. So to write like music is really what one aims at.''

There's a line by Walter Pater which says, "All art aspires to the condition of music.''

"Yes, yes. That sums it up."

Website Notes:
[1] At this point in his career, Alan had premiered the majority of his work in Scarborough but two plays -
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot - had premiered in Stoke-on-Trent and the musical Jeeves in Bristol.
[2] This is debatable. T
en Times Table is set in Alan's fictional town of Pendon, which is traditionally situated in the vicinity of Reading. Occasionally it moves location to the north - such as in A Chorus Of Disapproval - but Alan has never suggested that Ten Times Table is set anywhere but the south of England.
[3] This supposes a London-centric view of the playwright. The 'winter' plays were as successful as any previous work during their original productions in Scarborough and proved to be popular on subsequent regional productions and revivals. It was only in London where they were deemed to not be successful and that he had lost his audiences.

Copyright: To be confirmed. 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.