Interview: Northern Echo (1979)

This interview was published in the Northern Echo on 17 September 1979.

Counting Down To Curtain Up

by Jean Endersby

For three weeks, in the late summer, playwright Alan Ayckbourn is at home in Scarborough but is not - definitely not - receiving visitors.

While the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round is still pulling near capacity holiday audiences in search of a good laugh, its Artistic Director and the man responsible for that laughter, shuts himself away in his house near the theatre and, as one of his staff puts it, "makes himself unavailable."

For this is the time for Ayckbourn to write his annual play, a ritual now in its 23rd year.
[1] Two and a half weeks are taken up playing around with the plot, rounding off characters, scribbling ideas, for sets and then for three nights - he does all his writing at night - he produces a longhand script for his next play.

This years one-man conclave has just finished. The result is
Taking Steps, a farce, and as usual the company have had three weeks to prepare a performance fit for an audience. The play opens on September 28 and will run in repertory for the rest of the winter season, making a fresh appearance for next year's summer holidaymakers.

Much has been made of the speed with which Alan Ayckbourn turns out a play but, in fact, he is working on each for most of the year.

He is a collector of conversation. The advantage of not having a famous face is that he can wander unnoticed along a Scarborough beach, licking his ice cream and tuning in to passing conversations. Restaurants are another rich source of material.

"I am a terrible person to take out to dinner because I spend most of the time leaning backwards listening to the people on the next table. People take each other but to eat when they want to discuss all kinds of personal relationships - should they break up, should they get married - and because they feel enclosed in their own world they forget they can be overheard."

He mentally records not only their words but their mannerisms and attitudes the finely detailed dialogue that results is a hallmark of an Ayckbourn play.

Production, on the other hand, is a hectic effort. As soon as the scripts have been typed and roll off the duplicating machine, the company explodes into activity. Backstage staff scour the town's second-hand furniture shops for the props specified in detail by the author, carpenters, electricians and wardrobe staff saw, wire and toll.

But it is hardly surprising that his colleagues put up with their director's need ("Because of the journalist in me") to write to a tight deadline.

The Ayckbourn successes have been well catalogued: translation into 24 languages, performances in almost every country, 14 West End successes.

The company's popularity has meant that a successful season is almost guaranteed and that means money to spend on sophisticated technical equipment including a computerised console which can memorise a hundred lighting cues - a useful addition when their director has a penchant for intricate use of lights.

Early next year the company will be off on its third month-long continental tour sponsored and financed by the British Council. European theatre buffs who can't wait to see the latest Ayckbourn play have been known to arrive via the North Sea Ferry to Hull, take in a performance and catch the next boat back.

If he is lucky during those few weeks before the opening night, Alan Ayckbourn has time for a quick lunch taken in his basement office, also used as a rest room and a place for entertaining visitors. It could easily be a room setting for a Habitat catalogue or a set from one of his own plays with its modern, square armchairs, low, glass-topped tables and discreet television. It is modern, middle-class and in Good Taste.

His bulky frame squashed into one of the square armchairs, a plate of tomatoes and peaches balanced on his knee, Alan Ayckbourn could have been an actor in any one of his plays. Both he and his work are unashamedly middle-class.

"I write middle-class plays because I am middle-class. We have an author well-known for writing about the upper classes, William Douglas-Home, and numerous working-class authors and I wouldn't want to step on to their territory."

Much of his success is based on recognition humour. The audiences laugh because they see themselves and their friends in the same situations.

Alan Ayckbourn has no secret formula for success. He aims to give theatre audiences what they want and one of the reasons he writes about middle-classes is that they are the ones who go to the theatre though he thinks that might be changing.

And one reason he stays in Scarborough is because it is a town with an abnormally wide range of people. If a play goes well here, he reckons, it will go well in London.

Website Notes:
[1] Actually it's 21st year at best as Alan Ayckbourn's first play
The Square Cat was only produced 20 years earlier in 1959. It is also not known at what point Alan was writing to the latest possible deadline, although this seems likely to have been with plays written in 1960 or 1961.

Copyright: Northern Echo. 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.