Interview: Reader's Digest (1979)

This interview was published in the November 1979 edition of the Reader's Digest magazine.

Alan Ayckbourn's Theatre Conquests

by Deborah Cowley

Early last November, playwright Alan Ayckbourn summoned the management of the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough to announce the title of his newest play and the opening date, eight weeks hence. Production staff immediately rolled into action. Posters were printed, tickets prepared, actors and stage-hands stood by. One week before rehearsals were to begin, everything was ready.

Everything, that is, except the play. It was still to be written.

Then, with only six days to the deadline, Ayckbourn climbed to his attic study overlooking the harbour
[1], his arms filled with gramophone records and a huge supply of paper. Turning the music to full volume, he laboriously numbered the sheets from one to 1,000. Then he sharpened dozens of pencils.

At last, able to put off the agony no longer, he started to write. For the next five nights he scribbled frantically from dusk to dawn. Each day he slept till mid-afternoon, then slogged on. On the sixth night he put down his pencil and ceremoniously opened a bottle of champagne. Alan Ayckbourn had finished
Sisterly Feelings, his twenty-third play. (His twenty-fourth, Taking Steps, opened in Scarborough this September.)

Dashing off a play on the brink of a deadline is typical Ayckbourn style. "I dislike writing so much that I get it over as quickly as possible," he says, admitting that he would never write a line without the pressure of that self-imposed time-limit. From the moment he announces the opening date of a new play, all the ideas that have swum around his head for months begin to fall neatly into place.

The method has never failed. It has turned Ayckbourn into Britain's most popular living playwright and earned him comparisons to Chekhov and Feydeau. B. A. Young in The Financial Times hailed him as "the most ingenious writer of situation comedy in our day," and Noël Coward, who went to every Ayckbourn play until his death in 1973, delightedly welcomed the emergence, after a long barren period, of "a comedy writer of brilliance."

Alan Ayckbourn is a tall, burly man with a rubbery face and thinning hair. He walks like Charlie Chaplin with short, abrupt steps, eyes darting everywhere. Said New York critic Clive Barnes: "He stands astride the world like a baggy-panted comedian."

Still only 40, Ayckbourn has been turning out hits for more than ten years, each giving us a glimpse into the daily lives of the middle class. No matter how serious or tragic the situation, whether it involves an unfaithful husband or a suicidal wife, Ayckbourn skilfully illuminates the funny side. "Interrupt tragedy," he claims, "and you'll often find comedy. Many situations that are devastating from the inside can be viewed from the outside as very funny."

Felicity Kendal, who has starred in his plays, adds, "Alan makes you laugh even in the most poignant moments. But he never ridicules people. He is simply saying, 'I've observed this - you might think it's funny.' And of course we do."

Ayckbourn enjoys creating challenges for his actors. For
Sisterly Feelings, which has four scenes, he wrote alternative versions of both second and third scenes. The toss of a coin on stage at the end of Scene One decides which Scene Two will follow that evening, and the character who wins the toss chooses which Scene Three they will play. So four separate plays can result. "It keeps things lively," says Ayckbourn with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

Audiences respond delightedly to his characters, identifying them with people they know. During a performance of the last play in the three-part
The Norman Conquests, a woman in the audience loudly greeted the entrance of a character from the first two parts with, "It's our old friend Tom! Come on in, lad!"

No other British writer turns out so many successful works year after year. In 1975 five Ayckbourn plays were running simultaneously in London's West End. When
Joking Apart folded there this summer after only four months, the Evening Standard commented with some surprise on this short run for "the usually guaranteeable Mr Ayckbourn" and blamed the poor summer season.

In spite of their distinctively English background, his plays are performed in more than 30 countries of the world. "Bratislava is my latest conquest," he notes solemnly. Many people are baffled that what works so successfully in a Yorkshire coastal resort also delights audiences in Tel Aviv and Tokyo, Helsinki and Hong Kong. "I choose universal themes," Ayckbourn explains. "People everywhere are involved in relationships with other people - wives, mothers-in-law, neighbours. Situations like these ring bells in every country, east or west, communist or capitalist."

Creating hit plays is, however, only a small part of Ayckbourn's life. "Writing is a boring slog in the night," he once said. "The real pleasure is in bringing the play to life on the stage with the actors." For most of the year he enjoys life as Artistic Director at Scarborough's tiny 300-seat Theatre in the Round, where he heads a small company of 16 actors and backstage workers.

During a hectic 44-week season they turn out about ten major plays, ten lunch-hour productions and one or two revues, often by unknown young writers. "Alan is keen to help everyone," says actress Alison Skilbeck, who has been with the company for four years. "He reads scores of scripts and talks to anyone who wants advice."

Chris Godwin, a West End actor who began in Scarborough under Ayckbourn, comments, "What Alan is doing up there in Yorkshire is vitally important to many young actors and writers. He works about 17 hours a day to create something almost unique in England."

Ayckbourn's own life, marked with domestic upheavals, has helped to develop his insight into human relationships. His parents were divorced when he was five, and three years later his mother married a bank manager. For the next nine years the family moved from one small Sussex town to another - all gold-mines for future plays.

According to his mother, Alan's interest in the theatre began in the garden shed. "He charged other children a halfpenny to take part in the plays he put on, but I've no idea what they acted in there. All you could hear was Alan's loud voice."

Despite prep school reports that he did not try hard enough, he won a bank scholarship to Haileybury College, and there he decided to become an
actor. His mother, now divorced a second time, could not afford drama-school fees, so he got a job... as assistant stage manager with Sir Donald Wolfit's company in Edinburgh. A trail of backstage jobs and bit parts led him to Scarborough's Theatre in the Round, a makeshift affair in the town library.

Those early days were not easy, for at 19 he had married an actress and had to support two young sons on £12 a week. He recalls living in a tiny attic flat and getting up in the middle of the night to give the baby a bottle so that his wife - from whom he has since separated - could sleep. Wide awake at midnight, he took advantage of the quietness to scribble away until the 6am feed. "My early plays have bottled milk all over them."

Scarborough, however, gave him his chance. One night he complained about the current play to
Stephen Joseph, founder of the theatre, and was challenged to write a better one. So, between nocturnal baby feeding, Ayckbourn turned out his first plays, giving himself the best roles. Then, realising he could write better than he could act, he wrote himself a superb part - and handed it to another actor. "That was when I officially turned from actor to writer."

His first major play [
Mr Whatnot], performed partly in mime, was bought by impresario Peter Bridge, who moved it to London's Arts Theatre Club. It closed just over two weeks later.

Completely devastated, Ayckbourn vowed never to write again, and joined the
BBC in Leeds as a radio drama producer. But Stephen Joseph, convinced of his talent, asked him to "knock off something - for our summer season - some jolly-little comedy." Ayckbourn agreed, and after months of procrastination dashed off Relatively Speaking, about an amiable young man who turned up at the country house of his girlfriend's former lover in the belief that it was her parents' home. It was so good that Peter Bridge took it to the West End in 1967.

The first night at the Duke of York's Theatre was a great success, and a few days later Ayckbourn received a telegram which read "All my congratulations on a brilliantly constructed and very, very funny comedy. I enjoyed every moment of it," and was signed "Noël Coward." Ayckbourn crumpled it up, convinced it was a hoax.

Soon after, Stephen Joseph died, and Ayckbourn was eventually summoned back to Scarborough as Director of Productions.
[2] One condition of his job - to which he agreed reluctantly - was to write a play a year. Three weeks before the first was due the theatre's manager, Ken Boden, asked for the script. "It isn't quite ready yet," said Ayckbourn.

Boden tried again next day. This time, Ayckbourn hadn't finished the third act. "Then," says Boden, "he was so unhappy with it that he asked if we could put on something else. I said 'No, not on your life.'" When he returned two days later, Ayckbourn opened the door and threw the script at him. It was
How the Other Half Loves, and it ran for two years in the West End, starring Robert Morley.

More plays followed with remarkable regularity, all written in a few feverish nights as the deadline loomed. Premiered in Scarborough, they were then polished on tour in the provinces before moving to London.
Ayckbourn's third West End success,
Time and Time Again, firmly established his reputation. It was followed by Absurd Person Singular starring Richard Briers, and The Norman Conquests with Tom Courtenay, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendal, which broke the Globe Theatre's box office records and in 1977 won acclaim as a three-part television version. Absent Friends opened in 1975, and two years later Bedroom Farce, which was commissioned for the opening of the new National Theatre and proved so popular that it was transferred to the West End.

Three more plays followed in quick succession.
Sisterly Feelings, bought as soon as it was finished, opens at the National Theatre next year. "A season without an Ayckbourn play," wrote Daily Mail critic Jack Tinker, "is like a year without Christmas."

Only once did Ayckbourn completely miss the mark. In 1975 he collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber, of
Jesus Christ Superstar fame, on a musical based on P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves. "Everything seemed to go wrong," he recalls, "and things just got wronger and wronger." Jeeves lasted a bare six weeks in London.

Though Ayckbourn is one of Britain's richest playwrights - his income is reportedly upwards of £100,000 a year - he lives modestly in a rambling Victorian vicarage. His life is devoted to his tiny theatre, recently moved to a converted school. A shoe-string organisation, it earns him barely £70 a week, but means more to him than anything else.

When he leaves the theatre, often at midnight, he likes nothing better than to invent board games or indulge his passion for pin-ball machines. He insists that he will never leave Scarborough. "I write about human affairs, and it's all happening here in this town," he says. "Why, the place is fraught with the most horrendous things!"

Completely unaffected by his remarkable success, Ayckbourn remains the kind of shy, well-meaning person who could easily be a character in one of his own plays. On one occasion at a party he was hanging diffidently around the fringes of the group when the host, pulling his girlfriend behind him, rushed into the next room and locked the door. Ayckbourn found himself overhearing a spirited argument. Embarrassed, he tried to move away, but his jacket was caught in the door hinge. He stood there trapped for 20 minutes, until the couple decided to come out.

Usually, however, he enjoys eavesdropping, and lines he overhears often turn up in his next play. "I aim to create recognisable human beings in familiar predicaments, so that people will understand each other better," he says.

Do his plays have a message? "Yes, but it's a very secret message," he replies tongue in cheek. "If you read the first letter on every third page, they make up the words Nyax Gnov Csa."

In reality, Alan Ayckbourn has a message, and it is of universal appeal. "I want people to come out of my plays looking happy and saying, 'We've had a wonderful laugh.'"

Website Notes:
[1] An irrelevant footnote, but that same office is where this article was edited for the website. Alan's former writing space, recording studio and - since 2011 - his Archivist's office.
[2] Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and Alan was appointed the Director Of Productions in 1969; this was an annually appointed role which Alan also took in 1970. In 1972 - the Director of Productions had been Caroline Smith in 1971 - Scarborough Theatre Trust appointed Alan as the Artistic Director of the company, a position he held until his retirement in 2009.
[3] In all probability, this was a 'cut and paste' article as all of Alan's quotes had previously appeared in other publications.

Copyright: Reader's Digest. 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.