Interview: Financial Times (1971)

This interview was published in the Financial Times on 8 July 1971.

Alan Ayckbourn

by Michael Wale

"I know your face from last year," the waitress said thoughtfully peering at Alan Ayckbourn. It's like that in Scarborough.

It is to Scarborough that he has returned yet again to start off one of his plays
Time And Time Again, this writer of that "incredibly successful pair of comedies Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves.

Of his own admission they are plays written to "entertain the people who come to Scarborough, who aren't exactly the Royal Court Upstairs set, which suits me because I basically want to entertain." To prove it he once wrote in a foreword to
Relatively Speaking: "I wrote this play for Scarborough, for people who had had their holidays spoilt by rain."

Not that it always rains in Scarborough, it doesn't, although when it does Ayckbourn says there is a pervading smell of wet mackintoshes in the 250 seater Theatre In The Round set in a gracious salon-like room above the town's
public library.

It is here that he works on his plays while they are in rehearsal, and more importantly while they are in production. It is not an opportunity available to many writers in England, although the theatre is always on the look out for plays by new authors. "The script we are running off now is a blueprint. I've always been very much of the theatre. For example in this play I've already worked out the lighting. With modesty I think I can do my plays much better than a lot of people. I'm really only trying to make people laugh."

He is a strange anachronism in this North Eastern resort of mainly the aged and middle-aged, striding along in a cream jersey suit, bright blue shirt and fashionably wide pink tie.

A Southerner adopted by the North, on that staunch self-protective circuit of Northern writers like Alan Plater, Henry Livings and Sid Chaplin. Ayckbourn, educated at Haileybury with accent to match, says: "I'm really sort of a half-caste now. If someone attacks the South I defend it. Then if I'm in London and someone talks about Northerners as if they still wear clogs I get annoyed. I write still in the Southern idiom. I've never dared to write like Alan Plater for instance, although I did put a 'yer what? ' into
Relatively Speaking. The Southern actors asked about it, so it was cut out."

He is an amazingly relaxed man, which attitude of mind no doubt is assimilated from his surrounds in Scarborough, where there is none of the rush of London where
How The Other Half Loves continues to sell out, or Broadway where the play was responsible for bringing back to the stage Phil Silvers. Here we can sip coffee for two hours of a morning overlooking the vast hardly inhabited loop of holiday poster-type sands.

He is unusual in this television age because he has only written for the theatre, except for an unsuccessful side-tracking a few months ago into script-writing under an assumed name. That was for the Ronnie Barker series
[1] on London Weekend TV. Because he was at the time still under contract to BBC Radio in the North, he wrote under the name of Peter Caulfield, a character in his new play. [2]

It was a painful and not to be repeated experience: "I'm just not on the wavelength really. I'm not just that obliging a writer who likes things being messed about. When that happens I just wander away." After three years and many lunches he also sent the BBC's
Wednesday Play their money back. [3]

When he left Haileybury he was taken on by the late Sir Donald Wolfit as an assistant stage manager during an Edinburgh Festival season, then he worked in several repertory companies as
actor, stage manager and writer before writing his first West End play and flop.

It was called
Mr Whatnot and its failure was to cause his later success. "I was so depressed about it that I rang up my agent for a bit of a moan and she said 'hold on a minute' because someone was in the office who had an idea." The man was Alfred Bradley, a BBC North Region Drama Producer who suggested Ayckbourn answer an advertisement in the New Statesman for the job as his assistant. He got the job and worked with the BBC in Leeds for six years. It meant dealing with 50 plays a year, reading as many as four a day, and it also gave him time for his own writing. Radio always was and still is the great nursery for writers and Ayckbourn (although he never actually wrote for radio) admits he learned a lot of his craft there.

Soon after joining he wrote
Relatively Speaking. Once he has the basic idea he physically writes the play in a week, but as he says he averages one play a year so the process itself is longer than it sounds. Relatively Speaking came about by Stephen Joseph ringing him up to congratulate him on getting the job in Leeds: "He wanted a play for the next summer. He rang me in the October of 1964. Then in February 1965 he rang me again and asked how the play was going.

"I said 'fine' knowing I hadn't written a word. March came, then April when he rang up and said he was preparing the advance publicity and he needed a title. I said
Meet My Mother; he changed Mother to Father [4], and I'm still very proud because I got the line in near the end of the play. By the time I wrote it it was time to get it duplicated and in fact no one read it until it was in rehearsal. I avoided Stephen for a week because I thought he wouldn't like it, then one day he just said 'You've written a very funny play.'"

To buttress himself against disaster he always works one or two plays ahead. Thus in August
Me Times Me Times Me [5] will open in Leicester. It played in Scarborough last summer and has since been re-written.
Time And Time Again, which opens in Scarborough tonight, he says: "It's an attempt more and more to get comedy to spring out of characters and their relationships. I have great idols like Chekhov, I was really set up by the Scofieid Vanya at the Court [6]. I think it's such a funny play when it's done this way."

He worries, like any successful writer, about the reaction: "What do we make of this one they might say," then returns to enthusing about Scarborough: " It's such a great place to work. You can have your cake and eat it. Most places you have to work in the theatre are also the densest areas of population… and besides I'm also a pinball addict."

When we parted, and he walked willowy away down the main street I felt the amusement arcade was in for another long session. And someone, somewhere, was going to say: "I know your face from last year."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn wrote for two series of the ITV show
Hark At Barker between 1969 and 1970 under the pseudonym Peter Caulfield (the article actually started the name as Paul but this has been corrected).
[2] Although the character is named Peter in
Time & Time Again, his surname is not mentioned within the play; feasibly it could have been Caulfield though.
[3] Alan was commissioned to write an original television screenplay by the BBC in 1973 following him writing
Service Not Included. The commission came from that piece's director, Herbert Wise, and although the offer was essentially kept open-ended, Alan - after serval years - notified the BBC that he wasn't able to do it.
[4] Depending on which article / interview you read, Alan Ayckbourn changes the order of who (either Alan or Stephen Joseph) came up with the original title
Meet My Mother and who altered it to Meet My Father.
Me Times Me Times Me was originally called The Story So Far… for its original production in Scarborough in 1970. It is now better known as Family Circles.
[6] Paul Scofield starred as Vanya in an acclaimed 1970 production of
Uncle Vanya, directed by Anthony Page, at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Copyright: Financial 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.