Interview: Sunday Times (1973)

This interview was published in The Sunday Times on 3 June 1973.

Lines And Deadlines

by Philip Oakes

Deadlines and first nights: Alan Ayckbourn has them like other writers have final demand notices. On June 11 his comedy Absurd Person Singular, with Richard Briers and Sheila Hancock in the lead, opens in Brighton, transferring on July 4 to the Criterion in London. It's being directed by Eric Thomson but, as you'd expect, Ayckbourn is standing by in case he's needed. At the same time he's completing a new trilogy [1] which opens at the Scarborough Library Theatre on June 14. He's directing the plays as well as writing them (in nightly stints from 8 pm 'til 5 am) and with twenty days to go he'd polished off only the three first acts.

"I like to work to a tight deadline, but this is ridiculous. How dare they? I ask myself. How dare they give me just these few days to get the thing right? I keep telling myself how much better it would be if I had another month." But he's kidding himself and he knows it. Ayckbourn writes brilliantly under pressure with one eye on the clock and an ear tuned to the demands of his cast.

He's a commercial writer, he keeps telling you. "But I keep nipping between categories. Really, I suppose, I work on the fringe. I don't want to write wholly conventional plays but I have to face it: I'm not too interested in the kitchen sink. I began by writing the lightest of farces, plays which people told me later were the most difficult of all to do. Robert Morley warned me once 'You can become too clever for your own good' - and I know what he means. But I hope I've got better. Certainly I've become more of a perfectionist. The trilogy is my thirteenth or fourteenth play
[2], but if it gets on at all it's because I've not got round to tearing it up."

Several managements would suffer financial traumas if he did. Ayckboum's plays are not only well made. They're also money-spinners. He wrote
Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves and Time And Time Again - all witty both in lines and incident. What's more, they please both critics and audiences; light-weight, you'd suppose, but difficult to pin down.

"They're all about fairly well-to-do people," says Ayckbourn. "My step-father was a bank manager and the milieu that I remember from childhood stays with me. What's more important, though, is that they are all about characters I like. I take them quite seriously. And if you do that you can dig up all sorts of things about them. You can even allow them some unhappiness."

He works hard, though, at keeping his plays funny. At 34, he's an ex-actor who served five years with the
BBC at Leeds - he still has a house there. Scarborough's the town where he tries out his new stuff (the trilogy this year, for example) and he regards each summer's test as fairly acid. "People there expect a laugh and they're cross if they don't get one. If I wrote a grim play and put it on at Scarborough all those nice old ladies would come up to me and say how sorry they were. Honestly, I wouldn't like to disappoint them." He's trying it on a bit with the trilogy, he thinks, but he believes it to be a worthwhile experiment.

He's just completed a film script of
Relatively Speaking [3], but he's not mad about the cinema and he's convinced that he's no good for TV: "I need an audience as part of the show. It takes me 20 minutes to get a play going and TV gives you no leeway."

He's married with two sons ("Leeds United supporters, both of them.") but he still feels a bit rootless. "In London I'm regarded as a Northerner; down here I'm regarded as a foreigner. You can't win." His true home, one feels, is within his craft. But, ironically, there are problems even there. "If you write successful comedies I don't think you'll ever be considered thoroughly respectable," says Ayckbourn. "I remember going to a writers' gathering with the playwright David Halliwell. We had to wear badges with our names on them and, just for a joke, he wore mine. After a while I could hear him going round the room - with my identity, of course - saying 'I only write bloody rubbish'."
It was a good gag, says Ayckbourn. But he reacted as every craft-conscious writer should: "I went over and ripped his badge off."

Website Notes:
[1] The new trilogy was
The Norman Conquests.
The Norman Conquests are considered Alan Ayckbourn's 13th, 14th and 15th full-length plays.
[3] Although he completed the film-script (of which several drafts survive including one in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York), the script was never produced as a movie.

Copyright: The Sunday 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.