Interview: Sunday Times Magazine (1976)

This interview was published in the Sunday Times Magazine in December 1976; the actual date is to be confirmed.

The Hit-Man From Scarborough

by Russell Miller

High up in the black and grey shadows of the terraces that rise steeply from the harbour, a light burns at a single window this cold winter night in Scarborough. It is less than an hour to dawn, when the fishing boats will putter out into the North Sea.

In his attic room, Alan Ayckbourn is scribbling with a ball-point pen on one of the thick pads of lined paper he buys from Woolworths. He has already filled many sheets in his spidery, almost illegible, hand. The radio is tuned to an all-night music station at half volume. Three cigarettes smoulder in ashtrays around him, yet he pauses distractedly, and lights another. The gas fire burps and hisses.

Not far away, night dew trickles down the damply blistered posters outside the
Theatre In The Round, a converted Victorian school near the railway station. It drips softly onto
the deserted pavement. The posters are advertising a new play called
Ten Times Table. The opening date is just four weeks hence. It is this play Ayckbourn is writing.

He started work about 11o'clock last night, when the evil moment could be put off no longer. He had tidied his desk. Made a second cup of tea. Sharpened pencils he does not use. Emptied the ashtrays. Checked which of the ball-point pen's worked. Adjusted the flame on his gas lighter. Taken the silver paper out of the spare packs of cigarettes. Numbered the pages of a pad from 1 to 150. But in the end he had had to face that first tyrannical sheet of blank paper.

Ken Boden, the manager of the theatre, has been nagging him for weeks to make a start. The actors are beginning to fret at the absence of a script. Everyone is worried that this time he has left it too late. Ayckbourn hates writing; is terrified that each time he won't be able to do it. Thus he never starts until he is on the brink of a deadline. And then he works like a man demented.

So the fishing boats will have long disappeared before - he puts down his pen and falls exhausted into bed this morning. Tonight he will start again. If he gets blocked, he will quickly go back to a point where the script was working well, tear up the intervening pages, and pick it up from there. The light will burn at his window through six or seven successive nights, 10 at the most, and then the play will be finished.

After its opening in Scarborough,
Ten Times Table will almost inevitably join the queue of Ayckbourn plays waiting to appear in London. When it arrives, he won't like it much. By then he will have written at least two more plays and his past work recedes in his estimation with each new play. He will sit miserably in the audience on the first night, biting his fingernails and unhappily noting its flaws.

The author's gloom is likely to be shared only by his accountant, a man permanently embarrassed by the struggle to cope with the size of his client's income. "Oh dear," he tends to mutter, "another successful play. More money. Oh dear."

Alan Ayckbourn's plays, all of them dashed off in a few days, earn him more than £100,000 a year. His first West End success was
Relatively Speaking in 1967, followed by How The Other Half Loves, Time And Time Again, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Absent Friends and Confusions. More are on the way: Bedroom Farce is due to open at the National Theatre next month and Just Between Ourselves is booked for a West End theatre in the spring. Every one of these plays was written for the Theatre In The Round at Scarborough, where Ayckbourn is director of productions. [1] Until recently the theatre occupied two rooms in the town library, but now they can seat 300 in the old school. With six or seven actors and as many front-of-house and backstage helpers, the theatre is hardly big-time by any stretch of the imagination, but Ayckbourn cares more about it than anything else in the world. He joined the company in 1959 as an assistant stage manager [2] and, apart from a short spell with the BBC as a radio producer, he has been there ever since.

He intends to remain. "I badly need the theatre," he says. "I am excited by it and I love working in it. I am a part-time writer - it only occupies me physically for about a week a year - and I'd be bloody bored for the other 51 weeks without the theatre."

Choosing to live and work in Scarborough costs him a huge amount in tax, which he pays with reasonable good grace. "In my gloomier moments I think 'Oh God, I've just bought another wing for Concorde' and I would really rather it was spent on something more useful. But I think if you don't like the system, you get out - and I have chosen not to get out."

His only extravagance is a new Mercedes, but otherwise his lifestyle is no different from that of his neighbours, none of whom approaches the super-tax bracket. "I get upset with people who think I am making an awful lot of money," he says, "because if you live in this country you don't, you really don't. I'd be a lot richer living abroad, but I don't like abroad much." Neither does he much like the idea of being a celebrity: he likes wearing cardigans, watching TV, playing
Monopoly and keeping himself to himself. In fact the English theatre's most successful light comedy playwright is an extraordinarily shy and self-effacing man. Sentences die on his lips in a nervous chuckle, almost as if he had suddenly realised that what he was saying was slightly absurd, and when he is talking his eyes swivel desperately every way in apparent search of reassurance.

Stories he most enjoys telling are those which support his view of himself as a nobody. Like the time he queued at the box office of a London theatre where one of his plays was showing and was obliged to laboriously spell out his name in order to collect two tickets put aside for him.

He avoids parties when he can. Most evenings, if he is not at the theatre, he stays home in the top-floor flat of an old house he shares with a nice girl called Heather Stoney, who works as his personal assistant. It is a comfortable, unpretentious place, devoid of any showy trappings that might indicate his wealth and success. The view from the front windows is of a block of council flats, but at the back they can look out right across the bay.

Their most frequent visitors are Ayckbourn's wife and his two schoolboy sons, who live in Leeds. Ayckbourn, now aged 37, married when he was 19, after suffering the excruciating embarrassment of being told by the vicar to get his mother's permission in writing. He and his wife, Christine, now live apart, although they remain good friends.

Alan and Heather often go out to dinner with Christine and a friend in a foursome. In the idiom of contemporary society, it is known as being "civilised", but it is hard not to imagine what the playwright might make of his own situation if he could be persuaded to use it as the basis for his next play. For no-one has more successfully exploited the black comedy inherent in the struggle of the middle class to maintain its respectability, status and "civility", and the concomitant stress.

Ayckbourn does not like to talk about his private life, so as not to embarrass his sons - Philip, 15, and Steven, 16. His relationship with them is very close, so much so that when
Jeeves, his first attempt at a musical, flopped disastrously two years ago, almost his first thought was that it was not a bad thing for the boys to realise that their father was not infallible. "They were desperately upset," he explained, "and it was nice that they were concerned. But in a way it was quite good for them because at one stage they appeared to have a father who turned everything he wrote into gold."

During the summer holidays they all spend a lot of time playing cricket and in the winter the boys indulge their father's passion for inventing board games. He has been working for years on a game called
Theatres, in which the players are managements competing with each other to get a new play into the West End.

Ayckbourn's own parents were divorced before he was five years old. His father, whom he adored, was deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and his mother was a journalist working in public relations. When he was eight, his mother married again, this time to a bank manager. She remembers getting a painful note from Alan, who was away at school. "Dear Mummy," it said, "I hope you'll have a very happy marriage. Love, Alan."

His baldly-stated hope was not to be fulfilled, and Mrs Mary James now lives near Alan in Scarborough, having moved recently from a small rented flat on the edge of Clapham Common in London. Over a "little drink" one lunch time, she talked about her famous son with fearsome, but endearing, candour. He was not, it transpired, a Fauntleroy.

"He showed off all the time," she said. "All my friends' children seemed to behave beautifully, but Alan didn't give a damn whether he made a good impression - in fact the worse impression he made the more he liked it. He started this acting lark by bullying other children to take part in plays which he put on in the garden shed. I think he charged them a ha'penny to get in, but God knows what they acted in there because normally all you could hear was Alan's screaming, hysterical voice."

Despite consistent school reports that he "did not try hard enough", Alan won a bank scholarship to Haileybury and it was there he decided to become an actor. First setback was that his mother could not afford to send him to drama school. She was rewarded with dark mutterings from her ungrateful offspring to the effect that she had ruined his life, etcetera. But thanks to the influence of his drama teacher, Alan got a job at the age of 17 as assistant stage manager with Sir Donald Wolfit's company in Edinburgh.

It was the start of a dreary trail of jobs and bit-parts that was eventually to lead the young repertory
actor to Scarborough. Those were the days when he rarely earned more than £12 a week and he very soon had a wife and child to support. "I used to send them my luncheon vouchers," Mrs James recalled.

The Theatre In The Round ta Scarborough had been founded by
Stephen Joseph (Hermione Gingold's son) partly with the intention of promoting new writers. Joseph, perhaps perceiving in the new member of his company a rather ordinary acting talent, persuaded Alan to try to write a play.

At the time, Alan was getting up in the middle of the night to give the baby a bottle, so that his wife could get a decent night's sleep. He got into the habit of writing after he had put the baby back in its cot, scribbling away until dawn, when he would climb into bed and sleep through the day until it was time to get up and go to the theatre.

His plays found favour both with Joseph and with the audiences. It was not long before a West End impresario, Peter Bridge, and an agent travelled north to see his work. The agent was
Peggy Ramsay. "I remember the play was a charming, naive little piece called Mr Whatnot," she said. "It was all in mime, only about 40 minutes long, but extremely ingenious." [3]

Bridge bought the play and Peggy became Ayckbourn's agent. Tarted up for the West End,
Mr Whatnot opened at the Arts Theatre and closed two weeks later after dreadful notices. [4]

Chris Godwin, an actor in the cast, remembers it well. "Alan sat in the stalls looking sicker and sicker and trying to slide under the seat. His original play had been so prettied up that it was virtually destroyed. Afterwards, we all went up to Bridge's office to wait for the papers. When they arrived, the party melted away like wax on a candle and we all slunk home."

Ayckbourn was shattered by the failure, Peggy Ramsay says. When, a little while later, he was offered a job as an assistant radio producer at Leeds, he jumped at the chance, delighted to abandon the whole idea of writing. Fortunately, though, Stephen Joseph never lost faith in his protege. Leaving a decent interval for the wounds of
Mr Whatnot to heal, he telephoned Ayckbourn at the BBC and gently suggested he should try again. A new play was urgently needed at the Theatre In The Round, could he write one within 10 days? After some persuasion, Ayckbourn agreed. He wrote Relatively Speaking.

Joseph died, tragically, not long afterwards and Ayckbourn returned to Scarborough as a director on the condition, according to Ken Boden, that he would write a play a year. Boden has been involved with the theatre at Scarborough since its inception in 1954. The only Yorkshire man in the company, his technique for extracting a script from the reluctant playwright is typically blunt.

"Three weeks before his first play was due to go on," he said, "I went round to collect the script. Alan told me it was not ready and to come back tomorrow. Next day he said he couldn't finish the third act and so I said 'You better ruddy well had finish it'. Next day he asked if I could put something else in instead and I said no. Next day when I went round, he threw the script at me." It was
How The Other Half Loves. The next play, Time And Time Again, finally established Ayckbourn's reputation as a writer and produced the first comparisons, since often repeated, with names like Chekhov, Coward and Rattigan. At the end of 1975 he had five successful plays running simultaneously in the West End, all of which had also been sold throughout the world.

"There is no country in the world where he has not been successful," Peggy Ramsay says. "The list is just amazing. His work is rooted in suburban life and recognisably English, but his plays succeed everywhere."

Ayckbourn off-handedly explains his popularity abroad by saying that he writes about "fairly universal" domestic situations. Either that or his characters confirm what foreigners have always thought about the English: that the women are dowdy and frigid and the men incompetent.

His source material comes largely from personal observation. "You'll be talking to him," his friend Chris Godwin says, "and you'll suddenly become aware that he is not listening any more because he has tuned in to a nearby conversation."

Mrs James finds her son's memory bank a little too efficient for her liking. She had a bit of a turn for example, in
The Norman Conquests when Norman suddenly said: "Do you remember when mother picked up that sailor in Weston-super-Mare?"

"It gave me an awful shock, because that was me. I thought Alan was too young to even know about it: he was only four. I think my God, what else does he remember?"

Ayckbourn's recipe for success is criticised by some for being stereotyped. "Well, to an outsider my plays might seem to be very similar, that's true," he admits. "But I feel I am making progress as a writer, even though it may not be markedly obvious, and I think that is all I can hope for.

"Without being over-modest, I think by now that I can put a play together. As far as the shape goes I work on auto-pilot, so I can concern myself with the content. Plays are as much about what you leave out as what you put in; as far as mine are concerned, they are a sort of selective editing of life.

"I don't think now I should try and be clever and write a play about urban guerrillas, because I don't know anything about them. I think you should stick to what you know. My duty is to entertain and I don't think I have the right to suddenly change the genre without some terrible warning."

What kind of warning? Oh, he says, casting about with his eyes, something along the lines of "Caution. This play is not funny. It is nasty and savage and will make you feel ill."
For dwelling on middle-class foibles, he makes no apologies. He writes about the middle-class for the middle-class, because they make up the majority of the theatre-going public. He does not support the idea of pursuing audiences outside the theatre. "I remember once touring the pubs in Wellingborough with some terrible mediaeval madrigal group. We were chasing these little old blokes from pub to pub and everywhere we went they would rush out saying 'Cor, the buggers have got in here now - there's nowhere for a quiet pint.'"

Audiences in Scarborough certainly need no chasing: every time a new Ayckbourn play opens, the little Theatre In The Round is packed. The intimacy of the theatre is such that it is not unusual for the front rows to get quite carried away. In
Just Between Ourselves, the main character, Dennis, walks out at the end of the first act leaving his wife in hysterics. One night, a man in the audience tweaked Dennis's sleeve as he went to leave the stage and said: "I wouldn't go if I were you, she's awfully upset."

Ayckbourn savours such stories. Scarborough, he says, is where he "bench-tests" his work and he is well satisfied if the locals tell him a play is "all right". They are not given to raptures round those parts.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn was appointed Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972; the alternate title of Director of Productions was rarely used after that date.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn actually joined the Library Theatre company in 1957 as an Assistant Stage Manager and actor.
[3] Even during its original production,
Mr Whatnot ran longer than 40 minutes and was a full-length play of approximately two hours. It is also not totally mimed; only the lead character is mute throughout the play.
Mr Whatnot remains the least successful West End production of an Ayckbourn play. Whilst his and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jeeves lost more money and is perceived as Alan's biggest failure, it did run for a month compared to Mr Whatnot’s two weeks.

Copyright: 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.