Interview: The Observer (1977)

This interview was published in The Observer on 2 February 1977.

Striking Sparks Of Suburbia

by John Heilpern

As the rehearsals for Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce reach their final stages at the National Theatre, perhaps it isn't surprising that Ayckbourn looks tense, if not miserable. He always looks miserable during rehearsals, he says. And the funnier the play becomes, the more miserable he looks. He can't help it.

Nor will he attend the first night, except to sit nervously in the bar. "Well done, everyone!" he announces after the show.

Unexpected nerves from so successful a man: "I wish to God I'd reached the point in life when I could say, 'It doesn't matter.' One knows it's inevitable that I'll go out of fashion, at least with the critics…." Yet he looked excited as he said that, as if also saying to himself: 'Not so fast! There's more up my sleeve!'

None of our comic playwrights enjoys such popular success as Alan Ayckbourn. Recently, he had four comedies running simultaneously in the West End - an achievement unheard of since the days of Noël Coward. Shortly there will be another blitz, for with
Bedroom Farce, two more Ayckbourn comedies are due in the West End this year. Yet he is still only 37.

On the other hand, he looks 47, which helps. When he began directing in theatre, he found it useful to look 10 years older than he is. His receding hairline gave him a sense of authority. "Actors would kneel down in front of me. Strangers would offer their seats on buses…." There's a restless quality to him, puffing on many cigarettes. He is tall, unexpectedly serious, and slightly overweight. If you didn't know anything about him, he might strike you as rather ordinary, unpretentious and friendly.

His writing has made him wealthy, perhaps the wealthiest playwright in the country, but there are no obvious signs of it. Eagerness is part of his personality: eager to please. He is the kind of well-meaning middle-class man who might easily be a character in one of his own comedies.

For instance, in the first flush of Ayckbourn's success, a young schoolboy asked his advice about the "art of writing." Flattered, he uncharacteristically adopted the suave manner of the sophisticated playwright. But during the course of his advice, he accidentally put the lighted end of his cigarette into his mouth. Too embarrassed to do anything about it, he continued the advice through clenched teeth, like a tight-lipped fire eater.

He was born in Hampstead, the only son of the deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. His mother was a journalist: an important influence, for writing was always part of his upbringing. When he was five, his mother divorced and remarried a bank manager. For much of his youth, Alan Ayckbourn lived in little Sussex towns such as Lewes and Uckfield, progressing to Staines, all gold-mines of future material. At Haileybury School he became fascinated by theatre, and at 17 left to become an actor, preferably famous.

The reason he began to write seriously was to enable him to cast himself in his own plays. Thus, his early comedies - 10 of which have never been performed
[1] - were flagrant vehicles for a sparky young actor called Ayckbourn. At 19, his first play was produced during a summer season in Scarborough. He cast himself in the central role of a rock singer, though he could neither sing nor play the guitar.

Eventually, he abandoned acting completely and became a director instead. Directing is his other identity, and it's crucial to him. For almost half his life he has been associated with the tiny rep in Scarborough - and without it, one feels, he would never have succeeded as a writer. It was there that as a fledgling stage manager he fell under the spell of the late
Stephen Joseph, the son of Hermione Gingold; Joseph was a legendary director, much loved. He encouraged Ayckbourn to write. Later, when his first plays failed, he became a drama producer for the BBC, what he calls "that great paternalistic womb for the wounded to crawl into." But he returned to the theatre in Scarborough when Stephen Joseph died, and became its resident director. "Besides," he says, "you've got everything in Scarborough, except Covent Garden." Every summer, Max Jaffa plays in the Spa Sun Lounge.

Ayckbourn lives in a Georgian vicarage overlooking the bay. His wife is an artist and illustrator. His two teenage sons are at Bryanston. "Why should I sacrifice their education for my principles?" he says, sounding defensive. But life in Scarborough suits him, and keeps him down to earth: "Playwright, are you?" say the Yorkshire locals. "I was thinking of doing a bit of that…." Yet in recent years he has built something wonderful there: a real community theatre, very alive.

It is also in this unlikely setting that every one of his comedies, from his first success,
Relatively Speaking, to his most recent, Confusions, were first produced and tested. [2] It remains a mystery to Ayckbourn why what works in Scarborough should also work in the West End of London, or on Broadway, or in Portugal, Israel, South America, Italy, Russia, wherever in the world his plays are performed. Somewhere among the Scarborough middle class, the local youngsters and the influx of amazingly varied holiday-makers during the summer season, can be found the key to a universal sense of humour.

What is more extraordinary, however, is that for 360 days in the year Ayckbourn doesn't write anything. He describes himself as wondrously lazy. Also, he loathes writing, as if he sees the whole painful process as "the enemy." Each year, he writes one play in three or four sleepless nights. (
The Norman Conquests took a week, but that was a trilogy.) The rest of the year is spent working at the theatre, turning over the ideas for a new play, and doing nothing extremely well.

Rather than write, he invents useless games that no one can play. For example, an invention called
The Theatre Managers' Game, though still in its embryo stage, is so intricate that only Ayckbourn can play it. It lasts for eight hours, and passes the time.

Only under the intense pressure of a deadline is he able to write at all, like a journalist. Ayckbourn therefore goes through a weird psychological game which might give anyone else duodenal ulcers. Before he writes a play, he announces the dates when it will open at his theatre. Posters are printed, tickets sold, the cast hired. Then, three or four days before the opening rehearsal, he starts the play. All he has at this stage is a series of giant doodles, diagrams and strange shapes, like an abstract painting. He works through the night from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., sleeps until mid-afternoon, and slogs on. The night before the actors meet for the first rehearsal, he runs off copies of the completed script and hurls them through the actors' letter-boxes. The miracle is that he's never been late, never failed to produce.

What actually happens during those frantic writing sessions is also a mystery. He knows that a form of auto-pilot governs the shape. He has an instinctive feel for length, a mathematical precision. The year spent organising his thoughts, comic situations, characters, all comes amazingly to the boil. Steam! Yet he knows that much of what happens during the writing simply isn't a conscious process. Often, he says, a character shouts back at him from the page: "You can't do this to me!" (So he doesn't). But in some way, the script actually takes over.

Of late, victim of his own success perhaps, Alan Ayckbourn has had his share of criticism. Some claim that the marvellous comic inventiveness has begun to flag. A danger of his becoming a formula writer, an English version of Neil Simon, is sensed. Yet for others, there has been a gradual and fascinating development in his work: the portrait of suburban misery which underlies so much of his comedy has gained a sharper edge. It might be that our leading comic writer is also discreetly among our most serious.
He defines comedy as tragedy that has been interrupted.

His favourite reaction to one of his players was from a member of the audience who said: "I wouldn't have laughed so much if I'd realised what I was laughing at.'
His mentor, surprisingly maybe, is Chekhov.

At 37, this pleasant, serious, hilarious man has a great deal of writing left in him. Who knows? And, perhaps least of all, Alan Ayckbourn.

Website Notes:
[1] This isn't accurate. Prior to his first professional commission, Alan did write approximately 10 unperformed plays, but they were not intended as vehicles for himself and were not all comedies. All his professional commissions have been performed and it is true the first five are largely showcases for his own acting talents.
[2] This is not strictly true as his fifth and sixth plays,
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot, were premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.

Copyright: The Observer. 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.