Interview: Evening Standard (1974)

This interview was published in the Evening Standard on 6 June 1974.

The Ayckbourn Conquests

by Sidney Edwards

Alan Ayckbourn has been called the most remarkable British dramatist to have emerged since Harold Pinter. And where was this most remarkable dramatist to be found this week? He was among the deck-chairs and ice-creams in Scarborough, the kingdom of Max Jaffa and paddling Yorkshire-miners with trousers rolled up to knees.

Ayckbourn is the
artistic director of the summer season of the tiny (250 seats) theatre attached to the town library. The box office is a table in a room upstairs. The publicity office has another table in the same room.
But Mr Ayckbourn struck gold in Scarborough and he's staying.

At the moment his trilogy of comedies,
The Norman Conquests, is drawing packed houses at the Greenwich Theatre. The laughter was so loud the other night the noise level blew an amp in the theatre's tannoy system.

The trilogy transfers to the West End on August 1. They will join his other comedy,
Absurd Person Singular, which is playing at the Criterion to give him four plays in the West End. This apparently hasn't happened since Noël Coward.
Broadway is preparing an American production of
Absurd Person Singular; Germany recently had 51 productions of his comedy Relatively Speaking, and his plays are performed all over the world, translated into 14 languages.

He is now, of course, very rich.

But this week he was lodging in Scarborough and rehearsing the
Library Theatre cast in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, alternating with rehearsals of his own new comedy, Absent Friends. All of Ayckbourn's plays have had their first performances in the tiny Scarborough theatre. [1]

He explains simply about staying in Scarborough: "This is the source. If you put your foot on the spring you'll never get a river, I've got to work here at everything. I had to learn my job as a playwright. I've written 16 now and the first 10 I'd like to forget. There are a few natural geniuses around but I'm not one. I had to learn my craft."

He also keeps fn touch with Yorkshire reality. "They are resolutely unimpressed here by anything that happens in London, I might say I have four plays on in London and they'll say, 'Oh yes. What's the new one here like, then?' That brings you down to size."

Someone came up to him in the street the other day and said "I remember you as a little lad." He smiles when he tells the story and adds, "This would be the worst place in the world to have an affair."

London-born, he first went to the Scarborough theatre in 1957 as actor-stage manager. He later wrote and directed some plays there. Then he became artistic director in 1972.

Now 35, Ayckbourn is tall and balding and gregarious. He talks quickly and sharply and likes to tell stories. Above all, he seems genuinely modest. He is married with two sons, aged 12 and 14. The family live in Leeds while he lodges in Scarborough.

We spent an afternoon on the sands this week, travelling down by the South Cliff lift ('Rides 2p. Increase due to rising costs') and walking past the army of deck-chairs and paddlers.

He is pleased the trilogy is transferring from Greenwich to the West End. "Usually when I write a play I feel my head is peering up from a fox-hole while the critics take pot-shots. With the trilogy I felt I was standing up."

Explaining one reason why he wanted each play to be self-contained he said "People come here [Scarborough] for a holiday week. They're not going to go to the theatre three times in one week so I wanted them to enjoy the play on the one night they went."

His gift for observation and his merciless ear is not specifically northern. "Where you are brought up is very important. My natural accent is Cockney, if anything. We lived in Staines for a bit and in Sussex a lot of the time. My step-father was a bank manager and we were heaved around from time to time. I'm very southern really. I got to know all the situations from the set of flying ducks to the bank staff being invited in for drinks on Christmas Eve and everybody being on their best behaviour. It was too funny for words."

But what about that hilarious scene in
Absurd Person Singular where one of the cast gets under a sink to clear a blocked-up pipe? "There were experiences like that. When I was an actor in Stoke-on-Trent earning £12.50 a week and with two children we could only afford a tiny flat and my eldest son slept an in the bath. I was terrified the tap would spring a leak and flood him during the night so I'd block it all up with eiderdowns and mattresses."

As a schoolboy
actor at 16, Ayckbourn had gone on a tour of America in Macbeth. He played Macduff. Then he joined Sir Donald Wolfit's company. "The first thing Wolfit told me was 'Don't drink and act.' and added, 'Go and get a dozen bottles of Guinness and a bottle of gin and get them wrapped up'."

He met his wife at Scarborough - she was an actress in the same company - and they later went on a tour together of a play called
Love & Chance. They got to Leicester and the publicity man said to them, "Get engaged, please. It'll be a good story for the Press." When they protested he said, "You can break it off when we get to Birmingham. That'll make another story." But in fact they never broke it off.

Early days in Scarborough, when he had begun to write plays, were not easy. "We had this tiny attic flat. I used to write all night because there were no interruptions and then sleep during the day. I used to take over the feeding of the children between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. All my early plays have got bottled milk all over them.

"There was one occasion I'd gone off to bed having left the whole night's work on the top of a Baby Belling stove. I woke up to a scream from my wife. She'd switched on the stove for the kettle and the night's work went up in flames. She came in and said, 'This is your breakfast - your play'. Luckily I remembered most of it."

He wrote the first play mainly as a vehicle for himself as an actor.
[5] Then as he wrote more he discovered he was a better writer than actor and gave up acting.

One advantage of
directing his own plays at Scarborough is that when they go to London to be directed by Eric Thompson it is a finished script with a working structure. "I've sailed close to the wind on openings here. The last play I did here I didn't finish it until Monday and it opened on the Tuesday."

He agrees he's rich now. "But I twitch all the time that it will all finish tomorrow. I don't know any actor that doesn't twitch about the next job and worries he might be going out of fashion. I don't want to go abroad to Bermuda or somewhere to live and save. I'm tied to this country - my source material is all tied up in it. I must be keeping the country by the tax I pay. I'd like a look at one of my missiles now and again. Am I very rich? I suppose so. When you get money you find you've got a big accountant, then you get a limited company and then you have money in trust for the children and you lose contact with it, really. I don't know how much I earn. I don't look at the Deutschmarks for instance. It would frighten me to death. All those 51 productions of
Relatively Speaking."

Broadway has lined up an all-star cast, including Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis, for the American production of
Absurd Person Singular. "They did Relatively Speaking in America but it was a flop. Clive Barnes of the New York Times saw it in the afternoon and the new Edward Albee play in the evening and then something else the next day and mine was about five shows ago and it was meant to be a comedy." [6]

The National Theatre have asked him to write a play for the new theatre. "I thought this new one,
Absent Friends, might do, but that stage is 54ft wide ! I only have a small group of characters. I've got an idea for one I'll do in the winter for them." [7]

Absent Friends is about death. "A group of people who knew a young man years ago hear that his fiancée has died. They're a rather mis-matched set of people and they invite him around to tea to cheer him up. But he's perfectly cheerful because he says he enjoyed every wonderful moment with her and he'll never meet anyone like her again in his life. They are all rather po-faced, telling him how much they grieve his loss and they disintegrate into ruins in the face of his cheerfulness. It all takes place in the space of two hours over tea."

We've walked right along the beach by now: "There's a lovely quiet spot I know where I take the family for picnics. And the moors are only a short time away." He recalled an occasion when he was badly stuck for an ending to a play. "I went up to the moors and started shouting, like Heathcliffe
[8], I yelled and charged around and felt marvellous. I came back and got the ending. I'd just got it in perspective."

What about the charge by some critics that there is malice occasionally in his characters? "Yes, I know one or two have said that but I don't do it consciously. I like sentiment but not sentimentality. I hate the gooey centre that afflicts so much American comedy. They write brilliant comedies but they're soggy inside."

We ride up the beach lift again and I say goodbye. What does he want to do now? "I just hope I can develop in the light comedy vein. And hope people will laugh. The nicest thing for me is when they come out looking a bit happy and say, 'We've had a wonderful laugh.'"

Website Notes:
[1] Actually two of Alan Ayckbourn's plays at this point had not premiered in Scarborough. His plays
Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) both premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, while he was acting, directing and writing for the venue. As of writing, just four plays of Alan Ayckbourn's plays have not premiered in Scarborough, the two already mentioned alongside Jeeves (1975) and A Small Family Business (1987).
[2] Despite his harshness towards the first ten plays, there are - arguably - two Ayckbourn classics within these plays,
Relatively Speaking (1965) and How The Other Half Loves (1967). Four of his first ten plays have been published and are allowed productions: the two previously noted alongside Mr Whatnot and Family Circles.
[3] Articles from this period frequently incorrectly state that Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1970. This was not the case. Alan became Artistic Director in 1972 having been the annually appointed Director Of Productions in 1969 and 1970. The website's policy is to correct all articles to 1972.
[4] Following its world premiere at the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1973,
The Norman Conquests opened at the Greenwich Theatre in 1974; this venue was chosen as no West End producers were willing to run the entire trilogy in the West End. It was decided to run the trilogy in Greenwich Theatre to demonstrate its financial viability for the West End.
[5] Alan's first professionally produced play was
The Square Cat (1959) in which he plays the lead role of a mild mannered bespectacled man who is also secretly a rock 'n' roll star.
[6] This isn't actually true.
Relatively Speaking has never been performed on Broadway and its Off Broadway premiere did not take place until 1994. There were several attempts to produce the play in New York subsequent to its original West End success in 1967, but none of them came to fruition.
[7] His first play for the National Theatre,
Bedroom Farce, actually premiered in the Lyttelton at the National in March 1977.
[8] Heathcliff is the central character in Emily Brontë's novel
Wuthering Heights.

Copyright: Evening Standard. 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.