Interview: The Sunday Times (1974)

This interview was published in the Sunday Times on 30 June 1974.

Unlocal Lad Makes Good

by Ian Jack

Something of a theatrical marathon happened in south-east London yesterday when more than 400 people sat through a special performance of three plays at the Greenwich Theatre, all day and well into the night. The plays are a comic trilogy entitled
The Norman Conquests - all about an assistant librarian, Norman, and his attempts to woo his wife and seduce his two sisters-in-law. Tom Courtenay plays Norman, and the plays should make their author, Alan Ayckbourn, even richer after they transfer to the West End's Globe Theatre in August. [1]

Ayckbourn already has one big success -
Absurd Person Singular - running tin the West End and when the trilogy arrives he'll be the first playwright to have four plays running concurrently there since the heydays of Noël Coward and Somerset Maugham.

Most critics are already ecstatic. The Sunday Times called Ayckbourn the best thing to happen to the British stage since Harold Pinter.

Meanwhile, the best thing since Harold Pinter is working quietly in Scarborough, Queen of the Yorkshire Coast. Ayckbourn is 35 and London-born (though Yorkshire papers call him a Yorkshire playwright). He first came to the town as an
assistant stage manager 16 years ago [2] and for the past four years he's been directing plays there during the summer season at a 250-seat theatre above the town library. [3] He lodges in Scarborough, he likes it and he doesn't intend to leave.

"I couldn't get this kind of freedom anywhere else," he says. Freedom to Ayckbourn means the facility to write plays knowing that they'll be produced by him in his Scarborough theatre. All his successes over the past four years have had their first nights there.

He says Scarborough has taught him a lot: "The audiences here come straight up from the beach and if you wrote boring plays they'd simply go to sleep or go away. If they laugh here, they'll laugh in London."

His competitors for laughs in Scarborough this year are Jimmy Tarbuck, The Bachelors and Max Jaffa at the Spa Grand Hall, but so far Ayckbourn's cramped little theatre is more than holding its own. On most nights it's sold out, packed with pensioners in plastic macs and genteel blonde landladies from tall houses high above the cliffs. Last week they were playing Peter Shaffer's
Black Comedy, which shows what happens when the lights go out in a Kensington flat. "I don't know," said an old Yorkshire voice in the audience at the end, "two bloody hours to mend a fuse."

This kind of no nonsense approach to the drama doesn't worry Ayckbourn at all. He remembers his first productions of
The Norman Conquests in Scarborough last year. When a favourite character made his entrance in the third play of the trilogy, a lady in the audience greeted him like a friend, crying out: "Hello, it's old Tom, Come on in lad."

Such reaction is unlikely in the West End; or in Germany, where his first success,
Relatively Speaking, has had 51 productions in four years; or on Broadway, where Absurd Person Singular is about to open with Sandy Dennis and Geraldine Page. It is these productions outside Scarborough that have made him rich - how rich he doesn't care to say, but enough to have houses in London and Leeds (where his wife and two teenage sons live) to take a Caribbean cruise and to start negotiating for a Georgian house overlooking Scarborough harbour. [5]

Once the idea is there, Ayckbourn writes quickly. Most of his successes have taken about four nights to write, 8 pm to 6 am. His trilogy took a fortnight. Always, he sets himself deadlines by thinking of the title first and then announcing that by a certain date he'll have a new play ready, usually before he has a single word on paper. No deadline, no play: "Once the BBC asked me to write a play and I kept phoning up saying 'When's the deadline?' They couldn't give me one, so in the end nothing happened."

At the moment he's thinking about a new play commissioned by the National Theatre. The title is there but no words are on paper yet. "I'm going to call it
Bedroom Farce, A Comedy. [5] I'm worrying about it a bit because I've never written for the posh fellers before. It'll have everything about bedrooms but copulation, something which I believe is hardly practised in the British bedroom anyway." Instead, he says, people talk about the rates and how the kids are doing at school.

Last week, away from deadlines for the day and on the front at Scarborough, Ayckbourn was anxious to buy a Scarborough Evening News to see what the local drama critic had to say about his latest production, because the local man has a much greater influence on Scarborough audiences than, say, Harold Hobson.

The news vendor, thinking perhaps that we were on our way back to the Bella Vista guest house for tea, treated us to one of his practised little jokes." Off to get your honeymoon salad, lads?" he said. "Lettuce (Let us) alone."

Ayckbourn smiled at that, because Ayckbourn likes jokes, and that's another reason why he stays in Scarborough.

Website Notes:
[1] The Globe Theatre was later renamed The Gielgud Theatre.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn began work at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, as an Acting ASM in 1957, 17 years before the article was written.
[3] This doesn't actually make sense. Alan came to the Library Theatre in 1957 and began directing there in 1961. In 1969 (five years prior to the article) he became the annually appointed Director Of Productions for that and the following year. in 1972, he was appointed the Artistic Director of the venue.
[4] See the previous note. It should also be noted that Alan's first major West End hits,
Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves, debuted in Scarborough in 1965 and 1969 before opening in the West End in 1967 and 1970.
[5] The house in question was owned by Alan's most influential mentor Stephen Joseph, who left it on his death to his housekeeper. She then sold the house to Alan.
[6] The play ended up just being called
Bedroom Farce.

Copyright: The 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.