Interview: The Guardian (1974)

This interview was published in The Guardian on 14 August 1974.

Alan Ayckbourn

by Michael Billington

I was lunching with a film-critic friend the other day when the conversation turned to Alan Ayckbourn. "You drama critics," said my friend, "haven't half made fools of yourselves over Ayckbourn. He's simply a good light comedy writer, yet you and [J.W.] Lambert and [Benedict] Nightingale talk about him as if he were some kind of social and political analyst. I went to see
Absurd Person Singular and thought it had as much to say about life as the average Carry On movie. Honestly if this is the best the theatre has to offer, then it's in an even worse state than I thought.

I will concede that, under my colleague's attack, lay a valid general point: that critics in all media often feel the need to justify their calling by investing the ephemeral with cosmic significance. As Raymond Durgnat says in his forthcoming book on Hitchcock: "For obvious reasons (notably the lack of prestige from which film criticism has so long suffered) film critics regularly feel obliged to rationalise their interest in a director by claiming him as a neglected master: a man who offers all the fun of the fair has to become a serious and stern moralist." And it would be churlish to deny that drama critics often fall into the same trap, seeking the eternal verities in, say, the plays of William Douglas Home.

But I think my friend was wholly wrong about Ayckbourn; and seeing
The Norman Conquests again confirms that impression. For a start, like all first-rate comedy, the plays are only funny because they are about serious issues: a family weekend that quickly degenerates into violent rows, physical violence and murderous hatred; a young girl wasting her life away with a bedridden mum in a gloomy Victorian house; a hero, Norman, who compensates for his own ineffectualness with a compulsive philandering; two marriages heading not so much for the rocks as for the barrier reefs. Enough material here, I'd say, to keep John Hopkins happy for years.

Now Obviously serious subjects alone are no guarantee of comic success. On the other hand, I firmly believe that what distinguishes the good comedy or farce from the mediocre specimen is that the former always has a kernel of reality. Clockwork ingenuity aside, Feydeau's farces are still funny because, as Eric Bentley observed, they hinge on man's age-old desire to damage the family and desecrate the household gods. In contrast, a farce like
Birds of Paradise fails to tickle my ribs because it is about something (a woman mistaking a Caribbean brothel for a riding-school) that has no visible contact with truth.

As for
The Norman Conquests, I would say its real theme is the genuine human desperation that keeps breaking precisely what makes if funny. Take the first play, Table Manners. The overwhelming desire of the bullying Sarah is that the whole family will just once sit down for a calm, "civilised" meal. Yet what happens when they finally get round the dinner-table Endless, musical-chairs squabbles about who sits where. One guest seated at an absurdly low stool. Bickering about the merits of childless and fertile marriages. Husband insulting wife and being struck by a guest who thinks it's his girl-friend who's been vilified. Ingredients that would be funny anywhere, you may say; but the reason we laugh so loudly is that they all happen to people desperately trying to achieve an After Eight bourgeois elegance.

But I think there is a further reason for Ayckbourn's success: that he is really a regional writer exploiting a traditional metropolitan form, the farcical-comedy. And into this be injects a wealth of unobtrusively accurate social detail: not the brand-name kind that in, say, John Mortimer's comedies sometimes sticks out like a sore thumb but the kind that just gets mentioned in passing. Bit by bit, for instance, you get a total picture of orthodox middle-class Sarah with her children called Demise and Vincent gracing a weekend dancing-class, her own apparent indispensability at the Saturday bring-and-buy sale and her Whitehouse-ian twin-set-and-pearls public morality. "I won't even have the television set on at all these days," she says at one point, unconsciously speaking for a whole regiment of tight-lipped censorious women, and getting a fat laugh in the process.

Ayckbourn's problem, as he himself once said, is that he has a reputation for being a "high-jinks and technical stuff" writer; and such is our innate puritanism we can't believe anyone that skilful has anything interesting to say. Yet all of his plays, if one thinks back, are about the precise inter-action of sex and class in modern English society.

Relatively Speaking was, of course, a dazzling comedy of misunderstanding; but it was also about the territorial invasion by a weekday mistress-secretary of her boss's rural retreat, complete with Sunday lunch on the patio and rhododendron trimming before sherry (notice how many of Ayckbourn's plays are set in gardens: classic status-symbol of the English middle-class). How the Other Half Loves was about a clandestine affair between a Lampton-ish Redbrick climber and his employer's wife and their shameless joint exploitation of a mousy lower-middle-class couple.

Absurd Person Singular is about nothing if not the way the balance of power is shifting in provincial society with the old professional classes (e.g. bank-manager and architect) retreating before the advance of the capitalist property-developers.

As I see it, Ayckbourn is a left-wing writer using a right-wing form [3]; and even if there is nothing strident, obvious or noisy about his socialism, it is none the less apparent that he has a real detestation for the money-grubber, the status-seeker and the get-rich-quicker. Conversely, he seem; instinctively drawn to the nervy, vulnerable and unsure; and
Time and Time Again (admittedly not his best play) was very much about the intolerance of the pushy, aggressive rising middle-classes for the man with no desire or will of his own.

Of course, it's true that without his basic instinct for what "works" in purely theatrical terms, Ayckbourn's observations and social accuracy would be unimportant. But it would be a big mistake to assume that he is just an amiable, innocuous funnyman who passes time pleasantly in the theatre for a couple of hours. Although there are moments in
The Norman Conquests when the writing goes a bit flaccid, I defy anyone to sit through it all and not feel that he has been given a funny serious-moving and comprehensive account of the awfulness of middle-class family rituals un-fuelled by love or understanding; and I don't think you can say that of many Carry On movies.

Website Notes:
[1] Douglas William Home (1912 - 1992) was a British politician and playwright who was a contemporary of Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward. Despite being a prolific writer with more than 50 plays, his work has now largely been all but forgotten and lacked both the durability and insight of work by other notable playwrights from the period.
[2] Alan himself would take exception to this description as he has never been interested in party politics and has never considered himself to have strong political affiliations.

Copyright: The Guardian. 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.