Interview: Daily Mail (1974)

This interview was published in the Daily Mail on 6 October 1974.

Where The Man With The Golden Laugh Lines Gets Them All From…

by Jack Tinker

Once every decade or so the British theatre produces its Golden Boy, its Mr Big - a playwright whose name outside the theatre is as much box office gold as a star's. In the '30s it was Noël Coward. The '50s belatedly stirred up John Osborne. In the '60s came Harold Pinter.

However, not since the halcyon days of Coward has one playwright had four plays currently playing in the West End. Alan Ayckbourn has.

True, three of these make up his new trilogy
The Norman Conquests, playing consecutive nights at the same theatre. But then not even Noël Coward could get the public queueing, begging and bribing to sit through three separate plays at one theatre.

So Mr Ayckbourn, with
Absurd Person Singular, making up his quartet of simultaneous hits, now writes the hottest ticket in town for, the '70s. It has already made him rich. But when he says he doesn't know how rich, you believe him straight away. The comfort of his newly built home in Hampstead is not the kind which consciously flashes a hefty bank balance in your face.

For instance, the door number - 11A - was so beautifully designed, no one recognised it as a number at all - which made calling on him a difficult business. So Mr Ayckbourn removed the exquisitely sculptured A and stuck a chain-store affair in its place, which certainly does not relate to the line of the house but at least lets you know it's part of a postal address.

He still has the air of a very shy man. He talks lucidly and well but doesn't look at you until he's reached the end of an anecdote, then slithers a hesitant side-long glance to peep at the reaction.

'I'm the sort of man who never makes a fuss in a restaurant,' he admits a little ruefully, as though making a fuss in a restaurant were something to aim at.

People occasionally say his plays have a certain element of malice. They obviously do not know Mr Ayckbourn. Certainly they misjudge his work. He writes about what he describes as 'The Rotary Belt.' He writes about it wittily and perceptively, but there is always a core of caring which ensures that when you leave an Alan Ayckbourn play you're never quite sure whether it's your side or your heart that is aching.

His stepfather, he explained, was a bank manager, and he has vivid recollections of New Year's Eve parties in such outposts of middle-class motivation as Staines, with all the employees on their best behaviour.

'But I could not write a play about people I did not basically like,' he says - then adds hastily, for he is a truthful man, that his worst nightmare is for all his characters to turn up on his doorstep.

Summers he spends in Scarborough. He is the
artistic director of the town's theatre-in-the-round. He has been for the past 15 years and that is where he started writing and gave up acting. [1]

It is also where each one of his West End hits began its life. He writes them for the company at the theatre, directs them himself and, if the old ladies with string shopping bags who come in out of the rain go out again into it chuckling at his work, he reckons he is on the right lines.

'The caffs [cafes] in Scarborough are marvellous to sit in. Conversation floats across from other tables that is pure gold dust,' he tells you. But then you have the impression Mr Ayckbourn is happier watching and listening than talking. 'I am certainly not the person you invite to a party if you want it to go with a swing,' he says.

His latest play,
Absent Friends, is already playing up in Scarborough. It is a black comedy about death and Mr Ayckbourn, who has honed his craft to its keen sharpness by always writing something he has never attempted before, was worried at first.

'I mean, how can you expect the audience we get there to laugh at something like death ?' he asks himself. The audience replied by roaring, with laughter, just as they have done every year at the annual Ayckbourn production. 'Then I realised the one section of people guaranteed to laugh at death are the old. They are the ones, who have come to terms with it. Mine is basically a comedy of recognition. I don't write jokes. People laugh because they see things they recognise as familiar.'

So far the pattern has been: what Scarborough laughs at this year, London flocks to next. However, just at the moment the purveyor of this lucrative pleasure is busy with two prestige projects. The first is a play for the new National Theatre.

'I can't say I've been commissioned. That implies money has changed hands. But I've been asked.' he says with the customary modesty which manages to stay well this side of self-effacement. The second project is to supply the book and lyrics for a musical version of
Jeeves, with Andrew Lloyd Webber (of Jesus Christ Superstar fame) providing the music. Something else Alan Ayckbourn has never tried before.

Perhaps the charge of malicious intent in his writing stems from the fact that so many of his plays -
How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular and Time And Time Again, and the three Norman Conquests - all take a slightly jaundiced view of marriage as an institution. In all of them, relationships are under stress and strain.

And indeed Mr Ayckbourn writes from the heart. He now has a friendly, fond relationship with his wife by living apart. She is in Leeds, he divides his time between Hampstead and Scarborough.

'She sometimes says if she charged me for all the copy she provided, I would find it difficult to meet the bill,' he smiles. It's not something he elaborates on apart from commenting: 'Love is playing with gelignite. Someone always gets his hand blown off.' The remark perhaps provides the key to the complexity of his writing, which manages to find acclaim both at the box office and with the critics.

'I have lately tended to take the saddest thing I can think of, then try to see how it can be made into a funny situation,' he says.

Which is precisely what Chekhov did.when he labelled his plays comedies. Certainly few people since Chekhov have made people laugh at life's sadness so successfully as Alan Ayckbourn.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn was appointed Artistic Director in 1972 at the Library Theatre - two years earlier, not 15 as the article suggests. He had, however, been with the company at this time for 17 years since 1957.

Copyright: Daily Mail. 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.