Interview: The Daily Telegraph Magazine (1975)

This interview was published during February 1975 (date to be confirmed) in The Daily Telegraph Magazine.

Scarborough Fare

by Robin Stringer

"I arrived in the middle of the kitchen sink with French windows." Alan Ayckbourn is, of course, speaking theatrically. But he has arrived and made no concessions to fashion in the process. "In-writer of the week" he may call himself in his self-deprecatory way, but he is up to his jutting eyebrows in work.

His extraordinary achievement in having four comedies running simultaneously in the West End
[1], unheard of since the heyday of Noël Coward and Somerset Maugham, has already been noticed. It will seem all the more remarkable when his first musical, Jeeves, opens in the spring and, as seems likely, another comedy, Absent Friends, opens in the summer.

Ayckbourn dismisses it all lightly even though his plays have been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. "I have seen too many writers go out to think one will be holding sway for 30 years - if one is in fact holding sway now," he says. He is just 35.

He is sitting back on the sofa in the spacious but utterly unostentatious house he is buying in Scarborough which is where he spends most of his time and energy. The house is set back on the densely built-up hill that rises from the seafront. He is moving into the top flat whose dormer windows look out across the harbour. "It's quiet here and I can write," he says.

As director of production
[3] at Scarborough's little Library Theatre, where his West End successes first see theatre lights, he is known about town. Locals stop him in the street. Yet, far from courting publicity, he tolerates it unwillingly because it interferes with his work.

He talks fast and restlessly. His eyes dart occasional penetrative looks, as if testing audience reaction, from beneath an enormous forehead which, made higher by a receding hairline, slants down to an impressive overhang. He walks as he talks with a sort of eager, loose-limbed gait. It is as if the public schoolboy who left school at 17 to join the theatre and the underfed, underpaid
actor of those early years have not quite come to terms with the rounder well-fed playwright of the present.

Of the 15 comedies
[4] down to his name, the last seven [5] have been consecutive West End successes and The Norman Conquests trilogy, breaking box office records at the Globe [6], has capped them all. Like his other plays, the trilogy looks at a small group of people from the middle or aspiring middle class in everyday situations contrived to expose their characters and relationships in so wide-ranging a way that hilarity is sometimes superimposed on near-tragedy.

Throughout one whole act of
Absurd Person Singular, for instance, the actors potter about their various kitchen functions totally oblivious to the mournfully remorseless attempts of one of their number to commit suicide. Because of such scenes, Ayckbourn has been accused of malice. He finds this hurtful. What he hopes to convey is "a sense of compassion for people through laughter".

As for
The Norman Conquests, I will let Ayckbourn himself explain. "They concern not William the Conqueror" - a mistake, incidentally, made by more than one unsuspecting theatregoer - "but a new dynamic hero, Norman the Assistant Librarian. This new Norman's ambitions of conquest are equally far-reaching though - his wife's sister, his sister-in-law and his wife. Here is a romantic who, after himself, loves no one so much as the woman he can't have. Over the course of the three plays, each playing on a separate night, we follow the course of this pursuit by the awkwardness of the unattainable; of Norman's flailing attempts to bring happiness to everyone and satisfaction to himself. The plays tell and retell of the turbulently comic events that occur in a house over a country weekend. Each is seen from a different viewpoint: from the dining room (Table Manners), from the living room (Living Together) and from the garden (Round and Round the Garden).

With the trilogy now slipping behind him, Ayckbourn is diversifying. The National Theatre has commissioned a play from him for delivery next month
[7] and he is enthusiastically learning the art of book and lyric writing for a musical based on P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves.

His partner in that venture is Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is writing the music. Webber had been working on the project with Tim Rice, his collaborator in
Jesus Christ Superstar, but without the same happy result.

Quaking in their boots, Webber and Ayckbourn took their songs and lyrics to Wodehouse's Long Island home. Webber rehearsed some at the piano. To their relief, the master approved. The musical is expected to open in the West End in April. Ayckbourn can glimpse no breathing space till then.

"I seem to be getting more fertile rather than less - which is nice. But I never know whether ideas are any good until I get them down on paper." Hence when writing, which he does to incessant background music, his room is strewn with bits of paper.

All film offers have so far been rejected for practical reasons. "I don't get sufficient pleasure out of writing I not to see it produced. Only one in a hundred film projects seem to get off the ground whereas I can guarantee 98 out of 100 here."

Here is the little
theatre-in-the-round temporarily but persistently erected in Scarborough's public library. He has been attached to it in various capacities for 18 years and for the past three as director of productions. [8] When he began there, he came immediately under the influence of the late Stephen Joseph, son of Hermione Gingold. "He was the | nearest I have ever met to a creative genius," says Ayckbourn.

Joseph founded the library theatre in Scarborough and the theatre-in-the-round in Stoke-on-Trent where Ayckbourn was later to become resident playwright.
[8] He remembers Joseph's theatrical home truths like: "If you want to tell the audience anything all well and good, but get them in first." He seems to have taken that and other strictures to heart. The little 250-seat theatre in the library is full virtually every night.

Do people travel from far and wide to Ayckbourn's Scarborough season? "There was a bloke from Guernsey in the other night and I know a lot of people plan their holiday round the library theatre," says our playwright, who does not "make a thing" about asking the London critics up though one or two, including our own Eric Shorter, do go. This in itself is surprising.

All his West End and international successes, beginning with
Relatively Speaking in 1967 and continuing with How The Other Half Loves in 1969, Time And Time Again in 1972, Absurd Person Singular in 1973, and now the trilogy, have been created and then "suckled", as he put it, at Scarborough.

It is a very good and inexpensive place to temperature-test before the West End. If the reaction is cold, then the play can be quietly forgotten and no money is lost. The Scarborough audience has, in fact, proved an almost infallible guide. Only in one instance, with a play called
The Sparrow, did the system fail. Ayckbourn still does not know-why.

But Scarborough is no mere testing ground. It is as much his real enthusiasm for working there that has kept him scribbling into the early hours as the demands of the National Theatre or the West End musical. The Arts Council had given him £5,000 for each of his last two summer seasons at Scarborough in which he put on four plays. Taken together, those grants were less than the Globe takes for
The Norman Conquests in a week, Ayckbourn exclaims, as if it were improper.

But suddenly, in an amazing fit of generosity, the Arts Council gave an extra £11,000 to extend the season for a further 14 weeks through to January provided the company also went out to perform at Filey and Whitby. Because, as, Ayckbourn complains, "any meeting in the library takes precedence over us", the theatre had to be moved from the concert room to the coffee room for the winter season. Fifty, of the precious 250 seats were sacrificed in the process, none of which helped to balance the budget.
But there was no skimping on other fronts; Rather than spinning out the summer repertory thinly through the winter months, a whole new programme of five plays, including two Christmas productions, was devised. Ayckbourn's contribution was
Confusions, five 20-minute sketches which he only began to put on paper five days before rehearsals were due to start.

"I am very lazy. I need the pressures of a deadline. When I have an open-ended commission there are always so many alternatives that none get chosen, but a deadline forces me to take one of the alternatives." If the actual writing process comes quickly, the preparatory work does not. Ideas, he reckons, take about five years to mature.

Being director of productions at Scarborough not only provides him with necessary deadlines. It enables him to commission his own plays, produce them and direct-them. "It's no fun writing them. It's just boring slog in the middle of the night. The pleasure is in creating with the actors, not re-writing the dialogue but shaping the play. One tends to cling for comfort to certain things, like having your own actors." He is hoping that the extension of the season will dissuade his company of 14 from disbanding before the new season opens in May.

Ayckbourn is possessive about his entire creative process. He even duplicates and binds his scripts with equipment he keeps at his Hampstead home. "I like doing it, I like doing it all myself, even the writing," he jokes.

He went so far as to sacrifice his chance of watching the three opening days of Scarborough cricket week - one of his few enthusiasms outside the theatre along with listening to music and walking on the moors - to travel down to London and duplicate scripts in time for his company to begin rehearsals.

Scarborough roots him in the theatre, where he thrives, and gives him a secure base from which to work. The very limitations of the repertory operation there have helped to make him commercially successful. Production costs for the summer season were less than £400 and a handful of actors are all he has to play with. "Ten would be the most I would want to write for. I was an actor and hated small parts." Cost-conscious West End managements approve of his product. It is economical with few actors and simple sets.

His latest play,
Absent Friends, had its premiere in Scarborough last summer and has been bought by Michael Codron for presentation in the West End this summer. "It is much more of a character play than I have written before and has less of a watertight plot." Worried that it was too low key, that too little happened or that the characters might be insufficiently interesting to sustain it, Ayckbourn nonetheless went ahead. It was a challenge, just as the play for the National and the new musical are.

He was particularly concerned how Eric Thompson would react to it. Thompson has directed the last five Ayckbourn plays [in the West End] and is becoming "a constant I would be very loathe to lose".
[10] He sent a script to Thompson who wrote back: "I was determined not to like this but I do." The Partnership, it seems, will continue.

The Norman Conquests, like other of his plays, finds much of its fun in personal and marital discord, Absent Friends seems sadder and the characters less endearing. Ayckbourn loves quoting the man who emerged from the play saying: "If I had known what I had been laughing at when I was in there, I would not have laughed."

When his Scarborough company needed a new play for its winter season, he tried to write a farce. "I couldn't do it, and even the sketches I did instead are a bit sour at the corners."

Ayckbourn has some experience of domestic upheaval. His mother, who once wrote short stories for women's magazines and is now in public relations, parted from his father, who was deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. If the parting changed nothing else in Ayckbourn, it changed his accent. "At seven I was a cockney. Then my mother married the bank manager and my accent got better."

He himself married at 19. Now separated though not divorced, he frequently visits his wife and two sons at their home in Leeds. The boys attend preparatory and public schools. He lives and works with Heather Stoney, one of a group of actors and actresses who have known each other and him since early days in Scarborough and Stoke-on-Trent. When members of the group gradually drifted to London, they maintained contact and established what they called "The Colony" at an architect's house in Hampstead. While the episode could hardly be described as an experiment in communal living, it did provide home and shelter in bad times. Some of the group have now gone their separate ways and set up elsewhere. But they remain in touch and through new relationships add different dimensions to the group. It is hard to think that in the group's early days, its intrigues did not feed the Ayckbourn appetite for situation comedy though he is not one to be drawn on that. He has an eye and an ear for such things and likes to tell of "the napkin-screwers" at restaurant twosome tables who are always about to say: "Well... I'll... er ... go and ring the... wife."

Heather Stoney, as Ayckbourn's mother would have it, is a "Poppet", meaning I think that she has become a sort of amanuensis to her son. While he dictates, she types. She is organiser and manager too. On top of that she acts in his plays as a member of the Scarborough company and does her turn in the box office.

Despite his northern attachments, Ayckbourn was brought up in Sussex and went to Haileybury where he was encouraged to indulge his passion for theatre. Before he left at 17 he had already toured with the school in the United States, "the advantage of winning a scholarship to a school like Haileybury. When I left my drama teacher pulled the only string he had and managed to get me a job as assistant stage manager with Sir Donald Wolfit's company in Edinburgh at £3 a week."

Then followed a series of jobs in Worthing, Leatherhead and Oxford, before he joined the Scarborough and Stoke companies and began to write. "I got the message that my words were better spoken by other actors." But if was
Mr Whatnot, in which the main character says not a word, that first brought Ayckbourn into the West End. Peter Bridge saw it in Stoke and produced it at the Arts, but he admits: "It didn't really work. It was crucified by certain critics. Alan was so despondent that he went away from Stoke and thought he would never write again."

To recuperate, Ayckbourn went to work as a drama producer at the
BBC, "that great paternalistic womb for the wounded to crawl into". He stayed there five years and found it invaluable. "You learned to examine your craft because you had to explain to other writers submitting work what needed to be changed and why things didn't work. While there he wrote his first two hits, Relatively Speaking and How the Other Half Loves.

Time And Time Again, Ayckbourn got rave reviews as a playwright for the first time. But there were still doubts when he presented The Norman Conquests to his agent for approval.

"He was dreadfully crestfallen," Peggy Ramsay remembers, she has been his agent for 11 years. "He said, 'I don't know what you are going to do because I am writing three plays and not one.' And I think we might have had trouble if we had brought it straight into the West End." The trilogy, of course, was rapturously received at Greenwich, and not until then did interest in transferring it to the West End harden.

Miss Ramsay is a great admirer of Ayckbourn's stagecraft. "He is a very mathematical person. It's curious. He invents games for his children. He must have been good at maths at school. It's certainly a talent that seems to have some kind of a mathematical basis. And it's very unpretentious. Nothing could be simpler than the trilogy. Which perhaps explains why his plays have such international appeal."

Tom Courtenay plays Norman, assistant librarian and would-be adulterer, in the trilogy. "He [Ayckbourn] knows what works on an audience uncannily - not only from his experience but from instinct. He has got terrific technique, but he is also inspired and terribly touching too. There are things in the play about ladies and gentlemen that are as pertinent as anything anybody's writing at the moment - better perhaps than some who are thought of more seriously."

Ayckbourn is aware of his strengths and weaknesses. "I am not very good at funny lines but I am quite good at presenting characters in a situation which viewed from the outside is funny but on the inside isn't. I was rather pleased with
Absent Friends - pleased to get comedy without actually working for it."

Ayckbourn hardly lacks financial security now. His plays have sold all over the world and are constantly in performance.
Absurd Person Singular opened on Broadway in October and in Paris in January. It has already been sold to Japan, Israel, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Holland, and so the list goes on. Earlier plays have enjoyed success in South America, the United States and behind the Iron Curtain as well as in Europe. Their apparent Englishness is either a saleable commodity or conceals a humour and understanding that is universal.

Though Ayckbourn must be a rich man, there is little outward sign of it. "I am buying an awful lot of records and I do take the cast out to dinner and I have a big car which I like to sit in on Sunday afternoons," he says. It's a Jensen SP. He claims he does not know what his income is except that a lot goes to the taxman. And you believe him.

"The only thing money ought to give one," he says, "is the choice not to have to go to America." But he went after his American producer had telephoned from New York asking to change the order of Acts II and III in
Absurd Person Singular. [11]

"He has got a little bit more assurance, I suppose," says Peggy Ramsay, looking back over the years. "But I cannot think of anybody this kind of success has affected less. He does not seem to have changed in any way. He is utterly unconcerned about money. He never asks about it. He loves work. He loves making people laugh. And he feels a tremendous responsibility towards that theatre in Scarborough. Every year he worries about what he is going to write for the company there. He enjoys working in a little rep knowing that he has got to entertain all the summer. He would be doing that if there were no success in the West End. Scarborough is much more important to him than anything in the bank. The trouble about people who become successful is that so often they get cut off from their roots."

Alan Ayckbourn is alive and well and living - most of the time - in Scarborough.

Website Notes:
[1] The four plays were
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests trilogy.
[2] The house in question was previously owned by Alan Ayckbourn's most significant mentor and influence Stephen Joseph.
[3] At this point, Alan Ayckbourn had been appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre; he had been the Director of Productions during 1969 and 1970, but that seasonally-appointed role was made redundant when Alan was appointed Artistic Director in 1972.
[4] As of February 1975, Alan Ayckbourn had written 17 professionally produced plays, not 15 as quoted here.
[5] Although Alan had, at this point, had seven 'successes' in the West End, they were not his seven most recent plays. Beginning with his first success,
Relatively Speaking, Alan had written nine plays of which seven went into the West End.
[6] The Globe Theatre was later renamed The Gielgud Theatre.
[7] The play in question is
Bedroom Farce, which premiered at the Library Theatre in June 1975 and would subsequently transfer to the National Theatre in March 1977.
[8] At this point, Alan Ayckbourn had been appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre; he had been the Director of Productions during 1969 and 1970, but that seasonally-appointed role was made redundant when Alan was appointed Artistic Director in 1972.
[9] Alan worked at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from its opening in 1962 until 1964. He wrote two plays for the venue:
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot.
[10] Ironically,
Absent Friends would mark the final Ayckbourn play which Eric Thompson would direct in the West End.
[11] The full story of Alan's strange experiences with
Absurd Person Singular in New York can be found here.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. 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.