Interview: Daily Express (1975)

This interview was published in The Daily Express on 30 April 1975.

How Pinball Addict Alan Staged His Conquest Of The West End

by Victor Davis

The atmosphere in the cork-walled living room, glinting with chrome-legged furniture, positively twangs with tension.

A tall man with a humorous face, a cross between Eric Morecambe and Detective Chief Superintendent Barlow
[1], confronts a Japanese pin-ball machine. He carefully measures the flick of a lever and a steel ball goes ping-ping-ping, bounces off the pins, and drops into the loser's hole.

"It gets very sullen at times, especially If I haven't played it for a week," mutters the man. Intently he launches a series of balls. They all ping their way ingloriously past the goal holes. "Come on - or I'll have to place me 'and inside and cheat," he pleads in agony.

Finally. a ball answers his prayers and drops home. "Aaaaahhhh!" he says, as an orange light flashes on. "Paid 35 quid for it," he says. "When I got it home I played it until 3 a.m. Absolutely exhausted, I was."

This may not be everybody's idea of how Britain's most successful playwright carries on in private. The lifestyle might not appeal to Pinter, Osborne, Rattigan or Stoppard, but new boy in the ranks Alan Ayckbourn might be excused dragging his personal idiosyncrasies behind him.

Ayckbourn arrives with phenomenal credentials. At 35 he has already outdistanced those old West End records set by Coward and Maugham. He has (take a deep breath)
Absurd Person Singular and his trilogy, The Norman Conquests, already long running, plus the newly - arrived Jeeves for which he has written words and lyrics.

Later this year
Absent Friends will boldly tackle death as a subject for comedy, and Confusions give the actors 25 speaking parts in five playlets.

To date he has written 25 plays, 18 of which have been staged.
[2] Productions of The Norman Conquests are planned for Broadway and throughout Europe, following a trail already blazed by Absurd Person Singular and a comedy called Relatively Speaking that's had 51 productions in Germany alone.

He brushes back his sparse hair and says: "The problem with this wretched business is that it never rains but it pours. And right now it seems to be raining money."

The current definition of a millionaire is a lucky swine who earns at least £100,000 a year. Ayckbourn - Al to his friends - has joined the club.

"At any of my first nights you'll find me in the bar worrying about the next play. I tend to be a bit dull really. People have started to hope that I'll arrive on a diamond-studded bike and my accountant tells me I'd be quite justified in taking more taxis. I cope by not living at the rate I earn. I simply don't have time, what with work and being most of the time in Scarborough."

His London base is a tiny architect-designed house not a sonnet's length from Keats's cottage in Hampstead. The proximity doesn't necessarily make him feel literary.

"I've devised a form of writing that is mostly broken sentences that only make sense when' they are spoken. Until now no-one saw any literary merit in my scripts. But at last the miracle has occurred and a London publisher is to do
The Norman Conquests. Every author should have one bound volume of his own on his shelves, don't you think?"

Ayckbourn is Haileybury educated, a bank manager's stepson who was a schoolboy actor and later served his apprenticeship running out to get a bottle of gin and a crate of Guinness for that marvellous old thunderer, Sir Donald Wolfit.

"I was eight years an
actor with all the aspirations. The worst thing is to know you are not very good but carry on."

He produced radio for
BBC Leeds, and then found his Globe in the 250-seater Library Theatre in Scarborough. [3] He lives in digs and directs his own plays for the summer influx of dour, hard-to-please northerners and the sprightly landladies.

"Everything l've done in London has been bench-tested in Scarborough," he says. "I'm lucky to get such a cross-section of people coming up off the beaches. When the play gets to London I already know it Is going to work."

He spends nine months a year there, writing, directing, playing the pinball machines in the amusement arcade and cricket on the beach with his eight-strong band of actors. "The idea is that if they get me out they are sacked."

His early works were broad comedy. When he had exhausted the conventional devices, like comic misunderstandings and mistaken identity, he started to let the humour arise from everyday situations and speech. "I'm a great eavesdropper," he says.

His colleagues know when he is about to write. He becomes distant, starts playing his pinball machine, polishing his desk, catching up on household do-it-yourself jobs - anything to avoid picking up the pen. Then he'll work demoniacally for three or four nights dusk till dawn, and a play is born.

He continues to immerse himself in the theatre. His wife, Christine, living in Leeds, catches the occasional glimpse of him between productions.

"My theatre compulsion is a funny love-hate thing. When I'm not working I'm more likely to go to the cinema. I have those gloomy moments when I say: 'Here we are playing at life when real life is going on outside.' I try to offset that by thinking that at least real life comes through the foyer doors each night. I just hope people go out feeling better than when they came in."

He gave his pinball machine a moody flick. "Maybe that's what I am: a cheer-up merchant, the equivalent of a quick couple of aspirins."

Website Notes:
[1] Detective Chief Superintendent Barlow was a character in the BBC television police drama
Softly, Softly, broadcast from 1966 to 1969.
[2] This figure should be taken with a grain of salt. Although Alan certainly had had 18 plays professionally produced by this point, there has never been a definitive figure put on the number of unproduced plays he wrote prior to his first commission. It is generally out anywhere from seven to a dozen plays, but as few of the plays survive and the playwright has little recollection of them, the number cannot be definitively known. More information about Alan Ayckbourn's early plays can be found
[3] Actually Alan was involved in the Library Theatre practically since the start of his professional theatrical career. He joined the company as an Acting ASM in 1957, had his first play commissioned and produced in 1959 and directed professionally for the first time there in 1961. Even when at the BBC, he still wrote plays for the theatre of which he became the Artistic Director in 1972.
[4] By this point, Alan and Christine has been separated for several years despite staying married. Alan was, at this time, in a relationship with his future wife Heather Stoney.

Copyright: Daily Express. 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.