Interview: Radio Times (1975)

This interview was published in the Radio Times on 23 August 1975.

Scarborough - Where To Succeed in Show Business

by Shiva Naipaul

They filed in a steady stream into the small, brightly-lit auditorium, the old outnumbering the young, the men outnumbering the women, to be welcomed by a serpentine jazz melody which flowed soothingly from the speakers.

They were a sedately attired crowd, still glowing from their more casual wanderings on the beach earlier in the day. A warm evening had followed a day of unrelieved sunshine and several of the ladies fanned themselves with their programme sheets.

Gradually, the gaps in the tiered banks of seats were filled in while, below the meandering harmonies of the music, there was the usual muted buzz and rustle of theatrical expectancy. The doors closed on a full house. Indeed, so popular are the entertainments provided by Scarborough's tiny
Library Theatre that all seats were fully booked up for the week ahead.

The play the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen had come to see was called
Bedroom Farce; the playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, is the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre. Next June it will begin its London run at the National Theatre. [1] Another Ayckbourn play, Contusions, will also be available to London audiences early in the New Year. At some point - if it all worked beautifully - Ayckbourn will probably have six of his plays running concurrently in London. [2]

The Ayckbourn phenomenon is not confined to this country: his work - he provides the statistics without effort - has now been translated into 26 languages. 'Even the Japanese are interested.' He seems both amused and perplexed by this broad sweep of international appeal. '
The Noh Conquests, I suppose!' He laughs.

When he talks about his achievements he does so in a matter-of-fact manner, neither falsely modest nor complacent. 'I'm rather pleased by my success,' he admits with disarming candour. And why should it be otherwise? Extreme success in any field can never be fully explained. In the end there is always something irreducible; something that is essentially inimitable and peculiar to the individual who attains it. Still, it is always possible to isolate some of the important contributory factors.

Ayckbourn writes with great wit and precision about the Candides of our day. His characters, equipped with - and generally overwhelmed by - motor-cars, central-heating systems and elaborate do-it-yourself kits, spring, in spirit if not in fact, out of the ordered expanses of suburban housing estates. They are innocents who constantly teeter on the brink of absurdity. Ayckbourn traffics in recognisable tragedies, yearnings and illusions. In all his plays there are elements with which the audience can identify. He operates on a familiar domestic scale.

It is possible that commercial success would, nevertheless, have eluded him if, despite the wit and precise observation, he did not also possess both the instincts and the disciplines of the professional entertainer. One of the reasons he likes Scarborough is that, being a holiday town, it possesses a certain 'show-biz ' quality. The people who wander into the Library Theatre every evening come there in search of amusement rather than instruction. They do not want cultural uplift. Ayckbourn respects that.

His art is, ultimately, 'popular' in its intent and scope, geared to the sensibilities and susceptibilities of the kind of people who visit Scarborough in the summer. He does not wish to upset them: an offended audience does not laugh. Landladies - the Scarborough equivalent of the man on the Clapham omnibus - provide Ayckbourn with a touchstone of sorts. 'I keep asking myself-would she understand this?'

Perhaps he exaggerates. Still, it is a fair bet that the bed-and-breakfast constituency, though not above a naughty giggle (a play called
Bedroom Farce must arouse some prospect of an evening's titillation), would, in the last resort, heartily disapprove of nudity, blasphemy and all the other proliferating fetishes of contemporary theatre. Ayckbourn's plays are free of these blemishes. The truth is that entertainers, in order to succeed, must harbour within themselves an innate conservatism of outlook and approach.

Ayckbourn's particular talent lies in his ability to harness this conservatism and yet contrive to avoid sinking into the miasmic swamps of what is commonly described as good, clean, family entertainment. Often, the landladies are coaxed into swallowing a sugar-coated pill which conceals at its heart a bitter medicine.

In America he has been criticised for not being sufficiently serious. They take him to task for not writing about (say) Vietnam or that other moral hold-all of our times, 'pollution'. Ayckbourn, one suspects, is not entirely insensitive to the charge of frivolity. At any rate, he is prepared to defend himself against it.

Vietnam and pollution are not, according to him, the kind of things that really matter to ordinary people. 'They don't worry about metaphysical problems. They worry about their leaking roof, their central heating...' The vision is populist; tinged with the faintest hostility to over-wrought intellectual-ism.

Nevertheless, he draws attention to the more sombre themes that have begun to crop up in his more recent work: the death of love (
Absent Friends); sexual deprivation and its consequences (Bedroom Farce); the agonies of social transformation (Absurd Person Singular). 'Of course,' he says with a smile, 'I would never mention such things in the programme notes.'

Ayckbourn is alive to the perils and strains of success. Inevitably, there are those who, forgetting the actual work, focus their attention on the man as phenomenon. Surely the bubble must burst. Surely the fad must peter out. Ayckbourn appears unaffected by such speculations, showing none of the symptoms of hypochondria. He keeps the West End at a psychological arm's length, aware of how easy it would be to succumb to its siren songs; how easy it would be to slip into that insidious frame of mind which would lead him to write only for the sake of gaudy glories.

Scarborough shields him from these temptations. Between him and the town there has developed a mutually beneficial relationship: he has brought real theatre to it and it in turn has provided him with a consistently reliable testing-ground for his own work. Such benign conjunctions are rare and Ayckbourn celebrates his good fortune by remaining faithful to the place - and its landladies.

Website Notes:
[1] Although it was hoped that
Bedroom Farce would transfer by 1976 to the National Theatre, it was not actually produced there until March 1977.
Confusions did not open in the West End until 1976 by which point it was the only Ayckbourn running in the West End at that time; the playwright had had five plays running simultaneously in the West End during 1975 with Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests trilogy and Absent Friends.

Copyright: Radio 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.