Interview: Sunday Express (1975)

This interview was published in the Sunday Express on 14 September 1975.

£2,000-A-Week Man Who Worries About The Cost Of A Taxi

by Peter Dacre

He takes three or four nights to write the comedy plays that are world-wide hits and earn him about £100,000 a year - a system he developed 15 years ago when he had to get up to give his baby son his night bottles.

His name may not be widely-known, but at 36, Alan Ayckbourn is the biggest thing to happen to the British theatre since the young Noël Coward emerged in the 'twenties.

In the last eight years this amiable, open-faced man has written such huge box-office successes as
Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular, the trilogy The Norman Conquests and Absent Friends.

Counting the trilogy as three, he now has five plays running in London's West End - an unprecedented achievement.
[1] From them he takes 10 per cent of the box office, which I estimate earns him £2,000 - £2,500 a week. [2]

Yet eight eventful years ago he had given up hope of ever being a successful playwright, was working as a £38-a-week
BBC radio producer In Leeds, living in a small flat on a housing estate and driving a Mini. It is a remarkable achievement made, even more remarkable by Ayckboum's decidedly unusual writing habits. How did they come about?

"The night writing started when my wife Christine (an actress whom he married when they were touring in a play) had two sons close together (they are now 14 and 15). They had to have their night feeds of course, and I realised with the first one that my wife was one of those women who is hell to live with if she doesn't get her sleep. So I decided that if we were to stay married, I would have to get up and give him his bottle. So I started sleeping during the day, getting up at tea-time, working in the theatre in the evening, and writing at night. My earlier scripts had baby's milk all over them."

But why does he write In such a sudden short burst? "Because for me writing is the boring bit." He explains. "I can't wait to get my play into the hands of the actors. I also hate interruptions. If I get interruptions the play dies on me. So I deliberately set myself a deadline. That comes I suspect, from having a mother who wrote fiction for women's magazines. I announce the title of a play and the date it's going to be put on way in advance. Sometimes I've a very clear idea of the play. Other times I've only the remotest notion. Of course, the idea is brewing around in my brain for months - I write an average of a play a year - but I do all sorts of silly things to put off the dreadful day of writing. When I should be working I do things like fixing the bath taps and the cupboard doors. I even do jobs I dislike, such as mowing the lawn. I also do futile time-wasting things. I catalogue my pencils and number sheets of paper from 1 to 180."

There is one other unusual, aspect of Ayckbourn's plays - and it is, perhaps, the secret of his success. They are all first performed in the small
Theatre-in-the-Round in Scarborough where Ayckbourn has been director of productions since 1958. [3]

"I write to entertain the ordinary holidaymakers who come in off the street because they can't get in the Odeon," he says.

How did he get into writing In the first place? " My first ambition was to be a journalist," he recalls, " but after having divorced my father (he was a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra), my mother eventually and wisely married her local bank manager, and I got a bank scholarship to Haileybury. There I suddenly became interested in acting and the theatre, and at 17 I decided to jack In my schooling. A teacher at the school got me a job at £3 a week with Sir Donald Wolfit's company at the Edinburgh Festival - and I was off into a mad world.

"Imagine a gawky lad being involved with this incredible eccentric, Wolfit. One of my jobs was to fetch his gin and bottles of Guinness."

Ayckbourn became an assistant stage manager and later an actor. "I was acting in a play in the theatre at Scarborough. It was a bloody awful play and I told the producer so. 'if you can do better get on with it,' he said. Angrily. I replied: ' Right, you're on.' I wrote a play, about a pop star with me in the lead and it was put on. But for a time writing was only a means of providing myself with, parts. Then I began to realise that other actors were better than me. I assessed my abilities as an actor in time and moved into full-time writing and directing."

Today, Ayckbourn has changed his Mini for an £8,000 Jensen - but that s just about the only touch of the big time about him. True, he has a small house in the best part of Hampstead, another house in Leeds "where his wife and family live." We kept the family home there because of the children's schooling," he explains, "but I visit them at weekends and they spend a lot of time in Scarborough."

What is his attitude to the fortune he is now earning ?

"I'm really only aware that I don't need to worry about what I want to do. I'm still cautious with my money, though. If, like me, you've been very, very poor you never really lose that attitude. My accountant tells me I could take more taxis, but when, I come to London I look at the taxi, fares and think, ' They've gone up again! My wife is worse than I am. We were talking about buying a deep freeze recently. 'Can we afford it?' she asked. 'Yes I promise you we can afford it,' I said."

People expect him to have all the trappings of success. "They are always looking round for my yacht," he says. "But apart from the car the only things I've splashed out on are gadgets like tape recorders, video recorders, and Japanese pin-ball machines."

Has success brought him anything else ? "Well, I've noticed that when you're successful people tend to defer to your views - which I find rather alarming because nobody took any notice of me before. But I'm so wary of success. I fear that each play will be my last. There are so many examples of dramatists who have just stopped writing. I'm really afraid of becoming a rather pathetic institution."

Website Notes:
[1] The other two plays were A
bsurd Person Singular and Absent Friends.
[2] It is not clear quite how Dacre formulated these figures as he Alan had never spoken specifically about how much he earnt and box office figures for the plays would entirely have been guesstimates at best.
[3] This is extraordinarily inaccurate. Alan joined the Library Theatre in 1957 as an acting ASM. In 1969 and 1970, he took on the annually appointed position of Director Of Productions before the theatre named him Artistic Director in 1972.
[4] The offending play in question was David Campton's
Ring Of Roses at the Library Theatre during the 1958 winter season. Alan challenge Stephen Joseph - his most influential mentor - about the role to which Stephen issued his famed challenge. Alan responded with this first professionally produced play, The Square Cat.

Copyright: Sunday 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.