Interview: The Times (1976)

This interview was published in The Times on 5 January 1976.

Playing For Laughs To A Lady Typist

by Brian Connell

To have five successful plays running simultaneously in London must be every playwright's ultimate accolade. Alan Ayckbourn, 36, takes it in his stride. There are plenty more in the pipeline, to be launched at his
Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, where he spends most of his year as Director of Productions. Even his handsome bank balance does not slow him down.

"It speeds me up a bit really. One can afford not to do things, that's what I like. I don't get waylaid into silly projects that aren't going to go anywhere, which one always is. Having been an actor early, whoever rang you up you'd follow it up - it might lead to something. Now one would say 'no, I'm not at ail interested in writing your foreword', if doesn't interest me, thank you very much. They say 'it's worth £X,000 ' and you say 'I'm still not really interested, I'd rather do what I am doing', which is very nice. As long as I can keep one foot on the ground working and spending a working life, I don't actually spend a lot of it. I spend a bit, but I don't ever have a desire to whistle round in silver jets."

He does not even seek the fashionable solution of becoming a tax-expatriate: "I can't get into that position, not that I'd really want to. If you are writing international novels selling all over the place I suppose you can do that, but as I rely on the grass roots stuff a bit more I'd be totally lost if I was landed in an English colony in Malta or something."

Those grass roots are essential to him. They are the wellspring of his invention. By his own admission, he is a great eavesdropper: "I don't actually settle for a walk and say I must listen to some new phrases today. One of the things about grass roots is that I do operate this theatre in Scarborough, which means that I'm more or less compelled to spend most of my year in a small town. It's the sort of town where one couldn't live at jet set level even if you wanted to. The easiest way to get about is walking or busing. There's no car parking, so I am almost compelled, although I have a sort of secret love of luxury, to live like an ordinary resident, which means that I spend all my time overhearing by accident.

"I am involved in the theatre and very interested in promoting it, forcing myself to go out and meet people, just to tell them to come to the theatre, which is very important. The one great temptation for a person like me is to shut myself away completely. I can do that very easily, spend days at home without missing people's company at all, but it is awfully bad for me after a week because I can hardly talk."

The rhythms of his dialogue are not Yorkshire, one thinks of them more as Home Counties. If he spends his time in Yorkshire, how does he pick up the rhythms of Surbiton? "I was born in London. I spent all my childhood up to the age of about 17 in the Home Counties, Sussex mainly, and I think that's where you get your stamp from, that's the filter. I suppose I suck in things, but it always gets filtered through my southern interpreter, somewhere in my head.

"I dictate straight to a lady on a typewriter. I write out a script in long hand, which is a sort of master plan of all the scenes and construction, and then I start dictating. Often things get hopelessly out of hand. Speeches take off, characters take off and they are a series of improvisations. It's quite interesting to work that way. At least everything I've said is spoken once, even if it's only by me and if I can say it, then an actor can say it."

The same lady has typed all these plays. "If she laughs, we're all right. I need the sound of my own voice in my ear to do this. It gives me a shape on a character's speech patterns, because I can mimic. I don't give an ultimate performance, but I'm able to feel the character, a bit like a spiritualist. There's a terrible man in
Time and Time Again called Graham, who is the monster bore of all time. He rambles on at great length. He was a wonderful man to speak and he got bigger and bigger when I was writing it. I had to cut it down a bit because one got his speech patterns going and one was able to talk as a Graham for hours on any topic.

"I'm very aware of the sort of set-up I'm going to use. I may vary it. My latest play, which was on in Scarborough this summer, called
Bedroom Farce, is set, strangely enough, in three bedrooms. I was very aware of (a), the theatre I was going to use and (b), roughly the geography of how it would work. I've found in general if I can work it for that theatre, it'll work for most theatres. I've got enough cover dialogue to get people off - without worrying about it, that's instinctive, working on my own stage. I do have a fairly graphic visual sense, I see it happening as I am saying it, I don't actually have to act it to see it. When I'm directing I often just listen and don't look. If it sounds right it probably looks right, not always but quite often. That came from years of radio, I suppose. Five years I spent there, and was aware that It is often die sound which dictates the movement. [1]

"I write for actors - small 'a' and plural - the instruments that are going to be playing the piece. In that sense I have evolved ways of writing which I think most actors cotton on to, which includes breaking every rule in the grammatical book that has ever been invented. My use of the full stop, my English master would thoroughly disapprove of. There is no point in putting a semi-colon in the script, an actor doesn't know what it's there for, whether it's a long pause or a short pause. In general I tend to write in straight fragmented ways in order to bring over a sense of the dialogue, which I hope, rather like a musician might read, an actor can read. Unless you've got some knowledge of theatre it tends to look a bit odd. One word, full stop, which looks very strange.

"I feel more productive now than I've ever been. I am aware that unless you are very careful you can flog a thing to death. I feel that every play I write is going to be a better one than the one before and not just the same as the one before, otherwise there's no point in going on with it. I have a company who have been doing a lot of my plays for a long time and I have this sort of thing with them, where I would like to give them something which stretches them. When an actor has been in eight or nine of my plays, I definitely want him to look perplexed when he gets a new script. If he's perplexed I feel we're moving, I'm writing something different. The day he says 'aha, yes, this is old no 14', then where are we trekking?

Absent Friends we read it in dead silence because nobody saw any humour in it at all. It was only when we put it on the stage and the audiences came and laughed that we said ' aha', again with Bedroom Farce. There were laughs in that, but it was again a perplexed company and that was good. It is only a token, an indication of how you may develop. I feel if I can get that far in writing, then we can also expect the audiences to be expecting something different. One has seen so many cases of people just imitating themselves and fading away."

He is a burly man, with thinning brown hair, hazel eyes and a mobile, actor's face. He speaks jerkily and vehemently, like one of his characters. His hands are stumpy and capable. Now he is his own man, but who were the influences in his writing life?

"I've got an awful lot of Congreve and Oscar Wilde. I've also got a good collection of Chekhov. I think one starts by copying other people. There were one or two people at the time I started, like Rattigan and Coward, the two kings of the stage, and then very early on in my theatre career the new wave lot happened. Pinter came and worked with us in our company and directed his
The Birthday Party with us. [2] That had a very strong effect. I think if you're ever going to develop you take these influences and they disappear into your bloodstream. I was fascinated when somebody said to me the other day that somebody was copying me, which I thought was wonderful. I'd never heard of anybody doing that before. I'd never recognised it, but I hope they grow out of that because it would be fatal.

"If I did look like a poor man's Harold Pinter it would be dreadful. What I liked when I first came into contact with his work as an actor was, I suspect, that the way you understand him is as a poet. He writes rather like poets in that his use of words is very specific. He has a love of distorting the everyday phrase, slightly bending it. He bends it more than I do, but I also bend phrases or put them in incongruous positions in speeches, which I hope make them funny, simply because they seem slightly out of context. I do occasionally tend to invent phrases which people feel must be common, but they have never run into them before, just by altering a word in them.

"I pretend not to pay any attention to what critics say. There's always that old joke that if a critic writes something nice about you he becomes very good. If he writes something bad he's obviously gone off. I think you are often worried if someone actively dislikes something you've done and look for the reason for it. I am probably more sensitive than a lot of people. A lot of my colleagues don't seem to read critics, which is almost as bad as reading them all. I'm wary of them. I was equally wary when I got all those lovely reviews for
The Norman Conquests, because there was no way to go but down. I was not surprised when some people turned slightly sour about Absent Friends, because it was almost inevitable that they would do.

"I do listen to the critics that I think are worth listening to, but I don't know that they have any positive contribution to make to what you are doing. By the time they've written their review a person like me is probably two or three plays ahead, and it is a little bit late to be able to do anything about it. If they say 'I wish he'd write a serious play' and you've got two more comedies queuing up in the West End, you say that's too bad, I'm going to get two more bad reviews from this man because I haven't taken his advice."

The refreshing novelty about Alan Ayckbourn is that he is the first successful writer for the stage in a couple of decades who is not politically committed. He does not use the theatre as a propaganda weapon, and is still mildly astonished to have made his breakthrough.

"I actually was writing at a very dangerous time. I came in at the height of it with
Relatively Speaking and its French windows. It was thoroughly old fashioned even by my standards. I deliberately set out to write a well made play. There's no harm in any writer once trying to write a really actor-proof play. Actually Relatively Speaking isn't, but it is the nearest I've ever got to it. It's a piece of machinery that ticks away whether the actors are actually driving or not.

"My commitments are rather more general than to do with politics, which I find rather boring. The only thing I will mildly censor is inhumanity to people by other people, but it is usually on a personal level, which is the level I know. I don't know much about, sort of, Marxist rallies. I'm the all-time 'don't know' really. I'm usually against whichever government is in at the time, simply because it often seems so incompetent. In general I try to reflect the sort of people I know, who are also a bit like this. They don't vote and they have wild prejudices occasionally which are not based on any deep-thought reason. They didn't want to join the Common Market because their car broke down in France and they were punched by a French garage mechanic. My characters tend to live rather from day to day, which I think most people do. They are that great big body in the middle in this country who are don't knows. They are not just the middle class, they go right through the class structure. They just say what's going on now."

Does he have a favourite play? " It's usually the one I'm about to write. I always refer to my plays as receding galaxies. One writes them and then they start to move with a red shift away from you. There comes a point when you like them again, but in general I just tend to see flaws in them as they recede. I can never understand why people can actually say they've enjoyed it without seeing all these flaws as well. I'm very annoyed when people point them out to me, as they are so painfully obvious.

"I have soft spots for certain ones, but that may just be because they are not able to take care of themselves.
The Norman Conquests is perfectly all right. They are quite happy and can take care of themselves. Absent Friends I tend to stroke, because it's rather special. When it does work for someone in the audience and for an actor it works probably better than any of the others, but one was aware in writing it it was never going to be a play that was going to appeal to a very broad spectrum.

Absent Friends I deliberately laid down all the safe apparatus one uses to ensure that something works. I can modestly now write a scene technically, a fast scene I know, which mechanically will make people laugh. I can write enough jokes into it to make it work. In Absent Friends one almost said no, I won't use that and I won't do that. It's like fighting and saying 'I'm not going to use my right hook because I know it's very strong, I'll use my left'. It sounds as if I deliberately tried to write a bad play, which wasn't actually true. I tried to write something different, and it's always dangerous because if you do change your spots, having gathered a fair public, you can make them very offended.

"It was not ever intended to be cruel. I think it does come over at the moment as being rather a savage play. I suppose it started with
Absurd Person Singular. The ending is certainly a bit sour and I think really it's a two-fold thing. First, one matures I feel I've got a fuller range of emotions now than I had when I started writing at 19, and I hope a greater understanding of people derived from being around them a bit more. Secondly, having written 19 comedies altogether you get to a stage where you've done most of it.

"Once you've established, which you can do fairly easily, that you can make people laugh over an evening, then you start to say 'now what about the quality of this laughter.' It's very easy to get easy laughter. There's nothing like telling your audience an old joke to make them laugh. They love old jokes, woe betide the man who ever invents a new joke, he won't get a titter. Then you start to say 'well, in what other areas can I extend my craft?'

"One of the areas I wanted to write about, because it was a personal situation, was not about death itself but about people's attitudes to death, a very dangerous area to write comedies about. I'm dealing in topics which I suppose in themselves are quite serious, but viewing them, I hope, in a sympathetically comic way. I believe that there's not a lot, excluding national and local disasters, that you can't say through comedy. There are specific touchy zones, obviously, where it would be just bad taste. But most human existence, even if it's somebody trying to take their own life, it is possible to see in a sense in a comic way, and let the whole impact of the actual deed also sour the sugar.

"Every play leads on directly to the next, in a sense. Having said action off-stage is rather fun,
The Norman Conquests was almost illogically developed from that, because one said 'let's write the off-stage action play to end all off-stage action', where everything is off-stage in a sense. But then I pulled back deliberately from that because I found just through the sheer length that I was forced to slow down my natural rather fast rhythm to write some quite slow scenes, which have been very effective. I said 'OK, let's write a slow play, have fun'. It's marked adagio - very, very slow indeed. And then moving back from that to Bedroom Farce, which is more, I hope, of a heavyweight, faster-moving play."

Rather unexpectedly, because of their definable English suburban background, his plays are very popular abroad, in places as far apart as Germany and South America, even behind the iron curtain. He rationalises their appeal thus.

"I think foreigners do two things. The French, I've noticed in general, tend to say, 'this is a play about English folk and it confirms all our suspicions about them - their women are mostly frigid, their men are incompetent'. This pleases the French no end, so to speak 'there you are, they've admitted it'. Most of my comedy springs, latterly anyway, from character. I think every country, be it communist or capitalist or whatever, has unhappy marriages or people who can't cope with life, and it's a sort of universal thing. One of my problems, I always say, is that my plays are best appreciated if you've had at least one unhappy marriage or at least one unhappy relationship, otherwise you won't know what we're going on about. I think it just rings bells with a lot of people of different tongues and nationalities."

His maternal grandparents were on the music halls, and bloodlines proved stronger than a conventional education at Haileybury, where he first became stage-struck. He has been associated with the theatre as actor or director ever since, including five years as a drama producer with
BBC radio in Leeds.

"Mother was a writer, is still alive but doesn't write much now. I got interested in it at school. There's always one master who should have been in the theatre and happens to be schoolmastering instead, who spends his entire life avoiding the French syllabus and directing plays he wishes he'd directed elsewhere. I started in school plays. It has always been an attraction. I've never really grown out of that slightly stage struck period."

His first real chance as a writer came at the Scarborough Theatre in the Round when it was being run by
Stephen Joseph. How did he make his way there? "Through the Mafia of stage managers. I went to Worthing, the Connaught, as a student and worked in all departments. Then when my mother's source of funds - she was keeping me, the theatre at Worthing wasn't paying me - ran out, I applied to Leatherhead, to Hazel Vincent Wallace. I went there as an assistant stage manager, and when that season finished two of the other fellows on the stage team said, 'There's a job going in Scarborough by the way'. I said 'Where the heck is Scarborough?' and I looked on the map and it was miles away. They said, 'It's a theatre in the Round'. It appealed to me because there was no scenery to shift and that struck me as being a good number for the summer. I joined up and played a couple of small parts and stage managed there. I didn't meet Stephen Joseph, who was running it, until several weeks in, because Stephen traditionally, to say the least of it, was slightly vague in his appearances in the theatre.

"When I did meet him we got very friendly and he took me under his wing. He had that ability which one tries to retain in Scarborough, which is the ability to bring out talents people didn't know they had. Often this can lead to disasters. People say 'I never wanted to write this play in the first place, but you kept on at me'. But he would say, 'Are you sure you want to do rep, are you sure you don't want to write?' He introduced me to
directing and writing. I think in his wisdom he saw that I wasn't going to make it as an actor, so it wasn't all that altruistic."

Website Notes:
[1] From 1965 to 1970, Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC, based in Leeds.
[2] It is not widely known by Harold Pinter's professional directorial debut and only the second professional production of his seminal work
The Birthday Party was with the Studio Theatre Ltd company in Scarborough. After The Birthday Party flopped in the West End, Stephen Joseph invited Pinter to direct the play for the Studio Theatre's winter tour with only two provisos: it was done in-the-round and utilised the Scarborough company - of which Alan happened to be a member.

Copyright: The 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.