Interview: The Times (5 January 1976)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Playing For Laughs To A Lady Typist

by Brian Connell

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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'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."

"I have soft spots for certain ones [plays], 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."

"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?'"

"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."

"When I did meet him [
Stephen Joseph] 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.