Interview: Middlesbrough Evening Gazette (1976)

This interview was published in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette during May 1976.

Ayckbourn - Brilliance Amongst The Confusion

by Keith Newton

It could have come straight from the plot of a comedy. "Come on, Kevin." said the lady in the bar, "come on. Kevin, it is Kevin, isn't it?"

"No. actually it isn't," said Alan Ayckbourn, though later he reflected: "I should have said 'yes' shouldn't I, that could have been an interesting conversation."

It could yet be. Alan's plays are full of similar wrong conclusions and misunderstandings - his latest to enter London's West End is even called

"Somehow I note all these incidents," he says," and when I sit down to write a sort of cerebral editor regurgitates them as scripts."

His "cerebral editor" has so far managed 19 plays of which eight have been major successes, earning him awards throughout the world.
[1] He is confident Confusions will be his ninth winner, while the chiefs at London's new National Theatre obviously believe Bedroom Farce will be his tenth - they have booked it for their autumn season. [2] Both of these were written two years ago and first presented at Scarborough last year. The very latest Ayckbourn Just Between Ourselves was rattled off in a couple of days, premiered at Scarborough earlier this year and seen at Richmond last week. It is expected to go into the West End next spring and is said to be his greatest.

It is years since any playwright was so universally accepted by both public and critics. Alan Ayckbourn revels in it, though he insists it has changed him little.

"I write purely for Scarborough," he says, "if I didn't there'd be a hole in their season so I'm forced to churn it out."

Now 37, he was born in London and has worked in the theatre since he left school. His mother used to write short stories while his grandfather was a Shakespearean actor. He first joined Scarborough's
Library Theatre in 1957 ambitious to be an actor. The company then presented a four week summer season in the "revolutionary" theatre in the round basis.

Encouraged to devise a vehicle for himself, he wrote
The Square Cat.

"It was a monstrous piece of ego tripping. I had about eight parts, but because it was Scarborough and the summer, it went well."

Slowly his interest in writing increased and his technical ability improved. "Now we have a company of 12 with five of us writers, we spark each other off." The group's season has also grown to ten months.

His first-major West End success
Relatively Speaking was written during a spell as a BBC producer and presented in London in 1967 when he rejoined the Scarborough company. Shortly after its founder Stephen Joseph died and Alan assumed control. He has not looked back.

"For some strange reason my work is liked elsewhere," he says, "but there is no direct path from Scarborough to the West End.
The Norman Conquests was turned down because it was three plays in one and they said it wouldn't work,

"Eventually someone put it on at Greenwich with Torn Courtenay in the lead role. It was a great success and the West End management came thundering down to see it. We could hear them coming, it was like a stampede." He grins mischievously. "We took them to the cleaners."

They also turned down
Absurd Person Singular which became bis biggest success, and is rated by many the finest ever British comedy.

So what is this magic formula he has discovered? "Seriously I think I get my ideas from desperation. I started
Just Between Ourselves on the Thursday, finished it on the Friday, had it typed on the Saturday, duplicated on the Sunday and into rehearsals on the Monday. Actually I don't like writing, that's why I leave it all to the last minute. I know if I have a second's gap, I will do it all over again in a different way. When I started writing plays I was very plot orientated and my work was strung together like knitting with not much chance for the cast to establish hidden depths of character. Then I discovered how to make people laugh, and now I'm much more interested in the Quality of laughter. The most rewarding kind is not the belly laugh but the laugh of sympathy, understanding and total recognition, seeing in them characters facets of people you know or live with.

"I always try to write about people to whom things happen apparently by chance, life's onlookers who cannot do anything about controlling things and just have to cope. I hope they're recognisable but I don't consciously search for Mr. Average. The other night at Richmond a man said
Just Between Ourselves had revived him. His wife had had a nervous breakdown which had upset him, but on stage he had seen people less able to cope than himself.

"I am now moving towards my idol Chekhov who wrote the most perfect comedies of understanding. It is a long time since I wrote purely for myself."

His success has obviously brought him substantial wealth - there was an expensive sheen to his matching cream jacket, shirt and trousers - but he remains coy about his actual earnings. "Let's say I frequently pay tax at 85 per cent."

He sips his white wine: "The luxury of earning enough from my writing is that it has given me the ability to say no. If Mr. Healey has done anything he has given me back my integrity. For instance an American producer offered me 250,000 dollars to alter the order of the acts in
Absurd Person Singular. I said no. He said: 'Think of the money.' I said I didn't need the money and the answer was still no."

His next big writing test will come in January when he has promised to deliver his next play. It will also provide an unexpected chance of fame for somewhere other than Scarborough.

"We've been kicked out of the library," he says. "After all these years promising us a new theatre it looks as if we're going to get one at last, but not for another two years. In the meantime we're homeless. We've been offered places down south but we're not interested. Most of the actors have been at Scarborough for six years and we have a marvellous continuity. We don't want to break up and we don't want to leave the Scarborough area."

Would his group come to Teesside? "On a visit or permanently?" Either. "We'd love to if anyone would have us, we desperately want to stay somewhere in Yorkshire."

We discuss the area's theatres and then it is time for this tall, friendly man to leave. He says his farewells and departs, a rare and remarkable talent who has lived on our doorstep all these years. Unexpectedly we have the chance to invite him inside, dare we reject the opportunity?

Website Notes:
[1] By this point Alan Ayckbourn had written 20 full length professionally produced plays of which eight had indeed been major West End successes.
Bedroom Farce would actually open at the National Theatre in March 1977.
[3] Alan actually only played two roles in
The Square Cat, although the amount of parts he played would rise to eight-plus in Christmas V Mastermind, the last of his own plays which he acted in.
[4] This is not entirely accurate. Alan's regular West End producer brought both
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests into the West End; whilst he was not convinced The Norman Conquests would work as a trilogy in the West End, he clandestinely helped fund the production at the Greenwich Theatre on the proviso he had first refusal for the West End transfer should it proof popular. Whilst there was huge subsequent interest from producers to transfer the trilogy into the West End, it was Codron who took it in.
[5] Alan and the Library Theatre company had been given notice to quit the space on the first floor of Scarborough Public Library the previous year, but had struggled to find a new home. Scarborough Town Council had then proposed a new purpose-built home for the theatre - which was never actually built. In October 1976, the company moved to what was intended as a short-term home at a former school. The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round would actually become the company's home for the next 20 years. The story of the move to a new home can be found on our sister site,
Scarborough In The Round, by clicking here.

Copyright: Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. 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.