Interview: TV Times (1976)

This interview was published in the TV Times 0n 13 May 1976

Ayckbourn's Medicine Has Stopped At Least One Family Punch-Up…

by Alix Coleman

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn, adept at raising the blackest storms in the airiest suburban uplands and making audiences laugh the while, is at it, as always, in Time and Time Again. A couple of years ago Ayckbourn had four plays running, successfully and simultaneously, in the West End of London: a comic trilogy, The Norman Conquests, and Absurd Person Singular. The year before the London stage saw Time and Time Again, then, as in the television version, starring Tom Courtenay, who was also in The Norman Conquests with his wife Cheryl Kennedy. Courtenay, described by Alan Ayckbourn as nicely enigmatic, is one of Ayckbourn's favourite actors.

Ayckbourn writes his plays first for the
Library Theatre, Scarborough, where he is Artistic Director and mostly lives. It is probably this lifestyle which has left him pleasantly vanity-free in spite of his enormous acclaim: Confusions, his latest piece, opens in the West End the day after Time and Time Again goes out [on television]. Ayckbourn's approach to the parts he writes is, fair shares for everyone; only right and proper in a repertory company. Courtenay, like Richard Briers, another Ayckbourn favourite, is a star who is also a fine team actor.

In the past 10 years Ayckbourn has been increasingly showered with awards and cash. And has, according to the critics, got crueller and crueller with each laugh. He denies the word cruel but sees his first plays very much as situation comedies. T
ime and Time Again is a pivotal work since in it Ayckbourn began relying less on situation,more on motivation. "Beginning to delve - it's twofold. I started exploring character and, when you do that, you're dealing with human nature. And," he said, laughing, "it's inevitable you hit on the darker side."

Suburbia is where he is mostly at, because it remains one of the few areas with a strong ethical code and, for comedy, rules have to be broken. "It's difficult to be funny about adultery these days. Once it was wondrous because a man only had to be left alone in a room with a woman... today you have to be much beefier about it, quite savage."

There is no adultery in
Time and Time Again, only a splendid inertia from Leonard. A deliberate ploy, says Ayckbourn. "Classically, a comedy has to have a central character who's a driving force with all events pushed along by him. In Leonard I created a vacuum, a calm at the eye of the storm. I don't think, in the whole play, he does one positive thing."

Ayckbourn likens himself slightly to Leonard. "I have a built-in cut-off. I can be left. I'm quite happy to sit. If someone goes away and leaves me on my own they can come back days later and find me in the same place. Perhaps I've opened the odd tin of beans. I like the idea of non-productivity. I adore men who make battleships out of matchsticks." He regrets that apparently women have foolish guilts over such pastimes.

Unlike Leonard, though, Ayckboum can whirl himself into activity. He early discovered his facility to write fast. He reckons the closer he gets to his deadline the better the play could be, since he will have lived a few days longer: "Something might click."

He began in the theatre as an
actor but, when he turned to directing and directed for five years, it pulled his perspective another way. He decided, had he been directing himself, he would have been disappointed. So he held a quorum with himself and the director won. After that, he started writing. [1]

Ayckbourn has been married, has two teenage sons, and says he would not marry again. He has long preached against the whole tenet of marriage. "Living with someone isn't at all the same. There's a good element of instability about not being married. You need instability because you try to keep it stable. If the relationship's already stable, you try rocking it."

That is as near as he will get, in work or life, to an answer as to why relationships do not work. He supposes he is made nervous by people with firm beliefs. "I think, golly, there's no room for another point of view around here and it's dreadful, especially if they're winning. They're usually wrong because there's an awful lot of grey in people. They're not just black and white."

He does not believe too much in the power of the theatre. At the most, he hopes it might illuminate a tiny corner, give an infinitesimal nudge; but is sure that, for the majority, the message flies by. Although a man once said to him: "I saw
Absurd Person Singular, and afterwards I was having a row with the wife and I was just about to hit her and we both remembered your play and laughed."

It must, however, be recalled that Alan Ayckbourn's decade of unbroken, high-income achievement was recently mitigated by one flop: about a year ago, with the musical
Jeeves. He is fair on that, allowing they were the blind leading the blind and were all sure it was not going to work. He knows if he wrote another musical he would do it for the Scarborough company and come through with a completely ironed-out script.

Just now he is working on a play for the National Theatre, tentatively titled
Bedroom Farce: A Comedy. [3] "I thought I'd confuse" the issue." When he is not labouring he buys records and tapes, enjoying gadgetry, video-cassettes and fast cars driven slowly. He also enjoys talking: "I talk to everyone. I talk to inanimate objects. As a writer, one is allowed to have conversations with oneself. What's considered sane in writers is mad for the rest of the human race."

Website Notes:
[1] Very little of this sentence is accurate. Alan Ayckbourn did begin his professional theatre career as an Actor and ASM, but his next step was writing. In 1959, he was challenged to write his first play,
The Square Cat, by Stephen Joseph - founder of the Library Theatre. Two years later, Alan directed professionally for the first time in 1961 with Gaslight at the Library Theatre. Alan considers that from that point onward, he had two concurrent theatre careers, writing and directing which have largely been running together unbroken since.
[2] Alan did go on to remarry in 1996 to his long-term partner Heather Stoney.
[3] The original idea for the title of
Bedroom Farce was Bedroom Farce: A Comedy before Alan decided to shorten it.

Copyright: TV 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.