Interview: Liverpool Echo (1976)

This interview was published in the Liverpool Echo in August 1976.

The Man They're Calling The New Noël Coward

by Joe Riley

Alan Ayckbourn is located on t'other side of Lowry Country, and across the Brontë's Wuthering Heights, at Scarborough, which Ike any resort earns most of its money because of a human compulsion to paddle, sunbathe and build sandcastles in multiplies of a thousand.

In the evening folk pack into the town's
Library Theatre, where Ayckbourn has been for the past 19 years, first as an assistant stage manager, then as an actor, and now as Artistic Director. But unlike most theatre chiefs, he's stopped in the street by autograph hunters, and claimed by some locals as a Yorkshire lad. It seems that the town is becoming ever more possessive with one of its prime tourist attractions - AIan Ayckbourn the playwright.

Having had close on a dozen West End bits and been dubbed as the British theatre's successor to Noël Coward, he's a famous man, and not just another director of another seaside rep. When the lease of the Library is up in three months, the burghers of Scarborough together with the Arts Council look like providing him with a new half million pound theatre.
[1] And Ayckbourn's set to stay around, as he renovates the interior of his mews-type house in the old part of the town.

"You don't get your naturalisation papers overnight,'* he says, "but I hope they've seen that I've made a commitment to the place. A lot of people are happy and proud that things have happened here and gone on to other places."

"Scarborough is ideal," he says, both as a writing base and as an audience reactor for trying out his new comedies. He states his object as being to raise the standard of popular entertainment. Yet his essentially middle class plays, have brought a mixed reaction from the heavy brigade of critics - some calling his style ephemeral, others hailing it as "the music of humanity."

One leading critic has referred to him as a left wing writer using a right wing form - surely reference to the way Ayckbourn's social themes are often set around well-to-do tea parties in ai back-of-the-cereal-packet, win-a-
dreamhouse-suburbia.

"My childhood was spent in Sussex. That's why I write like that. I think you're formed by the age of eleven. I can hear two Yorkshire ladies talking out here, but if I wrote them, they'd become two Southern ladies. Underneath the accents and underneath certain attitudes, there's very little difference between the middle class of Scarborough and the middle class of Liverpool or London," he says.

"It's interesting because these two strata [middle class and working class] have met up and strongly disapprove of each other in many ways."

He says his characters are hybrid mixtures, of " fifteen or so people " produced by running recollections back at high speed. And although he doesn't actively dislike any of them, neither would he choose to spend more than 20 minutes in the company of most.

"I rather revel in their defects," he says with a grin. "In a play like
Absurd Person Singular, they all have hideous flaws. It's a rather cynical statement which says that if you're a person who so lacks imagination, and any feeling for your fellow men, and concentrate purely on the profit motive, then you'll probably finish up a very rich worldly success, but also be a very awful person. And if you're at all vulnerable or feeling, or at all weak in your relationships with people, you won't finish up very successful, although you'll be a nice person. What I'm really saying is Cursed are the Meek."

Yet Ayckbourn doesn't see himself as am activist writer. "I'm not politically anything really. I just write about people as I see them."

He says that he's a self-improving person, that some of his early plays, which were farces, had all sorts of faults. He adds that his latest plays (the newest,
Just Between Ourselves is at Scarborough and due in London next spring) are getting more difficult to perform with the emphasis on what the characters say rather than the mechanics of the plot.

Success, he says, has brought increased confidence. People are now interested in "the sometimes uninteresting views" he used to express as an actor.

Yet Ayckbourn has also known failure. He penned the book and lyrics for the ill-fated musical,
Jeeves, two seasons ago. "I learned my lesson. It was the only show I've done in recent years that I didn't initiate under my own control. The one good thing that came out of it is that I made a good friend of Andrew Lloyd Webber. We've both vowed to have another go, but under our terms."

Meanwhile, his real pleasure as a director and writer is to win converts to theatre.

Website Notes:
[1] When Alan Ayckbourn and the company were asked to vacate the Library Theatre in 1975, Scarborough Town Council initially proposed a new purpose-built home for the company costed tab £500,000. The company subsequently moved into a temporary home in October 1976, which became permanent until April 1996. The Council never built the new theatre citing increased costs.

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