Interview: Western Mail (1977)

This interview was published in the Western Mail on 7 March 1977.

How To Keep Theatre Managers Laughing All The Way To The Bank

by Caroline Haydon

One actor is talking to another about comedy dramatists. One of them mentions Alan Ayckbourn. "No," says the other. "I don't mean him. I'm talking about living dramatists."

It is a tale 37-year-old Mr. Ayckbourn, sitting opposite in solid good health and in quite good working order considering the revelries of last night's opening show party, tells with great enjoyment. Fame confers its own peculiar honours, including, presumably, being elevated to the canons of the great and departed before you have even reached your 40th birthday. And fame is what one-time
actor turned light comedy writer Alan Ayckbourn certainly has.

He's not entirely happy about the label "light comedy writer," as it happens, preferring to put it that he writes "funny plays, some funnier than others." Whatever they are, there are a lot of them. Twenty produced to date, with 11 West End successes in 12 years.

In fact, there are so many of them going the rounds of the British - and foreign - theatre circuit that Mr. Ayckbourn sometimes gets a bit worried about flooding the market, as they might say in economic terms.

n Birmingham, where he is sitting in a dim, plush hotel bar, looking highly out of place in a pale blue Marks and Sparks sweater, while all around is pin-striped elegance, the fifth play of his in the area in only a couple of months is opening that evening. The new National Theatre production of his comedy
Bedroom Farce opened the night before at another theatre just up the road.

His own brand of often hilarious comedy - it's worthwhile bringing along a hanky to mop up the tears of laughter if you go to see an Ayckbourn show - spiced with some rather uncomfortably near-the-bone truths about our emotional foibles as husbands, wives, lovers or friends, has proved an absolute boon to theatre managers.

It's such a success that all they have to do is plug in an Ayckbourn when things are not looking too good and box-office receipts are once again set fair to bring a gleam to an accountant's eye. At Scarborough, where he is Artistic Director at the
Theatre in the Round, they often put on an Ayckbourn to tide them over "difficult" times of the year. These days, when theatre managers can be financially very embarrassed people, sure-fire hits are nice things to have around. [1]

Mr. Ayckbourn is a very friendly and unassuming man, who, in the midst of all this euphoria, is at pains to point out that some of his' plays didn't make it to London and stopped short at the North-East Coast, although he has to admit that "the scoring rate is pretty high." He is deeply appreciative of his Scarborough audience who look on him as "theirs," and feel they owe it to him to say just what they think about his plays, every one of which is first presented at the Theatre in the Round.

The other thing about the Scarborough theatre is that it gives him a job. Incredibly, he can't in all honesty list his job as "playwright" because he writes only one play a year, and the rate he writes them that leaves him 51 weeks out of the 52 to do something else.

A whole trilogy -
The Norman Conquests - was written in just over a week. "In case that sounds too glib," he says, "it must be said that a lot of work and preparation goes into it before that. The actual writing I do as fast as possible."

They're televising
The Norman Conquests, but Mr. Ayckbourn has no immediate desire to write for the box. Writing plays is a craft to which he has undertaken a long and hard apprenticeship, and quite frankly he is not about to start all over again with television, as different to the stage, he says, as carpentry to plumbing.

His writing is gradually changing, he thinks. Plots now spring far more from character and he is less reticent about what he calls the darker side of human life. "Comedy is just a whisker away from tragedy," he says.
"It depends on the angle you see things from. If two people are fighting alone in a room it can be grim. If they are doing the same thing in a roomful of people who don't know what to do about it it can be comic although the quarrel is basically the same."

All he wants is for audiences to have an evening of fun and entertainment and the odd bit of illumination. "The danger is that when people come up to you and say, 'What a brilliant play, all about the future of human existence,' and you will say in your vanity. 'Yes, I'm glad you spotted that.' I try to say, 'No, it wasn't that at all'."

The real reason for things are always mundane, he says. He wrote the trilogy because he told a journalist he was thinking about it and the journalist said that he actually was writing one. So he didn't issue a denial, he wrote the plays. And he has bad news for those earnest critics who try to see a logical progression through the trilogy - they were not written to be performed in any particular order.

"The only reason that
Table Manners was put on first in Scarborough - which has set the pattern ever since - is that the actor who was playing the lead part could not turn up for the first few days' rehearsal and that was the only play of the three that started without him."

That's life.

Website Notes:
[1] This is journalistic invention; Alan Ayckbourn himself programmed the SJT with - at this point - generally one new play a year. There is nit record in the Scarborough Theatre Trust minutes from this period of ever putting on an Ayckbourn play to 'tide' over the theatre given the Ayckbourn productions.
[2] At this point in his career, Alan had premiered the majority - but not all - of his plays in Scarborough. Two plays -
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot - premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, whilst Jeeves opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Copyright: Western Mail. 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.