Interview: Evening News (1978)

This interview was published in the Evening News on 24 February 1978.

Ayckbourn's Happy Twenty-First

by Clare Colvin

Alan Ayckbourn surveyed the slightly short trousers and said: "That's, just right. I like the length." Benjamin Whitrow tried on an ill-fitting tweed jacket, Ayckbourn was delighted. " You'll be wearing a cardigan underneath. And of course you must have a tie-pin."

"With a horseshoe?" suggested Whitrow. Another Ayckbourn ' character was being firmly put in his place, as the author' directed rehearsals of
Ten Times Table, his 21st play, [1] which arrives, in, London at the beginning of April.

He has a special interest in the part played by Benjamin Whitrow.
Ten Times Table concerns a small town committee organising a pageant. Ayckbourn's experience of committees is immense, having attended numerous Scarborough Council meetings to discuss the running of his theatre there.

"One professional committee man managed to string out the meetings for about four hours; so I wrote him into the play. Everyone recognised him. On the first night, in Scarborough, people were nudging me and saying: 'Blimey, we know who that is.' And then I saw the actual councillor in the audience. I was dreading what he would say, but he was delighted, went to see himself in the play every night. The last thing he asked me was: 'Who's going to play Me in London?'

Ayckbourn's view is that committees change people's characters entirely. Weak men become tyrants, sane people end up gibbering. His play deals with a takeover bid by local right-wing extremists.

"It is a parable of our times," he said, "written by someone crouching in the middle along with most of the population, praying not to be hit by a stray bullet."

It may seem a departure from his favourite subject of the discreet horrors of middle-class marriage, but that is dealt with too. One of the committee members is disastrously married. He has a merciless eye for the desperation behind the social facade, but says: "I don't do a lot of keyhole prying. I Just walk in at the wrong moment. I have been to a whole lot of dinners like that, where the host and hostess are dying to kill each other and iust waiting until you go home.'"

An unnerving guest to have to dinner. "They do get a bit twitchy," he admits.

Ayckbourn has been through it himself. He was married at 19, when he and his wife were acting with a company on tour. His wife, amicably separated from him, now lives with their two teenage sons in Leeds and he spends most of the year at his house overlooking Scarborough harbour.

" Marriage is not necessarily awful in itself. It's the awfulness of promising to give up one's life to one partner of the opposite sex. A lot of marriages are made at an early age when people should be restrained from making rash promises. You have not been through marriage until you start hurling things at each other. Particularly if, you marry at 19 - you grow up with each other and quarrel like children."

The funnier aspects of marriage are there in his National Theatre play,
Bedroom Farce, where a warring-couple disrupt other people's marriages with their running battle. The bitter side was in Just Between Ourselves, where a wife is driven mad by her husband.

"I am at the mercy or my material. Whichever way it takes me, I go with it. In
Ten Times Table the whole thing' exploded into a romp. With Just Between Ourselves it would have been a monstrous betrayal of her [Vera] to have turned It Into farce at the end."

That was one of his few plays which did not have a good West End run. It was too cruel, too pessimistic for his fans. Yet Ayckbourn denies that he feels any malice towards his characters. He cannot write about them unless he likes them, and the ones he hates are dropped from the play.

Tire distaste is more for the environment in which they are placed. They often live in the "slightly nastier end of the estate."

The disparaging tone is there again when he mentions the sort of towns they live in - Reading and Slough. Although he has lived and worked in Scarborough since 1959, where he runs the small but flourishing
Theatre in the Round, it Is the South that he has in mind when he writes.

He is a Londoner by birth. His father was a violinist. There was a divorce when Alan was five and his mother later married a bank manager. He remembers moving from lower-middle to upper-middle stratas and back again. It was rather displacing. His early childhood was spent in Staines (pronounced with that same note of disparagement) and later in Sussex.

"It was not until I was 19 I realised there was anything north of Potters Bar. When I am writing a play I still translate anything I hear in Scarborough back into Southern. The situations and the people are similar. The difference is in the accent."

His plays are always tried out in Scarborough and if they pass the test, he knows he can safely bring them to London.

The collective mood of the audience fascinates him. The Theatre in the Round seats 300, and once every three weeks, for some indiscernible reason, the "no sense of humour outing" arrives. Not a titter all evening. The next night it's the "gin and tonic" audience, who will even laugh at the lighting. He wishes someone would do a survey of audiences and find out why they vary. "Maybe it's the weather."

He thinks the weather may have affected his writing as well. He used to write in Hampstead during the summer. Now he writes in Scarborough during three or four agonised days and nights in midwinter. He writes at that time of year - always delaying until the deadline is nearly past - in order to give them the severest test of all.

"If people leave their homes to see one of my plays, I feel reassured. Scarborough in January is a pretty formidable place to be."

Website Notes:
Joking Apart is officially considered Alan Ayckbourn's 22nd full-length play. At the time of the interview, Alan did not count his musical Jeeves as part of the play canon (Jeeves and all his musicals are now considered part of the play canon).

Copyright: Evening News. 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.