Interview: Daily Mail (1978)

This interview was published in the Daily Mail on 28 February 1978.

Joking Apart, Scarborough's Great For Ideas

Alan Ayckbourn is now so rich he's stopped counting his royalties. They only have reality for the tax man now. Not since Noël Coward has a playwright found so consistent a following in the West End.

And a couple of years back he even rivalled Coward's hitherto unbroken record by having five plays (counting his award - winning trilogy
The Norman Conquests) running simultaneously in London's lucrative neon square mile - where his name in lights is usually bigger than the stars.

It comes as something of a shock to the unknowing, therefore, to find Mr Ayckbourn holed up for more than nine months of the year in that outpost of coastal resorts, Scarborough.

"One gets very possessive about the place," he says, with the understatement which makes all his comedy distinctive. "Especially out of season."

Yet here it is that all his West End hits receive their first airing. What Scarborough sees today, London and the West End sees the day-after-tomorrow.
Joking Apart is not scheduled to hit the big time until early next year. Before that comes Scarborough's last season's hit, Ten Times Table, with which Ayckbourn is making his West End debut as a director as well as author next month.

Even now he is ploughing round the provinces putting the finishing touches to that play, while the cast of
Joking Apart tour the West Country to give his latest work a well-tried run-in, That is the way Ayckbourn works. Not writing plays from the luxury of some grand retreat, but in the kitchen-heat of running his 30-strong company in often inadequate accommodation for 50 weeks of the year.

"I always put my new play on about this time, because the theatre goes through a bit of a lean patch and it helps the box office. It's always a heck of a scramble," he confesses. "I announced the title of
Joking Apart, the newest one, in December and didn't start writing it until the middle of the month."

The play is a masterly piece of delicate Ayckbourn understanding, showing how - over a period of 12 years - a couple completely devastate all their nearest and dearest by their radiant perfection. Like all his best work it is full of irony and barely-suppressed pain.

His company performs it superbly to a capacity audience of 300. But in the bar afterwards only one young girl comes over to the author-director-administrator, and she makes an embarrassed, pre-rehearsed speech of appreciation which seems to startle him a little. The prophet may be without honour in his own land, but he is certainly not without inspiration. Yes, he admits, much of his material is found around the shores of Scarborough in the everyday-life he leads there.

Although he now lives in domestic harmony with Heather Stoney, who acts as secretary and hostess, at the rambling converted vicarage he recently bought and turns her hand to everything from acting or running the box office at the theatre, his wife and two sons still live nearby.
[1] Mrs Ayckbourn has gone roundly on record saying that she would be among the richest women in the world if she claimed royalties for all the fodder she has provided for his bitter, biting domestic comedies.

Life with Ayckbourn turns out to be remarkably like his own comic writing. Driving back to the vicarage he backs his gleaming racing-green Mercedes into some railings. Obviously relieved to find it unscathed he then discovers he has cut off his access to the driving seat by parking too close to the wall.

However, high in his eyrie he can relax. Here there are no status symbols from his wealth to bite back and remind him of his mortality.

"Joking Apart really came out of the realisation that my eldest son was eighteen, able to vote, buying me pints, old enough to drive me about in his own car. I suddenly caught up with the passage of time. I am 38. It's quite a shock. Until now my plays have always been on a very limited time scale. But I set this one over 12 years, hoping to show what time does to people just by passing. For the first time I'm feeling it touch me."

Of course, being Ayckbourn he can't help showing what people do to each other just by spending that time together. And, as usual, it's not very nice. He, on the other hand, is very nice, that is.

Bedroom Farce the perennial hit at the National Theatre and set for a Broadway showing, and Ten Times Table poised for its West End launch, he is still far more eager to talk about his triumph over Scarborough's bureaucracy on securing a ten-year lease for his new theatre headquarters in the hall of an old Victorian school.

"That means, In real terms, we have a permanent home here," he enthuses. "We're here for life if we want to be."

And why not? His 21-year affair with the spectacular resort and its little theatre has produced 21 plays and a post-war record of West End hits.

"Why change a winning system?" he asks disarmingly.

Website Notes:
[1] Relatively nearby. At the time, Alan's first wife Christine lived with his sons in Leeds, approximately 75 miles away from Scarborough.

Copyright: Daily 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.