Interview: Richmond & Twickenham Times (1978)

This interview was published in the Richmond & Twickenham Times on 17 March 1978.

The Fastest Pen In The West


If he wanted to, Alan Ayckbourn need only work five days of the year. That's how long it takes him, on average, to write a play.

Of course his trilogy.
The Norman Conquests, took a whole week and I dare say a TV series, should he ever write one, would take him all of a fortnight. But despite his insistence that he puts off writing a play to the last possible moment (actors have been known to receive their scripts the day before rehearsals are due to begin), Ayckbourn is clearly no slouch.

The world knows him as a brilliant comedy playwright, but Ayckbourn thinks of himself as a working director, who spends most of his time running the
Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, where all his West End hits are born and bred. En route from Scarborough to London is Ten Times Table, which starts a fortnight's ran at Richmond Theatre on Monday. It is the first London-bound production to be directed by the playwright.

I looked in on a rehearsal recently and found a rather portly looking Ayckbourn (still only 39) digging into a pile of neatly wrapped sandwiches.

"I'm very much the country cousin when I come to London," he said. "I tend not to socialise much because most of my year is spent in Scarborough. My own circle of actors don't expect any cabaret turns. I like to be Mr. Average, that's the way you pick up material. One of the nice things about being a playwright is that nobody recognises you. I certainly don't want to be treated as anyone special, otherwise I might start to believe my own publicity."

In many ways, Ayckbourn is like a character from of one of his own plays - seemingly jolly, straightforward and ultra middle class. It turns out that he identifies strongly with several of his characters, especially Reg, the games fanatic in
The Norman Conquests.

"My problem, like his, is getting anyone to play with," he sighed. One of his hobbies is inventing table games, including one about the theatre, which he says takes almost as long to play as it does to produce a real play.

He started writing plays when he was a struggling young
actor. "I used to get my friends to do readings into tape machines. At least I knew when they were boring - politeness wears pretty thin after a while, I suppose I wrote about a dozen before I had one produced."

Ten Times Table is, he thinks, his 35th play (20th to be seen in London) [1] and is a departure from the "dark stream" of late (Absent Friends, Just Between Ourselves). "It's quite a jolly play, I wrote it in Jubilee year and I suppose you could say that it's a parable of our times."

It's about a committee set up to, organise a small town pageant. The local Marxists see it as a golden opportunity to promote their cause.

"There was a pageant going on in Scarborough when I wrote it and some of the organisers haven't spoken to me since. It contains some near libellous portraits. The last word someone said to me as I got on the train to London was: 'Who's playing me?'"

"Committee people are a race apart. I spent a year on committees in Scarborough. It changes your personality, like driving a car. Small men can become very big men and, conversely, important people are reduced to nothing. There are basically three types - the unstoppable talkers, the people who never say anything and my type - the ones who never turn up at all."

His latest play,
Joking Apart, opened in Scar borough recently. The themes are envy and growing old, characteristically unpromising material fo a comedy. Would he ever consider writing a straight drama?

"I have an inverted snob view which says that straight plays are written by people not blessed with humour. There's nothing straight drama has that can't be improved with some comedy. Obviously there are certain things I can't write about simply because my style couldn't cope with it."

What advice would he give someone with play-writing aspirations?

"Remember it's a craft and needs a lot of practice. Be generous with your talent. The worst thing is to produce old brown scripts from 1932. Don't be depressed if the first six don't get on. Try and get them produced by amateur societies. People think writing plays is dead easy. You'd be surprised how many people come up to me and say they've been meaning to write a play but just haven't got round to it."

Website Notes:
[1] None of this is remotely accurate. Ten Times Table was Alan Ayckbourn's 21st play and prior to Ten Times Table going into London, 13 of his plays had been produced in the West End.

Copyright: Richmond & Twickenham 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.