Interview: Time (1978)

This interview was published in Time magazine on 8 May 1978.

Scourge Of The Suburbs


Alan Ayckbourn is a slightly bulging, badger-type recluse who hibernates for most of the year on England's blustery northeast coast. At 39, he is also Britain's most prolific and successful playwright.

Charmingly eccentric - anyone in his income bracket choosing to live in the slightly tatty town of Scarborough has to be - he is nevertheless as English as thinly sliced sandwiches for tea. So for that matter are the 22 full-length plays he has written in as many years, most of which have been consistent hits, with an average West End run of 18 months.

He is also the only author in recent times to have five plays run simultaneously in London. His comedies have been translated into 24 languages and performed in 35 countries. Almost as soon as the curtain at the Globe Theatre goes up on his latest smash,
Ten Times Table, the audience begins to laugh.

Which is odd, because at first the situation in
Ten Times Table seems anything but funny. A volunteer committee is meeting in a dreary hotel in a small town to plan a trade-boosting pageant. The chairman, a go-getting businessman played by Paul Eddington, stumbles along from interruption to interruption, unable even to deal with his fur-coated wife (Julia McKenzie). She glares at an earnestly proletarian young teacher whom she suspects of being a Trotskyite. When the teacher reacts by calling her a "bourgeois bitch," the fight is on, and so is the fun.

The chairman's unhappy idea is to re-enact the slaying of some 18th century yeomen by local militia in a murky incident known as "the Pendon Twelve." The committee becomes, polarised. The leftist teacher seduces the natural class ally of the fur-coated lady, a well-born but naively arty girl, into the Marxist camp and sets her sewing bodkins for his bucolic martyrs. The chairman's wife retaliates by enlisting the girl's brother, a half-mad breeder of hunting dogs; he promptly assumes command of the anti-Marxists in a fascist coup. It is all satire, and the pageant itself goes off like a spluttering firecracker, until the curtain's close detonates a final burst of applause.

Ayckbourn's plays are rooted in British suburban, middle-class life.
Relatively Speaking, the 1965 comedy that was his first success, takes place in a world light-years removed from the intricate turmoil of avant-garde society. The characters are trapped and warped by centuries of English class convention. To get out, they usually do not visit a shrink but sip endless cups of tea, suffering from that peculiarly English disease: embarrassment. They stumble over their feelings and one another, stiff-lipped to the core.

Like so many authors of comedy, Ayckbourn is fascinated by tragedy. He also wants to be taken seriously. "What I'm trying to get at is a painfully funny play," he explains, "one that leaves you uplifted and enlightened."
Ten Times Table, a bittersweet parable of the folly of power politics, comes closer to this than any of his previous works. Some of those, like the wonderfully zany Bedroom Farce (1975), were all-out romps in which the longings and regrets of married couples were skilfully interwoven onstage to produce hilarious guffaws.

Other times Ayckbourn has written what he calls "plays that kick," where the humour is black. One of the women in
Absurd Person Singular is unable to commit suicide because of the fussy obdurateness of neighbours: when she sticks her head into a hissing gas oven, one of them bustles in and cheerfully offers to clean it for her.

After his new play's opening last month, Ayckbourn scurried back to sleepy Scarborough, where he runs the local
Theatre in the Round. Housed in a refurbished school, it is, he says contentedly, a place "where I can fiddle with lighting and edit my own sound effects, as well as write and direct." Scarborough's provincial torpor suits him fine. "In human terms, it's all there," he says. The pageant committee of Ten Times Table was, in fact, drawn from a real committee formed in Scarborough two years ago.

Ayckbourn first wanted to be an
actor, but he changed his mind after an early marriage (at 19) and some rocky times trying to support a family. Yet, except for a stint as a BBC radio producer, he has worked in the theatre ever since. His marriage broke up, and he now lives with actress Heather Stoney in a rambling Georgian vicarage overlooking the sea.

At the end of every year, Ayckbourn writes his annual comedy in brief, frenetic bursts.
Ten Times Table was dashed off in six consecutive nights and finished the day after Christmas. Another measure of Ayckbourn's self-confidence: his habit of announcing a play's title and scheduling its opening before he has even written it.

Ayckbourn's notices in New York City have been mixed. One of his London hits,
How The Other Half Loves, was Americanised and lost much of its flavour as a result.

"Neil Simon might agree with me" Ayckbourn muses, "that the most difficult transition for our plays is from English English to American English and vice versa." Simon's comedies have similarly lost their New York panache when transported to the West End.
As to whether his plays have a message, Ayckbourn replies mischievously, "Yes. But it's very, very secret. If you read the first letter of every third page, they make up the words NyaxGnovCsa."

Copyright: Time. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.