Interview: Sunday Telegraph (1979)

This interview was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 28 January 1979.

A Playwright On The Prom

by Rosemary Say

"I Don't go much for the play, Mr Ayckbourn. Not really, you know. Think I'll write one myself next time round...." Scarborough folk are not readily impressed by having Britain's best-known playwright living in their midst. But Alan Ayckbourn himself, though born and bred in the South of England, still has a wry relish for the abrupt Yorkshire bluntness of his adopted town. It helps him to keep a link with people - what he calls "the bond."

"Scarborough has affected my own writing. Whatever I write I always try to make sure people coming can say 'she's rather like Aunt Joan'
- there's that recognition." As the world now knows, this formula, originally tailored for the town's winter residents and summer tourists coming in from the rainy beach, works - and not only In this country. "Bratislava is my latest conquest," says Ayckbourn mildly.

On March 7 London will celebrate something of a milestone in Ayckbourn's astonishingly prolific career when his twenty-first play,
Joking Apart, opens at the Globe. [1]

But Scarborough has already moved on. Tonight we are in the converted school building which serves as the town's semi-permanent theatre, waiting for the opening of Ayckbourn's twenty-third play,
Sisterly Feelings.

Outside, the snow is packed hard on Scarborough's esplanade and streets. An icy wind whips round the gracious early Victorian hotels perched on the cliff above the fishing harbour. A scantily-dressed statue of Queen Victoria wisely faces inland on the town hall green; the sea rolls powerfully into the bay under a clear winter moon. There is a long, perilous slope down to the theatre entrance: people hold each other up on the slippery path, chattering good-humouredly as they arrive in the ex-classroom bar, where a bearded student is trying out the honky-tonk piano on a platform. Everyone knows everyone else. There are no tourists at this time of the year and the atmosphere is casual and relaxed, more like an end-of-term performance than the world premiere of a play which may well reach Bratislava as well as London and Broadway.

Alan Ayckbourn sits in his office and talks to me about his public-school days at Haileybury. Not that exciting, he recalls; but there is always " the one nut you find in these establishments." In this case a mathematics master [
2] who included him in a student tour of Macbeth in America ("I played Macduff"), and who later gave him two influential contacts: Donald Wolfit, who underpaid the young Ayckbourn as an assistant stage manager in his company, and an old Haileyburian, Robert Fleming, who set him on a slightly more lucrative life as a roving ASM.

Work brought him to Scarborough. It was here that he met a young university lecturer, head of the drama department at Manchester University, called
Stephen Joseph. Joseph had come to Scarborough to run a season of plays in the Concert Room at the town's public library, determined to experiment with his recent experience of theatre-in-the-round in the USA. Such an innovation would have intrigued even London in the early 'fifties [3]: in Scarborough it was revolutionary to find "goings-on on the sofa" within inches of one's seat. So Scarborough's public library saw the birth of Britain's first theatre-in-the-round. Today, the 300 seats available in the converted-school theatre are filled by councillors, children, mums, nuns and publicans who are probably, if they but knew it, more accustomed to this kind of production than any other audience in the country.

Stephen Joseph's mother was Hermione Gingold. "Stephen's a strange boy," she said dubiously, "I hope he knows what he is doing." She need not have doubted. The strange boy's name is revered by Scarborough theatre-goers. It was he who recognised the abilities of his young stage manager, Alan Ayckbourn, and badgered him to write a play.

After several first attempts under the pseudonym 'Roland Allen,' Ayckbourn finally came up with a comedy called
Meet My Father which established him the following year in London - where the title was changed to Relatively Speaking. [4] He left Scarborough to earn his bread and butter as a BBC Radio drama producer. [5] But in 1967 Stephen Joseph died of cancer and not long afterward Scarborough's Theatre Council called Ayckbourn back to take his place as director and resident playwright. [6]

Ayckbourn does not forget his debt to Stephen Joseph. Without him he might still be a stage manager in provincial rep. Only a short while ago, when the 10-year lease was secured on his present theatre premises, he changed the name from that of the original school, Westwood, to the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - a triumph on both counts, Ayckbourn feels, over Scarborough bureaucracy.

Background incidents like these do not particularly concern the town's community. Only when the original company was threatened with expulsion from the library a few years ago did Scarborough rally to the cause. "It was," said a local journalist, "rather like a family that suddenly realises the comfortable old chair in the kitchen is a genuine Chippendale."

Ayckbourn has returned the compliment. Scarborough is now his alma mater, where pressures are down, plays can be tried out quietly, transformed and shaped after the last-minute agony of writing them on time. He has been a resident for more than half of his 59 years and plans to remain one "as long as there is somewhere to work."

The theatre is filling up now, mare animated under the harsh schoolroom light bulbs. We take a circuitous corridor route to the bar where he orders a pint. His friends know to leave him in peace before the start of a new play. Sir Peter Hall, director of the National Theatre, is here. Will he decide to buy this new work? Sir Peer commissioned a play from his friend Ayckbourn for the National Theatre without knowing the outcome and got
Bedroom Farce. But even the National had to conform to the Scarborough ritual of allowing this jackpot-hitting comedy to be seen on home ground first. It reached London in 1977, and is now on its way to Broadway.

Ken Boden, General Manager of the Scarborough Theatre Trust, stands at the, theatre entrance, a burly, white-haired man in formal suit who has been with the company since its pioneer days. "I always say the same thing to Alan after his first nights: you've still to write your best play." It is his reminder that we are in blunt-speaking Yorkshire now, not the sycophantic theatre world of London.

There, too, is the theatre's founding father, amiable Tom Laughton, with his wife.
[7] A Scarborough man, hotelier and art collector, he is the brother of Charles Laughton, lugubrious stage and screen actor who might have turned his hand as easily to hotel-management - a family skill - if Hollywood bed not claimed both his talents and his health. It was Tom Laughton who led the move to appoint Ayckbourn as the theatre's director.

One man missing from the local first-night crowd, now moving slowly into the auditorium, is Les Jensen, who runs the 18th-century Leeds Arms. The pub is Ayckbourn's local, only 50 yards from his converted Victorian vicarage home, which was once owned by Stephen Joseph. "I always wait until the plays have settled down." says Mr Jensen. " Mr Ayckbourn comes here with his friends for a pint and a go at the fruit machine - he hates losing. This is a fishermen's pub: it's easy-going and no one bothers much about the famous unless they have seen them on the telly recently."

When Ayckbourn goes down for a session at Corrigan's pin-table hall on the foreshore, where he likes to relax sometimes, he chats with the local character, James "Lord" Corrigan, about the machines, not the theatre.

To the townspeople Ayckbourn is known simply as "the playwright" or not recognised at all. It is this attitude which, paradoxically, establishes his place in the community.

It also means that his private life is respected. Ayckbourn's long-standing companion in Scarborough is Heather Stoney, who looks after his household and business affairs and who has acted in some of his plays. But when Ayckbourn's wife and two sons join them at Christmas-time the town sees no call to gossip.

Ayckbourn's work for Amnesty International and his refusal to allow his plays to be performed in a "whites only" theatre in South Africa are rare political gestures: more often one hears of his liking for fast cars driven slowly and for good food and wine which have taken their toll of a once slender figure. These are the only outward signs of success in a man who is probably one of the richest playwrights in the world.

But this is where be finds his inspiration. For the town he is "no trouble," a term of respect he has learned to appreciate. "In 10 years' time," he says reflectively, "people may well be saying 'Alan who?' - you never know."

Website Notes:
Joking Apart is actually the playwright's 22nd full length play.
[2] Edgar Matthews was actually a French master at Haileybury and inspired Alan's early interest in theatre.
[3] Sadly this was not the case. Stephen Joseph desperately tried to find a home for theatre-in-the-round in London, but was unsuccessful in finding a venue or interest in theatre-in-the-round productions.
Meet My Father (Relatively Speaking) was Alan's seventh full-length professionally produced play and was premiered in 1965 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. It did not transfer to the West End until 1967.
[5] Alan left the Library Theatre in 1962 to become founding member of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, which he left in 1964. He joined the BBC and world as a Radio Drama Producer from 1965 to 1970.
[6] Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and Alan took on the seasonal role of Director Of Productions during 1969 and 1970, while he was still working at the BBC. In 1972, he was appointed Artistic Director of the company, a role he held until his retirement in 2009.
[7] Although Tom Laughton played an important role in the history of the company and was an active board member from 1967 to 1984, he is not considered a 'founding father' of the company.

Copyright: Sunday Telegraph. 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.