Interview: Richmond Herald (1979)

This interview was published in the Richmond Herald on 22 February 1979.

Meeting Mister A

by Judy Miles

Sometimes people say to Alan Ayckbourn: "Why don't you tackle something different? Why don't you write about dockers, or lorry-drivers or whoever?'"

Because, of course, Mr. A., who is universally acknowledged to be one of the funniest, and also most acute playwrights to emerge in Britain since the war, does confine himself to a broad-based spectrum of middle-class manners and mores. Clad in stout gumboots against an ice-bound Richmond, and basking in the warmth of the Cobwebs, he proceeded to explain himself with speed and fluency.

"Well, I prefer, like Jane Austen, to stick to what I know. So I won't be writing about dockers. And although I have thought about it, I don't think I'm likely to embark on 'serious' stuff either. My forte is making people laugh. After all there are plenty of playwrights around who know how to make them miserable!"

All the same, there's a certain intention behind Alan's plays. Not just designed for amusement, but to get at you as well. The whole art, he feels, is not to bang home the message, but to "slip it under the door."

"Every day, increasingly, we're bombarded with images from the media - images of horrors going on in the world. And the natural reaction is to shut off - go away and do the washing-up - forget about it. The same thing can happen with a play. If you show people too much, too forcibly, the shutter comes down. My aim is to get at people so they don't realise it. At the time they laugh, and then, afterwards, they start thinking…."

He has evidence that this avoidance of the full frontal approach does work. One spectator, after seeing
Joking Apart at Richmond Theatre, told Alan that the play had made him laugh like anything. But afterwards, thinking it over, he felt somehow rather sad. Alan was delighted. The object of the exercise had been achieved.

In person he's rather like his plays - somewhat of a paradox. Over six feet tall, solidly built, but talking with a furious nervous energy, of the kind which, it has been said, causes Scandinavians to regard the English as excitable southerners by comparison with Nordic phlegm.

A solid Scandinavian, not to kindly observed, features in
Joking Apart. A party of Swedes were due at the theatre that evening. Alan looked forward to their reactions with a certain deadpan relish. Not, he added, that any of his characters was lifted bodily from life. Nevertheless these fictional creations of his have a habit of taking on a life of their own as he writes.

"Oh indeed they do. There was one perfectly awful man, called Graham, in
Time And Time Again. He simply took over - went droning on and on - I had to draw a very firm line with him."

It all sounds effortless - the dramatis personae culled from observed reality simply writing themselves on to the page. But there's a long apprenticeship behind them. It started when he was a child, and his mother was a successful short-story writer for women's magazines.

"My parents were sepaated, and she brought me up so I didn't have the image of Daddy, the breadwinner, going out to work. Instead I had Mummy, staying at home to work, bashing away at a typewriter. Little Alan sat in the corner watching her - and inevitably I tried to copy her.

"But when I left school" - he was at Haileybury - "I wanted to be an actor. Well, I suppose everyone going into the theatre starts out that way - you're just waiting for some nice director to say 'come along and be the new Albert Finney'. You're not really interested in doing any other job - I thought being a director was the most boring thing imaginable!"

In 1957 he joined the Scarborough theatre started two years earlier by the late
Stephen Joseph to introduce theatre-in-the-round. Alan began as assistant stage manager, but when Joseph died in 1967, the theatre was in grave danger of closure.

"I was the only person around at the time with the continuity of experience there to carry on. It was a summer-season theatre, but during the last seven or eight years it's been running all the year round, doing a full repertoire of plays by many authors - not, as some people seem to think, exclusively plays by me!"

It was not, he wished to emphasise, a kind of National Ayckbourn Theatre - far from it. In fact, he writes one play a year, on average, and because he has a permanent company of ten actors and some 15 ancillaries he finds Scarborough the most satisfactory milieu for a first try-out. His own experience of the day-to-day working of a theatre has imbued him with a strong sense of the practical.

"My actors are 200 miles away from .London, so they depend on what I write being written for them. I have to steer a practical course - doing what they want, and also giving the audience what it wants. Because I started to write late - initially I was writing parts for myself as an
actor - I have knowledge of many areas: lighting, sound; you could say I know the grammar of the theatre. That's why I've never written for television. It's a totally different craft."

Of his two sons (17 and 18) one is in public relations, the other at catering college.

"He has shown some inclination to write, but at the moment he's cooking. One advantage of having a successful father is that it gives you the chance to look around. It's most important that the job you find should be the right job. Whether it's in the theatre, or in catering, or becoming the most brilliant quantity surveyor there's ever been!"

Copyright: Richmond Herald. 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.