Interview: Woman's Weekly (1980)

This article was published in Woman's Weekly magazine on 12 January 1980.

About Town

by Clare Jenkins

"I think sometimes I'm like a tape recorder. You know, I record bits and pieces and then, years later, they come up in one of my plays and I can't remember where I heard them."

So speaks playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose works, like the air we breathe, seem to be everywhere at once. As soon as one leaves the West End, it is replaced by another, warm from its Scarborough nest, and at one time there were five of them (including
The Norman Conquests) running in that glittering area of the capital at the same time, rivalling the record set by Noël Coward. [1]

We were sitting in the playwright's London base - a modern house in Hampstead, the sort of suburb his characters aspire to. He insists that his presence in such a place it accidental rather than calculated, and I believe him. After all, he does spend most of the year in the seaside resort of Scarborough, only venturing down to see his latest play safely into its London run. For the main part, he is kept busy with his work as Artistic Director and resident playwright at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

Despite having been born in London and brought up in and around the capital, he is not overfond of the place, much preferring his adopted home of the last twenty years, where he lives in a converted vicarage.

"Scarborough discovered me," he says reflectively. "I just happened to be around then. A town of that size suits me far better. I must be provincial by nature but I like the size of a place like that because I can see the other side of it almost. I love the winter up there. You have to like very wild, quite cold seas coming up about a hundred feet but, and it sounds corny, I like walking down there when I'm getting ready to write. It's really our town then, very quiet."

He is grateful to the town, too, for giving him the opportunity to develop his talent, yet he stays not out of duty but out of pure affection. His involvement with the local community is unforced and unplanned, with no regular dates pencilled in his diary months in advance. It wasn't always so. He spent a year on a committee trying to - and eventually succeeding in - extending the lease of his theatre, and is determined not to repeat the experience.

Out of those tedious hours came
Ten Times Table, which chronicles the personal battles of members of a small town committee who meet to organise a pageant.

"I began to realise," he says, "that there are these wonderful committee people. It's rather like people behind the wheels of cars. They change into different people. And the meek really do inherit the earth! They're dogged and they keep raising points of order, and you think, 'My goodness, that man actually runs our lives, because none of us can be bothered to go to those meetings.' But he never misses one and, before you know it, you've got a new ring road!"

Ten Times Table was the first Ayckbourn play to be taken outside a domestic setting but, in common with the others - of which there are more than a score - it is peopled by 'southern types', the product of his early years of southern suburbia.

Bearing this in mind, it seems surprising that his plays enjoy success in such unlikely places as Mexico, behind the Iron Curtain, and West Germany. He thinks he may have the explanation. "It could be because I deal with the basics of human existence - I tend to write about things like death, envy, choice-do we have any control over our lives? Nothing I did was decided. Most of it came by accident. I set out to be an
actor. I don't know what the heck I'm doing being a writer."

The first inklings of a future literary career came when Alan was barely of school age. His father, a violinist, having left home, his mother turned to freelance short story writing to make ends meet.

"Again, it sounds rather corny," he confesses now, "but I used to be in that strange situation where there was half the day when she was working and I wasn't allowed to interrupt. So I started writing. It was like some sort of compulsion. But I didn't think of it as a career."

Unbeknown to him, however, his life at that time was to provide fodder for his later plays. When his mother married again, it was to a bank manager and the family - there was a step-brother, too - moved around the commuter belt of Uckfield, Hayward's Heath, Lewes and Staines.

He attended Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, leaving to become an actor and then run the gamut of jobs from stage manager to
director, writing at the same time. His first play, Relatively Speaking, [2] was produced in Scarborough over twenty years ago, and he now writes one a year.

His method of composition is a highly unusual one. After an eleven-month "germination period", as he calls it, he takes three weeks to marshal his thoughts, then one to produce the goods, writing through the night. What is even more unusual is that the cast is assembled, the title chosen, and the publicity machine put into action before the play is written! And then it's time to rehearse, the part he enjoys most.

He talks with a slight jerkiness as though it is an effort to do so, and admits that he is often ill-at-ease in company, rather like his characters. Embarrassment hangs over his plays like a cloud, just waiting to descend on the next unfortunate mortal who makes a social gaffe. Alan knows the feeling well.

"Oh, I've done everything they do and worse. And I'm very aware of other people's social embarrassments simply because I tend to hang back a lot. I'm all right in a one to one talk, but two to one... ! A lot of comedy rests on social embarrassment."

Thus, in
Bedroom Farce, three couples share the social horror of hearing a self-centred couple analyse their marriage in public; Absent Friends is about a man whose fiancée has recently died, being entertained to tea by people who do not wish to talk about it; the characters in Just Between Ourselves are prevented by their inhibitions from speaking what needs to be spoken - a common dilemma in Alan Ayckbourn's plays - and so on.

He gives the impression of being a better listener than raconteur and admits that "I tend to be quite private. I suppose I know quite a lot of people in the town and we have the odd 'do'. But I loathe parties." He shudders at the thought. But aren't they ideal places to eavesdrop and mentally jot down notes? He doesn't agree.

"I'm better off watching from the outside. I prefer where possible to be in places where I can just sit and no one will take a blind bit of notice of me. Restaurants, I like very much. I'm not much fun to have a meal with because I'm leaning sideways - but the next table's always wonderful! I don't do it too obviously, mind. I say to my companion, 'Keep talking - quietly!'"

In the preface to one of his most recent plays,
Joking Apart, he says he began to feel his age (40) when confronted by his 18-year-old son. "Yes," he recalls, "I was aware that, when he was in the room, he would be looking at my friends and at me with the slight detachment of someone twenty years away. It's a bit eerie, really. Suddenly we were the older generation."

Yet he gets on well with both his sons - the older one is in the public relations industry and the younger, at 17, is at catering college - although he and their mother, who he married when he was 19, now live apart. He feels that middle-class marriages are under more pressure now that a greater number of women are demanding equality, as this can lead to confusion over the roles the man and the woman are expected to play.

"Basic things confuse me. I mean, do you open doors for women or not? Occasionally, they've said, 'How dare you?' Or do you slam the door in their face, which is also very rude? So in the end, well, I barge people out of the way these days!"

Somehow, I don't think he was telling the truth.

Website Notes:
[1] Noël Coward's record was actually four plays running at the same time in London.
Relatively Speaking was Alan's seventh professionally produced play and first performed 15 years earlier in 1965. His first play was The Square Cat which premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959.

Copyright: Woman's Weekly. 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.