Interview: New Manchester Review (1980)

This article was published in the New Manchester Review on 22 February 1980.

A Cottage Industry In Scarborough

by Irene McManus

Legend has it that a national journalist lunched with him one day, intending to write up an interview afterwards. The journalist ended up in an alcoholic coma, and Ayckbourn wrote the piece by himself, questions and answers.

Maybe it's because he's so disarmingly obliging and likeable that reams of banal twaddle have been written about him. Phrases like "wall-to-wall wit", "meringue of a play", and "comic masterpiece" have been idly bandied about. Other critics, irritated, have overreacted with sneers about "sitcom poverty" and "potato-crisp theatre".

Pity. The man himself emerges in interview as a fascinating bundle of contradictions. He's an incredibly prolific, perpetually inventive playwright, who confesses that he dislikes writing plays: "It takes me two weeks to write a play. I write it in longhand. The only reason I do it so quickly is because I loathe it. I hate it. The only bit I enjoy writing is getting to the actors with it. I have a typist who - she's more than a typist - she's a sort of person who follows my inflections - who types up to my dictation. Heather
[1]. And then at the end of that period I'll probably do a third revision. We're a cottage industry. I like the bit of reading the play, rehearsing it, and getting it on. I'm not very interested after that. I quite like the first few nights. But plays recede like galaxies into the distance."

Ayckbourn also hates going to the theatre - though he's interested in the work his fellow playwrights are turning out:

''I don't see them. I read them. I don't actually like going to the theatre very much. I spend so long sitting in an auditorium. I love going to the cinema. I love going to music, or anything but straight theatre. Sometimes I'm sitting there in the theatre thinking if I have to watch acting anymore, even good acting, I shall go barmy. I read what comes out, just to see what the opposition's up to. My agent represents most of them. I mean, I've read
Night and Day, but I haven't seen it. It's not uncommon. David Hare, for instance, the other day, said I've read your latest, like it very much. You think: oh, that's nice, dunno how he got a copy, but he got it. Then I suppose as a theatre director you gotta find out what's going. You've gotta give them something of the modern dramatists" - he titters engagingly - "not just yourself".

Most startling of all, you can actually get him to agree that too many theatres are putting on too much Ayckbourn. I put it to him that more and more reps are relying on plays that Arts Council grants were never destined to support. "Yes, I think it's a terrible danger..." he begins, very pious.

Then I rudely point out that a lot of these plays are his. Give him credit; he comes clean, laughing a bit sheepishly; "Ah-hah! Well, you know... is there a dilemma, or isn't there? Ummm. I suppose so. I suppose there's been an overdose of my stuff. I've been overpraised grossly, and underpraised extraordinarily, too.
The Norman Conquests has been greatly overpraised. But on the other hand Joking Apart and Just Between Ourselves and Absent Friends have all been missed out, because they weren't expecting to see that."

There's no false modesty about him. When I ask him if he can come up with a solution for reps, wanting to do stuff that's decently experimental as well as commercially viable, he says: "Well, they'd have to produce their own equivalent of me, really. It's rare, I suppose, for a writer to be popular in his own lifetime and also, hopefully, reasonably - er - intelligent. I mean, most of the intelligent ones have to wait till they're dead..."

And the image he's sometimes had of being a lazy man? "Yeah. Well. That's public school education. I think I do work very hard. Certainly appears hard work to me. I haven't had a holiday for years. I don't actually like them, so it doesn't really bother me. I actually go barmy on holiday. My idea of a holiday is to sit at home."

His own favourite dramatist is Pinter
[2], though he's also acknowledged Congreve, Wilde, and Chekhov as strong influences. "I'm a great Pinter freak. I think the secret to him is he's a poet who writes plays. The way he scripts his stuff is much more stylised than my stuff. I mean, he writes in a very much heightened way usually. But what he does have is a love of certain words which he repeats and shapes. There's one of his plays about going the "whole hog", and he keeps "whole hogging" it. And there's a speech where he says "whole hog" about nine times. I've picked that habit up from him. There's an opening line in Relatively Speaking - which is probably greatly influenced by him - where a man says "I can't say I'm very taken with this marmalade". It's that sort of elliptical writing which I love, and which he does quite a lot of. Deliberately. And I still do that."

Ayckbourn doesn't much care for modern political dramatists: "I've read Edgar. And I've seen Brenton. I've gotta lot of time for Edgar, 'cos I think he's a good dramatist. I don't like to get swamped. Most political writers have got their hearts in the right place, but their talents in the wrong place. Trevor Griffiths is a writer I Iike very much, 'cos I think he's a damn good technician. I'm a sort of theatre purist. I don't think you should use the theatre - I think you should let the theatre use you. Often people just put a tub up in the middle of a theatre and think they can make it work. I think that's going. The new brand of writers, the Poliakoffs and people like that, all seem to me to have come back to structure. And I'm very pleased, 'cos it might bring the audience back. Most of the audience want to be told stories. If a story happens to say at the end that bad men are bad, that's jolly good. But mostly they want the story."

The truth is Ayckbourn doesn't care much for politics, period: "Politicians drive me absolutely barmy. I'm an anarchist. I've sat through 15 General Elections and seen the same pattern going on every time. I used to vote. I voted alternately, Labour, Liberal, Conservative. I thought, one of them must be right. All of them were wrong. But this lot are worse than the last lot. The next lot'll be worse than this lot. Don't want to depress you, but…."

The public schoolboy in him surfaces sharply at times - like when he talks about the time he collaborated on the disastrous musical
Jeeves with Andrew Lloyd Webber: "Oh, I simply adored Andrew! He's a lovely bloke. Terribly funny. He has strange political thoughts. He's tremendously right-wing. He's quite proud of it. He's not a Fascist, but... just a staunch Tory. It's quite refreshing, really, because it's another viewpoint.

It's remarkable. Ayckbourn is the first really successful playwright in the last two decades who isn't overtly politically committed. But he certainly shows an instinct for class tensions in his plays, possibly because he was born in London and grew up talking like a cockney, till his mum divorced and married a bank manager, and sent him to Haileybury. She's a bit of a writer herself, producing stories for women's magazines as Mary James.

Ayckbourn's main theme, of course, is the unhappy marriage, and how many novel ways you can present it as comedy. You'd probably have to go further and say he writes about English marriage, where inability to express emotion erupts in domestic violence - people are forever chucking biscuits or soup at one another in his plays.

"Most of my plays are about what people don't say, because I write about the English, who don't say very much. They imply a lot. And they hint at a lot. Throwing biscuits? Happens as soon as you love somebody: you decide you wanna hit 'em. Well, not always. But a lot of people have struck someone. And always someone you're fond of. Or have been fond of. Or want to be fond of. It seems to me mostly that that's what happens. And that they're usually of a different sex."

He married at 19, and his wife Christine (now separated from him and living in London) has claimed that she would be one of the world's richest women if she'd been paid royalties for all the material she's provided for Ayckbourn. He lives with Heather Stoney, an actress in the Scarborough Company and the famous typist who works on the plays with him. He says he'll never divorce his wife, though: "I might get married again if I get a divorce. And my wife and I, now we're apart, are very fond of each other indeed. And see each other a lot."

Ayckbourn's work has been translated into 24 languages. Four or five dissertations on him are churned out every month. Two books about him are in the pipeline. He's just opened
Suburban Strains to rave reviews in Scarborough (a touch of overpraising, I fear). The National will be coining it this summer with his most ingenious play to date, Sisterly Feelings. The British Council are financing a British and European tour of Taking Steps (you can catch it at Oldham in March, and you should, since it gives you a chance to see his own company, directed by himself). Outrageously, he's promised a new play for the autumn. How does he keep on doing it?

The answer, I think, is the Company. Ayckbourn lives for that magic moment when, after two weeks of "screaming and protest", and stuffing himself with food to compensate, he roars into the theatre bar at Scarborough and hands over personally-bound copies of his latest script to a faithful group of actors. Their absolute belief in him is what gives him the impetus to go on.

The original Company, founded by Ayckbourn's beloved
Stephen Joseph (Joseph first persuaded Ayckbourn to write), played only a few weeks in summer. Ayckbourn is more ambitious, keeping his actors together for years and aiming at all-year-round performance. He's worked himself into a situation where he has to produce two new plays a year, one for winter and one for summer: "What I tend to do is blithely say when my next show is likely to be. At the moment I've said that roughly next September I'll deliver another one. Between now and next September I hope to God I come up with an idea. I have to think of the title in advance because of the publicity people. There have been occasions when the title has nothing to do with the play. At all."

He's battled ferociously with local authorities to establish this permanent theatre: Scarborough didn't like the idea of show biz which had to be subsidised - even Ayckbourn needs to be subsidised. On the other hand, he's put the town on the map, and they love him for that. Have they given him the freedom of the city yet?

He laughs: "No. Not at all. Gave me a parking ticket the other day…". Don't deserve him, do they?

Website Notes:
[1] Heather Stoney, then Alan Ayckbourn's partner and from 1996 his second wife.
[2] Alan tends to shy away from naming specific favourite playwrights - although has frequently admitted his ambition is to write plays as well as Chekhov. He did though work with Pinter appearing in the second production of
The Birthday Party as Stanley. Pinter made his directorial debut with this production of the play which had flopped in the West End and it was performed by Stephen Joseph's Studio Theatre Ltd company in 1959.

Copyright: New Manchester Review. 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.