Interview: Manchester Evening News (1980)

This article was published in the Manchester Evening News on 13 March 1980.

Genius Who's Tickled Pink By Success

by Alan Hulme

He's already thinking about play number 25. And the only certainty at this stage is that it will be a worldwide hit due to be translated into at least 26 languages.

The phenomenal 40-year-old Alan Ayckbourn - the most prolific and successful playwright of the century - had his first play-produced when he was 19. And, believe it or not, since then he's slowed down.

"I used to write one a week," he says, laughing heartily at the thought. "I just used to sit there hammering away at an old typewriter. It was a jolly good exercise, but my agent told me to stop - there was nowhere to put them."

Ayckbourn is relaxing in his hidey-hole, backstage at his beloved
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. It's in Scarborough that every one of his worldwide hits has first convulsed audiences [1] and it's here he lives (in a nearby Georgian, vicarage overlooking the harbour)... and will stay.

Taking Steps is his 24th comedy and from initial reaction looks set to beat even the hysteria accorded to the hilarious Bedroom Farce.

"I can pretty well predict how popular one of my plays will be," he admits in his shyly confessional manner. " And I predict that
Taking Steps will be very popular. You see, it leaves you nothing much to worry about. Yes, Bedroom Farce will be difficult to follow in terms of popularity. But certain other of my plays do chunter on and I hope Taking Steps will foe in the same bracket. It was very popular here [Scarborough]: you can see the relief in an audience when they realise it isn't going to go bad on then."

That last phrase is referring to his darker comedies which disturb, at the same time as they convulse.
Joking Apart came in that category and he still feels disappointed that, in Ayckbourn terms, it wasn't a huge success.

"In the West End," he volunteers thoughtfully, " I'm a known 'ha, ha, ha' commodity. If you step outside the formula you're in trouble." But he rubs his hands in anticipatory glee as he adds : "Ultimately I'd like to tear the middle out of you at the same time as you laugh helplessly."

This friendly, self-effacing genius still comes across like an overgrown schoolboy who can't quite believe his success but is nevertheless tickled pink by it all. He was born in Hampstead, only son of the deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. His mother was a journalist. He lived in Sussex for much of his youth - an era which proved a goldmine of material for his plays. He was fascinated by theatre at school and left to become a famous
actor. As a fledgling stage manager at Scarborough he fell under the spell of Stephen Joseph, son of Hermione Gingold, head of Manchester University Drama Department, legendary director and British pioneer of theatre-in-the-round.

Ayckbourn abandoned acting to
direct and became a BBC radio producer in. Leeds. But he was invited back to take over at Scarborough rep when Stephen Joseph died tragically young. Now half his life has been devoted to the Scarborough company.

For nine months of the year he stays in the resort, where the landladies and holiday makers are the first to see the plays which go on to be one of the mainstays of world theatre. Bratislava is his latest conquest.

He says he's "wonderously lazy "and loathes writing. And the plays are produced in three or four sleepless nights under the intense pressure of a deadline - he announces the title and the dates first, has the posters and tickets printed and the actors hired. Then a few days before the first rehearsal he goes away and writes the play. He's never been late, never failed to produce. What can he possibly have left to aim for?

"To keep this place going against the tide of economies," he answers firmly. " And to write better plays. I'd like to explore new areas. I'd like to write a thriller, but I think it would have to be the 'clever' sort, like say
Sleuth. And I still think it would be comic - it would be like tying my right hand behind my back if I didn't write comedy."

He's a passionate devotee of musicals and, after the disastrous
Jeeves (which flopped spectacularly in the West End a few years ago), he's got around to Suburban Strains. This highly-praised show, which has just finished in Scarborough, sticks to the Ayckbourn-land of middle-class dinner parties.

"The great British Musical is a mythical beast," Ayckbourn states with certainty. "What I set out to do with
Suburban Strains was widen my scope by introducing music. It's allowed an opening up process. But it will be a job to move it to another theatre. The very intricate designs involve two revolving stages and we can't do it elsewhere with any ease. So it may be a musical which doesn't go into the West End." [2]

Ayckbourn has a wife and two teenage sons, all living in London. His long-standing companion is Heather Stoney, who looks after his household and business affairs and has acted in his plays. He's said to have a liking for good food and wine and fast cars driven slowly.

His current passion is a specially-modified four-door automatic Range-Rover with wall-to-wall thick-pile carpet and air conditioning. At the moment this seems to be competing with his fascination for the pinball machines which he plays both at home and in the seafront arcades. Has continued success brought any recent changes in his lifestyle?

"I've been having some alterations to my house," he grins. " t's just like the houses my characters live in - the roof was falling in. It all happens to me
- I came home one night recently to find an enormous water pipe sticking up in the hall.

"I'm also into kite flying and I can stunt now. But I have to confess I simply buy the commercial models - I do things small. And I play a lot of cricket."

He's off to the National Theatre soon to direct
Sisterly Feelings (play number 23) and he reckons that's the next best thing to working in Scarborough. But the man who is so wealthy, he's stopped counting his royalties, adds: "You've got to be a rich man to let them go there - with so few performances, because they're in rep, the returns are small."

And now, the 64,000 dollar question: Will the bubble ever burst? "It would be stupid of me not to realise no one has failed to go out of fashion," comes the honest reply. "And it is getting harder. I have to rope off areas I can no longer write about because I have already written about them."

And then comes the news that every Ayckbourn addict will greet with relief: "Yet I'm still bursting with ideas. More than ever in fact. At the moment I'm actually having to stop myself writing."

Website Notes:
[1] At this point in his career, Alan had premiered the majority of his work in Scarborough but two plays -
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot - had premiered in Stoke-on-Trent and the musical Jeeves in Bristol.
[2] The Scarborough production did transfer to The Round House in London, but did not go into the West End.

Copyright: Manchester Evening News. 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.