Interview: Peterborough Evening Telegraph (1980)

This article was published in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph on 3 April 1980.

Russian Roulette And Sandwiches

by Harold Hodgson

For Alan Ayckbourn, writing a comedy is a bit like playing Russian roulette. So far he's been lucky.

Creating funny plays like
Absurd Person Singular and Taking Steps is fraught with hazards for Mr Ayckbourn and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity.

"It disrupts everything," he told me on the telephone. There is one consolation for the Ayckbourns - it doesn't last long. In a short, sharp, frenetic scramble that must be like a sort of literary jumble sale, an Ayckbourn play gets written in one week flat.

The Ayckbourn technique is almost biblical in its fervour. The instant theatrical mash approach to playwriting has Alan Ayckbourn pounding the typewriter keys night and day in a headlong dash for creation that puts even the almighty in the shade. Ayckbourn labours seven days.

He told me that this hectic time scale is imposed on him by his other work in the theatre. He is also a
director. At the moment he is at the National Theatre. A couple of months before the new play is due to go into rehearsal, he begins to think seriously about it. Then, about a month to deadline, he stops whatever else he is doing to concentrate on the play to be.

"But," he told me, "the actual writing process rarely takes more than a week." Once that stage has been reached, Alan Ayckbourn is practically unstoppable. It is, he explained, a continuous slog. He starts writing at 9 pm and stays at the typewriter until 6 am. Then it is a quick nap and start again.

"It is an enormously exhausting business," Alan Ayckbourn said. "I unplug all other functions." Formal meals go by the board. It's beans or toast gulped mid sentence

At one tine Ayckbourn used to work to the fag formula - one cigarette per page of script. Then he get bitten by the health bug and stopped smoking. Now it's the sarny system - one sandwich a page. That produced its own problem - Britain's foremost comedy playwright was in grave danger of also becoming the heaviest.

During this chaotic gestation period, Alan Ayckbourn takes no alcohol.
"Drinking blurs my judgement," he told me and added: "A cup of cocoa is the strongest thing I drink."

He said he starts with the play's title and then it becomes a race against time before the ideas begin to evaporate. According to Ayckbourn there is no secret formula for writing a play. There are no dramatic cries of "Eureka" from the Ayckbourn bathroom.

Alan Ayckbourn says his first play was the easiest to write. He explains: "Although in my early plays I made mistakes which I now hope I no longer make, I find each successive play is harder to write. I suppose it is because I have narrowed my avenues for exploration. It is rather like being a motorist lost in a maze of city centre streets. I suddenly realise where I am and then I dance around saying 'I did this last time'."

Alan Ayckbourn says he cannot write to order. "I cannot take commissions which lay down precise details of the plot and the characters," he said explaining how when constructing a play, ideas which have haunted him for years suddenly come back and fall into place.

He told me he does not have any real ambition to write anything other than comedy. "A lot of my plays touch on other areas anyway. I am very lucky to be able to write comedy. It is a gift and when you have it, you shouldn't turn your back on it," he said.

Alan Ayckbourn's plays can usually be taken on two levels. He dresses tragedy and pathos in comic clothes. "My aim is to make people think," he told me.

Alan Ayckbourn, now 41, was born in London. He began his career as an actor and stage manager at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. Now Alan Ayckbourn still has a special relationship with the Scarborough theatre. Most of his plays are written for that theatre in the first place. He talks vaguely about writing another play in August. "But August is a very long way off;" he said.

Copyright: Peterborough Evening 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.