Interview: Literary Review (1980)

This article was published in the Literary Review on 18 December 1980.

An Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

by Hugh Rank

After leaving school Alan Ayckbourn set out as an
actor and stage manager in rep. In 1958 he came to Scarborough for the first time. Stephen Joseph, son of Hermione Gingold and the publisher Michael Joseph, headed a tiny theatre in the Round at the Public Library there. Ayckbourn didn't like some of the parts he was offered. "Write your own plays, then you can write your own parts into them," Joseph told him. That's how it started. Though, he admitted, he had really started writing plays before that.

Hugh Rank: Don't you feel cut off from life in this little provincial town hundreds of miles from London?
Alan Ayckbourn:
(astonished and slightly offended) Why? Here I live in a community. I go shopping, I know my butcher, I know my baker, I am my own publicity manager, I know my actors and my technical staff well. I live with my fellow men. From them I draw on the material for my plays. I don't know many famous people. London and the great cities daunt me. Scarborough is an average but by no means insular place. In summer we have a million visitors: Scots, Irish, French, lots of Dutch and many others. This little town means a lot to me. It grew on me; so I stayed. When Stephen Joseph died in 1967, aged 46, the theatre was in danger of folding up. At that time, all we did was a 12-week summer season. But I took over in 1972, we developed it and now we play 46 weeks in the year. It's true, we haven't got a purpose-built theatre, but I prefer that. There's a certain danger in the 'sanctity' of architecture. The building is not all the important. The main thing is the ensemble spirit. And we, including the technical staff, have grown into a unit. The actors change after about two years which, after all, makes for a more stable position than in many other theatres in England.

What about grants?
We get £70,000 from the Arts Council and £60,000 from two local authorities. The financial position is extremely difficult, we must count every penny. I would love to pay better but I can't. We have nine actors and actresses and a total staff of 35. On the other hand, I realise that our financial astringency may have a stimulating element. Lots of money does not guarantee better theatre.

Which of your own plays is your favourite?
Always the latest one, The older the play the less it speaks to me. But then there comes a time when I like the older plays better again. At present, I'm not keen on The Norman Conquests. But maybe I'll change my mind again. I like the under-privileged: Absent Friends, Joking Apart. Particularly, Just Between Ourselves. I asked myself: should it end so darkly? And at first it did shock people. But I couldn't help feeling: I must remain faithful to my characters.

Do you re-incorporate your own plays into the Scarborough repertoire after a while?
No, we haven't done that so far (meaning: i've always got something new on my platter').

Do you put on other plays except your own in Scarborough?
My own plays form no more than about ten per cent of our repertoire (but are decisive for the box office: unsaid). Eighty per cent are quite new plays by new authors. Tishoo by Brian Thompson started here but came to London. He wrote two other plays for us and we have commissioned a third from him. Last year we played The Crucible by Arthur Miller for whom I have a great respect.

What is your relationship with the National Theatre like?
Better than with the commercial theatre. I find the NT a bit overwhelming. All the proportions are so huge! I love little theatres. The place is always swarming with people. Work there is very strenuous. Rehearsals go on for a long time. Sisterly Feelings was in rehearsal for eight weeks. Here we rehearse for four weeks. As far as Bedroom Farce was concerned I thought there was some danger in over-rehearsing it at the NT.

What about the commercial theatre?
I'm less at home there. The pressure, particularly on the actors, is quite unnatural. And there's also the element of competition between the actors. And then there's the overemphasis of the first night. As if that were the end of the whole thing. And then there's the pre-tour in the provinces where you hide from he critics.

How did London managements react to your bringing your own ensemble to London for Season's Greetings?
They didn't like it very much. But we've deserved it. Our ensemble is very good. Often as good as any in London, sometimes even better. After all, that shows up in the number of our performances. My own plays remain in the repertoire here for a year and we play them 60-70 times in that year. Our greatest success here so far was Taking Steps. Including some local tours we played that 108 times in virtually sold out performances. It didn't have such a good start at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Something went wrong in transfer. But it has since substantially recovered.

Why do you prefer the theatre in the Round to the conventional stage?
The physical proximity gives the actors a better rapprochement with the audience. Sometimes there's a team feeling between actors and audience that can be breathtaking. And another thing; as most of the audience sits above the actors, the audience indulges subconsciously in something like a god-like feeling. It is more relaxed than in the conventional theatre where it looks upward which, again subconsciously, gives the spectators an element of heroics. Yes, it does make a difference.

What or who influenced your work?
In my early days, Pirandello. Everything I wrote was a la Pirandello. My idol is Chekhov. He's a master of tragic comedy. I admire Ben Travers; I've dedicated Taking Steps to him. Then there's Simon Grey; Michael Frayn; Harold Pinter: he influenced me a lot, also from a human point of view. We started our acting careers together. I'm influenced by the 'comic tradition' from Henry Fielding via Dickens down to P. G. Wodehouse; by the delicious humour of Jane Austen, by the Brontë sisters; Ionesco; Beckett.

What are your feelings towards the middle classes which you so often mock?
I know the petty bourgeoisie well. After all, my father was a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra and my stepfather was a bank manager in Sussex. I know the funny and tragic roles which are imposed upon people. I know the conventions, particularly those which women have to put up with. Yes, I have a great weakness for the petty bourgeoisie. But I find it very difficult to write about unpleasant characters. There, I hope, compassion intervenes.

In what light do you see your plays? As literature? or as light entertainment?
I hope they'll last. Less as literature. Rather as a true reflection of our age. Something like the diaries of Pepys. Yes, as an accurate reflection of our age.

What about politics? Where do you stand?
(Pulling down the corners of his mouth, indicating that this is a question of no great interest to him). It would be wrong to say, 'I'm not interested'. After all, it concerns us all. I move away from extremes as far as possible. The extreme left wing of the Labour Party alarms me as much as the lack of tolerance in some conservative circles. If we had a social-democratic party I would probably be a social-democrat. I hope we shall be able to maintain our balance. I would say I stand a fraction left of centre.

How important is critical acclaim or condemnation to you?
It is and it isn't. If it's positive I'm pleased and vice versa. But I couldn't change anything in my plays. Some critics appear to feel that serious plays are superior to funny plays. That's not true. Others, it seems to me, think I should be satisfied with playing the clown and leave the serious side to the 'heavies', for instance to Edward Bond. Some critics you respect more than others. I feel a particular affinity with Irving Wardle of The Times.

How much does your fame mean to you?
(After a lengthy embarrassed pause). Not much. Or only indirectly. The pressure is now greater than at the beginning. The more one writes the higher the standard which you measure yourself against. But the pressure, I think, is relieved by living and working here and not in London.

What is your attitude towards TV?
I have repeatedly been asked to write for TV. Yet my ideas grow out of the theatre. I once wrote a play for BBC TV, at the time of The Norman Conquests: Service Not Included, about a business conference seen with the eyes of a waiter. Generally speaking, I'm not very attracted by TV. In the theatre, particularly in Scarborough, I'm my own master and keep control over everything. In TV the role of the writer is much more diffuse. If I were to write for TV I would want to direct my own play. But I love a live performance.

Have you ever written poetry or prose?
Poetry, a little, at the beginning. But just as everybody at one time or other writes poetry. To write prose I find extremely difficult. I've completely forgotten my grammar. And that's the fault of the actors. They know what to do with a full stop or a dash. But when it comes to a semi-colon they're lost. My own punctuation drives my publishing editor to despair. He does it for me.

Are you really writing as fast as people say you are?
I always carry masses of ideas in my head, all year round. When I have four weeks in summer I use three of them to sort things out and to decide which play I really want to write. Once I've decided on that I write the play within a week. The first ten pages are the most difficult. Then it goes on incredibly easy. There may be minor blockages but then it flows again. The characters dictate their own destiny.

Why did you give up acting?
I realised that I was no great actor; that I am better as a writer than as an actor. But it was very useful to have done it. I can see actors from the inside now. And I wanted to direct. That doesn't go very well together with acting. Either or. A director is objective. But to direct and to write that's a very good combination.

You list music as one of your hobbies in Who's Who. Do you play an instrument?
Unfortunately not. But, as I said, I grew up with a lot of music and I love it from Bach to Prokofiev, including jazz. My two sons initiated me to heavier rock. But after that one of them has gone over to Vivaldi. Steven is 21, works for Time & Life, he wants to be a photographer; Philip is 19 and has just finished a cookery course.

I understand you have a weakness for fast cars?
Yes, that's true. I used to have a convertible Mercedes 450SL four-wheel drive; but that was no good in our snow up here. Now I have a Range Rover.

Coming back to your theatre. What is the composition of your audiences?
Six years ago only elderly people came. Now the age range is much better balanced. A good many teenagers. Schools used to come only to the classics but now they also come to new plays. I like to see young, newly-wed couples. Mostly it's the broad spectrum of the middle class that comes. I aim at having a community theatre which should enrich our town. I have no intention to bring documentaries, for instance about the fishing industry. Sometimes people find themselves through our theatre, sometimes they find others and it helps them to overcome their loneliness. Some come as voluntary helpers. That pleases me a lot. Sometimes sexual attitudes play a part: hard as I try, I can't get my decorator here. He's a very intelligent man but he insists he wouldn't understand us. He sends his wife and daughter. I think he's afraid he'd lose his virility if he came or he would be teased by his mates.

Is there a new play on the cards?
Probably not before next summer.

That will, in fact, make it the 36th in as many years.
[1] The first six years of his life, talking in averages, must be considered a write-off. Or is there something in the bank?
His agent told me it would be impossible to give statistics of Ayckbourn's world wide successes. 'That would be a science of its own', she said. It would be astonishing enough if Alan Ayckbourn were played all over Western Europe. But this melancholy, evidently, very private man makes, almost literally, the whole world laugh: the Romanians as much as the Israelis or the Americans. Even the Russians cease to say 'nyet' and join in the laughter (but, according to his agent, they do say 'nyet' when it comes to paying royalties). Yet the big cities 'daunt' him, there is an undercurrent of fear and, I suspect, we still underestimate the tragic depth of his comedies. He is happiest in pleasant, bracing Scarborough.
I had a quick word with the lady at the box office who has been working with Alan Ayckbourn for 25 years in all sorts of capacities. She leaned towards me and whispered: 'I think he's a genius'. Vox populi?

Website Notes:
[1] By 1980, Alan had actually been writing for 21 years and had written 26 plays. If he had in fact written 36 plays in 'as many years', he would have begun his professional playwriting career at the age of six….

Copyright: Literary 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.