Interview: The Word (1981)

This interview was published in The Times on 4 February 1981.

Suburban Middle-Class Jester

by Rosaleen Fitzgerald

In these days of doomwatching, it is refreshing to find a man dedicated to making people laugh. Alan Ayckbourn is well aware that he can do this and his plays usually have their audiences almost rolling in the aisles. He is Britain's most prolific and successful humorous playwright today. He has been compared to Chekhov and Feydeau and has been hailed as "the most ingenious writer of situation comedy in our day."

Charmingly eccentric, he is as English as thinly sliced sandwiches for tea. So too are the two dozen plays he has written in as many years, most of which have been box-office successes, with an average London West End run of 18 months. "A season without an Ayckbourn play," says one London critic, "is like a year without Christmas." He is the only author in recent years to have 5 plays run simultaneously in London.

Yet in spite of their distinctively English background, his plays have been performed in 35 countries and translated into 24 languages. Bratislava, in Slovakia, was his latest conquest.

"I choose universal themes," he explains. "People everywhere are involved in relationships with other people - wives, mothers-in-law, neighbours. Situations like these ring bells in every country, east or west, communist or capitalist."

Ayckbourn's own life began in the Sussex suburbia where he has set all his successful plays of the last decade. Marked with domestic upheavals, it helped to develop his insight into human relationships. Born 41 years ago, his parents were divorced before he was five. His father was deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and his mother was a journalist. When he was 8, his mother married again, this time to a bank manager. Whereupon the family "moved around the banks" of Sussex -all gold-mines for future plays.

He won a scholarship to Haileybury College, where he decided to become an
actor. But his mother, now divorced a second time, could not afford drama-school fees, so he got a job as assistant stage manager with Sir Donald Wolfit's company. A trail of backstage jobs and bit parts led him to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, the quiet Yorkshire seaside town where he has since lived most of the time. Until recently this theatre occupied two rooms in the town library [1], but it can now seat 300 in a converted old school. He joined the company in 1957 and, apart from a short spell with the BBC as a radio drama producer, he has been there ever since.

Ayckbourn's plays are rooted in British suburban middle-class life.
Relatively Speaking, the 1965 comedy that was his first success, takes place in a world light-years away from the intricate turmoil of avant-garde society. Its characters are trapped and warped by centuries of English class convention.

"All my congratulations on a brilliantly constructed and very, very funny comedy," Noël Coward wrote to him. "I enjoyed every moment of it."

More plays followed with remarkable regularity, all written in a few feverish nights as the deadline approached.

"I dislike writing so much that I get it over as quickly as possible," he admits. He never begins until he is on the brink of a deadline - and then he works like a man demented. "Writing is a boring slog in the night," he says. "The real pleasure is in bringing the play to life on the stage with actors."

Yet a measure of his self-confidence is his habit of announcing a new play's title and the date of its opening - before he has even written it!

"To an outsider my plays might seem to be very similar, that's true. But 1 feel I am making progress as a writer, even though it may not be markedly obvious. Without being over-modest, I think that by now I can put a play together. Plays are as much about what you leave out as what you put in; as far as mine are concerned, they are a sort of selective editing of life."

He makes no apologies for concentrating on middle-class life. He writes about the middle-class for the middle-class, because they make up the majority of the theatre-going public.

"I don't think I should now try and be clever and write a play about urban guerrillas, because I don't know anything about them. I think you should stick to what you know best. My duty is to entertain. I aim to create recognisable human beings in familiar predicaments, so that people will understand each other better."

First produced in Scarborough, his plays are usually polished on tour in the provinces before moving to London. His third success,
Time and Time Again, firmly established his reputation. It was followed by Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests.

But like so many authors of comedy, Ayckbourn is fascinated by tragedy.

"If you write comedies," he says, "you've got to be serious about them and take the characters seriously; all the best comedy is rooted in deeply serious things, and throws light upon aspects of life we're frightened to think about. What I'm trying to get at is a painfully funny play, one that leaves you uplifted and enlightened."

Ten Times Table, a bitter-sweet parable of the folly of power politics - which he dashed off in six nights - comes closer to this than any of his previous works. Some of those, like the zany Bedroom Farce, were all-out romps in which the longings and regrets of married couples were skilfully interwoven onstage to produce hilarious guffaws.

In appearance, Ayckbourn looks like a typical character in one of his own plays. He is a tall, burly man with a rubbery face and thinning hair. Though one of Britain's richest playwrights - his income is said to be more than £100,000 a year - he lives modestly in a rambling Victorian vicarage. His life is devoted to his tiny Scarborough theatre; it earns him little, but means more to him than anything else. When in London, he lives in a small modern brick house in Keats Grove, Hampstead.

He insists that he will never leave Scarborough, though it costs him a lot of money in taxes. "I write about human affairs," he says, "and it's all happening here in this town." Completely unaffected by his remarkable success, he remains the shy and self-effacing kind of man who could easily step out from one of his plays. His only extravagance is a Mercedes. He likes watching television, playing
Monopoly, wearing cardigans and keeping to himself.

Do his plays have a message? Yes and it's one of universal appeal. "I want people to come out of my plays," he replies, "looking happy and saying, We've had a wonderful laugh.''

Website Notes:
[1] The Library Theatre was based in Scarborough Library from 1955 to 1976 before moving to its second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, in 1976.

Copyright: The Word. 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.