Interview: Wigan Evening Post (1981)

This interview was published in the Wigan Evening Post on 1 July 1981.

Ayckbourn Plays It By The Book

by Francesca Hare

Alan Ayckbourn, our most successful and prolific dramatist since Noël Coward, is taking tea at the Savoy Hotel and gazes up at the rather amazing chandelier nearly above him. It is a large and twirly and green and white affair and looks like a bush of orange blossom, ablaze with lightbulbs.

It reminds him of a story about an Englishman on a trip to Moscow who is warned that his hotel room is bound to be "bugged". He searches the room and fins this "round thing" hidden under the carpet. He unscrews it, certain it is a "bug".

"It wasn't. It was the fitting which anchored the chandelier in the room below and he sends it crashing to the ground," says the man whose plays with their gentle humour at the expense of the English middle-class and their marital power-games have delighted audiences throughout the world.

Surprisingly perhaps, Ayckbourn, author of 27 plays, including the award-winning
Absurd Person Singular, Just Between Ourselves, The Norman Conquests, and Bedroom Farce, considers himself primarily as a theatre director and not a writer. This is because he spends about 48 weeks of the year as director of Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round and only a mere and amazing two weeks writing a play.

He's been director at Scarborough for 10 years
[1]; 24 of his plays have had their premiere there and that is where he intends to stay because he likes what he's doing.

"It's the absolute paradise. I decide what plays to do, cast them, no one interferes, I even put off first nights," he says, sipping his tea and eyeing that chandelier.

Ayckbourn is a Londoner; his father was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra - like most professional musicians he really loathed music and regarded Beethoven as "a bloody old bore" - while his mother wrote for women's magazines.

Originally he planned to be a journalist. As a small child he used to have a toy typewriter and began to "thunder out" his own awful tales, while his mother was bashing out her stories at the same time in the kitchen. But it was at Haileybury that he got his first taste for theatrical "greasepaint" and when he left school at 17 he joined Sir Donald Wolfit for a brief spell playing in a Jesuit Hall during the Edinburgh Festival.

He remembers the time, with a smile when Sir Donald who saw no harm in a little drink before the show, sent him out for a bottle of gin. The snag was, there was no water in his dressing room - and the only water available was on the other side of the stage; the curtain had already gone up and Ayckbourn couldn't get across.

"Use your initiative," roared Sir Donald, "there must be some water in the building." And so saying, he strode off down a passage, with Ayckbourn in tow. Sir Donald opened a door and they found themselves in the chapel. "And there was this barrel - I swear - that had 'Holy Water' on it. And he topped up his glass with holy water and said 'You see what I mean?' I had never seen a man drink gin and holy water before and really expected the heavens to open up," he recalls.

The following year, he joined
Stephen Joseph's Theatre at Scarborough, doing a bit of anything from stage managing to acting. It was the late Stephen Joseph, son of Hermione Gingold and publisher Michael Joseph, who was responsible for Ayckbourn writing his first play.

He was in a play and was bored with it. Stephen Joseph told him if he wanted a better part, he had better write a play himself and he would stage it if it was any good. "I'd written a little before then; pseudo Pirandello and Ionesco. All awful plays, so awful no actor would even read them... Stephen was one of those men with the great gift for putting people in the right place."

Looking back, he says he would have made an awful
actor had he continued." I'd have got no further than perhaps playing second leads although I did have ambition to be famous and mobbed by crowds. It would have all been very frustrating."

Ayckbourn, the dramatist is planning to go out of-commission in September to write another play. "I've got various notions washing around in my head at the moment, most will evaporate though. Ideas come differently every time. I used to work out the plot, now I take two or three characters and it comes from that."

Bedroom Farce came about because someone suggested setting a play in a bedroom. "I said, 'ha, ha, ha' politely and forgot about it," while Absurd Person Singular was set in a kitchen. He's toying with the idea of setting a play in the bathroom.

"Where no one actually has a bath, runs any water or uses the bathroom as a bathroom. I once saw a very funny film with Gig Young getting rid off his mistress in the bathroom. She was sitting on the loo seat and he was on the side of the bath and it was all very incongruous."

Before he gets down to writing, he spends two weeks mooning around. It's his thought process. "It's all a bit pre-natal. I mend lots of things and I'm not very good at mending things and I find lots of excuses not to write, like painstakingly numbering the pages from 1-600. I once wrote half a play using a Biro instead of a pencil which I normally use and then blamed the fact that it wasn't any good on the Biro. I do get a bit grumpy, I'm afraid."

He works through the night once he's started. When the play is finished, it is copied, tied into bundles for the actors and it goes into rehearsal the next day. "Bit of a cottage industry really".

The lovely thing about Scarborough, he says, is that people join in. "Some even treat it as a television experience, saying 'Oh I don't like him', or 'Our Shirley's got a dress just like that' or 'I'm glad she got rid of him'. They are also quite likely to tell us rather loudly if they don't think the play is very good!"

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1972.
[2] The film is
Lovers And Other Strangers (1970).

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.