Interview: Sheffield Star (1983)

This interview was published in the Sheffield Star on 8 September 1983.

A Top Playwright In Any Language

by Philip Andrews

Alan Ayckbourn is not the sort of chap you expect to find in Scarborough.

He is a middle-class southerner, and it is difficult to imagine him rolling up his trouser legs for a paddle, or sending saucy postcards to his friends. Yorkshire's, Britain's and possibly the world's most successful playwright is a big, talkative, friendly, slightly eccentric figure who waves his arms about a lot and (like his audiences) enthuses and laughs about his own plays.

Yet, in a way, Scarborough is just the place for him, for he is doing for the middle classes precisely what the seaside postcard has long done for the working man. He is using laughter to penetrate the sober, underlying truths about human relationships.

And his plays have something else in common with saucy postcards - you will find people laughing over them wherever you go. There are few theatres in Britain without an Ayckbourn play in the programme. He is more popular with theatre managements than Shakespeare, because he can guarantee to put bums on seats.

"I am very lucky that my style is comedic. It puts me in touch with a lot more people," he says. "People sometimes ask me if I would like to write a serious, play. I tell them they are serious, but the comedy makes them more accessible. My plays are about universal themes - marriage, life and death."

Beneath the laughter, he says, there is often melancholy and tragedy, as there is in
Joking Apart. It is a play for which Ayckbourn has "a particular fondness," and the idea came to him when he was asked why his plays were always about unhappy families. He decided he would write about a couple for whom everything went right, but soon discovered that their success made life hell for the people around them.

"It is an awful morality-tale really," he says, and there is a moral at the heart of most of Ayckbourn's plays. "Most of my characters get what they deserve. One knows there is a great big hand somewhere waiting to pull the rug from under them."

Nobody seems likely to pull the rug from under 44-year-old Ayckbourn; currently the hottest property in British theatre, who has produced a remarkable series of box-office hits from what he calls "a small, fringey theatre, miles from anywhere" on the Yorkshire coast.

In the past 20 years he has written 29 full-length plays, directing most of them himself at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round behind Scarborough station before launching them on an appreciative world.

He works fast. "I have to have a new play delivered by Monday week," he told me. Not a line had then been written of a work which, if previous form is any guide, will soon be translated into a dozen languages to fill theatres throughout the world. "But ideas," he said optimistically, "are closing fast."

Just as well, as the nation's critics will be converging on Scarborough in about five weeks for the opening night.

"It doesn't worry me. I work to self-imposed deadlines. I have done it before and I can do it again."

The thirtieth Ayckbourn may be a thriller, although he was thinking of changing his mind about that. What is certain is that it will be rooted in the middle class world into which he was born and which still provides the inspiration for all his plays.

"I don't write about working class miners' sons because I have no experience of them," he says.

But although they appear to be confined to the narrow world of the English middle classes, he has seen his plays performed in such unlikely languages as Japanese and Cantonese, which seems to confirm the universality of his themes.

If he wishes, he could see his own work performed every night of the week somewhere in Britain, but he avoids productions of his most recent work because he is still too closely involved with it.

"No director stands a hope in hell of getting my approval. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised by a fresh interpretation of a script, but sometimes I get a persecution complex that someone has set out to ruin my play."

He doesn't know yet whether he will come to see The Crucible's production of
Joking Apart and he certainly will not be there on the first night.

"Actors have enough to put up with on first nights without the added distraction of the author in the audience."

Once an
actor himself, he drifted into playwriting and to Scarborough by a series of fortuitous accidents of the kind he explored in his last play Intimate Exchanges, which has 16 possible endings and is currently being performed under his own direction in Scarborough. But Ayckbourn has only one ending in mind for himself - to remain in Scarborough writing and directing plays.

"It is a marvellous place to be and the theatre is small enough to allow me to get things done."

Television has tried to lure him away, but he says: "My best ideas are for the stage and I don't want to give television second-best."

He may be Britain's most successful playwright now, but he knows theatregoers are fickle and that, in the past, successes like Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan have fallen from favour.

"If that happens to me, at least I know I will be able to get my plays put on in Scarborough," he says.

Copyright: Sheffield Star. 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.