Interview: Northern Echo (1984)

This interview was published in the Northern Echo on 21 April 1984.

Alan Plays On Our Funny Antics

by Jane Lomas

There is something unnerving about meeting master eavesdropper and people-watcher Alan Ayckbourn - in case he picks up one of your mannerisms for his next play.

He is always on the lookout for new material whether he's strolling along Scarborough's beaches with an ice-cream snatching strands of conversation or even rather noting the way you scratch your nose. He has no doubt that many people steer well clear for fear of seeing something of themselves on stage. Sad in a way. because those who do elbow their way through to talk to Britain's leading playwright are, he says, usually the least interesting.

"The ones I love are those who are two restaurant tables away." he chuckles conspiratorially, a plump teddy bear of a bloke, lively chatterbox, a bit of a giggler and proud father of two strapping sons who he steered towards doing their own thing. He's mildly surprised he managed to produce two such handsome brutes.

But back to the restaurant tables. "Not so Iong ago I was watching four wives and their husbands," he says. "It was terribly interesting. The wives arrived first, sat at the table with their drinks and were squealing with laughter and having a wonderful natter. Then the men arrived, obviously having been at the pub. The interesting thing was the way the women changed. There was a lot of roguish 'I'd like to see you without them' conversation and as the evening drew to a close, there was almost an audible sigh of relief. The women got back together again and the men went hack to the bar. It was an excellent evening. As couples they got on fine, but as a group they wanted to see their own sex. But if they bad, they wouldn't have felt right about it."

He leans back in an easy chair in his office in Scarborough's
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, where he is Artistic Director, says what perfect material it is for a play and takes a satisfied munch out of his pate roll.

It was a little scenario that perfectly fits the Ayckbourn mould of the swings and roundabouts of middle class life which has had theatre audiences all over the world in stitches with an aftermath of sadness as they later ponder the tragedies, great and small, of everyday suburbia. Now on his thirty-first comedy, he is celebrating 25 years with the resort theatre
[1] to which he has remained loyal since penning his first play at the tender age of 20 because he reckoned he wasn't getting any good roles. It has seen the world premieres of all his uproarious works. [2]

He has no time for those who suggest he uses Scarborough merely as a testing ground. His plays, he insists, are written for the Theatre In The Round company and he couldn't care less if they didn't get to London. Of course they have and to name but a few.
The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Relatively Singular and Bedroom Farce, catapulting the likes of Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal. Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith into the spotlight, have won resounding applause and countless accolades.

"I hate London," says the Sussex exile. "I go there under protest, shut my eyes, gel through what I have to do and get away as soon as possible. It's a sleazy old place now."

He is so much happier in the sanctuary of Scarborough where be has the freedom to deliver plays late, cast them and
direct them. And then there's the size of the place.

"If you're a people-watcher in a village you run out of people, in a city it becomes very anonymous and you can't find the core to it. Everything that happens in Birmingham happens in Scarborough but on a small scale. You can see the rise and fall of the bright boys, you can watch the couples coming together, separating, re-shifting. And then you're just struck by the nice people here. They really are lovely."

There's a marked turn now for the darker side of humanity in his plays. "I don't think I'm a pessimist but as you write more and more about people and less and less about situations it is inevitable you are going to rub up the dark side. People do have dark sides, they do tend to hurt each other," he says.

But he can't see himself following in the footsteps of that other great comedy writer Shakespeare by turning tragedian. There's no
Hamlet in Ayckbourn hammering to get out. For a start, there is the sheer practicality to consider in that very dark Ayckbourn plays don't fill theatres and putting bums on seats is what success is all about.

Then there's the plain fact that we are often our funniest at our saddest which makes perfect Ayckbourn fodder. "Funerals are inadvertently very funny." he says "State occasions are funny where you trip on carpets or where the men aren't used to wearing swords. The more people take themselves seriously, the funnier they can be. Someone who is terribly angry can be terribly funny. The comedy is always there and I think it's quite chastening that we are funny."

Nor can we expect Ayckbourn to start taking political platforms in his plays. It has always been personal relationships which have fascinated him and it is undoubtedly that which has struck a chord worldwide where everyone knows what it is to wonder what's up with the missus, the old man or the kids. Throwing in burning issues of the day wouldn't work because his characters probably wouldn't know what to make of them. They are the eternal "don't know-ers". Rather like their creator who says of Greenham Common.

"I admire the women because they are putting up with an incredible amount for what they believe in and I wouldn't drive bulldozers at them. But I wouldn't honestly want to join them. I trust the Russians about quarter of an inch, the Americans about half an inch and I wouldn't trust the French to cross the Channel!"

And women? In the past he has been accused of making them suffer more than men in his plays but the women's movement has altered things.

"It has changed my plays," he says. "It's not that women have got any better but that men have got worse. Whereas women are finding their rope, men are losing theirs. Take a 45-year-old like me. You gave up your seat on the bus for women, opened doors, helped them off coaches. Then came the new breed. If you opened a door for the ultra-aggressive ones, you would get kicked in the shins for thinking they couldn't do it for themselves. Then you slam the door which seems rather rude and then you leave it. Of course there's a serious basis - problems of the home, who looks after the kids etc. I think the new generation are coping, it's those who are caught in the middle of two worlds."

Coping is one of the themes of his latest play,
A Chorus of Disapproval. As usual it has been a whirlwind affair. Just over two weeks on the plot of nice normal Guy seeking consolation through the amateur operatic society after the death of his wife to become everyone's Mr Favourite - including the rather lovely second contralto - to everyone finally being thoroughly nasty to him.

And just three nights spent writing it. "I hate it," he shudders. "It's awful. So lonely. No-one can help you at all. And I'm not a confident writer. I am beset by doubts. It's only the terror of the deadline that gets me there."

While Theatre-In-The-Round is safe for the time being, Ayckbourn worries for the future. He is deeply saddened that the British don't rally in the same way as the Americans or the Continentals to whom the arts are part of living.

"We are catering to the souls and spirits of people," he says. "A country without art of any sort isn't worth living in. However good the roads and hospitals are, you are dying somewhere else. We have got to get people back to the. theatre. We've got to be entertaining, I don't mean they've got to sit there laughing themselves silly but that their minds and emotions have been engaged, that they come out feeling as they have been in an emotional sauna.

"And you've got to get rid of this curse class thing, that it's the preserve of the middle class professional people. They are welcome, they are our backbone but it's nonsense to say it's beyond the grasp of those who sit down and watch convoluted pieces on television. We have to say to them: 'Do come, it's not like standing up in church when everyone else is sitting down. You can have a good laugh. . there's a bar.'

"The thing about our theatre and any theatre is that if you have had a successful evening and the house has been big and responsive, it's like a giant party that you have thrown for 300 comparative strangers. They go out drunk on whatever they have seen and that's a really lovely feeling. I'm a great audience-watcher. I have seen 300 people come in in wet macs when the baby-sitter was late, or they've had an argument or a bad day at work. If the play has worked, it spread like an infection and, by the end, they are all bouncing. That's what my theatre is about. It's that feeling I had as a kid that excited anticipation."

He intends to go on providing that excited anticipation for a good many years yet, not the slightest bit tempted by the glamour and the cash of television or films.

"I suppose I've held on pretty well as fashions in the theatre are a bit like hemlines," he muses, before hounding back into rehearsals.

Website Notes:
[1] 1984 was actually the 25th anniversary of Alan writing his first play for the Library Theatre, Scarborough. He had actually joined the company two years earlier in 1957.
[2] To be accurate, by this stage in his career, Alan had premiered all but three of his plays in Scarborough. He had premiered
Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, and Jeeves at the Bristol Hippodrome prior to its West End transfer.
[3] Alan is referring to the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp established in 1981 to protest at the British Government's decision to allow nuclear warheads to be stored at RAF Greenham Common. The camp frequently made headlines during the period particularly following the first blockade of the base in 1982 and was active until 2000.

Copyright: Northern Echo. 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.