Interview: Sunday Telegraph (1984)

This interview was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 3 June 1984.

Alan Ayckbourn, Middle Class and Almost Militant


A hazy day in sunny Scarborough. Wind-breaks, donkeys and deck-chairs. All the determined enjoyment of the English at the seaside. 0n the prom, Gypsy Sarah, "patronised by Royalty, and all classes," stares moodily out of her booth, cigarette a-dangle.

Back up the hill, some old ladies have arrived for lunch at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Shortly they will settle down for the lunch-time performance. This, explains Alan Ayckbourn almost apologetically, will be the world premiere of his latest play, The Westwoods. [1] Mr Ayckbourn, you should know, is prolific: 44 'years old, 31 plays in his 27 years at Scarborough, where he is Artistic Director of the theatre.

In the evening his
A Chorus of Disapproval will continue its run. His It Could Be Any One of Us is about to go on tour. Meanwhile, Intimate Exchanges opens next week at the Greenwich Theatre after two record-breaking seasons at the seaside.

Intimate Exchanges, which will transfer to London's Ambassadors Theatre in August, is the play renowned as Mr Ayckbourn's definitive embroidery of one of his favourite themes, the crucial effect of random happenings on our lives. The play has no less than 16 variations, triggered by random happenings happening differently; a cigarette smoked or not smoked in the first 30 seconds, and the play sets off on different paths.

"It's based on the theory that our lives are mostly comprised of sheer accidents," says Mr Ayckbourn. "Anyone who claims to have planned his life from the outset is either a liar or very dull." (He arrived at Scarborough as an assistant stage manager by chance, principally, he says, because it was a theatre-in-the-round and there, wouldn't be much scenery to shift).

There have been those on holiday in Scarborough these past two .summers who have tried to watch as many versions of the play as they could, but Mr Ayckbourn does not consider this necessary.

"It's like a great big picture book. You can open it at any page and have a good evening. You can go 16 times, but you've got to be completely mad or my mother to do that." Mr Ayckbourn pauses and gives one of the quick laughs that are full stops to his sentences. "But we shall certainly be able to multiply the audience by eight! "

The critics have found it funny, but as with all his work, accompanied by a sharp edge, a pointing-up of our frailties, the way we are frightened of each other; mistrust one another and fail to understand one another. He defines it himself as "comedy plus," and the plus thus:

"The best comedy stems from recognition from the audience, the sort of half-gasp laugh that means, 'Oh, God. yes. there but for the grace of go I.'"

Ayckbourn country is middle class country. In our blissful ignorance we expected the chronicler to be detached, sardonic, mocking. Not a bit of it. He is one of us. He wears the woolly pullover and the cords of a Sunday lunch-time in the pub. He has our brittle, slightly nervous bonhomie. He cheerfully admits to being both middle-class playwright and playwright of the middle class. He is he says, increasingly exercised by the "extreme extremes" in this country and the excessive influence allowed to them by an "eminently reasonable" but quiescent middle not prepared to stand up and be counted.

Yes, he knows it sounds like an advert for the SDP.
[2] Him? "Oh, I'm the classic fence-sitter. Brownham Common Man. Keep lecturing myself on this." Ayckbourn, one realises, is an Ayckbourn character.

Does he ever contemplate leaving Scarborough? Only if the inspiration should show signs of giving out. Oh, yes, he says, he gives the impression that it's easy, tossing off these plays in a month, once a year, because that's his public-school, middle-class way, but actually, "it's absolute purgatory."
They're still coming, though. Which reminds him. He must go and wish the cast of the latest luck. They're on in five minutes.
Website Notes:
[1]
The Westwoods is not a play, but actually a musical revue created by Alan alongside the composer Paul Todd.
[2] The Social Democratic Party which was launched in the UK in 1981 as a centrist third party.

Copyright: Sunday Telegraph. 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.