Interview: Sunday Express (1984)

This interview was published in the Sunday Express on 5 August 1984.

When Mother Used To Type On A Kitchen Table…

by James Green

Open-necked shirt. Jacketless. Thinning hair. Thickening waistline. A public school boyish enthusiasm. Could this man be more popular than William Shakespeare? Apparently so.

Alan Ayckbourn admits modestly that according to the Arts Council he is the most performed playwright in Britain, with the Bard in second place, and Willy Russell following on at No. 3.
[1] An embarrassed silence follows which he deflates by adding: "I'd be prouder if I was on top when I've been dead for almost 400 years." He knows a laugh line and waits for the response.

Hampstead-born, now 45, 6ft-tall Ayckbourn is a dramatic phenomenon. As a writer-
director he can produce a new play from blank sheet of paper to first night performance in five weeks. The longhand writing only takes from three to five days and nights, but once he finishes "I feel 10 years older. I'd be a much younger man if I could work some other way."

He deliberately won't allow himself that chance, and has a weakness for announcing his next play before it is written: Then he is compelled by deadline to deliver. But it massages his ego to emerge from that wall-of-death writing act moments before rehearsals start and hand the actors their parts.

The formula works for him. To date there have been 31 plays - five in the West End at the same time - a nap hand of drama awards, and productions around the world from Canton to Houston in 23 languages. His current play, the ingenious
Intimate Exchanges, moves from Greenwich Theatre to the West End next Friday, and the National Theatre have already bought for early 1985 his latest offering A Chorus of Disapproval.

"I get accused of writing lightweight comedies," he protests. "True once, but no longer. My style has changed and become deeper. Then, as a form of insult, I'm labelled middle-class. That's fine. I'm from a middle-class family and 60 per cent of the population are middle class. A lot of people calling themselves working class aren't that any more. Since I've only met one aristocrat and don't know life in the ghettos. I stick with the middle class and leave the extremes to those who know better."

With his background it is no surprise his plays tend to be about the bruising inflicted by the failure of marriages. His parents parted when he was 10 and he has been separated for years from his wife Christina. It is all very friendly. She lives in London. One son is a landscape gardener in Nevada City, while the other is touring the United States and Mexico playing a guitar. Alan's companion for 15 years at his Scarborough home has been actress Heather Stoney.

" My father was deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra," he explains, "and my mother as Mary James was the queen of short story writers for women's magazines. She wrote highly specialised romantic-fiction, and novels, and my first memory is of her typing on the kitchen table. She re-married, he was a bank manager, and we lived in many parts of Sussex until at 13 I went to Haileybury. By the way, my maternal grandmother was a male impersonator, and grandfather was a Shakespearean actor and an impresario. I think he opened Streatham ice rink.

"Even as an amateur I felt at home in the theatre. So I tried
acting and spent eight years in repertory at places like Worthing. Leatherhead and Scarborough.

"I've done every job in the theatre, which was useful experience, and as an actor I was reasonable if never star-worthy or first rate."

At 19 he wrote his first play for the Scarborough Theatre. It was a farce, and a success.
[2] And his next seven shows were also written for Scarborough, but they never went anywhere else. [3]

"I finally made the West End at 25 with the play,
Mr Whatnot, in which Ronnie Barker appeared. The reviews were disastrous," he says with a wince. "That, I thought, was it. So I went to Leeds as a drama producer for BBC radio. Eventually I was asked for another play for Scarborough and came up with Relatively Speaking which was seen by several London managers. It ran in the West End for one year and I was on my way... How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce...

"Now I'm writing and
directing. I've just bought a word processor and find I can revise and revise. As for first nights, I've grown hardened to them. But I don't read the reviews until four years afterwards. I've been physically sick before a first night, and when shows opened in London I would go to the pub for a drink to cure my apprehension. The trouble with the West End is you rise or fall on one night. You can only pray your horses will jump. Now I feel resigned and prowl around the back of the stalls, I sensed before the opening that the musical Jeeves, for which I did the book and lyrics, would be a flop.

"You must forget such disappointments quickly - but dine out on the story afterwards. All the best theatre stories are about disasters. Some you win, some you lose. The National produced my play
Way Upstream, which had a boat on stage, and suffered technical mishaps galore. But it's been done elsewhere and works perfectly.

"I'm totally immersed in the theatre and spend 10 months at Scarborough and two months in London. I don't seek the bright lights and mine is really a quiet life by the sea. After 25 years I've become more adroit.
The Norman Conquests was three plays in one, and Intimate Exchanges goes still further.

"You can see different versions night after night. It is a piece of theatrical lunacy with 31 scenes and 16 endings. What fascinated me was how rarely we choose our lives. Fate does that for us. We say that fate is a one-in-a-million chance, whereas in my play it is one-in-16. It may seem like a complicated jigsaw or equation but it isn't that difficult. Because of the complexity, it took me nine months to work out and complete. Not the whole time of course. I was working on many other things as well…."

Well, of course. Nobody could accuse Alan Ayckbourn of indolence.
Website Notes:
[1] This is the source of the oft-quoted - and extremely inaccurate - 'fact' that Alan is the most performed playwright in the world. In context, the British Arts Council announced on 2 November 1983 that "Plays by Alan Ayckbourn have been attracting larger audiences in the regional theatres than those of Shakespeare." A report showed between 1981 and 1983, there were 1034 professional productions of Alan's work in the UK playing to 327,000 people (in comparison there were 1060 professional Shakespearean productions performed to 318,000 people). It is essential to note though the quote is confined to a very specific time period and very specifically to subsidised British regional theatres.
[2] Alan's first play, premiered at The Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959, was
The Square Cat.
[3] This isn't accurate. Alan's first four plays were premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. His next two plays premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, of which
Mr Whatnot (his sixth play) was his first play to transfer into the West End. His big break came with his seventh play, Relatively Speaking, which premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1965.

Copyright: Sunday Express. 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.