Interview: Mail On Sunday (1984)

This interview was published in The Mail On Sunday on 12 August 1984.

Laureate Of Middle Class Life

by Kenneth Hurren

Alan Ayckbourn is our most popular playwright... and probably our richest.

His plays are performed in Britain more than anyone else's - including Shakespeare.
[1] Yet few of his fans would recognise him in the street. He shuns showbiz life and rarely appears in the gossip columns.

Ayckbourn prefers to live in Scarborough where he writes and produces his brilliantly funny and mechanically ingenious works. And by far the most ambitious of them opens in London at the Ambassadors Theatre tomorrow.

Intimate Exchanges takes six characters [2] - all played by Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford - and puts them through eight different sets of hoops to produce 16 plays, all different to a greater or lesser degree. It is, perhaps, the most astonishingly complex playwriting feat attempted. You might think the intricacies of his plays would take months to work out. Not so. Ayckbourn hates writing.

"It's something I dread", he said during a rehearsal break last week. "I take a month to think about a play and have it clearly worked out in my mind before I start writing." But he hates this part so much that he gets it all over and done with in four days.

He is a tall, chubbying, unflamboyant figure whose plainness gives no clue to his extraordinary talent, just as his genial conversational manner conceals the inner brooding about the darker side of life. Born in London 45 years ago and educated at Haileybury, Ayckbourn has lived in Scarborough since becoming Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1967.

He seldom visits London and has no taste for any sort of glamorous life style. His agent, Peggy Ramsay, says: "Alan is the only person I know who has not been changed by money and success. He is entirely absorbed in the theatre, as he always has been. When it meant interrupting a dress rehearsal, he declined an invitation to Buckingham Palace."

Ayckbourn once said: "The only thing money can give one is the choice not to have to go to America." Of course, he has been there .several times since - mostly to protect his plays from the manhandling of Broadway producers - but he never enjoys it.

"I don't like the American theatrical milieu," says Ayckbourn. "Everything is so frenzied, the pressures are huge."

His real pleasures are directing his plays at his Scarborough theatre, working with actors, seeing characters come to life. He is a man always at work, observing life, mentally filing away little oddities of behaviours and quirks of character. What distinguishes his plays, apart from his ingenuity and instinctive sense of wry comedy, is his creation of the instantly recognisable character and his keen eye for the minutiae of everyday life. He is the laureate of middle-class manners, mores and marriage.

Especially marriage, perhaps, which he sees as a fire extinguisher. Ayckbourn's view of that institution tends to be disenchanted. Even when his couples stay together, they seem likely to eternally rake over the ashes of old fires. The title of one of his plays,
Suburban Strains, could be the title of his Collected Works.

"All around me I see the tired marriages of my generation," he says. "People sticking it out at any cost, killing each other with unhappiness, trying to make it work."

His own marriage ended in separation in the Sixties, with no acrimony, and he has lived happily with actress Heather Stoney for 16 years.

"I'm not going to make any more lifetime promises," he says. "A promise for just a month is a lot more manageable. And it works. We keep renewing the contract. Marriage can lead to deadly complacency. A relationship based on total insecurity might be even worse. A shade of insecurity - say ten per cent is a good thing."

There are at least two marriages in
Intimate Exchanges, sometimes three. Perhaps they break up, perhaps they don't. Sometimes there's an affair, sometimes not. The 'sometimes' and 'perhaps' are because the idea inspiring the play is the extent to which the course of anyone's life can be determined by the chance of choice.

Think about it. If you hadn't chosen casually to be in one place rather than another at some particular time, how different life would have been. A contract gained or lost, a marriage or an affair that would not have happened, and so on. So
Intimate Exchanges is several plays, as Ayckbourn demonstrates how significant trivial decisions can be.

At the beginning of each, a headmaster's wife, who has an alcoholic husband - is considering whether to light her first cigarette of the day before six o'clock. Sometimes she lights it, sometimes she resists. So her future life, and those of all the main characters, are determined by this.

Ayckbourn has written more than 30 plays. Just how many more than 30 depends on whether you count this one as two, or eight, or 16. You could go 16 times and never see exactly the same play. It is worth seeing at least two.

But which two? Be careful. Ayckbourn is telling you the choice might alter the course of your whole life.

Website Notes:
[1] This was an inaccurately reported fact even in 1984. It originated from airport from 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.
Intimate Exchanges actually features ten characters performed by two actors.
[3] This is completely inaccurate. Alan was appointed Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972; the company then moved to a second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1976. Alan was also the annually appointed Director Of Productions at the company in 1969 and 1970, but in 1967 his only major contribution was to write and direct
Relatively Speaking for the company.

Copyright: The Mail On Sunday. 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.