Interview: The Times (1985)

This interview was published in The Times on 27 July 1985.

Crafty Chronicler Of Middle Mind

by Nicholas Shakespeare

For someone who is translated into more than 30 languages - and has an avenue named after him in New York
[1] - he could not be more English.

"No, no, what's the score?" was Alan Ayckbourn's urgent question to anyone who descended from the outside world to inquire after rehearsals of his current play at the
National Theatre. As honorary president of the Staxton Cricket Club - he put up the collateral for their pavilion - he shares with Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Michael Frayn a passion for our national game. (Opening dates of his plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough are known to avoid important fixtures.)

The passion is part and parcel of his Anglophilia. "I've always lived here. I have a love of England's colloquial language, its flexibility. No one word ever means any one thing. Everything", he gloats, "is rife with misinterpretation. One of the reasons I've resisted writing for films is that they're always trying to get you to set them in California".

Resolute stage-dramatist that he is, Ayckbourn has not written for television either. "I've seen plays of mine on television but got little excitement from them."

What attracts Ayckbourn in these plays are middle-class English people like himself "caught in the middle of things"; "I'm of that generation", he begins autobiographically, "which made promises to live with people for the rest of their lives and" expected to do so. Then at 26 it all went wrong."

His crafty chronicling of the despair which follows has made him into the most popular playwright since Noël Coward. He waves, away the charge. "I consider myself much more a
director. That's the bit I enjoy. I'd prefer to direct a play than to write one."

As a director - he directs for nine months of every year, mostly at Scarborough, and writes his annual play in a fortnight - Ayckbourn is aware that "although it's easy to do a new play, it's not so easy to do the second production".

He thinks back with a shudder to his first London transfer,
Mr Whatnot. "There were some real tigers prowling around then. Levin was in full swing, Shulman at his most venomous. I went to bed for two days after their reviews and seriously thought of going back to acting and directing. Now I look at the returns rather than the reviews, but I'm still painfully sensitive to criticism.

"I've only to hear someone in the bar say, 'I don't like that' and I think they're talking about my play. ,Usually they're complaining about the drink. I've only one superstition left. I won't open a show in London until I've got another one running in Scarborough. If the worst happens to
A Chorus of Disapproval, I've always got Woman in Mind."

Suitably enough,
A Chorus of Disapproval takes place in and around a small provincial theatre. Guy Jones, "who rises through the ranks without having to lift a finger", joins a light operatic society to play a minor part in their production of The Beggar's Opera. In rehearsals his roles - and his mistresses - swap about until on the opening night he is playing the lead character.

"Amateur dramatic societies always have a very interesting class structure. They're a mixture of a lonely hearts' club and a forum for frustrated would-be professionals."

In examining their foibles, his play invites parallels with his own experience of the stage. Having left Haileybury College of a Friday he found himself on the following Monday in Donald Wolfit's company as "a very, very small and spotty ASM. I gained my expertise as a dramatist the hard way, on the shop floor".

Untrained as an actor, he found it was best to keep very still. At Stoke-on-Trent, where he was a founder member of the
Victoria Theatre, he used to play sinister villains like Mr Manningham, the wife-tormentor in Gaslight and Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher.

Ayckbourn would probably still be the Vincent Price of Stoke if it had not been for
Stephen Joseph at the theatre in Scarborough where he has played every summer since 1957. [2]

Joseph, "who had a load of revolutionary ideas about the theatre", steered him into directing and writing. The inspiration for
A Chorus of Disapproval comes from an incident in those early days.

"When I first went to Scarborough we discovered a disused boarding house owned by a little chap in the Ministry of Pensions; his wife had died and this company of actors descended on him with their parties and their babies. One day he got the itch, joined the local dramatic society and started acting and directing himself." That man was the grit for Guy Jones.

"Guy is an absorbent. Instead of having a central character who is a dynamo driving everyone on, I've always been interested in having a vacuum, a giant slate that everyone scribbles on. I'm interested in people who aren't in control of their career. I've never been in control of mine. A lot of my obsessions are to do, with the fact I've never taken a serious decision in my life."

Website Notes:
[1] Sadly Ayckbourn Avenue was only renamed for a day. In March 1976, 45th Street in New York was renamed for the day to mark Alan's achievement of having four plays running simultaneously on Broadway.
[2] This isn't at all accurate. Alan only joined the company in 1957 and it would be two years before he had a play performed there. He had plays performed between 1959 and 1961, 1965, 1967 and then had an unbroken run between 1969 and 1985; he did not have a play produced in Scarborough in 1986.

Copyright: The Times. 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.