Interview: Sunday Times (1986)

This interview was published in the Sunday Times on 1 June 1986.

Shakespeare Of The South Bay

by Michael Church

The seaside photograph shows a neatly dressed young Alan Ayckbourn posing demurely with his spade. Beside him towers a woman whose features are familiar - the purposeful twinkle in upward-slanting eyes, the busy grin, the hint of unstoppable physical power. Place the picture of that face beside a photograph of Ayckbourn today and you might almost think it the same person, so complete seems the mother's incarnation in the son. If she had been a cook, his career would have been culinary, Ayckbourn says with the wry laugh that accompanies his most serious pronouncements. "As the only child of a one-parent family, I was bound to come under her influence." But it was a typewriter she slaved over rather than a hot stove. "She wrote prolifically for magazines like
Woman's Own - she was queen of the industry. And while she clacked away in the kitchen on her Remington, little Al had a baby typewriter and hammered out appalling stories."

Little Al is 47 now and the king of his own industry. His plays have been translated into 24 languages, performed in Iceland and Uruguay, Morocco and Malaysia. Last year he level-pegged with Shakespeare as the most performed writer in Germany. Planeloads of Americans arrive in Scarborough to see his plays in the intimate theatre for which he wrote them and over which he has reigned as a benevolent despot for the past 12 years. He has just enlarged his kingdom: for the next two years he will run a company of his own at the
National Theatre. When his plays were first performed there, some critics said it was a national disaster - philistine fare for tired commuters - but these days Alan Ayckbourn is PhD fodder.

His irresistible rise is the result of single-mindedness and furious energy, not to mention a talent which some call genius. His earliest years in Hampstead were unsettling. His father, who was leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, left to found another family when Alan was five. At seven the boy was sent to boarding school, which he enjoyed; his mother then went into a tempestuous second marriage with the local bank manager, whom Alan disliked.

It was at prep school that Ayckbourn made his first shot at playwriting, adapting a
Jennings story with a view to taking for himself the plum part of Darbyshire. Later, at Haileybury, he wrote, played the intellectual and, above all, acted. Then he joined that magnificent old ham Donald Wolfit as a walk-on actor and assistant stage manager. "Divine inertia" soon propelled him into the orbit of two notable bringers-on of talent, Frank Hauser at Oxford and Stephen Joseph at Scarborough, and it was with the latter that he stayed - indeed, though the man is long dead, stays to this day.

Ayckbourn lives in a large and elegant Georgian house overlooking Scarborough bay: the previous owner was Stephen Joseph. The theatre in the town is called the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round: Joseph founded it and pioneered the concept underlying it, and his legacy is to be seen not only in similar theatres in Stoke-on-Trent, Lancaster and Manchester, but more distantly in the Warehouse and Cottesloe in London.

Joseph was one of those optimistic souls who believe that everybody has one play in him, and when Ayckbourn the actor / ASM complained one night about his part, Joseph challenged him to do better, promising to stage the result if he did.

"So I stomped off home and, with the help of my then wife, who was a very judicious editor, wrote a play under a joint pseudonym, Roland Allen. This was the time of skiffle and coffee bars and the play was an unashamed launch for my own acting career. I came on in act one and stayed on, with all the best lines, until the end, and I danced and sang and played the guitar - none of which I was very good at. It was an immensely practical way to start. I learned a great deal from seeing the same bits die every night."

Under this tutelage, Ayckbourn flexed his dramatic muscles, absorbing Pirandello, Ben Travers, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, Eugene Ionesco, and experiencing at first hand the power of the fledgling
Harold Pinter (another Joseph protege). "I played Stanley in the second production of The Birthday Party, directed by this totally unknown and, as we thought, slightly crazy writer who was theatrically electrifying. I was converted forever to Pinter."

Peggy Ramsay was converted to Ayckbourn becoming his agent 23 profitable years ago on the basis of an "awfully clever" tour de force called
Mr Whatnot, in which a mute piano-tuner lustfully disrupts an upper-crust menage. The piece ends with a mimed car-chase and a dash across fields to a wedding in church. Ayckbourn also convened Alfred Bradley, the BBC's legendary discoverer of dramatic talent, who overrode his superiors and insisted that Ayckbourn be hired as a producer on the strength of Standing Room Only, a surreal traffic-jam comedy in which a family grows up thinking it perfectly normal to inhabit a large metal box [actually a stranded double decker bus] in the middle of Shaftesbury Avenue. His imagination was always bold.

His boldness is the key to his mastery of farce, the most demanding theatrical form (Joe Orton and Michael Frayn being the only other totally successful postwar practitioners).

Ayckbourn likens it to "playing a very difficult Liszt sonata - you need so much muscle and ingenuity. The more unlikely the events you have to portray, the more credible you have to make them".

For ingenuity he limbers up by reading thrillers. For comic inspiration he watches Phil Silvers or delves into his tapes of Laurel and Hardy and. above all. Buster Keaton. "Minimal comedy," he explains. "I'm very interested in how little one can do and still make people laugh." He has remarkably little interest in classical theatre and is lukewarm about most of his contemporaries (he is very competitive).

One of the Ayckbourn trademarks is a mute, inert but powerfully disruptive character at the centre of events, a sort of black hole. In the second act of
Absurd Person Singular a wife tries to commit suicide by gassing herself, then running on to a knife, then hanging herself, while a jolly Christmas party goes on round her with everyone blithely misinterpreting her intentions. She doesn't say a word from start to finish and the effect is both paralysingly awful and paralysingly funny. The mute piano-tuner, another black hole, has recently been reincarnated as Guy, the passive and well-meaning interloper who sleeps his way to the top in A Chorus of Disapproval, the amateur dramatic extravaganza which transfers this week from the National Theatre to the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue.

Ayckbourn tries not to recreate the same characters, "but there are a lot of, first and second cousins in my plays. I start out with the idea of meeting someone new, then old friends drop in". He doesn't carry a notebook around like Alan Bennett, but he notoriously draws from life, as Scarborough actors called upon to play thinly-veiled acquaintances will confirm. "Often," Ayckbourn says, "you don't realise what you've done until the other person involved says, 'You rotten bastard, why did you have to put our moment into this play?' And I say, 'Nobody knows it's there except you and me, and I didn't know until you pointed it out - I'd forgotten.'

His creative method streamlined itself recently with the aid of a word-processor, but the 11-month gestation period, during which all he decides is the title, remains the necessary prelude to four weeks of creative purdah.

"For the first two weeks there's a brainwashing time when I get rid of everything buzzing round my head. I just unwind, do jigsaw puzzles or play patience or computer games - anything to put my mind out of gear. And then I start."

When he has finished a fortnight later, just in time for the first rehearsal (he thrives on pressure), that's that. "I might shift a comma, but very little else." Whereas a writer like Peter Schaffer will spend most of a rehearsal period desperately rewriting in the light of everyone's comments, Ayckbourn is a tyrant. He blames television for encouraging bad habits among actors.

"These days I have to say no, I want it that way round, the tension is in the repeated phrase. Once you say to an actor, okay, have it your way, they all start doing it. Actors are very cunning; they'll shorten a speech if they possibly can."

The tyranny, of course, derives from the fact that Ayckbourn writes as a
director and, barring the occasional blind spot, really does know best. All the actors I spoke to emphasised how safe they felt in his hands. In the view of Ian Watson, his biographer and currently the administrator of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, "the nation is about to discover something Scarborough has known for years - that he's a superb director, of other people's work as well as his own". Richard Briers ("I'm very much an Ayckbourn animal") and Colin Blakely, who has just replaced Michael Gambon in A Chorus of Disapproval, both talk of the sheer pleasure of working for him.

At Scarborough, Ayckbourn has always done his own sound effects, revelling in problems such as how to move birdsong from one side of the auditorium to the other so that the audience will sense it rather than consciously notice it. He loves water on stage.
Way Upstream, with its real cabin cruiser floating on real water and its much publicised leaks, may have been a costly disaster at the National, but it worked magically up north. And it has worked well in other places. In Copenhagen, the zoo was closed for repairs, so the play was performed in the walrus pond. "That's the way it should be done," Ayckbourn says. "Just find a pond and do it."

Technically speaking, things will be different at the National, but Ayckbourn intends to create his own backstage team. "It's a building you go into determined to lick. You've got everything against you, a massive administration, you can't know everybody. I like to know the person cleaning the auditorium in the morning."

Ayckbourn's skill in running theatres is one reason why Peter Hall, the director of the National Theatre, has hired him. "He'll be a great strengthening for us. And hell also bring a particular flavour, deeply comic and deeply ironic." The first production over which he will preside will be a revival of the first of the famous Aldwych farces,
Tons of Money, and the second will be Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. The third play will be a new Ayckbourn, regarded by those intimates who have seen it as a surprising departure. According to Peter Hall, "I said, 'I trust you so much I'll let you write it in the Scarborough manner, at the last minute.' But Alan turned pale and said this time he'd get it done well in advance."

The author refuses to be drawn, beyond saying the play is "about honesty, the erosion of virtue, trying to be honest in a dishonest world, and where does real dishonesty begin". He thinks all his plays have "a sort of morality, people in general getting what they deserve", but he has hitherto fought shy of global issues.

"My characters tend to get angry about tiny things. I think most people do that because they can't cope with huge things - the great mushroom clouds of dust blowing over. They think, well, there's bugger all I can do about that, but I shall continue to get angry with the man next door putting weeds over my fence."

He once forbade the performance of his plays in South Africa, then decided the policy was counterproductive. Politically, he looks for the middle way. "I have this abhorrence of extremism, partly because it's so desperately boring and humourless. I've been in London for a month, staying in a hotel, and every day there seems to be a march going past for something - it's often something worthy, but it's always packed with venom. It's Rentawoman. It always seems to be the same girl with a loud-hailer leading the chants."

One wonders what he will make of Wapping, where he has just bought a flat so as to be near the new job. John Osborne once described Ayckbourn as "a right-wing boulevardier". Others regard him as a left-wing writer in deep disguise.
[1] He himself thinks that "political theatre is usually so busy being political that it forgets to be theatre. People tend to be sublimated to ideas, so you get this consciously two-dimensional cardboard figure coming on and saying, 'I represent capitalism'. And then you get some appalling little chap in a cap on the other side of the stage who represents the downtrodden ... oh, God! you think . . . and then on comes the singing shop steward to ecstatic applause - and he hasn't got a name! They can't even be bothered to give him a name. Think of all the writers who have given their characters the possibility of a good and a bad side. The best political plays hit you without your knowing it. It's so insulting to be shouted at."

Ayckbourn's art is the antithesis of all that. More visual than verbal, his comedies go for, and generally achieve, a particular kind of psychological truth. He is still obsessed with the destructive power of the suburban marriage and another play due to open in the West End in September presents a more terrifying picture than anything so far. But he is equally obsessed with his craft and never stops experimenting: a play whose course is determined by the spin of a coin, or a two-hander with 16 variations. "Part of me feels like a man who works for Waddingtons inventing new games and dying to play them with somebody."

The games may have made him rich, but he is remarkably unchanged by it. The biggest bonus, he says, is not having to say yes to jobs he doesn't want to do, such as writing film scripts. (Michael Winner is going to film
A Chorus of Disapproval for the Cannon group, but someone else will adapt it for the screen.) He doesn't like abroad and isn't interested in tax exile. Though he easily could, he does not want to become a Really Useful Lloyd-Webber-style impresario: he would rather spend the time writing, directing and doing really useful things such as printing out the Scarborough theatre mailing list.

"If he's in dress rehearsals." says Peggy Ramsay, her voice throbbing with maternal approval, "he'll turn down invitations from the Palace. Of course, he's much more assured these days, and far more knowledgeable about wine. But not in any way has he been corrupted. I can't say the same for most of the other authors we represent."

Peter Hall has no doubts: "In 100 years' time, when he's been forgiven for being successful, people will read his plays as an accurate reflection of English life in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They represent a very important social document."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan himself largely considers himself to be apolitical and not generally interested in politics. He once noted he had, during the course, of his life, voted for every major party and none of them seemed much different or better than the other.

Copyright: Sunday 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.