Interview: Unknown publication (1986)

This interview was published in an unknown publication circa August 1986.

National Ayckbourn

by Michael Leech

There are those who compare him to a latter-day Molière; those who say he is a mere play factory, others who might opine that he veers violently between the two extremes. Certainly he is one of our most prolific and gifted writers of comedy, with characters pinned to the page with the finesse and exactness of a collector of unusual butterflies.

Actually the lepidoptera of Alan Ayckbourn seem so real, so close to people we know, that they could be neighbours, friends, business acquaintances - heaven help us, could they be ourselves? Surely not, we don't have such odd habits and looks, such peccadilloes and views as the silly suburbanites and bubble headed boys and girls Ayckbourn carefully gathers and parades for us on the page, then the stage, do we? They're all fictional, surely, creatures of his fecund and fast-moving mind, we tell ourselves.

Smiling to himself and looking, as he gets older, more and more like a North of Britain Buddha, self-contained, serious yet with a knowing look, Ayckbourn isn't letting on. He has thirty-two plays to his credit now, almost as many as are contained in Shakespeare's canon (nobody as yet, as far as I can find out, has compared him to Stratford's Favourite Son. but you never know - a
Merry Wives of Scarborough or a Much Ado About Something may be on the way... and he can look back on a body of work that for most writers would be a life-time's effort.

He is not resting on laurels however, or sweeping together the dead leaves for Revised Versions, he's engaged at the moment to work at the
National Theatre in London for a couple of years with his own stream company, doing several works in all three theatres. He won't be seen back in his home ground of Scarborough until early 1988, a long time to be away from his house on the hill with its views of the sea and most importantly his cherished Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round where all his plays (with one exception) [1] have started life and usually gone on to London runs, tours and even trips to New York.

Now, of course, they are being picked up, dusted down and redone. Greenwich recently did one,
Relatively Speaking, and Germany has discovered England's prime writer of real-life comedy and is translating them, though one wonders what they will make of Ayckbourn's convoluted and well-studied humour as expressed in a vast range of individual character creations. [2]

I met the playwright on home ground - this time a riverside eyrie in newly-smart Wapping. He apparently has no difficulty in adjusting to different work places, and doesn't spend quiet days surveying the Thames shipping when the words won't come. Ayckbourn isn't a playwright who has it all done early, neatly wrapped up and rounded out. He spends lots of time tinkering and changing, right up to curtain time
[3] (usually at the theatre in Scarborough, which is in the round - it's a converted school - so curtain is really a misnomer) and even after.

He likes to have audience reactions, and finds they don't differ too much from north to south. The smart London audiences react swiftly, but by the end of the first few weeks after a London opening night they have all vanished away, and the ticket-buyers are much more likely to be from out of town and even carried by coach, thus very similar by then to those in Yorkshire. His latest work had just been done at the Richmond Theatre entitled
Woman in Mind, destined for a visit to Brighton and then the West End. Are his plays nowadays always headed for London after the almost-obligatory Scarborough run?

"Most of the plays are bespoke now before they are written. Michael Codron has usually expressed an interest in producing it, but the main thing is to do it at Scarborough first. I think this is the nineteenth one to follow that path. Having said that I have just written a play that is not for Scarborough. This is the one that will be done at the National Theatre. I think the score now stands at two for Stoke, and thirty-one for Scarborough. It's also unusual in that the play at the NT has to be written well ahead; I usually write just before we are due to start rehearsals. Next season Scarborough won't get a new play, but a revival of
Time and Time Again. I think it's good that they get a rest from me as director and author-in-residence.

"What I needed to do was to get away from the sheer routine of organisation of a full-time theatre director's job. I love the writing, I love the directing, but even though I shall miss the day-to-day contact with the actors there, I am very glad that I am having this working sabbatical. And from Scarborough's point of view it's very good that I am seen to be doing something else and the theatre is running perfectly well without me. I was always afraid that in some circles grants of aid might be tagged to me. And I'd hate to think that when I left the theatre wasn't intact.

"We all know inside that it's a perfectly valid operation without my presence, but perhaps we need to tell our founding masters a little more clearly. I think I've always needed a theatre, but I've no way of knowing whether it had to be there. I think that it is the unlikeness of the location of the Stephen Joseph Theatre that has kept it going. In other places it might have been lured into a transfer situation or been polluted by London. I think it's a safe place - a very independent town on the end of a railway line. Artists who go there do so because they want to work, there's certainly nothing else in terms of money or kudos. I'm quite a strong regionalist, although I know it's easier for me than for some because I can go and work in the regions for piteous sums of money while I have an income coming in from plays, in essence I have a private income."

Does he have something he might call a 'work pattern'?

"I have a sort of yearly work pattern. I produce a new play every twelve months, and half of that time is spent literally stewing it in my head and stocking up on ideas and characters. So most of the year is gestation and then a little under two weeks is spent in writing it. I usually manage to hit the deadline just before we start rehearsing as I said. This way the act of writing and
directing is continual, which is the way I like to work. I used to write longhand, and then dictating to someone on a typewriter, followed by correction, and those three drafts could each take about three or four days. Now I work on a word-processor, which I actually like very much. It's marvellous, it could have been invented for a playwright, in fact I find myself wondering whatever else it could be used for! It allows me to get the initial ideas down, then I can go through it dozens of times correcting and shaping. I quite like technology, but I do worry a bit about keeping a record so in addition to two sets of discs I do keep a copy in good old print on paper, and that gives me a sense ot relief.

"When I was an
actor I used to write at night, partly because it was the only time I had and also because with young children we split the duties and I used to do the night feeds. I used to work round the clock when I was writing; I don't think I could do it now. but then it was rather fun. Since I entered the forties I've worked during the daytime which is actually quite new to me. The last three or four plays have all been done during the day. I've no urge to act again, and certainly I have no wish to take part in one of my own plays. I think acting is one of those things that, particularly when you gel into direction, becomes increasingly difficult to do. I could no more act now than fly through the air.

"I'm very glad that I did act for a time at Worthing, Leatherhead and Oxford, and very early on with Donald Wolfit's company. It has given me invaluable insights into writing and directing for the theatre, because I can understand how actors normally think and feel, which is very helpful, when you come to directing them!"

He has virtually established his own assemblage of actors that he returns to all the time, some names are always appearing in his plays. Does he find that he writes for certain actors, knowing how they work?

"No, I don't write for individuals, even though I do call on them quite often. They're very good actors, that's what I really like. The old mistake that one still sometimes makes is to slightly underestimate what an actor can do with three words as opposed to thirty-five. In turn they excite me with what they do to a work of mine when I'm working with them, and that all feeds back. A lot of my plays are generated out of the sheer excitement of working with actors. It's interesting to have two bites of the cherry too. sometimes, as I've just had in directing
A Chorus of Disapproval first for the National and then for the West End with an almost completely new cast. Working with two extraordinary actors, first Michael Gambon then Colin Blakely on the same part, was very exciting because Colin came along and gave a totally different reading yet one that was absolutely valid. To have two performances of that calibre on the same play is just a wonderful gift to a writer. That's when it really is nice - when you've got all the added ingredients of an actor's personality, skills and charisma added to a part you've written; that can be really exciting."

He enjoys seeing his older plays being done again, even ones that couldn't have been called successful on their initial exposure, such as
Absent Friends.

"I'm pleased when the slightly wayward ones, such as
Absent Friends don't get lost. It turned up on television here recently and was also done by a Dutch experimental company. Just Between Ourselves also gets aired. It seems that after all these years I've finally reached the Fringe!"

Website Notes:
[1] It is actually three plays at this stage in his career which did not premiere in Scarborough.
Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) opened at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, whilst Jeeves premiered at the Bristol Hippodrome before transferring to the West End.
[2] Germany had actually been an early adopted of Alan's plays and by 1968, Germany was only second to England for productions of Alan's plays. Germany has always been a strong producer of Alan's work and his plays have enjoyed considerable success in the country over the decades.
[3] This is a misnomer. Alan has always tended to regard the script as finished at the point he stops writing. He very rarely alters anything during rehearsals. Certainly the idea he continues re-writing after a play's original run is pure journalistic invention.

Copyright: Michael Leech. 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.