Interview: The Mercury (1981)

This interview was published in The Mercury on 20 June 1981.

Entertainingly Speaking

by Louise Brindley

He uses his hands like a conductor; conjures words from the air with the devastating precision of Henry V's speech before Agincourt. Words are the tools of his trade. They emerge honed to cutting edge perfection. He is witty, kind, infinitely approachable. He is Alan Ayckbourn.

Music means almost as much to him as words. "Music within drama," he says, "is like a doorway to another dimension. It stretches time, is marvellous for soliloquies." His hands sketch a kind of frame to encompass all he feels about his latest dimension in play-writing, this exciting new path he has chosen to explore within the confines of the living theatre, and his vibrations come across powerfully to the listener.

Paul Todd, Ayckbourn's musical director at The Stephen Joseph Theatre, came to Scarborough at his invitation with virtually nothing to direct, simply a directive to "fill the theatre with music". He and Ayckbourn work an odd way round. Ayckbourn describes the idea, Todd writes the music, then Ayckbourn writes the words.

They work towards setting dialogue to music, not that Ayckbourn sees himself as a latter day Puccini, although dialogue with music is an operatic device. "It's just nice," he says with an expressive shrug of his shoulders, "to work with someone else for a change. A lonely job, writing."

This pale, humorous man exists on two planes. There's the successful playwright with a secure niche alongside theatrical legends; there's the insecure Ayckbourn who admits that his greatest agony is writing programme notes because he might not get the grammar right; the man who never learned how to play the piano because a ferocious lady teacher once frightened the living daylights out of a frail nine-year-old boy. There's the Ayckbourn who, in America, becomes homesick for Vivaldi. "There's just no way of getting Vivaldi on tap in a New York hotel room."

He's a bad traveller anyway, gets distressed away from home. In New York he went out and bought, "at enormous expense", a cassette-recorder and a set of Vivaldi tapes, then discovered that he was missing his Burmese cat, Bolly, just as much as he was missing his piano; his telephone. "I simply couldn't find anything I needed!"

Ayckbourn likes his roots, his home - and Scarborough is home to him, the place where he came to live quite by accident. "But then I suppose most people must have come to Scarborough by accident, either on holiday or passing through on their way to somewhere else…."

He bubbles over about Scarborough. "I came here - hmmm - in 1957, because the job I'd been offered was so exciting. Over the years it has become absolutely central; terribly important. I live here ten months out of every year.''

He regards the place with a proprietary air. In summertime - "What are all those people doing on my part of the beach? " He gives an immensely satisfied chuckle. "Hard-bitten international folk say, 'what on earth are you doing up there?' They come up to visit, wake on a sunny morning, then they know exactly what I'm doing here!''

Ayckbourn's love affair with the town started when he came as assistant-stage-manager to
Stephen Joseph's Library Theatre. He laughs tightly as he recalls all those nice elderly ladies, concerned about the lack of meat on the Ayckbourn bones, who offered him hospitality after the show. "If you want a good meal, lad. ..."

He was a very hungry ASM at times. "But if one had to starve on a little money," he says quickly, "Scarborough seemed a very nice place to do it.

"Actors do have a fairly strong union these days, thank God. A far cry from my own three quid a week days. Do you know, a chap I shared digs with actually collapsed with malnutrition!" Ayckbourn mimics to perfection the doctor's indignation, "I say, this man is undernourished! Haven't seen a case like this in 40 years! Who's in charge here?"

Success has taken the edge from his own hunger, but according to him he's the worst person in the world to have dinner with - forever leaning backwards with a glazed look on his face to catch conversations at other tables. "All the best dialogue," he insists, "is overheard in restaurants."

He puffs a little, breaks into spurts of laughter. Obviously he's well known locally, but Scarborough folk have a way of respecting other people's privacy, though they do come up to him occasionally if he happens to be standing in the middle of the road waiting for someone. Thank God his face is not as well known as Robert Redford's. Must be hell not daring to leave one's hotel room. Writers can still remain fairly anonymous.

He grew up with writing, music, acting. "Grandfather was a rather bad Shakespearean actor," he says indulgently. His mother, a prolific and successful writer, hammered out short stories for women's magazines, on a corner of the kitchen table. He firmly believed that writing short fiction was the normal thing for one's mother to do; was even given a small typewriter to play with. In those circumstances it would have been odd if he'd grown up to be an accountant or a bank-manager.

Learning stage-craft inside out helped enormously when it came to writing plays. Ironically, Ayckbourn thinks of himself as a director rather than a playwright.

"Running things here," he makes another expansive gesture to include the whole of the building, "directing other people's work, planning seasons, seeing to the artistic side of things, that's really my job." Another tight little laugh. "I'm not a very prolific writer, you know. Only one play a year, apart from a few odds and sods...."

Insularity is not for him. His saving grace is being able to have a working life in Scarborough. Living in the Shetland Isles might work for a novelist concerned with research, but certainly not for a contemporary dramatist who relies on what is going on outside the theatre at this very minute.

He grimaces, then laughs uproariously. "Couldn't write novels anyway. Just imagine it - all those great chunks of description. All that grammar!" His scripts resemble the Morse code - Jots of dots and dashes. "Actors get bewildered by too many semi-colons. Ah, they think, a three dot pause here!"

He becomes insular only when he is "about to give birth", and says goodbye to his friends for a month. The Ayckbourn diaphragm wobbles with laughter at the simile. "Writing a play is a bit like giving birth. Quite awful actually." He doesn't enjoy it. At the end of it, hopefully he has something to share with 20 other people, 10 of them actors.

The infant script goes straight from the page into rehearsal, there's a sparsity of stage directions. Nobody really understands what's going on. Hard to tell at first if the thing's going to work or not. Then the actors get the feel of it, and it begins to jell. Comedy is often born of unbearable human situations. Ayckbourn is always subtle; invariably, he hopes, truthful; pokes fun quietly at pomposity; laughs only at himself.

He's never written black comedy deliberately; has never wanted to play Lear. The great ability is to make people laugh. Very few people are able to do that. "Thank God P. G. Wodehouse never decided to become a great serious novelist. For me there is little I want to say that can't be said comically. The world needs its P. G. Wodehouses.''

Ayckbourn adores Jane Austen's deadpan humour, likes audiences to discover the comedy within the characters, not to have them react as if they'd been hit by a loose floorboard. Jelly down the front of someone's trousers is not his idea of comedy. Dirty plays insult people, but you can't please everyone. Twelve people walked out of the theatre recently.

His face puckers. "They were Adventists! Welsh to boot! I ask you! They'd have taken offence at
Hamlet. Oedipus Rex would probably have sent them screaming! What is that boy doing to his mother? "

Despite his laughter, Ayckbourn is not totally relaxed. Something teases his mind - perhaps the next verse of a song, the one he left politely in mid-air to come and be interviewed, words as yet unwritten. He's so nice that he resists, the temptation to glance at his wrist-watch; winces at the notion of being a legend in his lifetime.

How can anyone cope with that? Where can legends go anyway, when they've become one? Ayckbourn snaps that one up immediately. "He could fall into disrepute.''

The only way he can live with his fame is to ignore it. What really matters is his next play; not what he has done already but what he is capable of doing in the future. It is going forwards that counts, that constitutes the challenge. Yes, possibly there is a hidden Ayckbourn, but he doesn't sound any too sure.

Book-signing sessions, unless they're terribly well organised, leave him cold. He's dead against them. "I mean, it's as if you're not really there at all! People come and look at you, and just look. Who's he? I've never heard of him before. One feels rather like a Madame Tussaud's figure. The last book-signing session, nobody signed anything at all, so I went away. In any case, my plays are meant to be acted, if they make a jolly good read there's probably something wrong with them anyway."

Someone has just written a book about him. He wrinkles his forehead. "It's called 'Conversations With..." No, not really autobiographical, just Ian Watson, the co-author, who did a series of 12 - 15 interviews, plus thousands and thousands of photographs."

His most moving experience was when the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round opened. "We'd met with so much opposition, there'd been so much tongue-clicking; people who said that a year round theatre in Scarborough would never work. We tried first of all to expand at the Library, started to extend our seasons. So much work had been done by so many people. Getting the new theatre open was the realisation of Stephen Joseph's dream."

Local talent? "There's a lot of it around, but I find their choice of plays extremely disappointing. They so often settle for safe plays like 'Ma's bit o' Brass'; spread themselves too thinly when they should be ploughing new ground. Amateurs should generate excitement; write their own plays occasionally. Some do, of course, and there's a wealth of talent in some of the schools and colleges." Mainly, he believes, that amateurs lack really good directors. Again, there are notable exceptions.

Now Ayckbourn is stretching a new set of muscles - musical muscles. In
Men on Women on Men he slowly began to see the possibilities of music within drama; imagined all those "alternative universes" of his. Therein lies Ayckbourn's undoubted theatrical genius.

Copyright: Scarborough Evening News. 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.