Interview: Sunday Express (1987)

This interview was published in the Sunday Express on 24 May 1987.

Archivist's Note: There are a considerable number of factual errors in this article, which have been expanded upon in the footnotes.

The Master Of Suburbia

by Lynn Barber

Alan Ayckbourn is by far the most successful playwright in this country, and possibly the world. One out of every 20 plays being performed in Britain at any given date is by Ayckbourn - Shakespeare comes a poor second.
[1] Moreover, though his plays are invariably set in English suburbia, they have been translated into 24 languages and performed in such unlikely venues as Turkey, East Germany and Argentina.

His royalties must run to millions
[2]. Yet he never spends more than one week a year writing. For someone of such stature, he remains curiously invisible - not least because he wants it that way. He never appears at theatrical galas or awards ceremonies and is never in the gossip columns. He once turned down an invitation to Buckingham Palace because it clashed with a dress rehearsal. He has lived in Scarborough for the past 27 years, where he is director of the Library Theatre. [3]

But for the past year he has been living unobtrusively in London and working at the
National Theatre. In order to woo him from Scarborough, the National gave him the cushiest possible deal - his own company within the company, and no outside interference. In return, they got a surefire goldmine - the first-ever premiere of an Ayckbourn play outside Scarborough. [4]

It is called
A Small Family Business and I went along to watch an early rehearsal. It was a good-humoured, easy-going sort of afternoon, with Ayckbourn ambling about directing like a kindly schoolteacher and Michael Gambon (last seen in The Singing Detective) cracking jokes.

Finally Ayckbourn dismissed the actors and turned to me. "Ha!" he barked. "You must be... humph! Well this is very... ha! What shall we... ? Tea." So an assistant disappeared and came back with a groaning tray of gooey cakes and Ayckbourn ate his way steadily through them while we talked. For the first half hour he never looked at me, but addressed all his remarks to the cakes. He greeted most of my questions with strange barks or nervous laughs. He managed to convey, simultaneously, general goodwill, acute embarrassment, friendliness and irritation. In fact, the conversation at first went much like the dialogue of an Ayckbourn play:

Lynn Barker: "Tell me about your house."
Alan Ayckbourn: "Ha! Well, it's quite nice. It looks... quite nice. I don't think people go round it saying 'Wow. It's full of things like...'" (Long pause)
LB: "Yes?"
AA: "Oh, you know..."
(Even longer pause.) "Wires."
LB: "Did you say wires?"
AA: "Yes, you know those things... wires."

So much for his house. He grew more relaxed talking about his plays. Critics generally divide his plays into the "light" ones and the "dark".
A Small Family Business looked, from the rehearsal, like a deliciously light one, almost a farce. But when I said so, he said, "Ho! It's the first time anyone has died in a play of mine. It's a fairly dark theme - honesty. It was sparked by the fact that everyone has their own idea of what honesty is. I mean most people seem to regard stealing drawing-pins from the office as fair game, but what happens when it comes to stealing desks ? There are very few totally honest people."

Would he call himself one? "Er, no. I tend to be more honest these days simply because one's got enough money not to worry, and also because I was brought up with a fear of the system."

But was he dishonest as a yout ? "I once stole a pen at school - and then threw it away. I wasn't very good at being dishonest."

School was Haileybury, one of the toughest of the old military-colonial public schools. People often tend to assume that Ayckbourn must come from the sort of lower-middle-class provincial background so often depicted in his plays, but in fact not. He was born in Hampstead, in 1939. His mother was a best-selling women's magazine short story writer; his father was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. But his parents split up when he was five, and his mother remarried a bank manager. He was despatched to boarding school at seven. There a drama master encouraged his
acting, and got him a job with Donald Wolfit (the last of the great ham actors) the day he left school at 17.

His career as an actor was never particularly brilliant, but at least he managed to stay in work constantly, as a "juvenile" in the provincial reps. Eventually the director at Stoke-on-Trent told him, "If you don't like the parts you're getting, write yourself one."
[5] So he did. That particular play is now forgotten [6], but he kept writing, and his seventh play, Relatively Speaking, scored a hit in the West End. Thereafter, he gave up acting to concentrate on writing and directing [7], and in 1972 landed his present job as Artistic Director at Scarborough. A Small Family Business is his 33rd play.

Ayckbourn's writing methods are such as to make other writers faint with terror. Once a year at Scarborough he announces the title of his next play, gets the posters and handbills printed, tells the actors to be ready to start rehearsing in four weeks' time and then shuts himself away. For three weeks he fiddles about, doing jigsaws, playing patience, working the whole play out in his head. Then four or five days before the start of rehearsals he sits down at his word processor and types it all out.

He writes so easily that his main problem is "not to overwrite. If I didn't stop myself, I'd be writing three or four plays a year."

Working at the National has meant an alteration in the formula, because the National needs several weeks to build a set, and several months to plan schedules. So for the National he had to set himself an artificial deadline - pretend it was due on such and such a date and then go into the three-weeks jigsaws, one-week writing routine.

Other than that, he says, living in London has barely affected him because he doesn't go out: "It's just getting to work and going home." He doesn't go to nightclubs, pubs, or bars; he doesn't like social drinking. He doesn't mind social eating but only with two or three close friends.

"I'm a bit of a loner," he says. "The one thing I can't do in London is belong." So he will return to Scarborough when his National contract expires in October, "and it will be as if I'd never been away," he says happily.

He gets royalty cheques from all round the world, but his attitude to money is simple: "I'm not interested in it. I know some people get a buzz out of investing it, or watching it grow or whatever, but I don't. Can you think of anything more boring than actually owning British Telecom shares?"

His only personal indulgences are a BMW, a compact disc player and two word processors (hence all those wires). Most of his money goes straight to the taxman, a lot goes into the theatre at Scarborough, and the rest goes to his various dependents - his mother, his ex-wife, his common-law wife Heather Stoney, and his two sons.

The sons are now in their 20s and Ayckbourn, at 48, is already a grandfather. "I was so pressured when I was a kid with this idea that you had to have a career, I said to my sons, 'Look, if you don't want to do anything, don't do anything. I've put lots of money in trust for you and you can have it.' So my elder son is now a smallholder in California, a sort of Wild West pioneer. I can't imagine anything worse, myself, than hacking away with a pick axe all day, but he loves it."

One of the recurring themes of his plays is marriage, and the terrible things it does to people. "I think a big piece of us dies in marriage," he says bleakly. "Men and women, exposed to each other's personalities over the years, tend to drive each other nuts."

As a child, he saw his mother go through two unhappy marriages; when he was 17, he came home from school during one holiday to find her sunk in catatonic depression. (He rescued her by finding her a flat and a job.) Nevertheless, he himself embarked on marriage at the age of 19 and "suddenly became attacked with a great sense of claustrophobia". In consequence, he has made a great point of not marrying his companion Heather Stoney, although he has lived with her for 16 years.

He admits that he is not very good at enjoying himself, he could never be a carefree hedonist - "Always that damn work ethic... that guilt."

What does he feel guilty about ?

"Anything and everything. For being alive when other people are dying, just being so lucky. I mean, if someone says, 'You must have a good car', I immediately say, 'Oh yes, but it keeps going wrong' - I have to apologise. It's different in America where someone will come up to you and say, 'Hey, I hear you're successful - congratulations'. Here, it's 'I hear you're successful - you bastard.' So I work very hard at not enjoying myself because if I did, I'd feel awful."

He sounds like a case for psychoanalysis, but no.

"I can't understand any writer wanting to be psychoanalysed. I've always been terrified of being straightened out. The thing about all my phobias and angsts and things is that they fuel my plays, and I suppose if I were a healthy balanced person I wouldn't want to write. Oh no, you have to keep the dark corners."

The view of the world presented in his plays is actually very black indeed, despite all the laughs it provides. Most of his characters are unhappy, many of them are frustrated, some of them are mad. But, as he explains, "There could be a no more boring evening than sitting watching 10 very happy people. And, anyway, one of the things theatre does - at any rate, my theatre - is say 'You're not alone folks. Other people have the same worries and problems.'

"There's a feeling now that unless a play has something of great importance to say, it's not worth taking seriously. One often finds oneself justifying one's own work by saying, 'Oh yes, I think it does say something quite important.' But then you think, 'What rubbish - I only wrote it for fun!'"

Website Notes:
[1] Whilst undoubtedly a good way to start an article, it's a highly dubious statement which can't be verified through any statistical evidence. Various reports during the late '80s and early '90s produced statistics relating to regional theatres in which Alan Ayckbourn and Shakespeare would regularly swap first and second place, but these were very limited surveys pertaining only to subsidised regional theatres and over specific periods of time. Such a broad statement that one in 20 plays in the UK was an Ayckbourn cannot be supported with any statistical evidence.
[2] Again a supposition as Alan has rarely if ever spoken about his earnings.
[3] There is a considerable lack of research in this article. Alan first came to Scarborough thirty years previously in 1957 to work at Stephen Joseph's Library Theatre. he worked there from 1957 to 1962, before helping to found the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. After two years there, he went to Leeds to work as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC between 1965 and 1970 before returning to Scarborough in 1972 to take on the role of Artistic Director of the Library Theatre; this venue closed in 1976 with the company moving to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round where they had been 11 years by the time this article was published.
[4] It was the fourth Ayckbourn play to premiere outside of Scarborough following
Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, and Jeeves (1975) at the Bristol Hippodrome.
[5] This incident took place in Scarborough at the Library Theatre. Alan challenged his most influential mentor, Stephen Joseph, about the quality of his roles to which Stephen issued the challenge that if he thought he could do better, do so - if it was any good, he would produce it.
[6] The play is not forgotten (nor ever has been). It is
The Square Cat, written and produced in 1959 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough; by this time, several books had been written about Alan Ayckbourn and a quick check through any of them would have revealed the title of the first play.
[7]
Relatively Speaking achieved success in the West End in 1967, by which point Alan had been retired from acting for three years and was working as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC.

Copyright: Sunday Express. 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.