Interview: Northern Echo (1988)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on 8 June 1988.

There's No Place Like Home

by Steve Pratt

The balding middle-aged man who slips unnoticed into the lunchtime theatre performance looks no different to any other Scarborough holidaymaker. Only the most committed theatre-goer would recognise him - but this is Alan Ayckbourn, the country's most successful living author.

For all this apparent anonymity Ayckbourn is hardly the ordinary man in the street, more the
Man of the Moment - to borrow the title of his 35th full-length play being premiered at the town's Stephen Joseph Theatre in Round this summer. During a two-year sabbatical from the Scarborough theatre - with which he's been associated for 31 years - Ayckbourn has collected praise and awards for his work at London's National Theatre. Now he's back beside the seaside.

It seems incongruous to many that a man whose plays have been translated into 26 languages and who has achieved worldwide success should devote much of his working life running a 300-seat theatre on the North-East coast. Indeed many expected his success in the capital would result in him saying goodbye to Scarborough.

It's typical of Ayckbourn, who displays none of the arty airs and graces that so often afflict the successful, to say simply: "I came back really because I like it. Scarborough has been pretty good to me as a place and as a theatre in particular. I always said I was only going to be away for two years. No one believed me, but here I am, back again two years to the day."

There was never any doubt about his ability as a writer. Dozens of hits from
Relatively Speaking through The Norman Conquests and Bedroom Farce to Woman in Mind have shown that. But his National service, particularly his revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, earned him praise and awards as a director.

He returns to Scarborough "with a certain reputation that I didn't have when I went." Ayckbourn explains: "I had to go and try a few muscles in London. One of my ambitions was to establish myself as a director. I was known as a writer although here I have been directing longer than I have been writing. I had fun playing with the large toys, the bigger company and bigger budgets but I have always wanted to come back.

"My writing is closely associated with here and my belief in how things should be run can best be pursued in a theatre this size."

He chuckles as he recalls some people's surprise that a writer of comedies was capable of directing serious plays. Then gives a clue to his own secret of success: "You have to be a very serious person to write comedy in the first place."

As he was born in London, it shouldn't be a surprise that he loves the city - "for short periods," he adds. Ayckbourn says he tends to write with his Southern voice, mainly became he feels attitudes are formed early on in life. But he supposes a lot of recent material must have been gathered in the North as he hasn't lived in the South for so long.

"I think the secret is living in a town the size of Scarborough, which is neither so vast nor so small that it's totally parochial. It's saved by the fact that it's a holiday town and has to come out of itself with 100,000 people coming in. It changes its face at different times of the year, whether it's winter or summer."

The huge concrete three-auditoria theatre complex [the
National Theatre] on London's South Bank presented him with different challenges, but he's proved to himself that he can keep a company of actors happy and contented in a place that size.

"In the National Theatre you have to make early decisions about what you want on stage because they do put unnatural pressure on you. I like to make decisions as I work and let the actors feel part of the rehearsal process."

All but four of his plays have premiered at Scarborough so inevitably he writes with the geography of the
Theatre in the Round in mind. The first thing he did at the National was to write a play set on two floors, a technical impossibility at his usual base. "But the limits here," he says indicating the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, "far outweigh the disadvantages."

The man who ranks only second to Shakespeare in the most popular playwright stakes spends only four weeks a year writing.
[1] He used to announce the title and playdates but not commit pen to paper until a month before rehearsals, sometimes finishing the play only hours before they began. Working at the National has forced him to complete his plays several months in advance but he still sets himself "crazy deadlines".

He was called the new Noël Coward after his early play successes but Ayckbourn's sharply observed comedies of pain, exposing the foibles and angst of middle class suburban families, have become a genre in themselves.

"I think I have learnt how to keep the audience sitting in the theatre. You have to be fairly subversive. If you shout at them 'This is what you must do' they get up and walk out."

Laughter is an important ingredient in any serious play.
Hamlet, he points out, is full of laughs although sometimes people choose to ignore them. "I think a play without laughs is like a man with one leg, he gets along but something is missing." He points out that his writing personality developed at an interesting time, as the Noël Coward / Terence Rattigan school of theatre was fading and giving way to new voices like John Osborne and Harold Pinter. "I was extremely impressed by both lots," he admits. "I have been going 20 years - you get lifted out of one box and put in another all the time."

He received plenty of encouragement when he started writing and at least his plays were staged. But, 35 plays later, Ayckbourn seems somewhat reluctant to accept that he's made it. He never sits back with complacency, there's always the worry 'Can I do it again?'

"I will only be successful if
Man of the Moment is successful," he says. "If I see people hoving towards me I always assume they are going to complain. The fact that they sometimes say 'I enjoyed that' comes as a surprise."

He never loses sight of his aim, to attract an audience. An empty theatre is a waste of a building, like building a chair that no one sits on. At Scarborough the high profile Ayckbourn premieres underpin a repertoire that encourages new dramatists.

His skill as a
director can partly be attributed to the fact that he started in the theatre as an actor. Eventually he realised that was not his strong point. He describes himself as an average actor, never actually wrecking a play but never adding anything that wasn't in the script.

Rehearsals with Ayckbourn directing are collaborative rather than confrontational. "In the end it's the actor and the audience. You can't really run a dictatorship. You have to run a sort of democracy, although the director has the right to decide. I go a long way not to have a head-on collision with an actor. Anything an actor discovers for himself is worth ten of what you have told him."

His return to Scarborough coincided with the arrival of a film unit in town to shoot Ayckbourn's comedy
A Chorus of Disapproval with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins in leading roles. It's the first time he's allowed one of his plays to be turned into a cinema film, the result of the persistence of Death Wish director Michael Winner.

"He twisted my arm quite a lot to get a screenplay out of me."

At the Scarborough theatre his revival of Yorkshire author J. B. Priestley's
Eden End is now playing. He's directing another three productions in the summer season starting with Henceforward…, back in the North-East after a tour taking in Germany, Poland, Egypt, Turkey and the UK. A West End opening with a cast led by Ian McKellen and Jane Asher is planned for November.

Next month he directs the world premiere of Frank Dunai's
The Parasol and then in August comes Man of the Moment. It's about a bank robber and his bank clerk victim brought together again, 17 years after the crime, by a TV chat show star.

"There's a sense that there ain't no justice," says Ayckbourn. "It's really another fable. I suppose I write morality fables in a funny sort of way. The play has a moral and a point I hope, and I believe it's quite funny in a way."

It sounds like the perfect formula for yet another Ayckbourn hit.

Website Notes:
[1] For further details about why this statement should always be taken with a pinch of salt, click
[2] Alan did not actually write the screenplay for A Chorus Of Disapproval. He allowed Michael Winner to adapt it and then suggested changes to Winner's script, which Winner ignored.

Copyright: Northern Echo. 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.