Interview: Yorkshire Evening Post (1989)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 8 May 1989.

Sands of Time

by Alan Thompson

Knowing when you are happy, recognising that fact and hanging on to it are as good a recipe as you could prescribe for successful living. They help to explain why playwright Alan Ayckbourn is a happy man as he joins the 50-plus brigade.

Being able to walk to work across the deserted South Bay - "even getting my feet wet" - in the quiet of the morning to the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round is one of the things that keep him in Scarborough, along with his garden and that greatest love, the theatre itself. He confesses to having been tempted towards the end of his two-year stint at the National Theatre to stay in London. Then he thought of that walk across the South Bay. "It is a luxury that few people in the theatre have got," he told me in his office at the theatre.

Tanned and well-built, balding a little, he would not look out of place as a Rugby forward. The handshake is firm, the impression more of a
director than the actor he used to be. [1]

Echoes of the explicit expletives of Michael Winner have now died away from the streets of Scarborough, where he made the rafters ring last year while pointing his cameras at the work of the prolific Alan Ayckbourn, now with 37 plays to his name. He is complimentary towards his collaborator, Mr Winner, praising his enthusiasm and the way he has put on film some stunning shots of Scarborough in the still-in-production screen version of the Ayckbourn play,
A Chorus of Disapproval.

It should be released soon. It is unfortunate that Scarborough's Odeon cinema has closed down since shooting was completed. Being set in the theatrical company of a seaside resort not unlike Scarborough, it was a natural to be made in the town, which Michael Winner proceeded to take by storm. But his partner in cinema was not carried away by the big screen.

"When I am working in the theatre I am in charge. When I am making a film my influence on what happens to my work takes a poor second or third place to directors and others. And with a stage production I can always hope it will improve as it goes on. With a film it is fixed forever."

There is no doubt the theatre was Alan Ayckbourn's first love as a medium to work in, although he recalls boyhood days when he and his half-brother sat entranced in the local cinemas which changed programmes three times a week. "We would stay there from two in the afternoon to 11 at night watching whatever they put on in the '40s and '50s. Mother did not worry because she knew where we were."

In a way it was a grounding for his latest play, which is really two plays and which went into rehearsal in the last few days. Called
The Revengers' Comedies, it is due to open next month at his favourite Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, near Valley Bridge, Scarborough.

"There may be something of the flavour of those old films in what people will see on the stage. The germ of an idea for the plays, a kind of updated old-fashioned play, came while I was directing something else. Central characters are two people who meet by chance and who are on the brink of suicide, of ending it all, when the idea grows that it might be more satisfying to find out who was responsible for landing them in their present mess and taking revenge on them instead."

It might remind some people of
Strangers on a Train.

Alan Ayckbourn admits that in his recent spell at the
National Theatre in London, he wondered whether it might be time for him to shed the northern dust from his shoes and hang on in London.

"I think the board at the theatre here had been dubious about my two-year absence and suspected it might be permanent. They were on the brink of getting me a farewell present, I believe."

Then he got around to thinking of the aspects of life that tied him to Scarborough, of which he is not a native, he says with a hint of apology, but which has taken him to its heart.

"One thing I enjoy is being able to walk across the deserted south bay on a morning like today and getting my feet wet on the way to work. Not many people in the theatre can enjoy that kind of freedom."

Living in Scarborough is not to be treated like a local hero, although few would deny that he is just that.

"The local paper does tend to call me a local man if I have a hit and a southerner if it's a flop," says Mr Ayckbourn. "But generally I am treated by the local townsfolk with a kind of proprietorial pride. They acknowledge me and smile, and would come up and talk if I stopped for a few minutes, but there is nothing to stop me from carrying on and doing my shopping or whatever. They admire but do not intrude."

At the moment, while rehearsals for
The Revengers' Comedies take priority, Mr Ayckbourn is thinking in terms of writing more stage material for children. He tried recently with Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays and had some success. "I find there is very little good stuff for the children," he says.

The Ayckbourn love affair with Scarborough started when he was 18.

"Like most southerners I did not know what lay beyond Potter's Bar. Then I did a three-month stint in Scarborough for
Stephen Joseph and I was hooked. When I decided I'd had enough of acting there was something telling me to go north, young man, and when I joined the BBC it was in Leeds. "We were within easy reach of the coast and after five years in Leeds - we lived at Adel - it was Scarborough all the way."

Along with his 50th birthday recently, the 'veteran' Mr Ayckbourn took a trip to the Virgin Islands and renewed acquaintance with his small granddaughter, Abigail Louise, who is two-and-a-half years old, and who lives in California. "She calls me grenfawther," he says, perhaps with a little less than enthusiasm for the American child accent that can be so trying.

What attracted him to the Virgin Islands was that it was a place where no one would know him, no one would make him go to parties, and no one apart from the head waiter would even want to know his name. Yes, he agreed, it was rather like the Bounty bar advertisement on television, an idyllic desert island coastline. Perhaps another case of knowing when he was happy.

He had enjoyed the break and he plunged into rehearsal with a will, he was very pleased with the way things were going. Occasionally thought it was necessary to stop work and clear out the mind before seeing if there was anything else to work on.

On the window sill behind him his office at the theatre is a picture Laurel and Hardy. Heroes? "They played their part in influencing me as well as Shaw and Priestley and Rattigan. I was lucky enough to be a couple of years ahead of some of the mode writers, with a grounding in what a properly constructed play should be."

I left the happy man to what little remained of his lunch hour and another afternoon of rehearsal.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan began his theatrical career as an actor and acted professionally from 1957 to 1964. He has been directing professionally since 1961.
[2] Alan is being polite here as his negative views towards Michael Winner's film adaptation of
A Chorus Of Disapproval were subsequently revealed publicly. It would also be wrong to say he collaborated with Winner as he did not get involved with the production other than suggesting amends to Winner's adaptation of the script, which were ignored.
[3] Alan was actually born in Hampstead, London.

Copyright: Yorkshire Evening Post. 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.