Interview: Country Living (August 1996)

This interview was published in the August 1996 edition of Country Living magazine.

Northern Conquest

by Martin Wainwright

Scarborough's grand sweep of rock and sand has been given many eloquent descriptions: the Queen of the Yorkshire Coast, the Brighton of the North or, from the impressionable Charlotte Bronte, "...a subject for contemplation that never wearies either the eye, the ear or the mind".

For the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, master of the apparently humdrum, the appeal of his adopted town is much simpler. When he arrived in 1957 as a young stage manager to the brilliant theatre director
Stephen Joseph it was "like coming to live in the sweetshop".

The resort's most famous citizen, pottering about unharassed in the tumble of streets above the fish quay, has retained that sense of gratitude and pleasure in the place ever since. As one of the most popular playwrights in the world, he is constantly courted but resolutely refuses to leave for the more fashionable theatrical centres of London or New York.

"Going to the seaside when I was small meant that you had been good," he says. "When I got the job here, it was like a reward. I arrived in early June and the place was full of people with buckets and spades." There were other sweeties, too, which helped to settle the young, ex-public schoolboy from the Home Counties in the Northern town; ones with echoes of Smollett's Humphry Clinker and Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey. The 18th-century novelist's lusty hero observed that "Scarborough, though a paltry town, is romantic from the cliffs", while Agnes recalls "with delight that steep hill and the edge of the precipice" where she stood with her lover Mr Weston. In the late 1950s it was Ayckbourn who scrambled along the grassy paths above the sea, with a succession of girlfriends from the theatre.

"Scarborough's always been noted for bed, board and romance," he says, "and it didn't take long to get romantically entangled. It was a time of messing about on the beach, playing silly games on the sand with softballs, spending money in the arcades."

Winter saw the little company, fiercely devoted to Stephen Joseph's belief in theatre-in-the-round, set off on tour; but Ayckbourn often found himself back in wintertime Scarborough, a different, echoing and more private town. As the yellowing banks of fog curled in, and the seagulls mewed above the deserted beach chalets, local people reclaimed their favourite haunts.

"We Scarborough residents say that in winter, the town returns to us. In summer, there are parts of town you avoid because of the crowds, and you fall back on places that only local people know. But in winter, you can walk almost anywhere, uninterrupted and peacefully. There's a cold, clear, sunny light and when the beaches are deserted, there's not a sound apart from the sea. Most wonderful. The sea can get pretty wild in winter, too, taking away large chunks of the coastline, not to mention people." Although Ayckbourn draws much of his dramatist's material from summer day trippers, winter plays a part, too. Dark, fogbound evenings and the raging sea perhaps have an echo in the harsh and sad sides of human nature that lie beneath many of the comic plots.

The forthright nature of Scarborough's townsfolk has cemented Ayckbourn's bond with the place. Extremely Yorkshire, for all its delicate setting and bright, almost Mediterranean pan-tiled roofs, Scarborough has never gushed about the playwright's success. His ambitious, and now triumphantly realised,
Stephen Joseph Theatre [1] was greeted with extreme caution when he first proposed it. Every one of the £4,500,000 it cost was carefully thought about by local people, sceptical about whether it was either possible or worth it. [2]

Luckily, the building received quite a substantial amount from the National Lottery; but the same refusal to get excited about glitz positively helps Ayckbourn to get on with the job."The reaction to a new play [and he always premieres them in Scarborough] is more likely to be 'it'll do' - rather than 'marvellous' or 'super'. There is a very strong sense that they are not clapping you for who you are, but for what you have done. If you haven't got it right, you know they will tell you so. Or stay away."

We are not, however, talking about a Shangri-la between Bridlington and Whitby. Ayckbourn keeps abreast of the endless controversies of coastal life: sewage in the sea, seals clubbed by maverick fishermen, whether or not to fence the "suicide bridge" high above Valley Road (where he shared his first, modest flat with two young actors). He has watched the transformation of parts of the town into something very ungracious: homeless and sometimes hopeless people congregate in cheap B&Bs above North Bay; facilities are often dubious. There were two deaths three years ago in a ghastly lodging-house fire.

Ayckbourn is conscious of bis limited role, as the "man at the theatre" without the elected authority of local councillors. But he worries about "a lack of leadership in the town. Over the years, Scarborough has lost quite a lot of spirit. Self-reliance has been clobbered by things like the threat of rate-capping and there has always been a reactionary side to the place - people who take the view: 'I don't know why we want all these visitors in the town anyway?' "

Without the visitors, of course, the town would implode like a South Yorkshire coalfield village. Ayckbourn frets over the enormous potential of, for example, reviving the wondrous but now tatty open-air theatre in Peasholm Park, where grand theatrical spectacles took place on the lake's island.
[3] "I hope the theatre may eventually take a bit of a lead in things like this," he says. "Very big schemes will work in Scarborough, so long as they do not involve someone making an obvious killing. It needs to be clear that those behind them love the town a little bit."

But getting away is important for the playwright, too. He rejoices in the rapid train service to London and also delights in the wild and lovely countryside that rolls away inland from the town to the distant, purple heather of the North York Moors.

"That was not an immediate attraction for me," he remembers."When I first came here, very few people had cars and so you found most of your fun in the town. But I have got to know favourite places, coast-walking up to Robin Hood's Bay, or trying to find the Roman road on the moors. I always get lost."

Will he move, ever? It seems inconceivable. He lives with his partner of many years, the actress Heather Stoney, in the lovely old vicarage that was once Stephen Joseph's home. He has few ties in London or its suburbs, where his mother was a romantic novelist, deserted by his father who eloped with a fellow-violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra. And he is endlessly fond of his neighbours and the way they react to him.

"Yorkshire people are exceptionally non-intrusive," he says. "They respect privacy and there is an actual pride in not being effusive. Just about the only time I get approached is if I stop to look in a shop window, and someone thoughtfully decides: ah, he's wanting to be recognised, and comes up to say, 'Hello, excuse me, but aren't you Alan Ayckbourn?'"

Website Notes:
[1] The Stephen Joseph Theatre opened in April 1996 marking the company’s first permanent home since it was formed in 1955. The theatre is a conversion of the town’s former Odeon.
[2] The actual final cost of the project was £5.2m.
[3] The Open Air Theatre - which was actually re-opened as a venue in 2010 - is actually located next to the town’s famous Peasholm Park, rather than within it.

Copyright: Country Living. 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.