Interview: The Observer (5 January 1997)

This interview was published in The Observer on 5 January 1997.

Luvvies Versus Lavvies

by Michael Coveney

In last week's New Year's Honours List, Alan Ayckbourn became the first living British playwright to be knighted since Noël Coward in 1970. He spoke on the telephone to the newly ennobled Andrew Lloyd Webber, his collaborator on By Jeeves, the musical with which he launched his gleaming new Scarborough theatre last April.

"You can't say Lord Lloyd Webber after two glasses of wine," said the composer. "Never mind that," replied Ayckbourn, "It's bloody typical of you that whenever the rest of us get a bump up you always have to be one step ahead."

While Lord Andrew (rechristened Andrew Lord Webber by Keith Waterhouse) jets around America, fine-tuning his next Broadway musical, Ayckbourn, the most popular playwright in Britain, finds himself embroiled in a little local difficulty of the sort he could fruitfully exploit in one of his theatrical scenarios of petty suburban bureaucracy addled with personal vendettas.

Scarborough Borough Council has been asked to increase its support to Ayckbourn's
Stephen Joseph Theatre by £50,000 a year. By some curious twist of entirely English public obloquy, the question of extra cash has been reduced to a straight choice between funding the theatre or the borough's public lavatories. [1] In every sense, spending a penny is the issue. To pee or not to pee,' chortled the Daily Telegraph. Yet again, the good ship of British theatre could be spoilt for a meagre ha'porth of subsidised tax.

The Labour-controlled council is mostly proud of its world-famous author. But taxpayers, especially the sort who write letters to local newspapers, rarely lose a chance to denigrate what they wrongly suppose is an 'elitist' activity. One hundred thousand people have gone through the turnstiles at the Stephen Joseph since April.

Tickets are priced at £8 or £9, £3.50 for children. And Ayckbourn is an unashamed populist "Subsidy," he argues, "should be regarded as an investment in new talent and a means to accessibility. I always find these accusatory slurs very hurtful. I inherited a policy of doing new work and catering for as mixed an audience - all age groups, all classes - as possible. I believe we've been true to that and it always annoys me when these wrangles start questioning one's artistic integrity."

Ayckbourn, a man in whose figure are combined elements of both bulk and riskiness, has lived in Scarborough for 30 years
[2], opening almost every new play of his in the theatre he has run as artistic director without collecting a salary (his worldwide royalties have earned him an untold fortune) since 1967.[3] He is, alongside Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, our leading brand-name dramatist, and easily the most prolific. Most importantly, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is almost exclusively a 'new-work' venue. Recently discovered talents include Vanessa Brooks and Tim Firth. Ben Brown, a young first-time playwright, had a moral comedy about suicide, All Things Considered, performed last season; the play is now London-bound.

The Yorkshire resort the Victorians knew as the Queen of the Watering Places has little to recommend it beyond the cliffs, castle and magnificent gardens that decorate the bay. Ayckbourn, momentarily losing his cool last week, even suggested that, apart from visiting his theatre, there was little else to do in the place except get drunk and buy shoes.

He predicts a bumpy meeting of the council tomorrow when necessary expenditure cuts will be weighed against the claims of the new theatre, converted from an art-deco Odeon cinema opposite the railway station at a cost of £5.2m, £400,000 of which Ayckbourn donated himself.

He has already cut back this year's new plays programme (eight productions instead of 12 or 13) in order to operate within economic realities. In its first year, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has acquired a modest deficit of £20,000.

Yorkshire and Humberside Arts give the theatre £211,200 a year, Scarborough itself £141,000 and North Yorkshire £70,500. More than £2m of lottery money has been earmarked for the new theatre, which has at last replaced the temporary, makeshift premises of the past 20 years, while retaining the distinctive In-the-round auditorium, adding a second smaller theatre which doubles as a much needed cinema, and most agreeable new facilities of bars, restaurant and rehearsal rooms.

It is not a lot to ask. you would have thought, to keep that going, and maybe the news of the knighthood will help. But these are mean and censorious rimes and even Ayckbourn's unimpeachable credentials as a Scarborian - he first came to the town in 1957 as an actor and stage-manager for his mentor,
Stephen Joseph, son of the publisher Michael Joseph and the actress Hermione Gingold - count for little, it seems.
When Joseph died in 1967, Ayckbourn left his job in the BBC radio drama department to run the theatre in Scarborough.
[3] He even moved into Joseph's house, a rambling Victorian vicarage in the old part of town; his entire theatre staff was invited up there for champagne on New Year's Eve. Ayckbourn could easily work anywhere he chose these days, but he still chooses Scarborough.

As the regional theatre is increasingly threatened by safe programming, reduced acting companies and candle-end economies, his exemplary career burns bright in the deepening gloom. Like Peter Cheeseman in the Potteries and Giles Havergal at the Glasgow Citizens, he has dedicated himself to theatre outside London not out of piety, but from conviction.

It saddens him that during his time in Scarborough, the town has lost four cinemas and at least two major performing venues, one of them, the Floral Hall, turned into a bowling-alley. "And the good old days, when a top comic like Les Dawson or Ken Dodd could move in and clean up at the Futurist on the seafront - the place Victoria Wood calls 'the khazi' - are long gone." The open-air theatre has fallen into ruin and this year the Royal Opera House burned out.

The refreshing thing about Ayckbourn is that, as Harold Wilson said of Tony Benn, he immatures with age. And like Harold Pinter on politics, he becomes more passionate on the importance of theatre with each passing year. Why does theatre survive? "Because it's people watching other people, being involved with other people. And for that reason it's absolutely irreplaceable.

"If we had not moved into the new theatre,* he told the Yorkshire Post last week, "we would have slowly sunk away to nothing. We will survive. I am optimistic we will be seen, in three or four years' time, as such an integral part of the town that no one would dream of writing a letter or voting against us."

The paper's leader writer, while saying that the councillors' concern for taxpayers is understandable, declared the carping to be poor reward for the playwright's loyalty over many years.

Ayckbourn's extraordinary output - well over 50 plays now - is triggered by his day job in the town. He is obsessed by the minutiae of theatre production (especially the soundtrack) and revels in the company of actors. His grandfather was a failed actor who opened Streatham ice-rink, while his grandmother was a male impersonator.

Like Pinter and John Osborne, he is one of the last of the old weekly rep school, landing his first job as a 17 year-old dogsbody for the barnstorming actor-manager Donald Wolfit: 'I'll take the boy for three pounds a week,' Wolfit allegedly roared in Aberdeen.

The plays fester in his mind for months, then write themselves in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. The new one he is planning for Scarborough in April is called
Things We Do For Love, but not a line will have been written before the posters go up and the tickets on sale. [4]

His last London success (before
By Jeeves) was Communicating Doors and although it contained a fine performance by Julia McKenzie, and was devilishly clever (as usual) in its use of time-travel and the single, differently inhabited, location of a hotel bedroom, it was not vintage Ayckbourn. It has, however, provided him with his first commercial success in Paris (as Temps Variable en Soiree) and will reach New York in the autumn, probably with either Mary Tyler Moore or Lynn Redgrave in the lead. [5]

Ayckbourn, aged 57, is the product of the middle-class Home Counties, and the portraits of defunct marriages, bitter friendships, sexual frustration and, increasingly, madness and physical mayhem that litter his work - "How did I ever get the reputation of a comedy writer?" Ayckbourn plaintively asks - are rooted in his own deep-dyed pessimism about the capacity for loyalty and love in our lives.

"I genuinely think that most people are not destined to be happy except in short bursts." His own father, deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, ran off with a second violinist. His mother provided him, an only child, with an idyllic upbringing and an education at Haileybury by writing stories for women's magazines.

Married at 19, Ayckbourn fathered two sons (both in their thirties; one is in America, one writes) and divorced their mother.

He has lived for more than 25 years with the actress Heather Stoney without marrying her.
[7] "I think a piece of us dies in marriage," he once said. "We can't keep up the initial spark. Once the little blaze of kerosene that started the bonfire settles down to a gentle crackle, we wonder whether we've got enough fuel to keep it going. Sometimes we look around and there's absolutely nothing left."

Those grim TV family, get-togethers marred by tragedy that we saw acted out so ploddingly in
EastEnders and Emmerdale over the holidays have their origins in Ayckbourn. Perhaps his most brilliant and hilarious triple-layered comedy is Absurd Person Singular (1971), with a series of failed suicides at Christmas.

In the Eighties, he wrote some superb 'social' dramas, contrasting with his more familiar domestic comedies and culminating in
A Small Family Business (1987) for the National Theatre in which a nation of shopkeepers became a nation of shoplifters in a family furniture firm of Ayres and Graces. The blacker he painted, and the deeper he dug - implicating his characters in drugs, murder, wholesale corruption and manic disintegration - the funnier and bleaker he became. Critics who once dubbed Ayckbourn's plays Chekhovian, for their melancholic sadness and comic futility, found themselves thinking in terms of Ibsen.
Accepting an award for
By Jeeves at a lunch in Leeds recently, Ayckbourn eschewed the chance to be his waspishly funny self and delivered a straight plea for the future of British theatre as nurtured and embodied in the regions. He knows better than anyone how serious the situation has become.

When Ayckbourn arrived at Buckingham Palace 10 years ago to collect his CBE from the Queen, he was announced as 'Alan Aitchbone'. We should hope that even if the Palace is not too well acquainted with a provincial playwright, then at least the councillors on his own patch might pull the chain on the toilets controversy and show a bit more respect for someone who has brought such distinction to their town.

Website Notes:
[1] The ‘Luvvies Vs Lavvies’ issue is discussed in depth elsewhere on the website (click
here) but, in a nutshell, the entire argument was manufactured to cast the Stephen Joseph Theatre in a bad light as - as was later admitted - the theatre and the public toilets are funded by entirely separate budgets with neither affecting the other. The money from one was never going to be used for the other.
[2] It’s actually 40 years, not 30 years, as Alan Ayckbourn arrived in Scarborough in 1957 and has predominantly lived in the town ever since.
[3] Alan Ayckbourn was appointed Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972 - not 1967 - and between 1972 and 2009 did not draw his wage as Artistic Director, instead the money was re-invested back into the company.
[4] This was an inaccurate description of Alan Ayckbourn’s playwriting by 1997. Early in his career, he would write to the latest possible deadline (i.e. the day before rehearsals!) but since 1987, he wrote his plays well in advance of the play’s productions (often months to a year ahead).
Communicating Doors opened 18 months after this article was published at the Variety Arts Theatre, Los Angeles, in August 1997 starring Mary-Louise Parker and David McCallum.
[6] At the time the article was published, Alan Ayckbourn was still married to his first wife, Christine Roland; although they had been living apart for more than 30 years by this point. They would actually divorce in the spring of 1997.
[7] Alan Ayckbourn actually married Heather Stoney in September 1997.

Copyright: The Observer. 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.