Interview: Daily Telegraph (3 March 1998)

This interview was published in the Daily Telegraph on 3 March 1998.

Arise, Sir Laughalot

by Charles Spencer

In the spring of last year, the newly knighted Alan Ayckbourn was quietly rehearsing his latest play, Things We Do for Love, when the tabloid press began to exhibit a feverish interest in the things he did for love.
His wife Christine knocked the general election campaign off the front page of the Daily Express by revealing that she was going to divorce Ayckbourn to let him marry Heather Stoney, the woman with whom he has now shared his life for the past quarter of a century.

Ayckbourn, who is not the sort of man who enjoys people dabbling in the stuff of his soul, thought "Oh s***", but it wasn't a story to satisfy the prurient for long. Everyone was so infuriatingly grown-up, civilised and friendly. Though they have been separated for decades, Christine has always come to Ayckbourn's first nights and he, Christine, their two sons and Heather all spend much happier Christmases together than the dismal yuletides the playwright has chronicled in his plays.

But the timing of the divorce also revealed a characteristic Ayckbournian ingenuity, the kind of ingenuity that delights in simultaneous dinner parties and sudden time shifts in his often dark comedies.

"I always thought that if I did get knighted I owed it to Heather to marry her because it would give her such a thrill. But at the same time I thought, well, Chris has stuck by me too. And then I realised I could do it, I could get them both in." Because the divorce went through after the knighthood, Christine is now Lady Ayckbourn. And because he secretly married Heather last autumn, she is now Lady Ayckbourn, too. "Yeah, it's nice," he says, with the forgivably smug smile of a man who has just pulled off a winning double at the bookies. For a writer whose dramatic portrayals of marriage rival Strindberg's when it comes to gloom and cruelty, Ayckbourn seems almost ridiculously happy and relaxed at present. Matters are going well on the professional front, too. After a decidedly lean patch, perhaps caused by the hassle of moving into his fine new theatre in Scarborough and keeping it financially afloat, Ayckbourn is back on form.

Things We Do for Love, which won him the Lloyds Private Banking Playwright of the Year Award in January, is his most enjoyable play for ages, combining a romantic triangle with a parallel story of fetishistic obsession. In Scarborough last year it was both wildly funny and emotionally raw, with a generosity of spirit that is seeping into his later work. "I keep writing happy endings at the moment, which is quite weird," he says over ham and eggs in a Battersea cafe. "I don't know what's gone wrong with me." The play, with Jane Asher heading the cast, opens in the West End, at the Gielgud, tonight.

I ask the dramatist if he was aware that his work had suffered a temporary but worrying decline before
Things We Do for Love. There were three alarmingly feeble shows, which never made it to London, that I still can't quite believe he wrote.[1]

"I look back at my career and I think I'm a bit like a cricketer," he says. "You get patches when you are not scoring very heavily - but luckily Scarborough has always been there to get me through and I've never written a play that has actually bankrupted the theatre."

He points out that he has been in the game a long time. His first play to be professionally produced came in 1959. He made his West End debut with
Relatively Speaking in 1967, and has been keeping the box office happy ever since. "As people keep reminding me, I'm in injury time now."

This is hardly the case. He is still only 58, and as prolific as ever.
Things We Do for Love is his 52nd play and he has already written the 53rd, Comic Potential,[2] which will open in Scarborough in May. Like Henceforward…, it's set in the future, though this is a more cheerful love story concerning daytime-TV soaps and android actors. "I'm very excited about it. I feel I've walked a different path, ventured into an entirely new set of brambles."

There are those who complain that Ayckbourn is too prolific for his own good as a writer, and rumour has it that the second Lady Ayckbourn occasionally has to prevent him from sitting down at the word processor to bash out yet another hit.

"She's a bit like the governor on a motor," he says, "but there is always the nightmare that one day I'll wake up and there won't be anything there, no new idea for a play. It's like carrying a child around with you - you can play with it in your head and deliver it when you like. I do like bouncing the embryo."

Writing plays actually occupies only a fraction of Ayckbourn's time. His main job is being
artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, now housed in a stylish conversion of Scarborough's former Odeon cinema. Perhaps because it is based in a small seaside town a couple of hundred miles from London, the theatre has never received its due as a powerhouse of new writing. But in this summer's ambitious Ten by Ten season it will be offering a company of 10 actors in 10 new plays by 10 different writers. [3]

Indeed Ayckbourn is developing a distinct school of new writers, including Tim Firth, Vanessa Brooks, Robert Shearman and the astonishingly assured Ben Brown, whose excellent play about a suicidal philosophy professor transferred to Hampstead last year. Needless to say, Ayckbourn's proteges are rather different from the 'in yer face' shock merchants championed by the Royal Court and others.
"I suppose I'm looking for the future commercial writers, for plays that don't shirk on issues but still manage to attract the widest audience. In Scarborough we use that taboo word 'entertainment' quite a lot. I occasionally find myself saying, 'We are in showbiz, folks…'."

The town hasn't always seemed grateful for having a great playwright and a thriving theatre in its midst. A year or so ago there was the hilarious 'luvvies versus lavvies' debate, in which Scarborough councillors seriously debated cutting off the theatre's grant to keep the public conveniences open.
[4] Achieving a satisfactory level of funding for the new theatre (which has two auditoria and almost twice the capacity of the old one) is a continuing headache. Ayckbourn is unable to run the place at full stretch and staff have had to be drastically cut.

His famous geniality comes close to breaking point on this issue and he warns that without the theatre the rather down-at heel resort he loves is in danger of becoming an urban wasteland of "super pubs and shoe shops". He waives his salary as artistic director and contributed £400,000 of his own money to the new building. Yet still there are whingeing letters in the local paper complaining that the theatre is a luxury Scarborough can't afford. "It's as if I was running the thing entirely for my own pleasure. In fact I'm the one person who doesn't need it, I can go and work elsewhere."

He won't, of course. He has created his custom-built theatre with great skill and persistence and he'll defend it to the death. Beneath the affable manner, Ayckbourn is a determined, even a driven man. It wouldn't surprise me to find him staging his 100th play in Scarborough in about the year 2030.

Website Notes:
[1] Interestingly - and showing we can all change our opinions and admit we were wrong - one of these plays was
Haunting Julia (1994). When the play was revived at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2008, Charles Spencer did a complete (and admitted) volte face regarding the play and its qualities. Both Charles’s original review and that of the revival can be found here.
Things We Do For Love is actually Alan Ayckbourn’s 51st play with Comic Potential being his 52nd.
[3] The 10x10 season actually included eight world premieres and two British premieres.
[4] Although this made national headlines, it was actually a non-story largely promoted by a minority anti-theatre segment of the town council; despite it being promoted that by funding the SJT, the council would have to close public toilets in the town, it later transpired the two were funded from entirely different budgets and one funding decision did not affect the other.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. 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.