Interview: Evening Standard (1990)

This interview was published in the Evening Standard on 12 January 1990.

Just Add Water

by Michael Owen

For a writer who recently overtook Shakespeare in the volume of work he has created for the stage (score to date: Shakespeare 37, Ayckbourn 39), Mr Alan Ayckbourn is unequivocal in his appreciation of his own craft.

"I loathe the business of writing. I still regard myself as a
director first. I may have written 30-odd plays but I have directed more than 100 and I also run a theatre."

Fortunately the writing bug refuses to go away - "It is compulsive. It's like malaria, constantly recurring" - and the author is currently in the rehearsal room preparing his latest assault on the West End with a piece called
Man of the Moment.

He is continuing his move away, from surgically observed sagas of domestic crises to focus with this play on crime and society. The central character is a violent bank robber (Peter Bowles) who leaves jail to become a media star and chat-show host. An ambitious lady TV journalist (Samantha Bond) seeks to confront him with the humble bank clerk (Michael Gambon) who was on the receiving end of the crook's attentions and briefly hailed as a have-a-go hero.

"The bank clerk was famous for three minutes but was deeply uninteresting. The crook becomes a national hero. It is a quality of human nature going back to Jack the Ripper that we find the criminal more interesting than the victim. Good people don't make good TV. The system depends on flawed human beings."

Ayckbourn has set the play in the villain's Mediterranean villa and the action takes place around a swimming-pool built into the stage of the Globe theatre where the production opens on 14 February: This could be considered foolhardy, recalling Ayckbourn's last attempt to use a stage tank in the National production of
Way Upstream when performances were regularly cancelled as the tank sprang another leak.

He laughed. "We could be tempting fate. This one has 36 tons of water in it. It's one thing to flood the stalls at the National but if this tank goes in Shaftesbury Avenue we could close the Northern Line."

Ayckbourn wrote the play in a week two years ago and it follows the familiar progress of heading for the West End after first being staged at the playwright's own Scarborough theatre.

"I think it does break new ground. You constantly feel the pressure of having to say something new in a different way. It's nice to get a new location, like Abroad. It's the first time I've done that. I hope it is still a people play but it does deal with an issue, violence and our response to it. I'm usually known for writing about a lady having an unhappy life in Reading, or someone having a nervous breakdown in a garage. I've come out of the domestic arena. I've begun to formulate a few opinions. Until recently I had no opinions whatsoever."

Man of the Moment is actually play number 35; Ayckbourn's productivity means he has log-jammed himself for the West End; There is a five-hour epic which he describes as a junior Nicholas Nickleby called The Revengers' Comedies which had a Scarborough premiere last year but won't reach London until next year, another completed new play called Body Language, and two children's plays which may surface eventually at the National Theatre.

He will, as recent custom dictates, direct them all himself. "I used to do the plays at Scarborough then hand them over. I had a very close relationship with the late Eric Thompson but it is difficult to hand your offspring over to someone else. They can't half carve them up and I've seen it happen."

That prompted me to ask his opinion of Michael Winner's film of
A Chorus of Disapproval, the only play he has allowed to go to the cinema and on which he retained exceptional author's controls. He grimaced. [1]

"That happened because of the enthusiasm and persistence of Michael Winner. It got to the stage where I would seem cussed if I went on saying No. It is hard to say it to film people but I had no interest in it whatsoever. Winner said I could be on the set every day and virtually in control of the entire film. There is nothing more boring than sitting around a film set so I went off to the West Indies for the entire period. Anyway, the sight of a director saying one thing and the author whinging in the corner is too common. The result is a film by Michael Winner. It is not the play I wrote but I never expected it would be."

I suggested that people who remembered the National Theatre production with its sense of ensemble, its character definition and interaction of its players would come away from the film in a chorus of disappointment at Winner's version. Ayckbourn, silent for a moment then said: "I'm inclined to agree with you but it would be silly to turn round and bite him."

When Ayckbourn turns to the cinema he says it will be with an original script rather than an adapted play but he is firstly and most firmly a man of the theatre. Before he turned to writing he had an embryo career as an
actor then worked in every department of theatre. "My scene-painting was not too hot but I got by quite
happily in the props, lighting and sound department. That knowledge of the nuts and bolts of theatre was invaluable."

The zenith of his acting career was playing Mai Zetterling's young lover at Oxford Playhouse - "She was so incredibly sexy" - but he also has to his credit a performance as the lodger in
Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party directed by Pinter himself.

"I was 20 or 21. The played had failed in London and Pinter brought it to Scarborough to work with a scratch company including myself. We had never met anyone like him and thought he was really up the wall. We thought we were professional actors humouring this lunatic, quite happy to take the money and run.

"But when we played it the audience was stunned. We realised we were in something remarkable. Pinter had re-invented theatre language. It's nice to know such a big talent can be mistaken for a lunatic."

Website Notes:
[1] Despite this offered control - and largely because of the playwright's unwillingness and lack of interest to be involved in the production -
A Chorus Of Disapproval inarguably stands as the least faithful and most disappointing of all screen adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn's plays.

Copyright: Evening Standard. 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.