Interview: Science Fiction & Fantasy in Alan Ayckbourn's plays (2000)

This is an edited transcript of an extensive interview between Simon Murgatroyd and Sir Alan Ayckbourn concerning the playwright's views on the fantastic in relation to his plays. It was conducted as part of the research method for a Masters' dissertation on Alan Ayckbourn. It took place during the rehearsal period for the play Whenever, at the playwright's home on 12 September 2000.

Virtual Realities: Fantasy In The Work Of Alan Ayckbourn
by Simon Murgatroyd

Simon Murgatroyd: In 1994, you said: 'Whoever you are writing for, you can always introduce a touch of fantasy.' Do you still agree with that statement and why? [1]
Alan Ayckbourn:
The fantasy has really developed out of my kids' work, which gives you a freedom to become maybe not non-realistic, but almost surrealistic. Fantasy has always been an acceptable part of writing for children. It occurred to me that this was wrong and as I carried on making the plays I realised it wasn't that much different to writing for adults. Communicating Doors [1994] was a play where I began to step outside the four walls or the garden to other worlds.
I was very aware that for everyone that loves science-fiction or fantasy, a number loathe it or suspect they loathe it based on experiences of what they perceive to be science-fiction: hanging round hulls with magnetic boots and using positronic screwdrivers! They may not find that all that exciting. I was brought up on a diet of sci-fi from the sort of novelists such as the non-science based writing of Ray Bradbury, which is much more fantastic and he creates these wonderful worlds. Which is very different to the Asimov world where, obviously, the famous books are about robots which interested me a great deal. The idea of artificial intelligence, as artificial intelligence has galloped over the horizon during my lifetime in a way that was unthinkable. And I guess all those, Robert Heinlein and so on, have influenced me. Lots and lots of classic writers at the time when the science-fantasy magazines were out, the little square magazines, that you bought every couple of months or whenever they came out; mostly American. I began to love the allegorical stories they told, when they were using science-fiction as an allegory of, if we continue thus, then we will finish up here. This particular realm of science-fantasy wrote about the present day from a future stand-point, which of course is a very strong part of science-fiction. Reflecting the present day or extending the trends of the present day to its logical conclusion. And actually the worlds that science-fiction has devised have no real bearing on anything except on what we all agree. We all agree certain rules of time-travel, I don't think anybody's ever really experienced any time-travel to contradict it!

With this interest in fantasy, why did you wait so long to introduce it into your plays?
All that was there, but I was very reluctant to bring it into my early plays [2] and I feel it's a bit like a writer writing about football, there was a percentage of the audience, possibly - then - the female percentage who would find it unwatchable . Sci-fi in the early days was mostly lads, not a lot of girls in there. I think it's changed now. So I mean it was always there and it was only with the children it began to spill out. Very rapidly I began to realise that, firstly, my kids plays and my adult plays were growing ever-closer together. The first fantasy play, Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays [1988], was definitely for young children, but by the time I got to Whenever [2000] I really think, yes it is for children, but I hope it's no more for children than Bedroom Farce [1975]. So as those two worlds grew together, I think so the science-fiction and fantasy began to spill generally into the adult work quite dramatically with the likes of Wildest Dreams [1991]. Less so with Communicating Doors, in a funny way, which did pose the question of what if we could go back and change the past? But of course the centre of the play is really about the fact we don't really need to do that. Obviously we'll never be able to do that unless someone makes a shattering discovery, but assuming they do make that discovery, why the hell haven't they been back by now? So there is a sort of feeling that possibly time-travel into the past is going to be a very tricky thing to do on stage, unless you accept all those other possibilities, such as you can't see people when they come back, which is where I am with Whenever.

What are interesting here are your influences. The critics seem to make comparisons of your work to the works of J B Priestley and George Bernard Shaw, but it seems to me it's rooted in literature and films.
I think it's an easy handle, because Priestley was one of the few, not by any means the only other, but one of the few major dramatists who quite famously played with time. Which is now very interesting. I would say Priestley certainly had some effect on me, but I think I was brought up in such a background of films and magazines and novels of the science-fiction era that I was a child of sci-fi. Science-fiction really developed on the scene post- war when I was growing up. The American magazines and the movies and even the very early horror films, which were less Freddy Krueger [3], rather more Them! - giant ants in the desert. There was also the nuclear scare at that point and I guess the magazines influenced me. Undoubtedly I read more than anything else, I read The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, all those classic books, I Robot, the Asimov trilogy, the Heinlein books, non-stop Brian Aldiss, fine, fine books. They all had an effect in that you are what you eat. You are what you read as well and I think this had all been churning around in my mind.
But time is interesting, because you've got two angles. There's the Priestley concept of telling the story out of order or telling it backwards or even in a circle. But also time for me had a great bearing in the form of theatrical time, which is something exciting. It's the time we the audience receive and the time the actors receive. How closely can you run them in sync? You can run them very closely in sync like in
Absent Friends [1974]. Or there's Joking Apart [1978], where you go right back, it takes place over 12 years and you have a very different perception of time. You have a longer lens and therefore a landscape rather than a portrait. There's that time, plus even the simpler things like Time Of My Life [1992] which is ostensibly not one of the fantasy plays. It's in fact very much involved with time, one plot takes place over two years, one over two hours and one over two months. Obviously one of them is going backwards as well! We're having the red and the blue shift as it were, one part of the play is moving towards us at incredible speed, the other is hurtling away from us. In the centre there is the silent dinner party between the two parents. It's a long period of silence, which you're never able to do on stage, except when they're deliberate silences. But here you allow them to enjoy the pauses, which are caused by the other scenes. Which is something very theatrical. You can't do that on film. You cut away from that to get on with the story in film. In theatre, especially The Round, you're never allowed to forget they're still there; they have run out of conversation again.

Moving back to the start of your writing career, you have three very early fantasy plays Standing Room Only and Mr Whatnot. Tell me about these.
Mr. Whatnot [1964] was more an attempt to put a film on stage. It has got all the classic silent movie elements such as the car chase. Standing Room Only [1961] was interesting. Stephen Joseph was very interested in this. David Campton was the writer in residence when I was writing. He took a lot of his ideas off Stephen, who was very keen to encourage David into what was his very famous Four Minute Warning and all those plays about nuclear disasters. Most of them were post-nuclear, babies with green hair, all that business. They were all so called Comedies of Menace at that time; it was a generic name for them, which seemed to include everything from Pinter to dark science-fiction. I was not particularly interested, unlike David, as I really don't like having ideas pushed at me. But Stephen did manage to push two at me; one was Standing Room Only. The original brief was to write a play about overpopulation. At the time, there was this great panic that by the year 1996 the world would be at a standstill, as the birth-rate would have quadrupled. Stephen suggested, in a rather bizarre way, that I set a play on Venus, where the population had exploded away from Earth and had now filled up Venus. That seemed to me sort of unlikely, even given that it was a fantasy, that we ought to concentrate on the Earth. I suddenly had this idea of a traffic jam in Shaftesbury Avenue, set on a bus. It was projected science-fiction. It said, by this age, children will be no longer smiled upon and there'd be very complicated exams in order to have them. The girl has an illegitimate baby on the bus, delivering the child on the top deck, and all that. It's pretty way out and it was around the Mr. Whatnot period, which followed it.
Mr Whatnot was very much the first tribute to all those films I'd seen in childhood, right from Rene Clare's French surreal pieces that dared to depart from Hollywood realism. It was completely surreal and I thought: "This is wonderful, it goes from one level to another without even explaining it." I love this ability to leap out of the real into the surreal. I wanted to write that in a play, so in Mr Whatnot there is a tea-party, which turns into World War One. They're throwing exploding rock-buns. It's really quite bizarre to put it mildly. But I think after that, I came right back to hardcore realism with Relatively Speaking and it was some time before I went back to fantasy.

Which was in 1987 with Henceforward...
Henceforward... only came about because I had the theme and the theme was about creativity, which I know is the most difficult thing to write about. Creative artists, they're notoriously boring to see creating. I thought what I really want to say is - it's quite a personal thing - but I wanted to say: "Do you think we're right as artists to plunder our real lives? Taking things out of it, quite ruthlessly out of our personal relationships, which turn up in a play the next day?' 'Bloody Hell! That was a shared confidence,' she said rather hurt.
I'd just been working in the early plays with Paul Todd, discovering the miracles of early synthesisers. I'd yet to get into the amazing world of samplers! Certainly there were big machines coming out at the time. I realised that music was a wonderful way to explore this, because you could do it reasonably instantly and pull it together easily and apparently very fast. But in order to do it, I had to advance the time by a few years just to make it credible. And in doing that other themes introduced themselves such as the android NAN and also, of course, a third element, which came from a conversation I'd had. A girl friend was talking about what her bloke did, somewhere in the north in that sort of suburban Manchester way. He lived in this terrible abandoned estate on the top floor of a tower block, which was now totally vandalised and he was, of all things, an art historian and he worked long and tirelessly up there on books about the great paintings of the world. The question came, of course, surely he was earning quite enough money not to live there. The girl said, 'I just can't visit him, because I can't get home because it's dangerous. The gangs are roaming, he's got steel shutters and I asked him why do you live there? And he said: 'If I leave here, the last light goes out. I've got this candle burning here of civilisation.'' It was quite a heart-felt thing and I just couldn't get rid of this image of this one guy who really believed that art could change the world, if it was allowed to touch people.
So all that really produced the first futuristic play and then other ideas just began to hop in - and I still got repercussions from it! Only yesterday I got a press cutting from America, someone recently saw
Henceforward... over there and sent me the Sears catalogue illustration of a waistcoat which carried a mobile phone and CD player within the clothing, for the hyper-active man! It's all woven into the jacket. I thought: 'Oh, here we go.'

Henceforward... introduced the first of your sympathetic robots in the shape of NAN, which you would take further with Jacie in Comic Potential. To quote the movie Blade Runner [4], your robots seem "more human than human" and are often the most sympathetic, even human, characters in these plays.
Well, yes. Certainly my robots are quite vulnerable; they're like children. Although Nan is sort of scary, mainly as the first NAN before she becomes Zoë NAN.[5] She seems quite a frightening animal, but she's not dangerous, she's just protective. She's just frightens Zoë a bit. I think the idea is she's funny rather than frightening. A bit of Psycho there. But that's fun. I guess they are sympathetic. It' sort of inevitable, I mean all these humans have other agendas, whereas the robots have none. Jacie's journey [in Comic Potential] is from child to woman. I said once in rehearsal for Comic Potential [1998], that's it's a sly short history of women from the 1900s to 2000. It's sort of like the journey they've made or the average woman has made. We've sort of given them the keys and it's been quite a dramatic change for them. For Jacie, it's all a bit accelerated. One minute, here she is a sort of puppet, then she's being expected to make her own decisions to very finally saying: 'Nobody's programming me, I don't know what I'm doing.' Like a child she's both wanting to grow up while not knowing how to. She has the phenomenal brain of a robot and I put the reading scene in to say, if she can learn to read in 10 minutes, think of what else she's going to do. The warning that some people seem to get is very clearly is they won't stop there. I was saying there is a downside to the fact we are very used to have been the ruling species for living memory, being top dog. What happens when you face the platform and there's a truly civilised being there? We are no longer top dog; we're second dog. How will we adjust? Will we attack them furiously and they'll wipe us out, as they'll be that much more superior. Or will we agree to learn from them. We are going to eventually have sentient machines, which we will have great trouble separating from us. They will be able to reason, argue and not forget and in many instances they will be a superior being.
With
Comic Potential I raised the two areas where I think we surpass machines. Our ability to fall in love, which is something completely human - it doesn't happen to dogs and cats! It's something we've never been able to explain. Alongside that comes humour and both, I would contend, are illogical processes. They're flaws. The only reason Jacie can do these things is she's faulty and it may be what is built into us is a built-in flaw. Also with the loving robot comes the hating robot and perhaps this will happen despite whatever safeguards we build into them. It's going to be a very interesting century! There's a third element too. It is to do with humour and love and is creativity. This may well be something Jacie will discover from feeling the first highs of love and thus discovering early humour and being alarmed by her reactions. She will be creating rather than making.

You mentioned earlier, the possible pitfalls of writing science-fiction and fantasy elements into your plays, as regard to the audience. How do you deal with this?
With a play like Communicating Doors, I was keen not to emphasise the time-travel or the future setting. In fact, Communicating Doors is a romance and I went to a great deal of trouble so that the audience wouldn't find it hard to grasp. Although you do start in the future, I didn't make too much of it early on. There's the civil war, but besides that, in truth, nothing too distinct. With the time-travel element, we were able to make people feel not scientifically threatened. You just have to tread very carefully and you can get away with it. What you have to do as you do with an alien environment in a play is to cast one of the characters as if they've been in the audience.
The exception is
Woman in Mind as we break the perceived reality. I established a convention and said this is where I'm dreaming and this is real and then half-way through, the moment when Bill comes into the fantasy world and starts mixing, then the audience are stunned. They will experience what Susan is experiencing. A great deal of people are losing touch with reality. I wanted this angle, which is why it's a first person narrative and it's an idea, which came from the movies. I did say initially, the lights should go out briefly every time that Susan blinks!

Can you expand on how you deal with these problems?
When I was asked to write Gizmo [1999], for 12 year to 14 year olds. I thought I'm not sure I can do that. Not for them to perform. I'm not quite sure I know enough about their world, I think I know of it from hearsay. But the one thing I did mention was you can't write their world convincingly. There's nothing worse than writing a bunch of 21st century kids going "By Jove" or something. We never talk like this. However, I don't think feelings have changed through the generations, these stay the same, we still feel anger, passion. But what does change is the ambience. So you invent another playing field, we say OK we'll both start on an alien world. But I instigate it and therefore everything in it is my invention. I hope the people in it will be recognisable by you. So we set it away, in a sort of neutral area, that seems to be the best way to cope with these elements. It's a Peter Pan paintbrush; it's part of reality. But then the fact that things happen peculiarly is common to both of us.

What do you think the appeal of fantasy is?
Now the fascination with space, with science-fiction, with what if? still runs through the generations and I think it is exciting to children. Whenever takes us way back into Victorian times, which brings us through to World War Two and then through our own time into the future. But again it creates either known worlds or new worlds and it works mainly on the same principle as The Boy Who Fell Into A Book [1998], which was all set in a lot of worlds we knew. It's very exciting, you can write about the witches and wizards who are so very much part of the fairy tale world and complete fantasy. But these witches, wizards and strange powers now blend so closely with our own sci-fi. There used to be quite a strict difference. You either wrote about warlocks or you wrote about robots. Now you can have a robot warlock or you can have the Spielberg-like modern blending of the two, so that the fantastic and the real and the futuristic can be blended together. It is not unheard of now for a sci-fi hero to have magic spells! They didn't use to have magic spells; they had death rays or pieces of wiring. But anyway, it's all there for the taking and it's great. It's not new; H G Wells got very excited over a hundred years ago about the whole idea of writing the fantastic story. He set the whole thing going really.

You did once say that science fiction and fantasy allowed you to write about the big things.
It allows you to look at them from a different angle. Even Virtual Reality [2000], looks at what could happen, well what is happening. It's that curious world we live in now where communication is more perfect and less perfect depending on how you look at it. I'm not sure we will look back on this generation of email with the same affection as the love-letters, which were written when Victoria was Queen. Months of separation with no way of communication except by quill pen and careful phrasing. Obviously the like of these will not be seen again. The great romantic phone-call is lost forever, isn't it! I sometimes fear, sometimes on email you see this really sad spectre of people having to explain their meaning through a symbol. You know, 'I hope you fall off the roof ;-)' You think: 'Oh dear, we're less sure about our communication than we were.' We're actually having to put in little things saying don't take that too seriously or I'm very sad about this. We're losing the language to express it. I think my one regret is that language is getting thinner in certain ways, because we're in a scientific age. We tend to look for as exact a word as we can, rather than those wonderfully, beautifully-made words, which we used to treasure, which no longer have any meaning. A lot of people don't know words anymore. I've been in rehearsals with people who spend 10 minutes reading each line and some of the words were extraordinary to them. You can't wait for the cue any longer, it's meant to be a quick line-run!

Finally, is there anything other genre left you want to explore? I believe you've tackled science-fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, horror and ghost story, even the epic - with The Champion of Paribanou. There's space opera I suppose!
I will return undoubtedly to fantasy, if not sci-fi themes. In a way, I guess I've explored all the rooms of the house of naturalism. It's interesting to move out. I don't think it's a bad thing, it's not unreasonable. Look at Shakespeare, he went into complete fantasy and was none the worse for that. I think, in the end, you begin to explore beyond your experience.

Website Notes:
[1] Quote from Yorkshire Post, 1 February 1994
[2] Alan Ayckbourn's earliest acknowledged play with science fiction / fantasy elements is his fourth play, the future-set
Standing Room Only [1961].
[3] Freddy Kreugar is the scarred, bladed-glove anti-hero of
The Nightmare On Elm Street film series.
[4] Blade Runner is a favourite movie of Alan Ayckbourn. Released in 1982 and directed by Ridley Scott, it is set in a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019 where a police bounty hunter hunts down and kills (or retires} replicants - androids who are practically identical to humans but with superior facilities and a four-year lifespan. The high influential film posits what it is to be human whilst questioning whether the 'hero' is even himself a human.
[5] In
Henceforward…, the composer Jerome has come into possession of a banned nanny robot - the NAN300F - which he has 'fixed'. For the second act, Jerome alters the face of NAN to resemble a woman from the first act, Zoë, in the hope he can persuade his former wife that he is in a stable relationship and thus gain access to his estranged daughter.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.