Interview: Sunday Times (30 July 2000)

This interview was published in the Sunday Times on 30 July 2000.

All The World's A Stage Poorer For The Mobile Phone
by Ann McFerran [1]

The most significant and sudden change in our society is the advent of the mobile phone, the fax machine, the e-mail. Communication has been made increasingly simple, but what has it done to our lives? Everybody seems to talk on the mobile phone all the time, and mostly telling other people where they are, especially on trains.
Of course, it's great to work at home, with the screen linked to a telephone line. But that also makes you a person who never talks to people except on the screen or on a mobile phone. The home is no longer the centre of life.
Our society is splintering. In our new urban culture fewer people are going to the cinema or the theatre. Restaurants have become the new entertainment centres where everyone wants to go. But when people go to restaurants they don't really talk to each other. Not long ago I was in a restaurant near two young couples. They were all on mobile phones, talking to other people, and they were all saying 'I'm with John' or 'I'm with Mary'. They stayed on the phone for most of the meal.
Today, families talk much less to each other, partly because there's so much pressure to spend more and more time working. The telly dominates the home, and today mum and dad and the kids rarely sit down for the family meal. My plays always used to have a meal at one point. Not so much now, because not so many meals take place, except for rather pretentious dinner parties.
Mum used to be the person who slaved for three hours cooking the dinner, but she herself is out at work. So everyone helps themselves to the frozen burgers on the top shelf when they come home. There is probably never a moment when the family sit down and discuss what is going on in their lives. But we need people. And we deny ourselves people at our peril. We will find that the alternatives, like the voice at the end of the phone, are not the same thing. We need emotional expression but we are not finding it. Now there is a huge outpouring of grief at Sarah Payne's murder.
[2] It is always easier to transpose emotion to something outside your own emotional experience. I think: 'Grieve for Sarah Payne, but put some of that spare emotion you seem to need to spend to make your own particular family perhaps that bit better.'
Why do women appear to need women friends? Even women who are happily married seem to become unhappy if they don't have time with their women friends. A woman dramatist friend told me that there are certain things men cannot provide, and one of them is to genuinely listen. She gave me this wonderful analogy. She said: 'If I have a problem, I talk to one of my women friends and she will listen for about an hour. At the end of that time the woman friend will say 'I'm so sorry'. And that, for me, is enough. If I talk to a man he will try to fix my problem. He will present solutions that I have already rejected. I then feel bound to listen until I can say, 'No that is not the answer'. The man will then come out with another solution that I have rejected, and I'll say 'No'. The man will then genuinely lose his temper, because man is Mr Fix-it. If your problem is a leaking pipe, talk to a man, but if you are in a bit of emotional turmoil talk to a woman.'
That is also what can happen in my plays. I have discovered that I often describe, through a character, a problem which is very common.
Woman in Mind is a play about a woman slowly losing her grip on reality. She has reached a sexual, social and intellectual crossroads. She is a vicar's wife who has fancifully invented another family straight out of a 1950s magazine: a husband with a white suit, a slightly mischievous son and a lovely daughter who adores her.
Her family are, in fact, an extremely gloomy set of people, but I wrote the play from this woman's point of view, inviting the audience to empathise with her. In the end the woman has a breakdown and just closes down altogether, which is very upsetting.
After the play opened, I realised that many women had been very close to that experience. It became the play that men laughed at and women sat watching rather quietly. Julia McKenzie, the actress who played the role, received mountains of mail from women who had been within inches of breakdown. Typical was a letter Julia got from a man in his sixties who wrote: 'I came to see a matinee with my daughter who is in her forties. I had a thoroughly good laugh and I looked around to see my daughter crying. I took her to the Savoy for tea and said, 'What's the matter?' She said, 'Daddy, that's happened to me. I had that same complete collapse.' I said, 'I didn't notice.' She said, 'I know.' In his letter to Julia, he said: 'I had a conversation with my own daughter for the first time in my life.'
I feel this is relevant to what theatre means to communities today. Theatre is a place where we come to witness and to enjoy and to celebrate and occasionally to deplore the state of human behaviour at a particular time. Watching theatre we perceive our own angst or dilemmas. I am delighted that £100m in increased funding was announced last week for theatre in the regions - it is about time.
When Gerry Robinson was appointed Arts Council chairman, he was known to be pretty ruthless. Some people expected theatres would be straightened out and heads would roll. But what Robinson found was an extremely efficiently run industry but which was very underfunded and which needed to employ more people. Theatre enhances our society. It is civilisation. It is talking about things other than purely concrete and financial.
In today's soundbite culture, education is pared down to what is strictly necessary. The e-mail generation feel they don't need to know very much because it's all on the computer. They don't need to learn about Edward II because you just do Edward II.com. But when the mind no longer becomes the processor of information, you don't have any creative thought.
Any creative work is a result of disconnected ideas often banging together and creating a third idea. We are not going to be the most intelligent beings on the planet very much longer; soon we will have a machine that can out-think us. This is a sleeping time bomb problem. The two qualities that make us unique as human beings are the ability to love each other and the ability to laugh. We need to look at our common humanity, what separates us from a machine.

Website Notes:
[1] The entire piece consists of Alan Ayckbourn talking to Ann McFerran.
[2] Sarah Payne was an 8 year old girl who was the victim of a high-profile abduction and murder in the UK in July 2000.

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