Interview: The Press (30 April 2004)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on 30 April 2004.

Fame Dropping

by Charles Hutchinson

The timing could not be better for a wry look at our media-driven society and the cult of celebrity, yet Alan Ayckbourn admits the timing is a happy coincidence for his 66th play,
Drowning On Dry Land.

"When I wrote the play, it was all fairly quiet. The celebrity hype scene seemed to have quietened down, and now suddenly it has kicked up again," says Ayckbourn, whose world premiere opens this week at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

"People have been asking me 'Did you know that David Beckham was going to have an affair', as if I had been sitting own and reading the tabloids, which I certainly don't."

Indeed not. Ayckbourn's scepticism about the media was previously addressed in his 1988 play
Man Of The Moment, in which he passed scornful comment on television's relationship with truth, celebrity and fame and noted how it made rogues seem charming and decent types look dullards.

He returns to the theme in
Drowning On Dry Land's story of Charlie, an A-list celebrity with a gorgeous wife, wonderful children, boundless wealth, a magnificent house and one elusive quality. Why precisely is he so famous; has he ever done anything; and in the distorted world of celebrity, does anyone care? Charlie is that modern media phenomenon: famous for being famous, but is there a chink his armour?

"At least Beckham is a good footbaIler but there are others who are famous just for standing in a bucket of weevils," says Ayckbourn. "I was talking to [the actor] Matthew Kelly the other day and he suggested it all came down to a feeling of anonymity; he said people didn't have a role to play any more where once we all had a place, as a bank manager or a butcher or a teacher, whatever. Certainly my 'hero' in
Drowning On Dry Land does doubt his place; was a sporting failure who became a national hero for breaking down and being like Eddie the Eagle, [2] and essentially he's a guy with a sweet personality but what else?"

Does Alan agree with Matthew Kelly's sentiment?

“I think there is truth is what he says. There is a feeling that we can all be famous, which is an awful bind alley. Like Erika Roe streaking across Twickenham; that was a sort of fame, but she's not as famous as the players were, though we don't remember what the match was," he says.

Drowning On Dry Land mirrors the harsh treatment of celebrities meted out by the tabloids. "There is a ruthlessness in the play that reflects how we're happy to chuck people, going back to the days of poor old Simon Dee [the Sixties DJ]. The public memory goes so fast," Alan says. [3]

"I know this because I'm not known much in the world of film and television, and among young people who come to the Stephen Joseph Theatre I'm known only for the last couple of plays. You have to keep writing or the book closes."

The appetite for celebrity grows apace. "It is a disposable culture; there will be a day not long ahead when everyone has their own website with pictures that say 'here's me in my bath'.
[4] That's just what we want at breakfast," he says. Ayckbourn notes one irony. "Theatre is the ultimate disposable format. If you miss it, you miss it, you can't video it. There is immediacy to it, where everyone is gathered that night in a specific ceremony, giving matters their due time," he says. "Theatre doesn't have to worry about a build-up to a commercial break; it has respect for its own format, and it works in real time."

Alan says he does not usually write plays with such a topical theme. "Normally I reflect on contemporary issues at a distance, but then
Drowning On Dry Land is not a David Hare-style reflection on celebrity so much as a play about being touched by celebrity," he says. "It is a humorous play but there are moments of sadness when fame walks away from you."

Alan Ayckbourn, or rather Sir Alan Ayckbourn, has had longstanding success rather than the flicker of brief celebrity. "If you are raw, celebrity can hit you like an express train and it can be hard to cope but I was lucky, it came gradually and theatre is not the movies. It doesn't have that madness," he says. "You'll see actors with that long lens look worrying about the paparazzi around the corner, but people don't know writers like they know actors, and I say thank God for that."

Having turned 65 on April 12, Ayckbourn says he will "just collect my pensioner's card and carry on. Two years ago I took the decision to stop
directing other playwrights' work, and I've found myself writing even more since then. I'm enjoying that, and I'm now happily immersed in one of my greatest pleasures: working on a new play with actors in a rehearsal room." [5]

Personal fame could not be further from his thoughts.

Website Notes:
[1] Although the play had been written some months earlier, its premiere coincided with the tabloid scandal of the renowned soccer player David Beckham having an alleged affair with his PR assistant Rebecca Loos.
[2] Eddie The Eagle refers to the British ski-jumper Michael 'Eddie' Edwards, who in 1988 became the first competitor since 1929 to represent Great Britain in the Winter Olympics. Despite becoming the British ski-jumping record holder, he finished in final place in both events he entered at the Olympics. His lack of success led to him becoming a minor British celebrity and house-hold name.
[3] Simon Dee was a Radio DJ during the 1960s, who found fame with the
Dee Time chat-show on BBC1. He left the BBC in 1979 due to a contractual dispute due to his pay-scale and signed up on a two-year contract for London Weekend Television at a reported vastly increased sum. His new show though was a ratings disaster and he terminated his contract with LWT after several months, only to fade into almost complete obscurity.
[4] In 2004, social media had not yet hit any of the meteoric heights it later would. Facebook had only just launched and the likes of Snapchart [2011] and Instagram [2010] were years away. As a result, Alan had no idea that he was being extremely prescient with his idea that we'd all be taking pictures of ourselves in our baths, photographing our meals and the like within just a few short years.
[5] Alan actually stopped directing work by other authors in 2002 when he directed a revival of Tim Firth's
The Safari Party at the Hampstead Theatre; this was the same play which marked the final time he directed a play by another author at his home theatre - the Stephen Joseph Theatre - in 2003..

Copyright: Charles Hutchinson. 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.