Interview: The Times (2018)

This interview was published in The Press on 13 September 2018.

Alan Ayckbourn contemplates dying art of writing in 82nd play Better Off Dead

by Charles Hutchinson

Imagine setting out on writing your 82nd play. Is there not a risk of running out of new ideas?

Not in the world of Alan Ayckbourn, whose 82nd work,
Better Off Dead, is concluding the the summer season at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, the scene of so many of his premieres.

"I can remember all the plots, and so when I tackle a new one, I'll be thinking, 'oh, that happened in that one', and so the path of taking a conclusively new path is getting more difficult, and I hope that now some of my plays are getting so old, no critic will remember them all, but at least you'd be plagiarising yourself," says Sir Alan, now 79.

"Given a moment or two, I can even remember all the characters' names, unless they're very obscure, like in some of the children's plays I've written. I sit down with my book of babies' names and go ploughing through the list; certain names are taboo, like people who have done you wrong, though I use their surnames quite often! I know certain names have a certain resonance for me, but now children's first names are often so extraordinary."

Better Off Dead finds the larger than life and highly irascible author Algy Waterbridge (played by Christopher Godwin) hard at work on his 33rd crime novel featuring blunt Yorkshire cop DCI Tommy Middlebrass. Tommy has not been on the TV for a while, however, and Algy's wife, Jessica, is becoming frighteningly forgetful, while his adoring personal assistant, Thelma, sometimes oversteps the mark. It is almost the last straw when an old acquaintance, journalist Gus Crewe, turns up to interview him, with alarming consequences.

"The names came quite easily for this one," says Sir Alan. "I have a strange thing that's been going on for a while with all my villains beginning with a 'V': as in 'V' for a villain, but apart from that I go for strong names that strike me.

"In the new play, the central character is a novelist, like J K Rowling, and his real name is Algy Waterbridge, which he thought sounded weird, so he's A D Waterbridge instead."

Describe Algy, Sir Alan. "He's a man in his late seventies: I can see people thinking, 'is it autobiographical?'! He's a writer, living in Yorkshire, and the reason I've made him a writer is that one of the themes of the play is, my plays are quite quick in execution, but I've always wondered what I'd be like at writing about a detective character who I'd used for a number of years and now I'm trying desperately to kill him off, but the readers want you to bring him back, and so by the next novel, he's back," he says.

"I thought, 'how dangerous is it when the writer's alter ego, the character he's created, takes him over'.

Without giving too much away, Algy's fictional lead character on occasion does exactly that, while real people introduce themselves into the dramatic climax of his novel.

"Lines become blurred and it might just be that fiction, misunderstandings and mistaken identity are closer to the truth than they might seem," says Sir Alan.

He notes a difference between the art of novel and play writing.

"If you're a playwright, you have to live near the centre of a population, but novelists can live in isolation and rarely see their publisher, so I wanted Algy to be almost a hermit, drifting from the realities of his life, such as wife's dementia, to being with his characters, still in the world they were first in."


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.