Interview: BBC Radio Leeds (29 June 2012)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Liz Green Interviews Alan Ayckbourn

by Liz Green

Working for the BBC
I was at the BBC for five years. [1] It was BBC North then, it wasn’t Radio Leeds, it became Radio Leeds whilst I was there. We were producing drama for the network and for the north region. It was a hotbed of productivity.

It was a wonderful studio, but like all good things at the BBC, it was entirely accidental. It was a converted chapel and they sent in some chaps to convert it and they knew what they were doing. It was magnificent. I don’t want to wax lyrical as an old sound-man, but it had a magnificent ‘dead’ studio
[2] that was the envy of the whole of London; they said, ‘how the heck do you get a dead studio like that?’ And I said, ‘well, I don’t know, they just filled the walls with absorbent material!’

The first year I was there, I produced - and I boast not - 50 plays; a play a week and I was like a mad man and I just loved it. The man who was the senior producer there - a man called
Alfred Bradley, who was brilliant, much loved, wonderful producer - did more single- handedly for the writing talent in the north of England. All sorts of writers came in touch with Alfred and all of them benefitted and he certainly helped me.

Alfred got me the job at the BBC actually, because he’d seen me appearing in rep and he’d seen a couple of my productions. He said, ‘there’s a job going at the BBC if you want it’ and I’d never stepped inside a radio drama studio before. When I arrived, I got nodded in and then I had to work to find out what it was all about. I produced, as I say, my 50 shows, but found out the hard way through all the knocks. And Alfred guided me a bit but the studio managers carried me most of the time in that first year.

On inspiration
It’s an idea and where that idea comes from I cannot ever detect. It just comes. Sometimes it's from a newspaper headline, sometimes it's from a hoarding for an advertisement and sometimes its just from a chance remark and sometimes I listen to a [music] track and think, it’d be nice to write a love story, a sort of bitter-sweet love story. And after that, once you’ve got the idea, it’s there and you’re gripping it, then everything in a sense follows naturally. It’s all slog. It’s a slog to create and construct it because playwriting is about structure and to tell a good story, you need to have a beginning, middle and end, even if they come in the wrong order. But at least there’s a structure there and it’s a framework on which to write the story, because you have to keep a group of people interested in your story for upwards of two hours. The fun bit is when you start the third stage, which is the dialogue, that’s actually breathing life into the people because up to then, they’ve been the school master, the widow and so on and eventually they become people.

I do see them theatrically very much. Writing prose is absolute torture for me. I spend longer on the programme note for the programme for a play I’ve written in quarter of the time! Dialogue, I think of, as music for actors. It’s music for voices really and how you punctuate it and how you break it up - my English master must be turning in his grave if he ever saw my punctuation now because it is full of full-stops and dashes and dots and it’s just in a n order the actor can at least get a sense of how you mean the speech to be said. And we sometimes, as we speak, become ungrammatical and we repeat ourselves. And you can reveal so much with the way how people say and I like to think if you have page of my dialogue and if you put your hand along the left hand side of it where the characters names are, if there’s a speech of more then 10 or 15 words, you would immediately know who that character was if you knew the play, even if you didn’t know the speeches because all the characters have particular speech patterns.

Importantly as in music, it’s the silence between the notes, the spacing and on top of that you then have to generate a physical content. What I’m also running on is how it’s going to look. There’s very fine plays when I was at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre I would read a lot of new work and invariably you’d get the play occasionally, which was awfully good and riveting to read, but then you thought, hang on how was this going to look on stage, no-one necessarily needs to move a muscle. These are not requiring any physical movement.

I do listen to music while I write and the music does reflect the play quite often. I wrote a play called
Absent Friends and I played nothing but requiems! I tend to chose the music to suit the mood of the writing. Occasionally I write in silence.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn was a Radio Producer for the BBC in Leeds between 1965 and 1970.
[2] A 'dead studio' is essentially a perfectly sound-proofed studio space for recording.

Copyright: BBC Leeds. 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.