Ayckbourn Talks: Meridian (1984)

This is an edited transcription of the BBC World Service programme Meridian, which was broadcast on 12 June 1984 looking at Intimate Exchanges.

“Initially, I wanted to write a play about options. About whether certain things that we put down to decision-making are, in fact, accidental. I suppose everyone’s stood in a bus queue and said, ‘if I’d caught the bus earlier or later, would my life have been different? Would I have met that girl on the bus and so on?’
Intimate Exchanges starts with the smallest decision possible, a woman deciding whether or not to have a cigarette. And it finishes up in a churchyard with all the births, deaths and marriages about five years later - strewn before you sixteen alternative endings as a result of this first tiny decision.

"As the scenes progress, two things happen. First of all the decisions get increasingly more important from should I have a cigarette? It comes down to shall I marry this man or shall I divorce this woman? And also the time span gets longer so that also has a dramatic effect. As I say, the first scene is a little thirty second decision, the last scene is a decision taken over five years. They’re all culminating into something rather wider.

“I wrote the plays consecutively. What I did was I wrote four of them before we started. So half the script wasn’t written [there are eight major variants of
Intimate Exchanges]. The others were slowly dropped into repertoire. There were so many things we didn’t know, such as could the two actors even learn them all? We didn’t know that until we’d started and I said, ‘look folks, you may have a finite memory, we may be discovering something on the boundries of medical science and a breakthrough is going to happen!’ But they manage to remember it, but obviously the process got slower as they got on at first and then they got it through it. At about play number three, they got a bit panicky and then they went through the sound barrier with number 4. Then I wrote the other four and they got easier to write and they got easier to learn. The fascination there was, I think, for the first time - I suppose it happens in any TV series - but for the first time I was talking as a writer to stage actors who were actively working with characters, so there was a tremendous feedback coming back and what they were doing began to affect what I was writing.

“I do have another motive when writing which is that I’m that comparative rare bird of a pure theatre writer. My whole life is theatre, I don’t do radio or television or films at all. I suppose occasionally we sit down, we theatre people, and we say, ‘what are we doing that isn’t being done better by Steven Spielberg or somebody?’ The answer is, I think, we’ve got a liveness and that’s all we’ve got. We haven’t got the spectacle, we haven’t got all the technical gizmos, but we have got a special performance being done on a special night to an audience and I think some of these plays that I do are an attempt to emphasise the liveness of theatre and I think the best test of them is they couldn’t possibly work on television; which is the acid test I put all my plays through - would it work on television? if so, it’s not so good. If not, it can’t possibly work on TV, then I’m quite pleased with it.”

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