Ayckbourn Talks: Royal Society Of Literature - Eighty Plays On (2017)

This is an edited transcript of the Royal Society Of Literature's in conversation event between Alan Ayckbourn and Peter Kemp at the British Library on 22 May 2017.

Starting Out
I didn’t see a straight play until I was into my late teens. I saw pantomimes - amateur pantomimes normally. My parent’s idea of taking me out to the theatre was to see The Crazy Gang - so it was rather low brow theatre that I was brought up in.

I think, like most kids, I looked at the stage and I thought, I want to be up there. Theatres have the big attraction that it is actors who draw you in, as they should, so I had subsidiary career as a wannabe writer. My mother was a short story writer and, as I’ve often said, she used to earn our single parent family money by slaving away on the big old Underwood heavy typewriter day after day, thundering out her short stories for women’s magazines which paid the rent. I just thought all mothers did that. Once we’d had breakfast, she swept everything away and then she started working. And so, during holiday times when I wasn’t at school, I sat under the table and I wrote my own stories. I started prose stories and soon realised I was rubbish at that. My stories began to fall into dialogue more. I think I wrote my first play when I was less than 10. I pirated a
Jennings At School book by Anthony Buckeridge - I apologised to his widow long afterwards and she forgave me on his behalf, but I had no idea about the rules of copyright then. I Just wanted to play Darbyshire - who had all the best comic lines it seemed to me - and I got my friend to play the stooge Jennings. I adapted it and the school agreed to put it on, but then disaster. I got one of those childhood illnesses, I don’t know what it was, but I had to be put into the sanatorium in a room on my own and I missed the opening night. And I never saw it. I remember leaning out of the window, high up, and I could see the hall where the play was being done and the audience was coming out and I tried to see what their faces were saying, but I couldn’t. And then a very small, scraggy boy, stumbled his way out of the hall and walked under my window and I said, ‘did you see the play?’, he said, ‘yeah’, and I said, ‘did you like it?’ He said, ’s’alright.’ That was my first review. ’S’alright.’ That’s better than rubbish!’

I then had a series of extraordinary coincidences, life is like that. I joined various rep companies trying to be an actor, but being dumped with stage management and setting all the props and getting tiny parts. And then I met the most remarkable man of my life,
Stephen Joseph, son of the publisher Michael Joseph and his mother was Hermione Gingold, the well known performer. He was running this most extraordinary theatre company in-the-round - playing in-the-round - and it was the only one of its kind in Britain. Everything else was under the stranglehold of proscenium arch and I got a job with him. He was doing a season in Scarborough, which I couldn’t even find where it was on the map. Because I’m a born Londoner - or southerner - and southerners, as one knows, don’t know anything which happens north of Potter’s Bar, really. So I went up to this job and joy of joys, first of all it was by the sea. It was in-the-round, which meant very little scenery to move - that was great, just the furniture. The most crucial thing for me was that Stephen actually had a policy of new writing inside a theatre in the style probably going back to Elizabethan times, even Shakespeare himself - who was an actor, of course, and this resident playwright. So Stephen wanted to encourage writing from within the company; we couldn’t afford anything such as a writer in residence, it was a pretty shoe string lot. So he encouraged me to write plays and I started to write them with the ulterior motive of launching my acting career - having failed to get Darbyshire off the ground - to write star parts for me. About three or four plays in, when the rest of the company were getting a bit fed up, I think, when I just kept turning up with plays with wonderful roles for me and full supporting cast - ‘sorry chaps’ - I began to realise that actually the actor in me was delivering less good work than the writer, so I began to edge me out and I began to write myself supporting roles and eventually wrote myself out of them - I fired myself. At the same time, Stephen shrewdly, had encouraged me to direct, which is always a good chalice to hand to a failed actor, you know, get him off the stage and into directing. Directing was a joy because it was a separate career.

The writing and directing developed separately over several years. the plays began to get done elsewhere, in the West End and at the National Theatre and so on, but without my direction. At that point theatres were superstitious about writer / directors. I kept saying ‘What about Noël Coward?’, ‘Well that’s different, dear’. So I used to direct them in Scarborough and, fortunately, had other directors in London - very good directors like Eric Thompson who did such a wonderful
The Norman Conquests the first time around, Alan Strachan and a few others. Eventually I got a breakthrough in the 1970s when I was allowed to direct finally my own play in the West End and that was quite a frightening experience I have to say.

I got taken up by another great man of the theatre,
Peter Hall, who had also spotted that I was beginning to make some bucks in the West End and thought, ‘why not get this chap to come along to the new about to be opened National Theatre?’, which he was on the brink of taking over as Artistic Director. And he took me around the Lyttelton theatre, and he said when its’ finished this will be the one to do your new play, which you haven’t yet written. I thought, ‘it’s like a football field, its huge’ and I could have got nine times nine of my Scarborough theatre in there! I thought I can’t write a play for this space unless its a 22 man football match. It was absolutely impossible. And then I thought I could divide it into three, I could have three bedrooms on stage: a technical solution! I’ll have three small plays and we’ll intertwine them, so I did that and I wrote him Bedroom Farce.

Stepping over the river was a small step for me but a big step for the the critical mass of the newspapers and they did say at the time, 'why is this commercial man stepping into the holy of holies National Theatre of Great Britain?' And Peter gallantly said, ‘because I think he’s important’ and that was a really nice vote of appreciation. And we gave them their first - in that building - big hit and it was wonderful.
Bedroom Farce ran and ran and ran. Then after I kept revisiting the National Theatre, initially as a guest director, so I had that career going, but all thanks to one particular person.

I kept meeting these people. My agent was another one,
Margaret Ramsay - the late great Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay - who represented the world and his mother as far as writers were concerned - playwrights particularly. You name them, she represented them. She was a remarkable influence as well. So if you’re very, very lucky you get to meet these people and if you’re very, very shrewd you listen to them. I hope I was shrewd enough to take their advice and thankfully I’m still taking advice from different people, although Im now older than most people! Its rather nice to be giving advice for a change, but the trouble with being quite old is people rather listen to you and think you know everything! So I go into the rehearsal room as a director and all the actors are like little puppies and they’re witting for me to say things really wise and clever and set them on a path! I remember Tyrone Guthrie saying years ago, great director that he was, he said when you start out as a director nobody will take any notice of you. At the end of your career, they’re all eager to listen and when you start as a director, you have all these brilliant ideas, you’re stuffed with wonderful groundbreaking notions of how to do a play and how to stage it and how to perform it and none of them will listen to you! ‘What does he know, he’s 17 years old!’ By the time you’re 80 plus or something, you’ve got no ideas and they’re all waiting to listen! So it’s sod’s law. The period in the middle around about your 40s - you have enough ideas and hopefully you look old enough for them to listen to you! So thats my my tip for directors. Just get old quick! But keep your mind fresh and keep those good ideas in the back of your head.

The Divide
I think I’m still a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, although the two have rather blended. Its rather strange, there’s another interesting thing coming up this year what I wrote at the Edinburgh Festival called The Divide and it is, I warn you at your peril, actually nine hours long - it is Ken Campbell like in length and vast. I wrote it last year, I was sitting at my desk and about to start writing and because I knew in advance I was going to direct it, I began to write it with a view to directing it. And I thought this is like a closed circuit, I know how to solve a problem although if I don’t know how to solve it, I won’t set it. It seemed to me I was inhibiting the writer because I was writing for the limits of the director. So I thought I’ll write something which will scare the hell out of me. I wrote an enormous formless piece about a dystopian society in the future with a cast of dozens. It is - set wise - here, there and everywhere and absolutely unstageable. It had a waterfall, it had a bottomless pond in it - people drowned on stage - there is a whole village and there was a vast wall. It was like a whole society ,sort of in the realm of Margaret Attwood, but going in my direction rather than hers. I really wanted to write something which I knew I could never stage.

We had a reading of it one Sunday last year in Scarborough and a few gallant souls turned up and I said to them at the beginning, ‘listen folks’ - and I used those idiotic words - ‘this is the first and last time you’re ever going to see and hear this again.’ And sitting there was a girl from the Old Vic, Annabel Bolton, who sat there right through them, bless her, and she said at the end, ‘I love it, I love it, give me the script’ and I said - grunting - ‘here you are.’ She staggered to the station with it across the road - it was this enormous script in five parts. It is vast and I said to someone, ‘that’s the last we’re going to see of her or it.’ Then she rang me and said Matthew Warchus has agreed we’re going to do it and were going to take it to the Edinburgh International Festival. And I said, ‘Oh my God, how are you going to do it?” and she said, ‘do you really want to know?’ and I said, ‘no I don’t want to know! Good luck’. It’s the first time for a long, long time its something Ive written and I have no idea what its going to be like. I’m going to be as green as the audience. So Im going up there to see it all in one day, because she’s shortened it a bit, thank heavens, but she’s put music into it and there a choir on stage - so I don’t know what she’s doing, but bless her heart, she’s got a capital C for courage.

Way Upstream
The Lyttlelton stage crew were pretty aggressive to a man at that point [1970s / 1980s] - and they kept saying, ‘don’t forget they did it in Scarborough. Bloody Scarborough.’ We did Way Upstream in Scarborough first and it didn’t leak and we had a boat and it moved about - got stuck very occasionally - but when it went big at the National Theatre…. I remember doing a lovely rehearsal at the National Theatre. We had nice rehearsals and they were such fun, we had a little wooden boat in the rehearsal room and somebody pushed it about. At the end, we all said, ‘we’ll see you on Tuesday for the technical rehearsal,’ ‘oh yeah, looking forward to that.’ And I remember walking into the National early on the Monday morning and meeting two guys from the London Fire Brigade coming out and one of them saying, ‘I don’t think they calculated the weight of water…’. And I thought, ‘oh shit’. So when I got there, there was the Production Manager - Roger Hulley - in waders standing there saying, ‘we’re not quite ready, Alan’ and I said, ‘what’s not quite ready, Roger?’ and he said, ‘it’ll be an hour or so’ and someone muttered ‘a week or so.’ And technicals went on and on and on and I kept cancelling the previews. I remember once Peter Hall - who obviously has a knack of not being there when there’s a real emergency - he was doing the Ring Cycle in Salzburg or somewhere. So he ran me very breezily and said, ‘how’s it going?’ I said, ‘well Peter it’s not going. I’ve just cancelled the matinee and I’m about to cancel the evening show.’ I remember there was this terrible silence on the other end before he said, ‘you’ve cancelled the matinee and the evening show?’ I said, ‘I think its dangerously unsafe and if one of the cast doesn’t drown then one of the audience is possibly going to…’. So I remember him saying, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming back, hold everyone there, stay there.’ So I said we’ve just been working on the show and by coincidence, the Olivier was also shut for a technical rehearsal, so there was no audience there and I remember sitting there with one of two of the tech team waiting for Peter to arrive. And we availed ourselves of the Olivier hospitality cupboard and were drinking away through the complementary gins and whiskies, getting sozzled. I watched all the lights going out in the whole theatre until it switched off and I realised that single-handedly I had closed the National Theatre for the evening. And Peter came in with his briefcase and he said, ‘thank you for staying. What’s the problem?’ and the crew reported one by one and Roger reported in last of all and I just sat there. Peter than did his Peter hall thing and said he’s going to come up with a solution: ‘ If I was faced with this problem and had a room full of people, I could not think of anyone more suitable to solve this problem than you gentleman, thank you.’ And I remember someone muttered, ‘thanks a bunch’, and off he went and we never solved it. We opened in previews and they kept saying, ‘Alan would you mind going on and saying we can’t go on with the second half for another 40 minutes.’ The first time I went out and I said, ‘hello everyone, I’m the author - clap, clap - thank you, I’m so sorry, you’ve been a super audience in the first half but obviously we’ve still got a fef technical problems and we’re just going to be another 45 minutes before the second half starts, but if you be patient and hang on and have a drink in the bar, it’ll really be worth your while. Thank you very much.’ That was the first preview, then the second preview: ‘Hello, it’s me again…’, by then people are rebooking and the audience was getting slightly more hostile. ‘Not again, not again.’ And by the fifth or sixth preview, I was starting to get the boos and then someone said to me on the seventh preview, ‘can you do it again?’ and I said, ‘no way am I going out there again, someone else can do it!’ So it went on and on and Peter rang me when I got back to Scarborough - as I had another production to do - and he said, ‘Alan, no longer can we not do your play any more in the Lyttelton theatre, we cannot do any plays in the Lyttelton Theatre. The water has now leaked and warped the stage and the thing has buckled and the stage mechanism is ruined.’ The main problem was the main switch unit for the entire National Theatre - all the important switch gear - was under the Lyttelton stage. There was a huge plastic chute, which had to be constructed to take the leaking water round this pulsating electrical equipment - ‘danger, 4000 vaults’ - and pumping it straight back into the Thames. So it was quite an extraordinary experience and as Jack Tinker turned up in his wellington boots, we knew we were on a losing wicket really. Unfortunately then the technology took over from the play and it got lost in a welter of funny reviews. Everyone had good fun at its expense.

I said to you earlier that if you’re going to write a memoir of theatre, always have a good disaster somewhere along your CV because they make the very best stories. Whoever heard a theatre person saying, ‘I was in this tremendously successful production of
Hamlet… and that was it. Nothing to be said…’ But ‘I was in this absolutely disaster and everything went wrong, the scenery fell on the actors etc….’

I’ve also opened the worst musical in the world with Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name but three, in the 1970s called Jeeves, which was based on the lovable stories of one of my favourite writers PG Wodehouse and what could go wrong? Practically everything in that case.

Peggy, my agent, said ‘the boys want to meet you, they need a book writer,’ and I said, ‘who are the boys?’ And she said, ‘Andrew and Tim, those two,’ and I said, ‘oh, the
Jesus Christ Superstar chaps, OK, well I’ll go and have dinner with them.’ So we chatted and then we got going and we said goodnight and I arranged to go and see Andrew and Tim the following day to discuss further progress. When I turned up, Tim wasn’t there and I said to Andrew, ‘where’s the lyric writer?’ and he said, ‘Oh, Tim wants out.’ I said, ‘out!’ He said, ‘no, he doesn’t want to do it.’ So I said, ‘is it something I said?’ and he said, ‘no, he just doesn’t think its got legs’ and I said, ‘pity so who are you going to get to do the lyrics?’ So he said, ‘you.' And I said, ‘me? Do the lyrics?’ I don’t write lyrics, Andrew, sorry - it’s a very specialised craft. He replied, ‘it’s a piece of cake!’ And I remember almost hearing Oscar and Hammerstein and Ira Gershwin all turning over in their graves at ‘a piece of cake.’ So I wrote the lyrics for a West End show, absolutely sight unseen and we were the blind leading the blind. It was the first time Andrew had written a musical, which was an acoustic musical - Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar had both been electronic musicals with a lot of mic-ing but this was an old fashioned acoustic musical with a book. We booked a choreographer, naturally, who had never choreographed a musical before - a very good classical, modern dance director called Christopher Bruce - and then we had a designer - Voytek - who had never designed a musical before and we were on a ship of fools. I was reading Harold Prince’s memoir later and the care and attention that the Broadway boys go to to get their musicals right is incredible and we just blundered through.

We opened in Bristol cold, we were on the road prior to turning up at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End some weeks later - and on the first night we had not done a run-through of the play and we had no idea how long it ran. Answer: it ran very very long. In fact so long that the orchestra - of which there were some 20 or 30 sitting in the pit - downed tools round about the three quarter mark and - being the Musicians’ Union members that they were - all went off to the pub, leaving the Musical Director diving for the piano to do the last couple of numbers accompanied by a cast who barely knew the score on a piano. The whole thing died not with a bang but a whimper. I remember leaving the theatre, walking with my head down, and my young son - who was about eight or nine and who had come from school to see it - and he was very sweet and he knew what a disaster it had been from just the solitary clap. So he and I walked for miles around Bristol, I don’t knew where we walked. And then his little voice suddenly, he said, ‘it will get better.’ And I said, ‘I somehow doubt it, Steven, I somehow doubt it.’

Back At The National Theatre
Peter Hall, during the last year he was at the National Theatre, had the idea of asking directors to form companies rather than each theatre having its own director. So I came in with one or two others, but Peter gave me a specific brief that I should do three plays: one in the Olivier, one in the Lyttelton and one on the Cottesloe - as it was then - and I was given free choice of plays and I was given a free choice of company, which gave me a wonderful chance to use masses of actors, many of whom had worked for me in Scarborough loyally and devotedly for years - and they ere now going to get the chance to tread the National Theatre boards, so it was payback time there. Peter’s other proviso was the largest of the three theatres should be provided with a new play by me. So once again, I looked at the expanse of the Olivier which is just vast - if the Lyttelton is a football field, the Olivier is a baseball ground, it was enormous. I thought I can only put a house on this stage, so I put a whole house on the stage with A Small Family Business. You could see people moving around inside it and it was on two floors with six or seven rooms. And I did a traditional farce in the more traditional Lyttelton theatre, a thing called Tons of Money which was one of the early Aldwych farces and had great fun with with Simon Cadell playing the lead. Finally, for the Cottesloe, we chose a play I’d always loved but had only seen once and it was deemed no producible for some reason - and it was even banned at some point for a kiss between two men, tut tut - which was A View From The Bridge, which is a great classic tragedy. A wondrous cast - including Michael Gambon - and - going from the sublime to the ridiculous - we had such a success with that, we rehearsed our usual curtain call where a couple of us bowed and then a couple more and then the company bowed and then they all got together. It was a set call, lasting a couple minutes and they all went off after they’d done it. On the first night, I was standing at the back and the audience kept clapping and clapping and clapping, David Aukin - who was administrative director said - ‘I don’t think they’re going to stop, you know’ and I said, ‘they’re going to have to as the actors are getting changed.’ If you’ve ever been near the backstage of the National Theatre, you must know it’s huge and you can’t find any bloody dressing rooms and I couldn’t find my actors, only men in full wigs from some other show in the Olivier! I was running frantically around and I grabbed some small part players and said, ‘get back on, they’re still clapping.’ I could hear them in the tannoys ringing around the building. So the cast came back - I don’t think Michael Gambon ever got back to the stage - in the end they had the most extraordinary second call, five minutes after and the clapping just went on. We had a couple of bit part players taking a solo bow. They were all there. At least it gave the audience satisfaction. That was another extraordinary moment, its never like that normally. As one said afterwards, ‘whew we got away with that.’

Theatre is not about the writing, it’s not about the directing. It is about that, but in the end it’s really about the actors and the audience and most audiences - aside from the cognoscenti who sit there being experts - come to watch a bit of acting. I’ve had some unsophisticated audiences in my time and I hear them asking the actors whether they made it up? They go, ‘no, its all written down.’ It’s a mystery and why should you solve it . Stephen Joseph always taught me that you serve that wonderful moment between actor and audience. And that is the precious moment that live theatre has that no other media has quite to that extent and that is why I stick to theatre.

I remember I was talking to guy who was having his film previewed in one of our smaller spaces at the Stephen Joseph Theatre - it was the premiere of a feature movie, and I said to him, d’o you get nervous?’ and he said, ‘yeah, of course, I do,’ and I said, ‘why? Unless the film breaks, you know what’s going to happen.’ The fact is when I sit down in an auditorium on the first night of one of my plays, I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s that other element - how the audience is going to affect what I’ve carefully drilled my actors, who have got the wit and good sense to adapt to any reactions. Anyone who has done the humblest of theatre work will know how different every performance is - you only have to do three days on a school play to know that when the parents are in you get ‘wow', when the school is in, you got… and then you get strangers in and you never know what they’re doing. It’s just always unpredictable and that’s the excitement of it, that’s what keeps the adrenalin flowing. I love movies and I was brought up on them - but I wouldn’t want to sit and watch one of my movies more than once: ‘Oh, they’re going to do it again, the same bad delivery of that line.’ There’s always a hope that it will improve in theatre and there’s some nights that I say when we’ve pulled it off, you can go out into that auditorium long after the audience have left and you can still feel the vibes, its still vibrating with excitement and you think, ‘wow we gave them some party tonight.’ And it may be a tragedy or it may be the funniest comedy, but nevertheless that vibe is there and it’s something you get absolutely hooked on and which I got hooked on as a kid. I remember thinking this is magic, this is so magic. I’m a bit of a passionate disciple for theatre. I did a stint in live radio but I’ve never written for anything other than the stage. It’s a sort of obsession and what keeps me going.

Oxford University
I wasn’t university educated so I had no idea about the common rooms or the junior common rooms or seminars or tutorials and so on. I gave some tutorials and one one ones. I picked about 14 people out of hats, some of them were students, some of them were housewives from the Oxford area and there was one very old don, who fancied his hand at writing. So we sat there for a year between us discussing the possibilities of getting them to write a play, which very few of them did. There was one girl who kept getting stuck at page 30 and by the end, I was almost screaming ‘if… jumped out of the window, at least it’d be something!’ ‘No, no it’s not right, its not right.’ I got one little play - 40 minutes - from this boy, who said, ‘I don’t think it’s very good.’ I said, ‘it’s a play. It’s got a beginning, middle and end and it makes sense and well done.’ My jewel from my year. So I directed it for him and we got some professional actors to do it for him in the old fire station, in Oxford. And he came to the first night and I said, ‘wow, this is exciting, I can remember my first play…’ I said what are you working on next and he said, ‘I don’t think I want to do anymore writing.’ And he joined the BBC and became a researcher, so my one writer had vanished. It’s never that easy. We had fun, but I was expecting as a non-university guy to go there and be asked lots and lots of very erudite questions by the students about construction and motivation and so on. And all of them had the same question… how do you get a job? So I said, ‘I’m not a labour exchange, mate.’ One or two of them I found jobs for but its very difficult and my good advice that I practised I put into writing The Crafty Art Of Playmaking.

Being at the High Table was a very daunting dinner. I remember it very distinctly. I’m a lousy dinner party person and I turned to the women on my left and said, so whats your subject and she said I’m a crystallographer and I said, ‘oh really. Erm.’ And I turned to the other one and she said, ‘I’m an immunologist’ and I said, ‘ah, yes. Our cats just been immunised.’ She looked at me like I was a… And I thought, well if you can’t beat them - everybody talks about showbiz and everyone has - as one producer said to me - everyone has two businesses show-business and their own business. So everyone’s an expert on show-business, ‘Oh, I know how to improve that show…’ So I got into showbiz and before long the conversation had lapsed into the Chippendales. I don’t know how we did it, and the other solitary male guest was looking at me incredulously and thinking how did we get from a Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters discussion on their respective merits down to the Chippendales - thanks to you. And I brought St John into disrepute immediately! But they were very nice and very charming and it was a jolly nice meal.

Political Correctness
It is terribly difficult. I rather enjoying characters who are usually the villains, who are totally politically incorrect and say the most appalling things to people and you can enjoy writing them and the actor can enjoy playing them and yet you don’t take any responsibility for them because the theme of the play obviously does say something completely different. I wrote a play called Man Of The Moment and in it I wrote an enormous northern nanny, a physically big girl - a fat girl to be politically incorrect, she was enormous - and I looked for a big actress and we eventually cast one and I said, ‘are you ok with this, because she takes a lot of flak from the villain for her size in public’ and she said, ‘yes, I’m fine, I got over all that at school’ and I said that it was fairly tough. So I read the scene with her and she said, ‘I can cope with that.’ Then the scene came round and we were blocking it in rehearsal and I could see her going a little bit pale and the person playing Vic was also having problems because he wasn’t happy with what he was saying. So I said, make the dramatic point - as a writer, I don’t want to resort to physical violence as verbal violence is so much more stronger on stage. And she came to see me about three quarters of the way through rehearsals and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do it. I just hear all those voices at school every day and its really cutting me up’ and I though, ‘oh god, I’m losing an actress.’ I said, ‘stick it out just to the first performance and I think you’ll find it will work.’ I had no idea if it would. We got to the first scene on the first night and Vic was laying into her about her size and how appalling she was. And she was one of those characters who smiled all the time. That was her way of defending herself. It was that awful smile and then there was a moment the audience was actually on the side of the school bully and was laughing with him at her. But hen there is a dramatic moment halfway through the scene, when its almost unbearable and she just breaks and goes into floods of tears, she starts crying her eyes out and the silence in the auditorium was magic and a lot of people had just been caught taunting a girl who didn’t deserve to be taunted. I saw her afterwards and I said, ‘how was it?' and she said, ‘I heard them laughing and I thought, am I going to stand it? and I knew I was going to cry and as I cried I could hear the silence and I thought, ‘got you, you bastards!’

Radio and film adaptations
I’ve been very lucky in that a lot of the radio adaptations have been awfully good and my work does sort of lend itself to radio. I was sort of flavour of the month at the BBC with some of my stuff at Christmas. In fact there w as series of Ayckbourn at Christmas at one point and there was all sorts of plays done then and there were very good television adaptations; they were sort of like filmed staged versions.

But the movies have been less successful let’s say. Partly because my work is based a lot on films - why my experimentation is quite so unusual with theatre is because I use movie techniques. I was brought up on the movies and I watched so many movies, so I was used to using what the modern dramatist now uses quite a lot of - the cut, the fade, the overlap and starting a scene with dialogue before - so you can get a sort of fluidity which the round is very good at. People come along and say, ‘that would make a good film’ and I say, ‘oh no it wouldn’t. It’d make a terrible film. The interesting thing about it is it’s on stage, but if you put it back into film, it becomes a bit of cliche. Once you’ve taken that movie grammar and moved it onto the live stage, it becomes something quite unusual. So I sort of tend to shy away from people offering to adapt them. I wouldn’t know how to write a screenplay if you asked me, I probably could cut it up for radio or even do a bit of TV, but movies are way beyond me.

Casting Plays
How do I cast plays? Well, I Have my right hand, my casting director called Sarah Hughes who has worked with me for 20 years now. When you get older as a director you tend to lose touch with drama schools and you don’t go as often as you did to final years. So you need someone to do that. You know most of the actors over 40 because you’ve grown up with them, but the younger one - the real hotbed of young talent is not often available to me. But we do have auditions for the plays and usually in London, sometimes in Scarborough. A lot of actors now, fortunately, live outside of London, but obviously I do see a lot of actors.

For instance I was casting a revival of
By Jeeves and I must have seen 60 or 70 actors over three or four days and I read with all off them, I always insist on that. I need to relate to them and to vary the pace and to see if they’re capable of adjustment and just if they’re fun to work with really.

With regards to interpretation, although I’m a bit of a stickler about words - ‘Don’t change the words unless you have to’ - I think as far as interpretation goes, the old thing about buying a dog and then bark yourself applies. If you’re going into live theatre, you’ve got to accept that as much as you work and practise and rehearse with the actors and try and get it more or less the way you would like it to be, given their interpretation, in the end you are going to sit down on the first night and they are going to be in control of it. So they have the ultimate power over it, the actor. You have to respect that and I love to think that I draw out as a director the best that an actor can give me, although probably they don’t realise they have it in them. I just keep moving the gangplank further away; some actors say, you keep moving the goalposts and I keep looking and they seem further and further away and I say I just want to see how far you can go, we can both agree to draw them back but let’s just see, let’s push it and push it to excitement level.

Obviously my sort of plays are team plays, so the actors are very inter-reactive so they support each other quite a lot of the time. All those bitchy books are written about actors, but they really are the most generous and lovely people and very supportive with each other. As I knew when I was a young actor, all the older actors were so kind and so generous and just said, ‘you know boy, if you did that, you might get a better laugh for it’, and I’d say thank you very much and I did it and I got a better laugh and ruined their scene as well! So they were kind and gentle. I think because you have such an incredible power as a writer and director you don’t want to threaten them with it. Any fool can reduce an actor to tears and its never clever, but to send them out wanting to come back tomorrow, as an old actor said to me, ‘I like working with you because I always want to come back tomorrow. In some productions you think, oh god, Ive got to go back in there again - back into that awful room where all the sarcasm flies around and all the angst.’

Neil Simon and I got compared, i think it was journalistic shorthand really, because we are as chalk and cheese. He is sharp, upfront with humour, one liners - you can almost count the gags in his great plays. A play like The Odd Couple has wonderful quotable lines. I defy anyone to quote any of my lines! I’m much more situation and character based and his is that New York, savvy writer.

But there are writers who affected and
influenced me. I was born at a time as a writer when there was a very exciting churning up of all established theatre acceptance. Gone was Coward, Rattigan, Hunter and in were the Osbornes, the Weskers, the Pinters and into this exciting new world, new angry young men were born. I was influenced quite a lot by Rattigan and Coward, but I also got very excited by - and sort of identified with - these new guys who were a little bit older than me. One particularly affected me more than any other and that was Harold Pinter who came and directed us at one stage in Scarborough, after he’d had a rather ill fated start to his career with The Birthday Party in London. He wasn’t very happy and he wrote a rather embittered article saying how unhappy he was in Encore magazine - now defunct. Stephen Joseph, who had met Pinter at Central School, invited him to come and direct it, since he was so very unhappy with the London production. Stephen said come up and use our company and I was a part of that company and I was directed by Harold Pinter, who I have to say, we thought was at that point - reactionaries that we were - was completely barmy! I’d never seen anything like it and I’d never heard anything like it and I’d never acted in anything like it. So I said keep going to my friends and colleagues, he’s mad but keep going - we’re all doomed! Then we opened this play in a very tiny theatre and it was electrifying. I have never been on that stage with that effect and we just did what Harold asked us to do and it made total sense and I remember standing around him in the bar going on at him and I was saying, ‘well it worked’ and he was saying, ‘yes, yes.’ As if was there any doubt - and I wasn’t going to say there was in our minds! Then Harold and I got very friendly and he gave me some wonderful advice and I love the way his plays are very funny yet there’s an awful darkness in them. Its just catching that light and shade in a play which I try to do because you cant have light without shadow and shadow with light, of course, so the contact has got to be there.

That story I told you about the girl crying, that was another example of the laugh going on a sixpence into absolutely horror and suddenly, absolutely, ‘my God, what are we doing?’ and it brought back everybody’s memories. I think my influences are slightly quaint other than that Laurel & Hardy, Ben Travers…. When you start writing it's every writer you read! I wrote my Pinter play and it wasn’t very good, but I carried on and then I wrote an Osborne and a Wesker, I wrote several and then I suddenly wrote a play and I couldn’t recognise who it was by and I thought, ‘I think this must be by me.’ My own voice had emerged.

Michael Frayn came after me, he was writing for The Guardian wonderfully. His first plays came out just after me. I admired Frayn, but he went on a different tangent to me and he’s written some really weighty stuff.
Noises off though - everyone thinks it’s by me. I wish! It’s only awful when people say, you know the best thing you ever wrote? Noises off… And I say, ‘oh thank you, its been very lucky for me.’

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