Ayckbourn Talks: Essential Classics (2016)

This is an edited transcript of highlights from BBC Radio 3's Essential Classics on which Alan Ayckbourn was the guest during the week of 22 July 2016.

Rob Cowan: Writing and directing plays has taken you around the word, but you’re most associated with a theatre in Scarborough, the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Has this always been your theatrical home?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Yes, I’m a Londoner by birth, but I kept being magnetised towards the north. So I dotted around trying to get work as an actor in the late '50s and early '60s, but I was a stage manager basically - one of those ASMs striving to act. It wasn't until I met this extraordinary man Stephen Joseph, who ran one of the very early fringe theatre companies based in Scarborough… I had no idea where Scarborough was other than I got an invitation to go and stage manage and play small parts for him. I went up there and I found a glorious countryside and a lovely town and I fell in love with the place. More important I fell in love with the theatre and the concepts behind it, new work, new plays and that freedom that was given to us by playing in-the-round, which was totally unheard of in those days professionally. Eventually he encouraged me not only to write but to also direct and the rest is history.

Could you trace how you developed during your Artistic Directorship of the Stephen Joseph Theatre?
I took up the mantle from where Stephen Joseph had left off and I knew his two principals were play it in-the-round - proscenium arch in his view was rubbish and he was strongly anti-conventional theatre as it was then - so I tried to keep it in-the-round but I kept the other baton in his hand, which he had passed me, which was new writing. Because he had given me the chance to write I wanted to give others the chance to write and, as I found out, the world and his mother is willing to write a play - everyone sends you scripts!

That must be very exciting when you open a new script - when you've looked at loads that are frankly not terribly promising - suddenly there's that spark there and you can get onto that person and start encouraging them.
You have to be careful, if you read enough bad stuff and then get something that's moderately good, you can suddenly see it as sheer genius! So I was always a little cagey, but the hard work began - because never does a script quite arrive perfect.

I think we’re all looking for something bigger than us, which is why we either become religiously entrenched or fanatical or we just join the bandwagon of someone who does know where they’re going and - if you're lucky - its someone like Stephen Joseph who did know where he was going; I was a 17 year old kid and this man knew and loved theatre and really believed in its future. if you're remotely creative, the idea of trying to express your belief in something bigger than you is key.

What is it about Stephen that so inspired you as a person?
His positivity. He was a wonderful contradiction. I've said many times he was not a very good actor, he was not a particularly inspiring director, he was not a good writer but, by God, he knew more than anything about all those topics and he was a great, great teacher. So he could talk about playwriting to you or directing. He had the gift of precision. I said, 'what is it about directing? Just tell me in a sentence.' He said, in a sentence - without batting an eyelid - 'directing is about creating an atmosphere in a rehearsal room in which other people can feel free to create.' And I said, 'oh is that all it is?' Of course, it was much more than that but its just making people feel free to express themselves and then you just draw their different talents together. But that sort of summed Stephen up. Just one sentence and I’ve carried it ever since.

Making people feel comfortable in their own skin.
If you're in a rehearsal room, you're with quite a lot of strong-minded often individualistic and sometimes vastly different people and you have to cajole them all into an aim and to do that, you either have to lay down the law and paint red lines all over the floor and say, 'stand there' or you do the other thing, which is to persuade them by cajoling and encouragement - always friendly, always positive. That was Stephen’s other mantra. It’s easy enough to demolish someone, especially an actor; they're all totally vulnerable people because they stand there every night and, to coin a phrase, they expose themselves. They show you themselves and they are just sitting targets and if you're a writer or a composer, you can sit at the back of the stalls if you want to and say it was nothing to do with me mate! But if it were an actor you’re in the front line.

I’d like to find out about your early life. Classical music’s always been a part of it, your father was a violinist, wasn’t he?
Yes, he was. He was leader of, I think, the London Symphony Orchestra just before the war. I didn’t really get to know him very well because mother and father had separated. By the time I was old enough to appreciate him, he had retired from classical music and rented a cottage in Norfolk and was now happily breeding St Bernard dogs with another woman. So I met him in a very different guise.

Do you love St Bernard dogs?
I love St Bernard dogs! The house was full of them and I used to go and stay with him in the home and these dogs dominated them. They had two huge breeding bitches and one of them sat in the kitchen, called Tina, and one of them sat in the sitting room, called Cleopatra - I think - and they wouldn’t ever be allowed to get together. So if you ever needed to cook a meal and use the sitting room, you had to walk outside and walk around in the cold in this cottage.

My mother was prone to making up things - she was a great fantasist - and informed me reliably that I was conceived at Glyndebourne when he was playing there. So whatever he was doing, he wasn’t paying attention to the music particularly! I always regret not hearing him play, so I tend to sort of imagine him, quite often, through violinists whom I can hear playing.

What is it about Prokofiev’s music that you find so entrancing?
It has what I try and get in my own writing, a mixture of the light and the shade, the bitter and the sweet. It’s something one tries to do in equivalent terms when trying to write a play. You can’t have light without shade, the shadows are very important just to emphasise the comedy.

Was your father’s love of music shared with your mother?
My mother, I think, she could just have easily as married a carpenter and been very happy. She sort of went along with it but I think as soon as my Dad was gone out of our lives, she didn’t hear too much of it and she used to complain quite a lot if I played anything too loudly.

Your Mum was a writer, did you ever read any of her work?
She wrote short stories for women’s magazines and she was very adroit at that, but her writing was very proscribed. She wrote for current women’s magazines of the time, Woman’s Own, Home Notes, Woman and all of them had their own code of conduct which she was very careful to tell me about. She said, 'well if I’m writing for this one I can’t write that a woman has an affair with a married man, unless it ends unhappily. And another one she can’t have sex before she gets married…', so there were very clear codes which she had to ascribe to.

After my Dad left, she used to write quite a lot, all sitting at the kitchen table and - during holiday times - I would sit underneath the table and she would clear the breakfast things and then she would lug this damned great Underwood portable heavy typewriter onto the table and she would hammer away until lunchtime. I got quite used to this and eventually, because there didn't seem to be much else to do if it was raining, I sat underneath and she bought me a little John Bull typewriter which covered you in purple ink as soon as you started typing, so I wrote short stories.

So she was as much an inspiration as someone you observed as yourself. Was she worked into any of your plays?
Yes, I think she has. She was certainly a great mixer and people adored her. I couldn’t quite see it as I was so close to her but she had the most terrible wicked sense of humour and loved a bit of gossip. She probably turned up as the off-stage mother in The Norman Conquests.

How old were you when you got the acting bug?
Quite young, I was still at my prep school. They did a school play and I purloined a copy of Anthony Buckridge's Jennings At School and I always wanted to play - not Jennings - but his comedy sidekick, Derbyshire; who was tall and gangly and wore specs. So I thought this is a good part, so I adapted this Jennings book it completely illegally and set it up as a school play and cast myself in the Derbyshire role with my student friends to play Jennings and a few others. And then, disaster, I got mumps and finished up in the sanitarium!

How old were you at this time?
Ten or eleven. So disaster, I missed the show! Someone else played Derbyshire, so it was my first writing world premiere and I remember looking out of the window and seeing the school hall slowly emptying as they all came out form the show and one boy was shuffling along, kicking a stone, and I said, 'hello, did you see the show?' Yeah. And I said, 'did you enjoy it?' and he said, 'it was alright.' I said, 'oh right' and that was my first review. 'It was alright….'

Have you had many more like that?
Well, he didn’t seem stirred or moved by it and I blame the guy who played Derbyshire quite honestly, my replacement!

So that was an adaptation, but what about writing new material early on?
Well, initially I was only using it as a prop to launch myself as an actor. When I first started writing, there was always this whacking great part in the early plays with this guy that came on a little bit after the beginning, because he needed the stage warmed up first. But then he stayed on right the way through and had the curtain line at the end. So, absolutely shameless, show-off material. But then as my writing gradually improved and my acting certainly didn't improve, I then gently gave myself a shove and Stephen Joseph did the rest by introducing me to the posioned chalice of directing. Once you’re directing, you don’t really want to act much anymore. Because with directing, you grab all the toys and you’ve got control of everything.

I was interested to learn that you’ve written a book called The Crafty Art Of Playmaking, so what is the crafty art?
Well, it’s an attempt to be intensely practical because there's so many theoretical books about play-writing, which I - first and foremost - believe is a practical craft. You have to get a shape, a form and it’s something that, rather like a piece of music, is intended to be interpreted by others but once you start playing and you set it in motion and you're lucky enough to get it accepted, that is only the beginning because there are other people immediately involved. Starting with the designers and the creative team and eventually a director and then, ultimately, the actors chosen rather carefully. And then of course you have the other element which you mustn’t forget if you're writing in theatre, which is the audience. You’ve got to be aware of all these things when you start a play, you are not writing a slim volume, you are writing something that just gets wider and wider and broader and broader.

Are there are any plays you’ve written where’s scope for an aria - spontaneous invention - where you give the actor the chance to improvise?
No is the short answer. I give them arias or long speeches, they’re not even soliloquies as there’s usually somebody else on stage listening. So if I want to discourage an actor from treating it as an aria and taking off on their own, I will often interspace it with the other character just saying 'sorry', breaking up the speech, 'I see, carry on', and so on. But obviously when one’s working with the actor, one’s aware they are tackling something which is in a sense is a theatrical equivalent of a close-up so you allow them the emotional freedom. But I like to think that actors I work with anyway are very well aware that if they stray from the written text - which one has spent an enormous amount of time to look artless to the casual reader - they will know immediately that the rhythm is wrong and they say, 'sorry, I put a bit in there.'

I learn a lot of this from a great influence of mine,
Harold Pinter, who directed me in a very early production of The Birthday Party when I was less than 20. This extraordinary passionate young man came to direct us and we all thought he was nuts! But he wrote such extraordinary dialogue and I said to the rest of of the cast, c'arry on, humour him, just keep going, he seems to know what he’s doing' and then on the first night when we did it, the result - because we were just following him slavishly was electrifying. We all stood round him in the bar open-mouthed and I said wow, 'that was an experience'. 'Was it?' he said.

Have you tackled the subject of fate in your plays.
I have done, I’ve tackled fate combined with my fascination of truing to convince audiences that the one thing about theatre is its liveness, so I wrote a piece which was a complete mad adventure called Intimate Exchanges, where it starts with a woman making the most trivial decision whether to smoke a cigarette. If she smokes it then the play launches into one direction and there is a choice of scenes, if she goes off and doesn’t smoke, the play goes off in another direction. In the first minutes you have two scenes, in the next twenty minutes they then split again, so you have a choice of four scenes and then at the every end you have a choice of 16 endings all 10 minute scenes.

Is the audience aware of what is going on?
I think they are because I made it even more difficult as there’s only two people in it, playing 10 roles together! They have to learn between them - I think it was 16 hours of dialogue. We were just trying to find the limits of the human endeavour! By the second play, the guy playing all the men suddenly stopped in the rehearsal room and went 'I can’t do, I can’t do it.' I looked at the girl and said 'just keep calm.' I just talked him down off the ledge before he jumped! And, in the end, we did one play with 16 endings.

What other things fascinate you when writing the plays?
I think it’s always based on people’s behaviour towards each other. I always equate myself - spiritually anyway - to Jane Austen as a figure. I love writing not about the big global things - I'm not necessarily a David Hare type of writer - but I do write about man’s inhumanity to man and man’s inhumanity to women and woman’s inhumanity to man. The things which influence all of us. It seems to be by choice and then by good fortune bonding with a lot of people who say, 'my life is like that, I live with that man, its so infuriating.'

Beauty can be found in the darkest corners. I think people really love stories. That’s why one of the aspects of the writing for me is keep the narrative going. People want to know what develops - particularly in the way of character and the character that develops over a two hour span in a stage play is much more interesting than all the graphic events put together. One of the joys I have of writing is to confound people's expectations: 'yeah, this guy in scene one looks like a nerd' but by scene 10, you begin to admire him and then you begin not only to admire him but to love him and so it's a mirror which just distorts, reflects and shows we are all people of preconception - don’t preconceive, don’t judge from labels, from covers, from superficial appearance.

As well as writing plays, you’ve also written the musical Jeeves, a collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Was writing a musical an ambition you’d had for a long time?

No. I’m not a great musical man - aside from
Guys and Dolls, which I adore - but my agent the late great Peggy Ramsay, said to me, 'oh darling, the boys need you to help them for a new musical' and I said, 'who are the boys?' and she said, 'oh Andrew and Tim [Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice], oh yes. The boys really want to do an original musical.' I said, 'OK, what do they want to do it on?' and she said, 'the books of PG Wodehouse. Do you know them?' and I said, 'oh I love PG Wodehouse, they're super.' So I had an alcoholic dinner with Andrew and Tim and we got on like a house on fire and at the end of the evening they waved a bleary good night to each other and I remember roughly agreeing to meet Andrew and Tim the next day. So I went over then and Andrew was sitting there and I said, 'where's Tim?' And he said, 'oh he wants out and he said, he doesn't want to be part of it' and I said, 'well that a bit of a blow, we haven’t even got a lyric writer then.' And Andrew said, 'well you can do the lyrics.' I said, 'what me! I haven’t written a lyric in my life!' and he said, 'oh it’s piece of cake.' I could feel Cole Porter’s body turning in the grave but I said, 'OK Andrew, thats fine' and I had a go and I learnt the hard way and it caused an absolute disaster to occur. Andrew had never written an original musical before, we got a director who’d never directed an musical, we got a lyric writer who had never written an original musical…. So we were on a blazing ship long before we reached the shore!

You once said, .I’ve been influenced by every play I’ve ever been in.. Are those always positive influences?
I was in the back end of weekly rep so we used to do a play a week, so I was very fortunate in my time as a beginner writer that it was about the same time as the so called 'new wave' occurred; it was the time of Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger, but I was also old enough by then to have been influenced by the previous generation who were by then critically thrown into the dustbin temporarily like Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan - the so called craftsman-like writers, So, in fact, every play from Private Lives right through to Look Back In Anger and certainly the plays of Pinter influenced me. I think the secret was Pinter was a poet at heart, words meant a lot to him, so I learnt a lot about dialogue from Harold. For instance, that knack he had of repeating a word in a sentence by a character that had the effect of making a tension escalate and I remember doing the same thing or trying to in a play of mine called Just Between Ourselves when the woman loses her confidence and her friend says, 'why don't you learn to drive then?' and she says, 'well I'm really not a very good driver really, not really, I'm not a good driver at all really.' And the actress said to me, 'there’s an awful lot of reallies in here, isn’t there?' And I said, 'yes, I think they all mean something as they produce a tension in the speech which is a verbal tick almost, but she's unaware that she's saying really all the time.' But its actually a brilliant way, thank you Mr Pinter, of giving a character a tension without them actually saying, 'I'm very tense!'

Would you say you’re a poet at heart?
I did write poetry, but I’m not a very good poet. But I love the verbal quirks that occur with people and we are full of them these days, particularly with this world of vox pops and the cliches that fly around, which everyone echoes. I think it is a sort of poetry, but it’s a speech poetry and I think one chooses the word with great care.

How did your friendship with the film-maker Alain Resnais begin?
He turned up in Scarborough during the '90s and, just before one of the shows, one of the actors said 'Alain Resanis is in the foyer I think.' I said, 'Alain Resanis, he’s in the foyer in Scarborough, in a converted school?' He said, 'yeah I’m sure it’s him,' so I said, 'Oh yeah and Jean Luc Goddard’s in the gents….' So I went round the front and there was this tall, distinguished with a white main of hair looking so French. And the clincher was he had the most beautiful woman on his arm, who turned out to be an actress called Sabine Azema and they used to spend their summers in Scarborough; they subsequently got married in Scarborough. My wife and I were their witnesses at the ceremony: 'Mr Resnais would yer take this woman, Sabine Anima, to be your lawful wedded wife?' 'I do.' It was sweet. And he became a friend and when we went out to dinner, he said, 'I would love to do one of your plays, to make a film.' I said, 'well, take your pick, Alain, have you got one in mind?' And he said well, 'Intimate Exchanges' - which is the famous one which I described with 16 endings! The most theatrical play you could think of. I said, 'Alain - thinking the poor bloke had lost it - are you sure you want to do a play with 16 endings?' He said, 'no, no, no. I do not want to do a play with 16 endings. I want to do a two films with four endings each.' I said, 'you’re barmier than I am. Go ahead then.' So Sabine was in it and he made it into a double bills of films called Smoking / No Smoking.

Are there themes, ideas and motifs that you return to again and again?
Yes. I think there are. People ask does it get harder to write and I say, 'yes it does' in effect, because you're desperately trying all the time not to repeat yourself but then you spot little plagiarisms from your own work. 'Oh no, he's the postman in play 51! So I just try to surprise myself all the time.

Do you work best on a commission or on the wings of an inspiration? Or do you believe inspiration is a bit of a myth?
No, I think the hardest thing is the idea. I don’t know where that comes from, you cannot legislate for an idea. You have something and you go, I think I can run with this but I don’t know where it came from, but thank you very much for giving it to me, whoever you are! People say, 'where do you get your ideas from?' I say, 'if I knew I certainly wouldn’t tell you, mate! You’d be digging it all up.' The idea is the gem, but then comes the work. You have to develop it and you have to treat it, you have to find all sorts of ideas to structure around it, time-frame, place, choice of character and always trying to keep things to a minimum. One of the great things you learn - and you keep learning as you get older as a playwright - is how to maker things simpler. There are stories of Chekhov learning over an actress in rehearsals and just scrubbing out a whole chunk of her written speech - which she'd already learnt! - and saying, 'I think you can do all that in one line, my dear.' You can never underestimate the power of the human body and the voice.

Have you ever had the experience of having an idea that the gap between the inspiration and the practical business of putting it down has been so long that you've lost it?
Oh yes. For every idea I have, there's another that goes down in flames quite often. And you can see its drowning and you think, you're not going to survive darling! But then theres always something there lurking if you're lucky. I had a stroke a few years back and I woke up in the hospital having lost the use of quite a lot of my limbs. My leg, my arm, and I was really in a sort of panic, because the worst thing was I had nothing in my head. I had no ideas. And ever since I was a child, I’d had ideas for plays. This was the first time and I thought, calm down, fella, calm down, you've got a big catalogue, you can just keep doing revivals and I thought, 'I don’t want to just do revivals, I want to be moving forwards.' And then, just a few weeks later, as I was laying there, suddenly this little germ of an idea arrived and I seized it with such gratitude and said, 'thank you, thank you, and come to me you dear little idea and we will nurture you and feed you.' It was a sort of phoenix from the ashes.

When you’re listening to opera, what do you gravitate to first?
The music, obviously, unless you’ve got the libretto sitting next to you it’s always a bit difficult. I started with the operas of Puccini and then I moved to Verdi and I’ve latterly become fascinated by Handel. It was a late find for me. The thing about classical music is you rove all over the place. I used to be strictly 20th century and then I started wandering back and I always swore I wasn’t going to listen to chamber music but then I fell in love with all the Haydn string quartets and that really set me up. So I don’t listen to anything much orchestral nowadays, but this is just the most beautiful piece of music and Handel has the ability to pull out of a hat, the most heart-rending music. He’s a beautiful, melodic tunesmith.

You’ve had so many plays, do you think there’s been one play that’s been undervalued?
Oh yes, with so many - there’s the golden children like The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular and How The Other Half Loves and Relatively Speaking. There are other little orphans which I’ve given birth to and like a proud parent I want people to say, 'that’s a pretty one'! Just occasionally there's plays like Joking Apart and Just Between Ourselves and I try to revive them myself. I'd really love it if someone came forward and said, 'I thing can do this one.' There is one the National Theatre did recently, A Small Family Business, which i was very glad they did. But there’s another one, Man Of The Moment - which is my take on the communications industry - which I’m also very fond of. But really and truly the stock answer is, I’m always looking forward to the next one, so long as there is a next one!

How healthy do you think the theatre business is at the moment?
I think its pretty healthy, although it’s always dying on its feet! Right from the ‘50s, people were saying, 'thats the end of it, now that television’s arrived.' And it survived. Theatre just reinvents itself and I think it’s in the process of reinventing itself again. Theres a lot of young very exiting writers and directors. Of course, we’ve always had the very best of stage actors in the world. Our actors are superb as you see in so many instances of American dramas and film blockbusters, they just employ actors who were employed at LAMDa and the like. It’s quite extraordinary. I think theatre is very healthy, but as ever its never financed enough and it doesn’t need vast sums of money, fortunately, to do a play decently. In fact the less you spend on it, quite often - quoting my mentor Stephen Joseph - the possibly better you are. Two planks and a passion are often the way forward!

Is there anyone person you have your eye on?
If I was to say anyone it would have to be a writer. If there was anyone, it’s someone who’s been developing his voice for quite a long time now. He’s not brand new but he’s very exciting. He’s a guy called Torben Betts, who’s probably not a household name yet. He’s got the wonderful combination of writing about important issues but entertainingly, which is what I think theatre is about. If you just give people a lecture and wag a finger at them from the stage and say we’re all responsible for this terrible state of affairs, we go, 'I don’t know.'

Thank you for being my special guest on Essential Classics.
It’s been a joy, thank you

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