Ayckbourn Talks: Meridian (1984)

This is an edited transcription of the BBC World Service programme Meridian, which broadcast an Alan Ayckbourn Special on 1 December 1984 to mark the 25th anniversary of his first play.

Alan Ayckbourn: I think it was partly Stephen Joseph’s cunning that re-diverted my talents into more profitable areas. I think he sussed a long time before I did that as an actor I was going to barely make the grade, but he guided me first of all towards writing when he suggested I write myself a play - which I did, a huge vehicle for me! In fact I wrote two or three huge vehicles for me, quite unashamed sort of megalomanic pieces of work which gave nobody else a look in and me all there laugh lines. And then following that he then began to guide me away from this rather unhealthy preoccupation - promoting myself as an actor - into promoting myself as a director and I started to write myself extremely clever pieces for a director. A real show off, like Mr Whatnot - which is one of my plays which is 85% mime and was just a director’s showpiece. I think eventually I settled down and started to write and direct for the key element, which were the other actors.

Penelope Keith: Alan writes very strong situations, I think what he does give you as an actor is the basis of a very interesting character, a very rounded character. You’re not just playing someone who gets laughed at - or even with. I remember one of the greatest complements I had after Round And Round The Garden was someone came and said, ‘oh, you made me cry’ and I was very pleased about that, the fact the house is rocking for a good part of the evening, but they’re also crying too - that is the peak, that is the pinnacle for me. The fact you can make people laugh and cry in the same evening.

Richard Briers: It all comes from the character which he has seen so clearly, because Alan has this extraordinary insight into people. He’s very shrewd and very quick about summing up people’s weaknesses and faults and the nice things about them. I suppose my favourite part, when he started to write with a little more depth and more darkness in his work, was Absurd Person Singular, which I think in many ways is his best play - certainly his most entertaining play - but also it has a great deal to say. I played an awful property developer, a real climber, a very ambitious man who treats his wife very badly; that strikes a chord in many, many thousands of households. That was marvellous and each act in Absurd Person Singular is like a one act play, I always felt. The first act is farcical. The second act is, I suppose, the funniest act ever written in the history of comedy - the second act is appalling but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud so much just reading the act, let along before I saw it acted - and the third act is mildly Chekhovian. So you had all these with the sadness crept into the third act with the bank manager and his second wife, who has become an alcoholic because she’s bored to death by him and all these things. There’s so much rich content to it. It was a very rich play to do.

Alan Ayckbourn: The characters come really from my immediate circle and my immediate experience. The framework of it, if you like, is very much in my childhood. It’s odd, I suppose, living in the north for 25 years or so, I still set resolutely all my plays in the south and I think that’s to do with my whole upbringing; my whole environment up to the age of 17 was very clearly the home counties and those were the people I watched and hung around and that is the voice in my head. I think you always get stuck with it. I don’t know where they come from really! Most of it is me. I have so many faults as a character there’s ample to spread over all my other characters. I embody all human weaknesses!

Peter Hall: I don’t believe any of Alan’s comedies would have any basis or any work if they didn’t have the human heart at the base of them. All comedy is basically serious. I think Alan is a very serious man, an extremely haunted man. Most of his plays are about loneliness, inability of human beings to communicate with one another, the cruelty that results in that lack of understanding and, of course, they are about the sex war between man and woman. He’s not politically committed like many of his generation are in any sense, except he’s politically committed - I think - to the anguish, the impossibility of finding any political solution. I would think he’s firmly in the middle. In pain. I think he’s terribly unhappy in his plays underneath all that laughter.

Alan Ayckbourn: I do, let’s be fair, do a lot in comedy and comedies are based upon human frailties - or most of them are. There is something awfully boring about sitting too long and watching people better than you, doing it better than you, achieving it better than you and one gets extremely dissatisfied not to say gloomy. Good fault free people with happy marriages are usually pretty deadly.

Paul Allen: With Ayckbourn we’ve learnt to look anew at the sort of women who have been sent up as silly or neurotic or bossy or sexually threatening by the theatre. Women who have been disastrously suppressed by life itself.

Alan Ayckbourn: Women tend, and have tended, until very recently anyway to sheath their intelligences . They know really, at the end of it, that men don’t actually like intelligent women - unless they’re tremendously liberated men, of which there are a few around, but certainly traditionally bright girls are being left behind girls who you know are using a quarter of their intelligence saying, ‘Oh, I’m an absolute silly when it comes to vacuum cleaner plans’ when they’ve actually just rewired the entire house. They’re the sort of women that get on, much to other women’s annoyance - and quit rightly.

Paul Allen: Ayckbourn has a vast and exhilarating appetite for theatre itself, what it can do that nothing else can.

Penelope Keith: For me, the thing I admire so much is that he uses theatre. The first play of his I did was called How The Other Half Loves and that has the most stunning idea of having two houses and even a sofa - two of whose seating compartments are in one house and the other seats in the other. So - in other words - you are sitting on the stage talking to your husband and next to me was the wife of the other family in another house. Visually this is terribly funny and indeed vocally, except it is only really truly funny in the theatre, it wouldn’t work on television because people wouldn’t understand. You could hop from one house to the other, likewise in the films. You wouldn’t be quite as funny on the radio as you wouldn’t see the two people sitting so close. So he just uses the theatre as his medium.

Alan Ayckbourn: I do love pinching film cliché, Bedroom Farce is built on cross-cuts. Bringing new things into the theatre, one has to try and balance content and gimmick. But I think the way you tell a story is as important as the story.

I think it’s all to do with the liveness off theatre really. Obviously, when one’s directing or acting you talk about what happened off stage and what happened immediately before I came on and then what would happen if… obviously comes into it. I think, theatricality as in life, I’ve always been fascinated by what appears to be completely random decisions made by people which lead to a whole chain of different circumstances: what if I hadn’t met so-and-so in the pub, would I have not joined the
BBC? It’s in fact what happened to me and I spent five years at the BBC, completely arbitrarily as I almost dialled the wrong number and that seems to me, that my life has been like that and a lot of people’s lives are. So that fascinated me. Also one one of the problems actors have night after night is generating energy, so I’ve tried with plays like Intimate Exchanges and Sisterly Feelings, to keep them nervous. which is almost the same thing as keeping energy - the adrenalin from a first night which blazes through you just disappears after about three weeks and is never regained, but I try and make every night a first night.

Paul Todd: Alan’s extremely easy to work with in that respect because I suspect with his family background, there’s an awful lot of music in his soul. He talks about music in the kind of way a musician would talk abstractly about music. For instance with the Sisterly Feelings theme music, we met over a pint in the local hostelry and we were talking about using two sisters as the basic idea of the play and decided each of them should havre a tune. When he was talking about Dorcas, one of the sisters, in terms of writing he actually said it’s a kind of mid-range kind of thing, which set my pitch, slightly male which gave men the instrument, she’s not an overt kind of person, she’s contained, she’s not certain - so him having said that, all that remained was for me to put the notes to that as he’d actually written that for me.

Paul Allen: I think Alan’s real influence is the life of the theatre itself which he’s lived so long.

Peter Hall: I think it comes from the theatre. He will be seen in the line of Wilde or Pinero of Maughan, of Coward and to some extent, I think, Harold Pinter will too. I think Pinter and Ayckbourn are much closer than anybody at the moment feels. They’re both consummate stylists, they both use words extremely precisely. They both deal with irony and understatement to make extremely explosive statements. They both have an extraordinary ear for idiosyncratic and expressive nature of demotic speech. They’re both also funny.

Alan Ayckbourn: There was a lot of heart in that speech [Dafydd’s states of the arts speech in A Chorus Of Disapproval], it was a bit depressing because you do get the feeling that what you’re doing doesn’t matter. We all get that anyway. One wakes up in the middle of the night and says, what I am doing in theatre when some awful disaster’s happened outside, but you plough on. I do think in this country the attitude to the arts is as a rather needless luxury.

I stay in Scarborough because I’m a small theatre man and that’s something that I suppose came from Stephen Joseph. I do think that scale’s all, so many of my own plays - and many other people’s too - disappear down these vast tunnels of black proscenium nonsense when they were once little treasures in studio theatres or small space theatres. And the big stuff is done so much better now by other things. It used to be that theatre was spectacular - the old Victorian rooftop chases and battleships sailing on from the wings. It’s something that’s pretty poor stuff next to film. I think if you want to lure people out on a winter night in Scarborough, you’ve got to offer them something that competes on a different level. We can’t give them
The Guns of Navarone in Scarborough, we give them Way Upstream, which is not pretending to compete as a spectacle but its something unusual. But in fact it’s the human drama and human drama is best seen from 12 feet away not from 1200 ft.

I don’t take notice of critics, no, not a lot. I think by the time they review my stuff, I’ve already anticipated them. Very rarely am I taken by surprise. Some notices are obviously different from others but in general I think I tend to get the notices I deserve. If everyone dislikes a play, it may not necessarily be the play but the production, I can sort that out. I’m usually ahead of them. I have a maxim now which I shout at critics out of windows occasionally, ‘If you’re not all very nice to me, I shall write a lot more!’

Peter Hall: I think Alan’s only crime with the critics is he’s written 31 plays and they’ve been very successful. Alan needs to write a play each year, Shakespeare needed to write a play a year. When he’s dead, then he’ll come into his own - I’m sorry. But just as Coward did. Coward was derided in the ‘20s and ‘30s, once he’d stopped being a bright young man as being old Coward and now its boring old Ayckbourn.

Richard Briers: I think he’ll be remembered as a very important writer. A social writer, he will be a person almost like a historic document of people’s feelings and emotions of a certain class, particularly Middle Class and Lower Middle Class. He will be remembered, certainly, as the least obscure of our important writers, which I think is invaluable. Alan I think is brilliant, but you can also actually understand his story which is so nice especially with people of limited intelligence like myself! It’s rather nice to be entertained and also see yourself in the plays - he just holds a mirror up to nature like all important writers always have done.

Penelope Keith: Other plays might comment on an entire country’s political life. Alan will take a family, therefore you can say he’s a miniaturist. He’ll take a family and will comment on that. But certainly as an actor, they are wonderful plays to work on. Oh yes, it’s all there and very, very challenging and very deep.

Peter Hall: I think what’s interesting is the middle period plays he tried to get over some very serious and lonely statements by saucing them with comedy before going serious. I don’t think that’s entirely has worked. I don’t know, I suspect he’s not quite happy with it. I think that now the writing is moving into a new period where the comedy itself contains the serious meaning and there’s a synthesis of that in A Chorus Of Disapproval; I thought that was a wonderful balance between wanting to say something very serious but actually never letting the audience off the hook with laughter. If he’s capable of doing that, one can only say thank god we’ve got one major comic writer.

Paul Allen: We often forget the double meaning of the word play in the theatre and that one legitimate function of the arts is still to give the paying customer a thrill. Ayckbourn never forgets that and I hope this self-detracting artist can conserve his talent and stay in Scarborough because no other trip to the theatre gives me quite the same anticipatory lift to the spirits.

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