Ayckbourn on Air (2010)

This article written by Simon Murgatroyd in 2010 looks at the radio adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn's plays.

When it comes to Alan Ayckbourn’s plays in other media, it is generally the screen adaptations which gain the most attention.
Yet, the most prolific adaptor of Alan’s plays is the radio with 22 different adaptations of Alan’s plays between 1975 and 2010 by the BBC alone.
While radio does present its own problems in presenting Alan’s plays, it also often does them better justice than the screen adaptations. On radio, the emphasis is thrown totally on the script, the actors and the audience’s imagination. Not necessarily a bad thing with regard to taking Alan’s plays away from the stage.
It should always be emphasised though, Alan writes plays for theatre not for television, film or radio. The transfer from one medium to another is often awkward, but radio is often the kinder medium to the plays.

Like the television adaptations of Alan’s plays, the first radio adaptation is
Relatively Speaking, the classic high comedy from 1965. First broadcast in December 1975, the play featured Michael Aldridge and Rosemary Leach as Philip and Sheila and was directed by Kay Patrick. The piece was deemed a success by the BBC who quickly commissioned two more pieces for broadcast in 1977.
However, if you were thinking about adapting an Ayckbourn play for the radio, one of the least likely suggestions would be
Absurd Person Singular, given the character Eve spends the second act silently attempting to commit suicide. The solution was to give Eva an internal voice, sparingly used, to comment on her actions. Alan didn’t write the additional dialogue, which was supplied by the director Kay Patrick, but it certainly marks one of the most unusual attempts to transfer an Ayckbourn play to the radio.
Very little else is know about the piece other than Christopher Godwin, who appeared in the play’s world premiere, was in it. This is still considerably more than is known about 1977’s recording of
Absent Friends.
All that is held in archive about this play is it was directed by Dickon Reed, adapted by Peter King, broadcast by BBC Worldwide, issued on vinyl and ran for just 60 minutes. There is some debate as to whether it was even recorded with permission as the following year, the BBC approached Alan’s agent about re-recording
Absent Friends for Radio 4. As soon as Alan heard it was 60 minutes, he refused to let it proceed - it seems hard to believe his views on this would have been any different just a year earlier. The Radio 4 production was not broadcast and the BBC World Service has not been broadcast again.
In 1979, the BBC aired the first of three different versions of
Confusions - although none of these have ever adapted the complete play. The first version included just Mother Figure with Maureen Lipman, Diane Bull and Ray Brooks recording the piece for the Just Before Midnight slot.
In 1985, the BBC World Service recorded
Mother Figure, Between Mouthfuls (another play which it’s hard to believe made much sense on the radio) and Gosforth’s Fête. Nothing else is held in archive about this, other than it is not the same as the 1987 production which recorded Mother Figure, Drinking Companion, Gosforth’s Fête and A Talk In The Park for BBC Radio 4 with Dan Garrett directing. These were broadcast over four consecutive nights.
1984 saw the first of two adaptations of
Just Between Ourselves (which has also been adapted as an audio book as well as for television). Both of these productions are notable for being directed by Gordon House, who has been responsible for directing 15 radio productions of Alan’s plays since 1984. Gordon’s adaptations stand as the single most consistently strong adaptations of Alan’s work in other media.
Season’s Greetings was also recorded twice - in 1985 and 1999 - and, like the television version, has been perennially popular. Featuring a strong ensemble cast, Season’s Greetings (1985) was directed by Gordon House and alongside Relatively Speaking and The Norman Conquests is one of the few Ayckbourn radio adaptations to have been commercially released by the BBC (although it has sadly long since been deleted).
Gordon House would then go on to direct
Intimate Exchanges for the BBC in 1987 with original cast members Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. The BBC only adapted four of the eight possible variations, but this at least does capture some of the epic scope of the play. It is also notable in being one of the few occasions Alan has actually become involved with an adaptation of his work. The first scene’s crucial moment of whether Celia chooses to have a cigarette or not is silent on stage and obviously would not work on radio. As a result, Gordon House contacted Alan, who supplied a short alternative scene with dialogue indicating what Celia chose to do.
Joking Apart was adapted for the radio in 1990 by Michael Fox; the first and only time Joking Apart has been recorded in another medium. This is a good example of how the radio adaptations tend to be ensemble pieces rather than star-led pieces (which is not just confined to the likes of television adaptations but frequently West End stage productions too). The decision to cast a strong ensemble often making a huge difference to the quality of Alan’s plays in any form - and of course being the closest to how the playwright operates when directing his plays.
In August 1990, Gordon House returned to Alan’s plays by directing
The Norman Conquests trilogy (as will be seen, Gordon House is never one to shy away from the more ambitious Ayckbourn plays). This production has been released on CD by the BBC and features an excellent cast with Robin Herford as Norman (Robin still stands as the actor who has performed in the most world premieres of Alan’s plays). Despite the difficulties of adapting the piece, it demonstrates how with clever editing and the odd alteration to the script, even the most visual of plays can still work credibly on the radio.
Gordon House followed this up with
Man Of The Moment which mixed the world premiere’s Douglas Beechey (Jon Strickland) with the West End’s Vic Parks (Peter Vaughan). Lia Williams and Adam Godley, both of whom have worked with Alan in Scarborough, also feature in a strong production of the play.
Man Of The Moment was also adapted to mark Alan’s 70th birthday in 2009 by Martin Jarvis. This again benefits enormously from an ensemble cast and a particularly menacing turn from Tim Piggott-Smith as Vic. The Ayckbourn veteran Janie Dee plays his wife, Trudy.
In 1996, Alan himself returned to the radio (during the 1960s, he was a radio producer for the BBC) by adapting
By Jeeves for the BBC. This featured the cast of the world and London premieres, both of which had opened earlier in the year. The piece is honed from the stage play slightly but features all the songs and a fun self-awareness as rather than the premise being Bertie Wooster giving a live banjo performance, here the script is altered for Bertie to be giving a radio broadcast for the BBC. With Steven Pacey as Bertie and Malcolm Sinclair as Jeeves, this is an excellent adaptation which unfortunately is also one of the least repeated of the plays on radio.
Within the next couple of years time - sadly no information is held on record - Gordon House adapted Alan’s acclaimed 1997 play
Things We Do For Love with much of the original Scarborough cast.
Continuing an apparent ambition to tackle the largest of Alan’s plays, he also tackled the two part
The Revengers’ Comedies in 1997, something he had been discussing with Alan Ayckbourn since 1992.
Again he had the best of both worlds mixing the world premieres’ Henry Bell (Jon Strickland again) with the West End’s Karen Knightley (Lia Williams). Unlike the appalling film adaptation which attempted to cram five hours of plot into 82 minutes(!), the play was broadcast in two parts and remains faithful to the original text and includes Jeff Shankley recreating his acclaimed Scarborough and London performance as the hideous City boss Bruce Tick.
This was followed in 1997 by
Way Upstream - again directed by Gordon House. Although a technical challenge on stage, Way Upstream is more straight-forward on the radio (although the foley artists had their work cut out). A strong cast led by Adam Godley as Alistair, Russell Dixon as Keith and Neil Pearson as Vince present a version which is far truer (and arguably better) representation of the work than the BBC television version.
In 2005, Peter Atkins directed what ranks as one of the best Ayckbourn radio plays (at least in this author’s view) with
Woman In Mind, which reunited Julia McKenzie as Susan and Martin Jarvis as Gerald, both of whom won acclaim in the West End production in 1986. Woman In Mind is a difficult enough play to do justice to on stage, so it’s a surprise that it works so well on radio, but then Susan’s hallucinations of her imaginary family and house are not grounded by budgets or technical restrictions - just the imagination of the audience - and the leap between reality and fantasy works particularly well.
For only the second time, an Ayckbourn musical was adapted for the radio in 2006 with Alan and Denis King’s time-travelling romp
Whenever. Particularly well-adapted and produced with the assistance of Denis King, Whenever again takes a very visual piece of theatre and makes it work on the radio. Several members of the original Scarborough company returned to the play with Malcolm Sinclair coming in as the villainous Lucas to good effect.
The final radio adaptation, as of writing in 2010, was presented as part of BBC Radio’s 70th birthday tribute to Alan in 2009. Martin Jarvis again directing one of Alan’s most acclaimed works
A Small Family Business.
Featuring Alfred Molina as Jack and Adam Godley as the detective Benedict Hough, this features an exceptional ensemble cast which does full justice to a play that is frequently neglected in stage due to its technical challenges and the size of its cast. This was actually Alfred Molina second appearance as a voice actor in an Ayckbourn play, having also performed in the audio book of
Just between Ourselves from 2000.
That then is a whistle-stop tour to Alan’s plays on the radio. Far more consistently served in the quality of productions on radio than television, there seems little doubt that radio will continue to serve Alan’s plays well in the future too.
Whilst they are obviously not as good as seeing the plays live on stage, they do offer an opportunity to hear some of the less frequently produced Ayckbourn plays and as they are relatively frequently repeated on the BBC, there is at least a chance to hear many and enjoy many of these versions of Alan’s plays.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.