Ayckbourn on TV (2010)

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

A playwriting force since 1959, it's not so well known that Alan AYckbourn's plays were being shown on television as early as 1967.
In that year, a long since lost version of
Relatively Speaking was broadcast on BBC1. Over the next 23 years, there would be 16 different Ayckbourn television adaptations in the UK. Since 1990, there have been none.
The adaptations of Alan’s plays for television are frequently overlooked and generate polarising opinions. Yet for many people, they provided a first experience of a specific Ayckbourn play or of the playwright himself.
There is little doubt this is a mixed blessing which Alan himself reflected on in 1979 when considering an adaptation of
Bedroom Farce for television.

“I guess the reaction to the TV will be the usual - those of the audience who saw the play in the theatre will be disappointed; those who saw it for the first time on television may enjoy it.”

This has always been an issue with the television versions of Alan’s plays. Given that most of them originally had viewing figures in the millions, the majority of viewers will never have seen the original plays nor can they compare them to the medium they were intended for.
This is problematic as, objectively, no matter what their quality, the television adaptations frequently pay little heed to the author’s intent or sometimes even the original script. But then, Alan has always chosen to play no part in these productions and all plot and script decisions and alterations - for good or invariably bad - are entirely the filmmakers’ own.
There is also another limitation with television, which has always irritated the playwright. Television tend to run to neat scheduled slots, theatre does not. Plays adapted for television are generally shoe-horned into these slots. When Granada filmed the National Theatre’s production of
Bedroom Farce, a stage running time of 135 minutes was cut to 104 minutes. Rarely has any Ayckbourn play not faced this problem, ranging from losing 20 minutes in each of The Norman Conquests to more than an hour for Way Upstream. Realistically, to lose so much material must have some effect on the play. As Alan has pointed out, if you really can cut a half-an-hour of material from his plays with no effect, then he is not doing his job properly.
Given these limitations, it’s interesting to see how television has chosen to deal with Alan’s plays and how they have fared.

The first Ayckbourn play to reach the small screen was
Relatively Speaking in 1967, appropriately enough given it was his first major theatre success.
This was a 50 minute excerpt recorded from the West End production, which was currently still playing at the Duke of York's Theatre. Apparently watched by 2.5m people, it sadly has not survived in archive as otherwise it would have offered a unique glimpse at the performances of Richard Briers, Michael Aldridge and Celia Johnson on stage.
This was followed in March 1969 by the first adaptation of an Ayckbourn play for television with the play, again, being
Relatively Speaking. It was directed by Herbert Wise (who would go on to direct The Norman Conquests). This 90 minute adaptation featured both the female actors from the West End (Cleia Johnson and Judy Cornwell) with the role of Philip played by Donald Sinden.
The next two small screen outings are very obscure and do not come from the main body of Alan’s work. In December 1972, Alan was featured on the arts magazine programme
Full House. This included a performance of Alan’s short one act play Countdown, with Clive Dunn and Sheila Hancock as the Man and Woman. Countdown is part of the Mixed Doubles collection of plays by various playwrights including Harold Pinter. Again, it is not believed any copy of Countdown has survived for posterity - but given its short length, it seems likely (or at least one would hope so), it might be a rare occasion when an Ayckbourn script was presented unexpurgated on television.
It was followed by Alan’s first and final foray into screen-writing with
Service Not Included in 1974. Alan had been approached to write a piece specifically for the BBC arts programme Masquerade. He wrote a screenplay for a half-hour film set around an office party at a hotel. The action loosely follows a waiter as he moves around the party, offering glimpses into the conversations and lives of the attendees. It’s a not terribly successful production, but the nugget of the idea (a waiter moving between customers) was salvaged and used to far greater effect in the one act play Between Mouthfuls as part of Confusions.
Service Not Included is of interest largely due to it being Alan’s only produced foray into screenplays, that it was again directed by Herbert Wise and its large cast included Alan’s now wife Heather Stoney in a mermaid fancy-dress outfit!
We move onto safer and more familiar territory with
Time And Time Again in 1974, the first attempt to try and present an Ayckbourn play faithfully on television. The aim was to transfer Eric Thompson’s successful 1972 West End production to the small screen and it managed to keep most of the original cast including Tom Courtenay as Leonard.
Caspar Wrede directed the piece and was largely involved in pushing the project through. Intriguingly, the original plan (which was not run past either Alan or his agent) was to cast Michael Gambon as Leonard.
Again coming as it does prior to the advent of video recorders, this has rarely been seen since its original broadcast and it’s doubtful it even survives in archive. What is known is that to make it fit its allocated running time, the final scene was cut which Alan felt had a hugely detrimental effect on the piece. It also made the decision to show the off-stage cricket match and while this may have had a certain comedy value, it does tend to miss the point as the humour in the play comes from leaving Leonard’s sporting ineptness both to the imagination and the observers’ comments.
In 1976, the BBC did consider filming
Confusions (with the exception of Between Mouthfuls, ironic given it had been inspired by a screenplay), but negotiations came to nothing. The next Ayckbourn television project is undoubtedly the most famous. The Norman Conquests was first broadcast in the UK in 1977, although negotiations to adapt it for both the big and small screen had been taking place since its West End opening in 1974.
It is easily the most viewed of Alan’s television plays (combined figures for the trilogy have been put at 30m in the UK and 100m in the USA) and the most well-remembered.
Despite a stellar cast including Tom Conti, Penelope Keith, Richard Briers and Penelope Wilton, it is not quite the triumph many would have you believe. When released on DVD in the UK in 2005, its limitations as a very stage-bound adaptation of the trilogy shone through and although it stays close to the original script, Tom Conti arguably struggles to believably capture Norman’s character. Far more successful - and rarely noted in discussions about the adaptation - is Penelope Wilton as Annie. Considering the wealth of talent involved, including Herbert Wise returning to Ayckbourn directing duties, it is entirely possible that the production just wasn’t able to reach its full potential having been seriously affected by a technical strike during filming, which reduced the filming block by half. Given the limitations that must have put on the production, it’s a wonder the trilogy is even remotely the quality it achieves.
The following year saw
Just Between Ourselves filmed to celebrate Yorkshire Television’s first decade of existence. This was heralded as a major television event and featured a strong cast including Richard Briers as Dennis. Again, there were arguments about the length of the piece (it lost about 15 minutes) but the final product is one that Alan has previously said stands as one of the better films of his plays. His only proviso was the original broadcast was almost ruined when the sombre ending finished with a tight close up on the comatose Vera’s face as the credits rolled. The tension then broken by the continuity announcer’s cheerful plug for the rest of the evening’s schedule.
Not to be outdone by Yorkshire Television, BBC North produced a rarely seen Ayckbourn piece in 1979 which is a fascinating document of an actual show. Alan agreed to let the BBC record his first revue
Men On Women On Men with the majority of the original Scarborough cast. The musical revue was recorded in a studio in Leeds, but is to all intents and purposes the live production filmed. It is credited as being directed by Alan (which makes this rather than By Jeeves, the first time Alan stepped behind the camera). Although slightly abridged, it is a very rare case of a recording of something which approximates the live experience as Alan has never allowed live recordings of his own productions.
Men On Women On Men was produced on a shoe-string budget, recorded in black and white (in 1979!) and was probably one of the cheapest stage to screen adaptations of Alan’s work. Even less is known about a follow-up when BBC North recorded The 7 Deadly Virtues in 1984 for a late night half-hour slot. Given the original piece ran for more than an hour, obviously not all the virtues could be included so the programme was produced under the title Deadly Virtues.
In 1980, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous plays recorded for television in a decade which saw many of his plays adapted for television. Many of which should probably never have strayed from the stage.
For while some did good service to the original play, others are so far removed from the original intent, they bear scant resemblance to what Alan Ayckbourn wrote or his original intentions.
The 1980s began with an attempt to transfer the wildly successful National Theatre production of
Bedroom Farce to television. This had been one of the venue’s biggest early hits and had transferred to both the West End and Broadway.
Bedroom Farce was produced by Granada television and directed by Christopher Morahan, who had worked with Alan on the National’s production of Sisterly Feelings. Alan’s main bone of contention (and one which he has had with practically every film) was its running time. The play was allocated a two hour slot including adverts, which actually meant 104 minutes rather than its stage length of 135 minutes. A rather brutal cut to what is a taut play.
The play retained much of the original cast (with the exception of Michael Gough being replaced by Michael Denison as Ernest). It was a huge ratings success and even led to protracted attempts to create a spin-off television series.
It was not necessarily a terribly successful adaptation though and illustrated a peculiarity of Alan’s writing. He frequently talks about using cinematic techniques within his plays and
Bedroom Farce makes particular use of the cross-cut. However, this is still a theatrical version of the cross-cut which arguably didn’t translate well to the screen. The quick and seamless jumps between bedrooms on the stage was not successfully captured and a lot of the pace was lost (which becomes a problem when you’ve already cut half-an-hour of your running time).
Despite its shortcomings, its ratings success led the Film Institute to screen it at the National Film Theatre in 1998 during the Popular Television Of The ‘70s And ‘80s festival.
It would be five years before the next major Ayckbourn adaptation. In the meantime in 1984, Alan was asked to contribute to the
English Files education series for a programme about bringing a play to the stage. Alan wrote a short one act play, A Cut In The Rates, specifically for the documentary, which recorded the process from read-through to rehearsal to the first live performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. A fascinating and unique insight into Alan’s working practises; this has rarely been seen since.
1985 saw the first of a trilogy of Ayckbourn adaptations in quick succession, which heralded the best attempt yet to successfully bring the plays to screen. All were produced by Shaun Sutton for the BBC and directed by Michael Simpson. They featured strong ensemble casts, many of whom had worked previously with Alan.
The first was
Absurd Person Singular in 1985, which featured Michael Gambon, Maureen Lipman and Geoffrey Palmer. The running time was approximately the same as the play and there were minimal alterations to the playtext.
Interestingly - and unusually - the director chose not to expand the plays out from their original setting and remain confined to the kitchens. With clever editing, Simpson ingeniously worked around the limitations of the confined space and avoids it feeling too theatrical. Alan himself reported he was happy with this film.
This was quickly followed by
Absent Friends, the best known of this BBC trilogy. It was broadcast in September 1985 and is generally remembered for Julia McKenzie’s extraordinary performance as Diana; her pivotal speech about the Royal Mounted Police is done in one shot with the camera slowly tightening onto her face and remains very powerful.
Running slightly abridged, but not noticeably so, it also remains bound to the living room and also features a nice, understated performance by Tom Courtenay as Colin. The strength of McKenzie’s performance persuaded Alan she was perfect for the West End transfer of
Woman In Mind, which she won huge plaudits for.
Again, the film stayed true to the play and remains one of the best adaptations of Alan’s plays.
Christmas Eve 1986 saw the premiere of
Season’s Greetings, which in 2003 was selected by the British Film Institute as one of the best examples of the ‘television play’. Again Michael Simpson directed a strong ensemble cast in a programme which ran for 110 minutes - again a slight reduction on the stage running time but infinitely better than the original plans for a 90 minute version. Remaining faithful to the play, it completes a strong trilogy of films for the BBC and is by far the film which receives the most requests for information from AlanAyckbourn’s Official Website.
The unlikely success of these three plays - sadly not yet made available commercially - should have boded well for future productions. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
In 1987, the BBC produced a highly ambitious film of
Way Upstream, which even had its première at the London Film Festival. In hindsight, it was probably too ambitious.
The play is infamously set on a cabin cruiser, afloat on a flooded stage, which cruises into near fantasy territory. It is an intensely theatrical creation and part of its inherent appeal is the unlikely experience of watching a boat moving on water on stage, experiencing torrential downpours. It is a coup de theatre.
To film it, the obvious decision to use a real boat on a real river was taken. Challenging, no doubt, but the wonder of the piece is instantly lost. Boats on a river you can see everyday, boats on a river on stage not so much.
The director Terry Johnson was obviously dedicated to the piece and put a great deal of thought and effort into transferring the play onto the screen, but as has happened in other Ayckbourn adaptations (the film of
A Chorus Of Disapproval being a prime example), at some point it simply ceases to be Alan’s play and becomes a film sharing a plot and character but not the same intentions. The running time lost an hour to fit a 90 minute slot, the play was cut, dialogue moved and along the way, the humour was lost.
Broadcast on 1 January 1988, the play generated a huge amount of attention and strong ratings, but as Alan would later admit, it had become less his play and more Terry Johnson’s view of the play. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but stood side by side, the play and the film bear little resemblance to each other; although the film does have several very effective scenes. Crucially, the over-riding optimism in the relationship between the protagonists Alistair and Emma and much humour is subsumed in the film by darkness and a quite unexpected level of violence. The intentions were good, but the end-result did not reflect the play.
Which brings us full circle to
Relatively Speaking; the first filmed Ayckbourn play is also, as of writing, the final Ayckbourn play to reach British television.* Broadcast in 1989, it saw Shaun Sutton and Michael Simpson back in the picture with a cast featuring Nigel Hawthorne as Philip and Imogen Stubbs as Ginny.
It’s a fair question to ask, other than its popularity, why
Relatively Speaking was chosen for television. The play famously manages to stretch credibility - and essentially one joke - to absolute breaking point without snapping. The characters are utterly subservient to the plot - Alan himself has noted it is a play from a period where he concentrated on technique and plotting. This is crucial as Simpson’s previous adaptations were ensemble character pieces and worked well on TV precisely because they concentrated on the characters. Relativity Speaking’s character are wafer thin and do not bear scrutiny. Nor does the plot; if the audience is allowed time to reflect on what’s happening, the game is up. The play barrels along sweeping the audience along, only afterwards might they question what has happened.
The film, despite being in period and featuring Nigel Hawthorne and Imogen Stubbs, just feels slightly lost and suffers from some strange production decisions. The actors seem uncomfortable and what remains an extremely funny piece of nonsense on stage, just becomes a likeable, but not particularly funny situation comedy on television.
This marked the end of television’s 23 year relationship with Alan Ayckbourn. For whatever reasons - the decline of filmed plays on television, a perception for a period of Alan being unfashionable - there have been no television adaptations in the UK since 1989. Ironically, there has been an increasing number of foreign language adaptations of his plays never seen in the UK or the USA.
And with the passage of time, memory of the television plays grows dimmer. Only
The Norman Conquests has been made widely available commercially, but there is no sign of any others being released in the foreseeable future or being repeated on television.
Which is a shame, for despite their inconsistencies and often poor reflection of the original play, they remain for many people an introduction to Alan’s plays and an indication of the playwright’s popularity that so many of his plays have been adapted for television and received such wide exposure.
If the nature of theatre is transience - which is one of the reasons why Alan Ayckbourn does not allow recordings of his live productions - then in a sense, these TV plays have also achieved this. Unseen for so long and unlikely to be seen again, they have achieved a transience of their own, surviving only in the memories of those who saw them and perhaps in this, they finally come closer to the plays themselves than was ever managed on screen.

The Revengers’ Comedies (or Sweet Revenge as it was released) is sometimes regarded as a TV film, but it was actually always intended for cinema release. By Jeeves was actually commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and has never been show on television in the UK.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.