Alan Ayckbourn & Ben Travers In Conversation (1979)Rookery Nook, the best-known of all Ben Travers' Aldwych farces, had opened at Her Majesty's this evening fully fifty-three years after its original first night. The playwright had just celebrated his ninety-third birthday, and among his many gifts was an inscribed copy of Taking Steps, Alan Ayckbourn's Scarborough comedy and one formally dedicated to Travers by the Dramatist generally reckoned to be his only true heir.
Travers: I'd been hoping Rookery Nook would go to the Criterion, somewhere small, and then suddenly they rang and said we'd got Her Majesty's and I said couldn't they have got Covent Garden or somewhere really intimate like that? You can lose people in Her Majesty's, you know: hundreds go in there and are never seen again. Still, better than nowhere, though when you bring Taking Steps into London do try for somewhere a little smaller. What made you dedicate it to me?
Ayckbourn: I think maybe it's more of a farce than some of my earlier ones, and I wanted to dedicate it to you as soon as I began writing it, but then I thought maybe it would turn out to be a disaster and you wouldn't care for that, so I waited until the first night a couple of weeks ago, and when that seemed to go all right I went ahead. It really is more like you than the others.
Travers: You mean it's dirtier, I suppose? You've always thought I was an insane, gaga old playwright and of course you're right, though I do remember that production of Rookery Nook you directed in Scarborough. You left a bottle of champagne in my hotel room. It was the best thing about the whole evening. But it's easy for you because you're a commentator; here we are, sitting around having a drink, and all the time you're watching and observing and storing up moments and suddenly we find ourselves in your plays looking ridiculous.
Ayckbourn: But you always did exactly the same thing: Rookery Nook is all about your neighbours, surely?
Travers: All farce is. The whole secret of farce is that it's about ordinary people in extraordinary situations; if it happens to a bunch of clowns it isn't funny at all.
Ayckbourn: Dead right.
Travers: Betjeman understands that. We were having lunch yesterday and it suddenly dawned on me that all his poems are about ordinary middle class people to whom something a little extraordinary happens, love or death or something like that.
Ayckbourn: I grew up in a different period, when alongside your plays and Coward's and Rattigan's there were also plays by Osborne and Pinter and I somehow got caught in the crossfire, so that when I began writing there was a much more serious line running through the theatre and you weren't allowed just to do jokes. But I stage-managed some of your plays when I was in rep and they taught me a hell of a lot.
Travers: When I saw The Norman Conquests I thought that's it, I'm finished, I may as well give up now.
Ayckbourn: But you haven't.
Travers: No, well, one never does really.
Ayckbourn: Non-comic dramatists have a much easier time; they can always be called "interesting"; with us, if a play isn't funny then it's bloody nothing. But we have been lucky in that we've both had our own permanent companies, you at the Aldwych and me at Scarborough.
Travers: Yes, but the difference is that actors at Scarborough work for you because you employ them - at the Aldwych I was always made to feel that it was the actors who employed me. A man like Tom Walls didn't exactly take direction the way that your people do nowadays. He was always in charge, and then we had Robertson Hare who wasn't a great actor but had the great advantage of living next door to everybody in the world, so that he was always recognised as the neighbour because that's what he was, the archetypal man next door. But Tom only ran a show for as long as it was playing to capacity, which was usually about six months: as soon as he started seeing empty seats he used to tell me to go off and write him another one because he always needed as much money as possible for the horses and the girls. He couldn't bear to be on a stage in one play if he thought he could be making more money in another. Now you're a first-draft man, aren't you?
Ayckbourn: No. I do a certain amount of re-writing. But last summer at Scarborough a couple of men came up to me and said of all the plays they'd seen of mine the one they enjoyed most was Rookery Nook. They got a rather frozen smile. But you're timeless: a line like the one in Rookery Nook about fat women coming at one from all directions could have come out of a Monty Python script.
Travers: I was writing about the very first post-Victorian period of freedom: suddenly scandals were possible, at any rate the idea of them was.
Ayckbourn: You always know when you walk into a Travers play that you're in safe hands, that the writer will take care of the evening. I like that: it's a gift Wodehouse had in novels.
Travers: He never could do plays, not by himself: funny man, very unfunny scripts. That was Plum. Curious how few of us there are. Comic dramatists. I mean. Mind you, there aren't many lepers around nowadays either.
Ayckbourn: Do you still worry about first nights and what the critics will say?
Travers: Yes. Ayckbourn: Damn, I hoped perhaps the feeling passed as you grew older.
Travers: Nothing changes. Every morning, when you are 93, you wake up and say to yourself "What again?" Real life though, is what you write down; there's nothing very real about living. Mind you, I'm getting very slow; I'm working on the same new play now that I was doing two years ago. Sometimes you get stuck. I was stuck on how to get Poppy on stage in the last act of Rookery Nook until by a sort of miracle our door bell rang in Burnham and a lady came in selling flags for the Lifeboat Fund and I thought right, that's how we'll get her on stage. Sometimes you need a bit of luck like that. I think I bought all the flags in her tray. But if I tell you the really great thing about living to be 93: one does not have any rivals, because they're all dead, so one can afford to be generous with young chaps like you.
Ben Travers died in December 1980 aged 94.
This article by Sheridan Morley was first published in The Times on 20 November 1979.
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