Neighbourhood Watch (2011)

This page contains an interview with Alan Ayckbourn about Neighbourhood Watch, conducted by Simon Murgatroyd, from 2011 alongside an addendum from 2012.

Simon Murgatroyd: Your new play is called Neighbourhood Watch, what is it about?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I think it’s all in the title. It’s a cautionary play. It addresses modern hang-ups such as law and order, health and safety. Are we safe in our beds when there are lawless youths roaming the streets whilst the police seem powerless? It’s tapping into that sort of fear.

Is it as dark as it sounds?
It’s in my dark farce mode. I’ve always been interested in how, out of tiny things, wars are often fought. Whenever history is examined, you always say: Is that really what started it? Helen of Troy was responsible for an awful lot! Neighbourhood Watch begins with a genuine misunderstanding where no-one is prepared to stand down and the reason becomes all but forgotten, but nonetheless causes a war.

And you’re tackling this from the perspective as something as apparently innocuous as a neighbourhood watch scheme?
It’s about committees which have a way of being taken over by lunatics and extremists. Sane people often haven’t the patience or staying power to serve on committees. So the people in charge of them are often those with nothing better to do but manipulate other people’s lives. Then there are sub-committees, which are answerable to nobody and do all the work from finance to, in this case, retribution! Very few normal people volunteer for those, as that’s another evening out of their lives, so you find people volunteering for sub-committees who shouldn’t be in charge of a box of matches let alone the future of an estate. (For more information, please see my earlier play Ten Times Table!)

What quickly emerges from this scheme is a particularly extreme British version of a gated community, do you think that’s a real possibility?
There is a sense of impotence these days, an instinct to build little fences around ourselves. Because my English people are inherently polite people, they very rarely contradict each other and are happy to go along with things until, usually, it’s far too late. I don’t think we’ll ever become an extreme fascist state in this country over night, but we might over the years just drift into it and people will then ask how on earth did we get here? The English are not for turning! But gently nudging? The English are for nudging.

One of the ideas of the play is our perception of real versus imagined threats, do you think that is particularly pertinent to society today?
I think so, because we are increasingly distancing ourselves from reality. We get our information from newspapers or TV or the internet; we are aware of things that are happening but since we don’t witness them first hand relying instead on news media, often amplified, this compounds the sense that society is breaking down. I think there’s too much information which we can’t process fast enough – no wonder we’re in danger of getting badly confused. I’ve been aware that once I’m out of the stream - and when one is a writer, you do tend to keep dipping out and in - the world seems completely demented. Then when you get back to reality, you realise most of your fears were ludicrously exaggerated. Yes, it is risky to walk down certain streets even in Scarborough alone at night but society is not breaking down.

How would you compare Neighbourhood Watch to your last play, Life of Riley?
I describe some of my plays as watercolours and some as oils. I think Life of Riley was probably more a watercolour and this is more towards oil – maybe a pastel! It’s slightly bolder and has some extremely dark shadows in it, but also some light moments. Life of Riley was rather oblique. A lot of people who saw it didn’t quite perceive what was happening and were looking for twists which weren’t there. This one is much more in your face!

Neighbourhood Watch is also touring to New York immediately after it finishes in Scarborough, what do you feel you and the Stephen Joseph Theatre gain from these tours?
I’ve always believed that when we’re touring, we benefit enormously because although this is just another show in Scarborough terms, by the time you get to New York, it’s the first time anyone has seen the play or seen the company. We’ve often been incredibly well praised and certainly incredibly well received and that makes you realise the quality of the work. The last three visits we’ve had to the 59E59 Theatres, we’ve had a lot of accolades and a lot of positive press because New Yorkers are never backward in coming forward. They have really enthused. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm.

Neighbourhood Watch is also rather special as it is both your 75th play and, significantly, the 300th play commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Would you agree it’s a significant achievement at a bleak time for new writing?
It’s a fantastic record - such a high percentage of new work. I do think that proud tradition has become more difficult over the years. My regret is that due to entirely financial considerations – which are more acute now than ever before – there is less and less opportunity for new writing because a new play by an unknown is a huge risk. I’m a profound believer that new writing is the lifeblood of the theatre, but increasingly there are more revivals and new writers are driven into fringe venues or the last two subsidised bastions, the Royal Court and the National Theatre, where they can still afford to stage new writing. I can well see the theatre’s Artistic Director Chris Monk’s frustration because there is so little space to manoeuvre.

In an interview on 14 February 2012 with Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn reflected on the success of and reaction to Neighbourhood Watch.

You have another play soon to go into London too with Neighbourhood Watch, which has been incredibly successful. When you wrote it 18 months ago, you can’t have imagined it would get this sort of response or become so pertinent coinciding as it did with the 2011 riots.
It’s interesting because it does present the other side of the coin - which is typical for me - it isn’t about the rioters or the police, it’s about the bystanders who feel that they need to react to events. A lot of my plays are about people on the margins who feel threatened, but who haven’t actually been threatened and who - in the case of
Neighbourhood Watch - somewhat over-react; although you can see why they react the way they do and why they feel events are out of their control.
I think we’ve got a fantastic way of disseminating information these days, partly through the press, partly through the media, partly through the internet and social networking. There is this immediate and somewhat graphic reportage. Yet if you speak to someone and they’re apparently in the middle of a riot or a rumpus, looting and burning of buildings apparently all around them, and say, ‘how are you?’ They’ll probably say, ‘how do you mean? I’ve just been down the pub.’ Television and newspapers often amplify events: a few hundred years ago, you could have a war and half the country wouldn’t even know about it unless a group of blood-stained soldiers trampled through your village, saying, ‘that was a terrible battle up at Bosworth. That was a right pasting.’ Now, of course, you immediately see it on your television or computer screen and think ‘Oh my God! There’s a war! The days of innocence are lost.
It’s all very different and it’s quite a sensitive network now, so if you ‘twang’ the net people notice and because I twanged it early, we got noticed. But then, I think it’s part of your job as writer to have a look at society and either report on directly - such as the Tricycle did with
The Riots, which was a literal transcipt of some of the participants - or indirectly as I do and, if necessary, extend it out to its logical conclusion: if this happens, what if this happens. So in a way, Neighbourhood Watch is no different from the new play Surprises, which is me conjecturing again.

How do you think the play’s been received?
It’s had an amazing run and it’s been generally very well received. What’s interesting is I’ve been reading show reports and there have been houses where the audience has been completely stunned by it and sit almost silent! There’s one report where the company manager had to look out and see if there actually was an audience there! Normally though, it gets a vigorous response, sometimes even a riotous one - especially in the places where people reckon they might need to build fences in a few years to keep the undesirables out! There was one woman, who one of our actors over-head saying, we could do with some stocks in our village. That’s a bit creepy - very British.

It is transferring to the Tricycle Theatre in April, how do you think it will be received in London?
Well, it’s got my name on it, so they have been warned! The Tricycle asked me to bring it in though and the Artistic Director Nicolas Kent said he was an enormous fan which was nice. It might surprise audiences, but I hope it’ll entertain them even if perhaps its viewed as a bit lightweight - although its intentions are a bit heavy. Nonetheless to have actually landed in London is great. Being at the Tricycle allows us to keep the simplicity of the production; the West End would have put an unnecessary strain on it.

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