Annual Interviews: The Guardian (2007)The Annual Interviews reproduces one significant interview with Alan Ayckbourn from 1969 to the present; 1969 being the year which saw the start of regularly published interviews with the playwright. The interviews are drawn from a variety of sources (of which they remain copyright of) and a variety of subjects.
by Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, 6 July 2007
One evening in 1989, a distinguished Frenchman was standing in the foyer of Alan Ayckbourn's theatre in Scarborough. Some members of the cast thought the soigné gent might be the great nouvelle vague film-maker Alain Resnais, director of Last Year in Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour. But what would Resnais be doing in North Yorkshire? "So I went down," recalls Alan Ayckbourn. "And on his arm, if there was any doubt about who he was, was the most beautiful, petite actress, who turned out to be Sabine Azéma, who was later married to him. They were having one of their short holidays in Scarborough.
"Surely, I asked them, you could go to Cannes or Nice? And he said, 'I come to the theatre.' And I said, 'Oh, that's nice. Why?' And he said, 'I am a fan.' He had seen dozens of my stuff and he'd never ever made himself known. He kept coming back."
When Alan met Alain: this was the start of a beautiful, if improbable, relationship between the second-most performed English dramatist (after Shakespeare), one who is best (if unfairly) known as a satirist of Britain's suburban middle classes, and the seemingly austere giant of postwar French cinema. It has resulted in two cinematic adaptations by the Frenchman from the Englishman's vast oeuvre: the 1993 picture Smoking / No Smoking, and the new film Private Fears in Public Places.
Ayckbourn tells me the story of their meeting as we sit on his terrace overlooking a beautiful garden that slopes down from Scarborough's old town towards the North Sea. "Ah," one can imagine Resnais saying as he crosses the North Yorkshire moors on the little train on one of his regular pilgrimages to the Stephen Joseph Theatre, "Scarborough, mon amour!"
"A year or so later," Ayckbourn continues, "Alain says, 'I would love to make a film of one of your plays.' At that stage there were about 40 or 50 of them, so I said, 'There's quite a choice. Which one?' He said, 'Intimate Exchanges.' And I thought, 'Oh no, the poor old Frenchman's got the wrong end of the stick.' I said, 'But these are two plays that divide rapidly into 16 endings.'"
"He said: 'No, no, no. I do not want to make a film with 16 endings.' I said, 'Right.' He said, 'I will only have 12 endings.' I said, 'You want to make one film with 12 endings?' He said: 'No, no, no. I want to make two films with six endings.' And I said, 'You're barmier than I am. Well, good luck.' He kept in touch but we never had another artistic word on the subject."
In the sumptuous Marlene Dietrich suite of the Hotel Lancaster off the Champs Elysées in Paris, Alain Resnais, as soigné as he may well have been in 1989, recalls that discussion. "I remember he said he thought I was mad. I suppose that was his seal of approval." But Ayckbourn thought he was even madder when he found out what Resnais did next. For filming, he moved Scarborough to Paris: "We imported everything. English upholstery, decor - everything. Just to make it look right." More discombobulatingly for Ayckbourn, Resnais decided to recreate Scarborough in a studio from photos he had taken. The result was Smoking / No Smoking.
Why would Resnais be an Ayckbourn fan? Isn't Ayckbourn's work too English in its obsessions and humour? "No, no, no," says Resnais. "Ayckbourn's work is perfect for me. His work is like a spider's web when the spider has gone away and the insects start to move. The insects don't totally meet. There's a savagery in his writing that some people don't get. Perhaps because I am a Breton, I am more attuned to British savagery than other French people."
One great attraction for Resnais is that Ayckbourn is steeped in cinematic culture (A Chorus of Disapproval riffed intelligently on Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train - though you would not know that from Michael Winner's adaptation): "I make films that are basically theatrical. He makes plays that are basically cinematic."
Why would Resnais, famous for films whose narratives have befuddled viewers for decades, be any good at adapting Ayckbourn's less enigmatic work? "Yes, I do have that reputation, don't I?" says Resnais. "In fact, there is a French joke about it. An assassin is arrested by the police for a murder. They know he is guilty. 'But I have an alibi,' he protests. 'I was at the movies when the crime took place.' The detective asks, 'What did you see?' 'Last Year in Marienbad.' 'Tell me the story,' says the detective. The killer can't. Naturally, he is condemned."
Resnais invited Ayckbourn and his wife to a special preview screening in Paris: "I was very frightened about what they would think." In the foyer, a projectionist awaited them, holding two big reels of film and two envelopes. They had to choose one to determine whether they would see Smoking or No Smoking first.
"When I had seen it," says Ayckbourn, "We found him hiding behind the sofa waiting for a verdict. I said, 'I've never hidden behind the sofa waiting for the verdict from you on one of my plays.'" What did you think of it? "It was sweet. A loving interpretation of my play."
Resnais kept up his Scarborough pilgrimages. "In 1997, he very shyly said: 'Sabine and I are planning to get married.' And I said: 'Oh. We'll send you a gift.' And he said: 'We'd actually like to get married in Scarborough." Resnais and Azéma asked Ayckbourn and his wife to be witnesses at Scarborough Register Office. "We got them a cab," recalls Ayckbourn, "And I said to the taxi driver: 'This man has come all the way from Paris to be married here. Can you believe that?' And the taxi driver, without even taking his eyes off the road, said: 'Naturally.'"
The new film traces its origin to 2004, when Ayckbourn wrote Private Fears in Public Places. "This really hit the jackpot for him," says Ayckbourn. "It was the most extraordinary piece I wrote in that it's got 54 scenes and several different locations that are used all the way through the play. It's quite un-me. Half of the art of playwriting is to get events to happen in the same area. So if you can get a play to take place within a single location, you're rather lucky actually. But if the audience go out asking, 'I wonder why they all got there at that time?' then you've failed. It's a matter of marshalling the events without opening it up. Which is why my stuff doesn't really make good movies."
Its six principal characters are united by their inability, as Resnais would put it, to connect properly. In Resnais' adaptation, Sabine Azéma plays a pious Christian who occasionally turns dominatrix to cheer up the alienated male characters. The action has been transferred from London to Paris with several superb performances. "I remember my hands gripping the arms of my chair," says Ayckbourn, who saw Resnais' adaptation in Scarborough. "The first shot is of characters coming out of the snow. I thought: 'Ello, ello. This is not the play, but none the less.' At the end of the film, I noticed my arms were still like this. I was just waiting for something to happen that would wreck it for me." Nothing did, and he loved the scene-linking device of falling snow.
Both men are now working on new projects. Resnais, 85, is making a film about which he will tell me nothing. "All I will say is that it's proving difficult to get insurance to work on it. That's what happens when you live beyond 65." As for Ayckbourn, 68, he is recovering from a stroke last year. For decades he has written at least a play a year. He has had to slow down a little, but he hopes to write his 71st play this summer. "Thanks to Alain, I've got my first idea: it starts in a blizzard. I can already feel technicians running for the hills, saying, 'Snow? For two hours? It'll have the audience tunnelling out!'" Over in Paris, Alain giggles at the news that he has inspired Alan. "I look forward to seeing it." In Scarborough? "I hope."
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