Alan Yentob Interviews Alan Ayckbourn (2011)On 27 and 28 July 2011, Sir Alan Ayckbourn was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC arts documentary series, Imagine. The programme, Alan Ayckbourn - Greetings From Scarborough, was first broadcast on BBC1 on 16 November 2011. The original interview with Alan Ayckbourn took place over four hours, of which less than a quarter was broadcast as part of the documentary. As a result of this, the BBC has kindly agreed for alanayckbourn.net exclusively reproduce a transcript of the entire interview.
Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website would like to thank Alan Yentob and the BBC for permission to reproduce the interview, the programme's producer Jenny Macleod for arranging this and John O'Rourke for his initial verbatim transcription of the interview.
This interview is copyright of the BBC and should not be reproduced in any form without permission of the copyright holder.
Alan Yentob: I was driving up here, Alan, and I came up a road called Paradise Road and as I came to the top, I thought to myself, you know I can see why it’s called Paradise Road because it was a beautiful vision just of the sea at the top of the road and then I came through and I arrived here.
Alan Ayckbourn: Yes, it winds around to the St Mary’s Church at the top there and we’re here in the old town, right bang in the middle of it. It’s really the most interesting part of Scarborough and it’s all tied in with the fishing industry, which is sadly defunct now or nearly defunct. But the whole place is steeped in history, it’s wonderful.
And when you first came to Scarborough, what drew you here? It must have been in the fifties when you first came here?
Well, I was looking for a job quite honestly! I was a young aspiring actor, then an acting ASM, working in places like Leatherhead, Worthing and Oxford. But I was a Londoner and very ignorant of the north and then someone at Leatherhead, as they do at the end of a season, said, ‘Anyone fancy a job in Scarborough?’ and I said, ‘Where the hell’s Scarborough?’
He said, ‘Oh, it’s somewhere up there, you know. You go up to York and you turn right.” So I came up on the train to York and then got picked up in a van and got driven over the most fantastic countryside.
When I arrived in Scarborough, there were several things going for it. One was that it was by the seaside, which was ace as far as I was concerned; that was absolutely wonderful. The second thing was that the Library Theatre was a theatre-in-the-round, which was good news as a stage manager because it meant much less heavy humping and moving of scenery - so that was good news. And third, of course, was that it was run by a man called Stephen Joseph, whom I was yet to meet. I was employed sight unseen by this extraordinary maverick figure.
Stephen had a policy of not only promoting theatre-in-the-round - which was virtually unheard of professionally in this country and he had brought this old-fangled idea back from America - but more importantly, as it turned out for me, a passion for new work and new writing. Because theatre writing cost money, you had to pay commissions to writers living in cottages around the world, so Stephen tried to always start off his first search within the company itself. He would ask anyone - box office managers, ASMs, anyone - whether they had a play in them and most people do. I had several plays and I had been practising writing, which is probably why I got the job in the first place, and within two years he’d produced my first show. I had stepped, quite by luck – my whole life has been lucky - into a wasps’ nest of creativity.
It turned out that Stephen was a theatre figure who did not easily court popularity, he attacked all established forms of theatre! Which, of course, as an eighteen year old, I thought was tremendous. Here was a man who, when St. James’ Theatre was being threatened with destruction and the whole of the good and the great were marching one way, led I think by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh with signs saying ’Save the St. James’ Theatre’, he was the solitary figure marching from the other direction with the sign ‘Pull down the St. James’ and put up a proper theatre in its place.’ He didn’t make friends very quickly, either amongst major critics or the theatrical elite. But for youngsters like me, he just was godlike.
A proper theatre, I take it, meant a theatre in the round. Is what he believed in?
Stephen was immensely practical. He realised that theatre-buildings were themselves not profitable, but if on the other hand - as it was discovered much later - if you were to build a very good supermarket and then put a theatre upstairs, then the supermarket could pay the rent and the theatre would benefit. So he wanted to incorporate theatres into real buildings and he had two reasons for this I think: one was that theatres would then stop being temples of art and start becoming just another shop really. And, secondly, he really wanted to demystify the whole business of theatre.
Is that what it was like at the Library Theatre, when you first visited it? Was it very much part of the fabric of Scarborough?
Yes. Scarborough was a show-business town at that point. It had anomalies like The Black and White Minstrels Show at the Futurist, a big theatre which still exists down on the seafront. There was another theatre called the Floral Hall which did variety. There was another theatre called the Arcadia which did seaside repertory. There was the Opera House, now a casino, where York Theatre Royal played and the Spa, of course. There was eight or nine theatres and we were just one of them, doing slightly strange plays and, it has to be said, greatly misunderstood. Our fans tried to have a whip-around to buy us a curtain because they thought that, obviously, ‘Poor loves, they obviously can’t afford a proper theatre.’
So the Library Theatre was this little makeshift space with temporary seating and do-it-yourself rostra, which we put up individually, and this little acting area, twenty-two by twenty-four feet, in which he proceeded to do mostly new plays and, just occasionally, obscure revivals, which would have had no place in Scarborough! In fact, one year, Stephen did the second production of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, directed by the author.
I get the sense from your descriptions of Stephen Joseph at the time, that he was quite indiscriminate about what plays he might put on. As long as they were new, he would take a risk on just about anybody. Is that right?
Well, we did some real stinkers! There were two writers within the company, the late David Campton wrote good commercial style plays until Stephen persuaded him to write anti-nuclear plays and he went off and completely changed his writing. I stumbled in to writing farces, which any self-respecting person will tell you, that that goes at the end of your life; you’ve got to be 80 or 90 to write good farces as you need all the knowledge. But I just started writing farces and although they were probably not quite mechanically sound, some of them worked for a seaside audience in Scarborough.
Was this was a place that expected to be entertained that you had to write something which would entertain audiences one way or another?
I think that was in me. I always say that there were two pressures on me. One was to write to pay the rent - there’s nothing like being a writer within a company, who are all looking expectantly at you and saying, ‘if we don’t fill these seats, we close.’ That’s a great incentive to write something at least worthwhile! On the other hand, you’ve got a dressing room full of fellow thespians who are all hoping - because they’ve possibly given up a more lucrative episode of Coronation Street to be doing some worthwhile theatre - that I will give them something worthwhile. So I was the devil in the deep blue sea really.
Scarborough sounds like a bit of an extraordinary place because there’s only, what, forty thousand-odd inhabitants in the town, yet there are all these places of entertainment. Is that partly because all the holiday makers would come and they needed to be kept entertained?
Oh yes. The inclement weather was fortunately on our side. We would all look out at the window at twelve o clock on a matinee day and pray for rain, because a quick sharp shower would bring them running in.
I think Stephen’s idea, which was populist really, was he just wanted to widen the barriers for theatre, which I carried on with. There’s a terrible feeling in this country quite often, where people feel that theatre is not quite for them. They are born with that feeling and they go on feeling like that. And one spent one’s life trying to say, ‘it is for you.’ You watch much more difficult things on television every day of your life and yet theatre seems to be difficult or hard work. Stephen tried wherever possible to bring people in, yet at the same time I think he had quite high standards; one of his great maxims was, ‘I want it to appear live’ - which sounds like a contradiction in terms.
That would be why the in-the-round thing would make sense, that there the action is happening in front of your eyes and there’s no proscenium arch to get in your way
I remember there was one woman who said, ‘Ooh, it’s in colour!’ as the lights went up and I said, "yeah, 3-D Madam as well! And if you stick around, you’ll probably sense it as well when somebody treads on your feet - it’s very intimate!" But Stephen had these dreams; he was a great admirer of, and I think it was mutual, the late Joan Littlewood. They both had the same sort of populist theatre theories and Stephen was one that clung on very strongly to that feeling. He didn’t want to be in London where the pressures would be too much, he wanted to be somewhere quite unlikely like Scarborough. He arrived here quite by accident on his motorbike one day, in pursuit of a space and the chief librarian said, ‘oh, you can have the first floor.’ I don’t think he knew what he was letting himself into really!
When you first came across Stephen, I gather you were in the midst of doing your job as an ASM. What happened?
I was on the lighting by then, now working this dimmer board, which was very, very rudimentary and had these vicious slider dimmers that sparked and often gave you quite nasty shocks! I was doing a blackout with my arm across the top of them, trying to pull all seven down in sync - so that there was a blackout on stage. And I was suddenly aware of this huge man standing behind me, staring. And I said, ‘Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry this is a restricted area. Professional people working here.’ And he said, ‘There’s a good way to do that you know?’ I said, ‘eh?’ ‘A better way than you’re doing it,’ he said, ‘You’re going to miss a dimmer one day.’ I said, ‘oh, yes, and he said, ‘look, let me show you.’ I said ‘Just excuse me, I’m just about to start the first scene’ and I brought the lights all up again and he said, ‘no, no, what you need is a piece of wood,’ and he handed me a piece of wood and he said, “now lay it across the top of the dimmers and now we pull it down and there you have it. Instant blackout.’ And I said, ‘You’ve just blacked out the scene!’ And I could hear the actors blundering around in the dark and I whipped the lights up again and then they all came out through the curtains afterwards and they, ‘What the hell went on there!? My great speech!’ And I said, ‘this great big man came and did all the…’ - I was like Stan Laurel and he said, ‘Oh, that’ll be Stephen.’ And that was my introduction to Stephen and we struck up a sort of friendship after that.
Stephen loved new devices, he loved technical things and it was the very, very early stages of sound. We were just leaving the point of old gramophone records on panatropes and the earliest tape-recorders were coming in - not yet the sophisticated Revoxes but the earlier ones, the phonographs and the ones that ran at ninety miles an hour. Stephen and I kept devising ways of putting pause switches on them, which they never had. And then we started recording sound effects and my fascination with theatre was widening all the time and I was deeply into sound and lighting at that point.
I get a sense that what you discovered here was not just your ability to write and your ability to flex your muscles there, but really a sense of a company, a theatre, every task in that theatre and what it was; the role of a director, the role of a stage manager, the lighting crew, a sense of an entire environment which was dedicated to this profession of theatre.
Yes. It was an amazing opportunity and one that I suspect in this age of specialisation you wouldn’t have got. But because it was such a small place, anyone who was able-bodied could load the lorries and operate the lights. And I went into that library room the other day for a concert there and I looked up and there are these metal grills, right at the top. And I thought, I can vaguely remember going up an extension ladder, extended three times so it was completely non-health and safety by today’s standards, and I was up there bolting a baton across this ventilator grill and then clamping on two Paton twenty-threes and - I can just get sick just thinking about this - I just skimmed down and did the other side and rigged the lamps. It was a learning experience, but if I’d broken my neck I probably wouldn’t have learned any more! It was a sensible way to start.
I want to just go to the very beginning. I don’t know if it’s true or not true, that you were quite possible conceived at Glyndebourne one afternoon when your father, Horace, who was a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra performing at Glyndebourne, and your mother might have taken to sex in the afternoon.
Well it’s a nice story, I wasn’t there - well I was around at the time but I can’t vouch for it. My mother was a ferocious! Well, she was a writer, so she made up awful stories. But I’m sure that one was true. It’s a nice way to be conceived, isn’t it, at Glyndebourne?
I couldn’t think of anything nicer! The story of your mother is absolutely captivating. Your mother was called many things, but you called her Lolly.
Because she brought us ice lollies. And I had a step-brother who didn’t know what to call her. I inherited him when I was six or seven and he was four or five and he was a bit torn because his father had left his mother and married my mother and he didn’t quite know what to call her, Mummy or not. And then I said, ‘here comes the lolly-lady” and he started to call her Lolly and it just spread. And everybody called her Lolly.
As you said, she was good at inventing things. Quite a lot of things seemed to be invented such as the fact that you thought she was married to your father, but you then discovered that she wasn’t actually married to your father, Horace…
Well, I said, ‘hey folks, I’m illegitimate!’ And that’s terrific, how romantic!
Which is quite a thing. When did you discover that, was it the late fifties or something?
Ah no, it was much later than that. The seventies I think, the sixties or seventies. One day we were on a bus and I met this extraordinary man in a beret and he said, ‘Oh, hello Boo’ and I thought, ‘Who the hell’s Boo?’ and it turned out it was my mother. And he said, ‘Hello darling, haven’t seen you for ages’ and he gave her a kiss and chatted and I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said, ‘Oh, that’s my ex-husband!’ I said, ‘Really?’ It turned out to be her current husband actually. A very jolly little man, I’ve never see ever again. He might well be my father, I don’t know! But I think his living was long before my time. I said, ‘How long were you married to him?’ and she said, ‘Oh well, you know, we fell in love and then we got a little flat and he refused to get up, he just laid in bed all day and I had to go off and work and I said ‘Oh, bugger this for a game of soldiers!’’ So Lolly came home one day and said she left him. I said, ‘Left him in bed?’ and then I said, ‘was the next time you saw him on the bus with me?” and she said, “yes, probably.” It was a bit of an exotic childhood, I must say.
Did you quite know when your mother was telling the truth about herself or not?
I’m still sorting it out. Probably never will now. I know when she was a young novelist, her publisher was a rather famous publisher called Michael Joseph. And he was the father - coincidence, coincidence - of Stephen Joseph and his mother was Hermione Gingold, which was of course an amazing marriage, extreme show business and extreme astute publishing know-how!
And your mother had an affair with Michael Joseph?
Yes. She was a really comely young writer.
Your mother sounds extraordinary. Not only did she have her own typewriter, writing her stories for magazines and her short stories, but she also bought you a typewriter at the age of six. Do I take it that you would both be sitting in the kitchen writing away together?
I can remember those little flashes of childhood which come back to you and I have a vivd one of me sitting under the table, getting covered in this terrible violet-blue ink from the John Bull typewriter gave me while she was thundering away at a hundred and twenty words per minute! She was very successful and my stepfather was then a bank manager and he got quite miffed at Christmas when the tax returns came in and she was in the supertax bracket and earning more than him. She was very successful.
That’s quite something for a woman to be that determined, that capable, and, essentially, be the key bread winner. You’d think that between a writer of short stories and a bank manager, the bank manager might come out top.
I can remember her once, when she’d just had a telephone call from someone, probably my father, going to the china cabinet and getting out a very old plate, putting it on the table and then smashing it down with her fist, on top of it and breaking it in three. I just sat there looking at it because I was halfway through my breakfast. And she said, ‘men!’ She just got up and started typing again and I thought ‘That’s good.’ And I put that into The Norman Conquests, of course.
I remember reading a description of Cecil, the bank manger, rubbing Lolly’s face with a dishcloth, and she reciprocating with mashed potatoes.
A spoonful of mash! Which she banged him on the head with and there were bits of potato falling off of his balding head. And my brother, my step-brother and I went, ‘Woo! That’s going to be a fight, that’s going to be a fight.’ But there wasn’t.
Why did Lolly and Horace split?
I think he was a serial romancer, my Daddy. Quite honestly. He was sitting in the front row of the fiddles in the London Symphony Orchestra and every now and then he cast a look behind him. And there’d be a lovely young new violinist and he’d say, ‘Hi, what are you doing after the concert?’ Mum wasn’t in the audience and I think that was probably how he met Daphne, his new wife. I asked my Mum once why did they split up and she just said, ‘I’ve just had enough of it. You know, I had all these women ringing up saying, ‘I love him, I love him, he’s the most beautiful...’’. And she said ‘Yeah, yeah, you should try living with him.’ and then the forty-fifth one rang up and said ‘I love him’ and Lolly thought, ‘No, this one’s a sticker’ and said, ‘Okay, you can have him.’ I think she just had enough really. But he was a charmer.
I saw that great picture of him with his sports-car...
I was allowed to go and see him and Daphne and by then had retired, sold their Stradivarii and gone off to live in a cottage near Tackleston to breed St. Bernard dogs of all things. I thought, ‘What romantic way to finish your life.’ They had this tiny cottage which was dominated by these vast dogs, and most of the dogs weren’t on speaking terms, so all the doors were locked so if you wanted to carry the dinner from the kitchen to the dining room, you had to walk outside, avoiding dogs. I re-met him then when I was an eleven or twelve year old and it was an extraordinary feeling to be back to someone you were immediately so close to. And all his humour was my humour. We’d just sit there, laughing and dear Daphne had absolutely no sense of humour at all – he’d married completely the wrong woman - and she’d sit there going, ‘I don’t know what the hell’s so funny, I don’t know what the hell you’re all laughing about, you’re both stupid men.’ And we’d just go mad about talking about things, often current movies: The Man in the White Suit, I remember, he re-enacted the whole thing for me. And he invented board games, which is another link to my plays, and I started inventing board games soon after. He’d say, ‘now this one, it’s the grand prix. You’ll have to check the cars and shake the dice.’ So we played those for hours and we had a very close friendship. He sadly died while I was at school and Daphne never told us about it until about a year later. I never heard about it, by which time he’d been gone a long time, so we didn’t even get to the funeral
And then Lolly didn’t even tell you that she was about to get married, again, right at the time when Horace left.
There was a letter from me somewhere saying, ‘dear Mummy, I hope you have a nice marriage.’ I was at boarding school from the age of seven, probably to accommodate her life as much as anything, and I was a little local prep school, Wisborough Green, and then I won a bank scholarship, courtesy of stepfather and I was there until I was seventeen or eighteen, so I was very rarely at home. The point about being at boarding school is it becomes your home much more than your home does, because you spend much more of the year there and all your friends are there. When you come home, because we kept moving anyway because the bank manager kept moving branches, there was all the new social circle, so I never made any friends at home, so one longed for school.
Obviously you had this wish to sort of tell stories from very early on because there you are typing away. But also this existence of yours, this sort of dysfunctional and sort of tragic-comic environment with you in the middle of it all. Did you observe all this and take it in? You must have done because it’s in all the plays!
Yes. I wrote a place recently called My Wonderful Day about a little girl who writes about her day and because she’s a child, she’s invisible to the adults who are not child-friendly adults. Children are open recording machines and I just sat there and watched my Mom as she dragged me along with her before I got the benefit of a stepbrother. She took me to places like the Women’s Press Club, which is a most terrifying for a male to be in, men weren’t allowed in. But because I was not really a male - a very small male - I would sit amongst all these strong minded, strong-voiced, heavily made-up ladies of the press; quite fearsome most of them! I remember being in hair-dressers and all sorts of strange places and editors’ offices where incredibly glamorous women floated in and out.
Strong minded women, of course, are one of the features of your plays. It is, in its own way, rather revolutionary in its time to see ordinary middle class women in all their strength and personality. One begins to understand why, given that you had this woman in your life, who was quite extraordinary in her own way, who sort of introduced you to this world.
I always think I was privileged to have what few men get the chance of - maybe a lot of them don’t want it - but sitting, listening to women talking to each other, woman to woman. I was this small child, open-tape recorder going, who’s completely invisible to them or forgotten about. And it came back years later, women would come up and say, ‘How do you know that? How do you know that’s what we talk about?’ I still sort of nervously check when I write very personal scenes. I wrote one, not long ago, with a mother and a daughter, and I thought, ‘this I do not know about. I don’t know what a mother says to her daughter because they are now talking on a very, very personal level.’ And I checked with the actors, who I think were honest, I checked with them, ‘does this ring true?’ They said, ‘yeah, yeah.’ And one of them said, ‘Oh, yeah, the teenage back! The moment when you’re talking to a child, a girl particularly and they just turn their back on you and you’re saying, ‘Are you listening to me, Cathy? Are you listening? Cathy, look at me.’
In all your plays, I think what the characters are saying and what they imagine the reaction of what the other person will be are often quite contradictory. There’s one thing, something coming out of their mouths, but there’s another thought actually going on.
It’s the subtext, isn’t it? As I go on writing, I invite the actors to try and find these two levels. My plays never read to laymen very well; if I have a new play, the theatre staff read it, because it’s polite of them and then they say, ‘I’d no idea that it was going to be quite like that when I saw it,’ because you don’t take account, when you’re reading a scene between two people, of the third person there, who’s going to just tee off what the other two are saying by their very presence. It’s not visible on the page and it’s the tangible side of theatre which I love - particularly the physical side - to write about.
I sense is that you were writing stories from very early.
Stories to start with and then, when I got to school and I must have been nine or ten, I adapted a book I loved very much, a book by Anthony Buckeridge. I’ve confessed to his widow since, that I’d done this, that I’d plagiarised completely Jennings at School because I really fancied the part. I wrote the play as it became apparent from my later career, to launch my career as an actor at the school, and I yearned to play the part of Derbyshire, which was Jennings’ friend, the tall gangly one, which I was then - didn’t have glasses though. So I adapted it and the school agreed to do it, but then by ill fortune I got one of those childhood illnesses, something that assigned me to the sanatorium, where I was put in strict quarantine and was forced to stare straight out the window and look at the hall where my play was about to be done.
Did you have to watch someone else playing Jennings and Derbyshire?
I didn’t even see it! And it was only for one night only! I looked as the audience were leaving and a boy I knew, just passing, said, ‘Oh, hello, how are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m fine. How did the play go?’ He said, ‘It’s alright.’ That was it, it was alright.
So you missed your big break?
I got my first sort of equivocal criticism too. ‘It’s alright!’
Was it Shakespeare that launched you into theatre?
When I got to Haileybury College - there have been in my life some remarkable individuals, in this case, a schoolmaster called Edgar Matthews who but for school-mastering would have undoubtedly gone into the business. And his passion was taking out tours from school of Shakespeare and I quickly became aware of these. As soon as I became eligible by age, I went off to Holland with a tour of Romeo and Juliet, where I played Peter the servant, and that gave me a real taste for the stage. The following year was destined to be the swan song as Edgar was going to retire and he really wanted to take the big one and go to the USA and Canada with a tour of The Scottish Play [Macbeth]. I auditioned for the lead and didn’t get that, but I got Macduff, which was quite a nice one. We all set off on the Queen Mary and we all came back on the Queen Elizabeth and in between we got drunk as lords, all in a greyhound bus, going all the way up the East coast of America into Canada, Ottawa, Toronto and then all the way down again into Pittsburgh and all the way back into New York and back on the boat.
And were you a hit – drunk or otherwise - on stage?
I managed to break the leading man’s finger and I think that may have been due to a misjudgement during the sword fight. But being schoolboys, there was no holds-barred! Edgar said, ‘You better swing that way, and he that way,’ but the sparks were flying off these shields! It was rudimentary Shakespeare and had all the joys of a professional touring actor, in that you got the fun and none of the responsibilities.
You decided not to go to university, despite the fact that obviously you had the ability to go if you wanted to. I take it you wanted to be an actor.
I wanted to be part of the theatre, I wanted to be an actor. Acting is always, always what lures a lot of people in, unless they’re born stage managers. At that point that seemed the most attractive job - that’s the only job I knew, I wondered where there were other jobs.
Were you any good?
Not bad. I lacked an awful lot of technique, but what I lacked in technique, I made up an awful lot in sincerity. Because I knew better than to show my lack of technique, I kept very still on stage, and I got a lot of reviews: ‘His lizard-like stillness’ and, of course as one knows later on, if you stop waving your arms around and you just sit still, just eyes flick round, you can pull focus that way just as well
Do you think that experience as an actor informed your work, both as a writer and as a director?
I think both. I think I knew what I was writing for and I think it’s no coincidence there’s a lot of the great writers - and I list William Shakespeare amongst them and Harold Pinter, of course, John Osbourne and a lot of those very distinguished writers - were all originally actors. They all originally wrote theatrically and, as a result, they wrote spaces for actors to actually perform in. I always liken it a bit to writing symphonies when you play an instrument, you have to know how it feels to be in an orchestra really to get to grips with that. It helped me enormously. If not consciously, then subconsciously, and of course with acting, having been through it, you realise just how vulnerable an actor is. It doesn’t matter who it is. It could be a great one, but on a performance night, he is rubble inside or she is crying with fear. And you know better as a director and you have to nurture them, nurse it just hold them through it.
I once asked an older actor, ‘can you define a good director?’ and he said, ‘well, a good director is someone who makes you want to come to work the following day.’ And I said to him, ‘‘that’s nice, succinctly put.” He said, ‘at my age, you sometimes think, oh what the hell, I’ll stay in bed. They won’t even notice I’m not there! But there are days, particularly in this show, where you’ve made me really want to come. I’ve been here early for god’s sake. I’ve got here ten minutes early! That’s unheard of!’
Let me ask you about Donald Wolfit, it must have been extraordinary to come across him.
He was the first professional actor I met up close and I thought they were all like him and, of course, he was a complete leftover from another era. Meeting Wolfit, I was in direct touch with [Henry] Irving and [Herbert Beerbohm] Tree and all the way back. Here was the last of the great actor-managers; everything he said was law and he seemed to me nine feet tall; big, big face with pores the size of pot holes, full of make-up, which he’d never quite removed after generations of acting. He’d stick his finger in your face, very close to you and say, ‘What are you doing?’ - ‘Just bringing in…’ - ‘Well walk properly.’
You were acting and ASMing at the time were you?
It was most important at the Edinburgh festival because he took a revival of The Strong Are Lonely - which later became the film The Mission - which was a wonderful part for him. I played a walk-on sentry. I realised that afterwards, Edgar Matthews - who taught me at school and took those marvellous tours out - knew Donald very well and wanted me to go into the business, so he wrote to Wolfit - and I’ve still got the reply from Wolfit - which says, ‘I will take the boy for three pounds a week’ and ‘You say he is in the cadet force, which is good news because I need this man to stand to attention right the way through my long second act.’ Apparently the last guy had made the terrible mistake of crashing down and dropping his rifle and his three-corners hat falling off. So I got the job on account of I could stand to attention!
Did he think you were good?
He was a very generous man because he said, ‘you really want to do this?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ and a mate of mine, a boy I’ve never heard of since, also said, ‘yes.’ Wolfit said, ‘I’ll audition you both’ and this was incredible, he gave up a whole afternoon when he was playing a huge role with matinees and God knows what else and he sat in the stalls all by his own, and the two of us came out and did our awful audition speeches. I did my bits - I had probably gleaned a few comedy bits because that was my strength - and he said, ‘you’re full of tricks boy. I like tricks, but not when you use them quite so often. So good, good” And then this other idiot came up and did all the major roles, Othello and all the ones Wolfit had made himself famous on and I thought, ‘this is not a good idea to audition the man’s favourite roles for him.’ They started this terrible row and Wolfit said, ‘I don’t think you got him right there’ and the boy said, ‘yes, I have’ and I thought, ‘Oh dear. That’s minus marks for you boy!’ It was encouraging and I’d auditioned for the great man.
And at that point, you get introduced into Stephen Joseph and Scarborough.
I had another card up my street, thanks to Edgar Matthews, and that was another old boy of the school, Robert Flemyng, who had a contact at Worthing. So from earning three pounds a week at Edinburgh, I went down to no pounds a week at all as a student ASM at Worthing, where I also played a few roles and then finally, for five pounds a week, I went to Leatherhead. I got taken in by a wonderful woman called Hazel Vincent Wallace who used to run the Leatherhead Theatre and she, I think, took quite a shine to me and cast me in all the young boys’ roles. At the end of the Leatherhead season, someone tipped me off that this job was going and in Scarborough. Stephen Joseph had a sort of winter quarters going for him at a place called the Mahatma Gandhi Hall, which is an Indian Youth Hostel on Fitzroy Square in London. And he rented the hall there for Sunday night concerts or shows, which he employed actors who were in long-running West End shows and he’d do interesting plays. And I happened to see was Huis Clos, the Jean-Paul Sartre In Camera, which I had never see and he did it in the round. I had never been so close.
It’s a very intense piece of work.
And such erotic theatre too. I thought, ‘wow!’ This blew my teenage mind. ‘This is what we’re going to join?’ So I rushed up to Scarborough soon after and became part of the Scarborough company and my first appearance was in An Inspector Calls.
Moving on in time to 1959, when you wrote The Square Cat, you were already married to Christine Roland?
Yes, Christine and I had one child which arrived inconveniently fast after the wedding, but nonetheless she was very supportive. The first two plays I wrote under our joint names – Roland Allen - because she was very very helpful in helping with the structure, which I was still blundering about with. The Square Cat came about after a row I had with Stephen, because I was appearing in a play [Ring Of Roses by David Campton] and I came off complaining about the part. Stephen said, ‘well, if you can write a better play than this, then you’re on.’ And I said, ‘Anybody can write a better play than this. Right, take you on mate.’ So the following summer, I presented him with The Square Cat. My whole ego was blown to bits because I was writing for myself with a leading role where I displayed talents which I did not have, singing, dancing, all-smiling and of course…
Playing the guitar?
Playing the guitar!
Which you couldn’t play?
No! I got three lessons from a guy in Trafalgar Road. He said, ‘where’s your guitar?” and I said, ‘Haven’t got one!’ He said, ‘Oh, you can borrow mine. When do you need to learn this by?” I said, ‘week on Wednesday...” He said ‘God Almighty. You’re never going to learn anything, but let’s look for the songbook.’ And we came up with “If I Gave My Love A Cherry” which is one of the most tedious folk songs we ever heard. But at least it was only two chords. Dum, dum. And I said, ‘This man’s a rock and roll singer, he’s playing Dum Dum.’ So I thought I’ll play him as if he’s in a reflective mood! So sometimes I sang it and sometimes I would look up at the control room box, shake my head and the blackout would come.
And then you got called up?
I did two days at the RAF, at Carlington-Bedfordshire
But you weren’t there for long, were you?
I got in there, I tried everything....
To get out of it?
Oh yes. I’d got two kids by then. I didn’t want two years out of my career. I’d be 22 by then, I’d be terribly old. So, anyway, I fortunately opened the magic door and there was a very nice medical officer. He said, ‘Hello!’ I said, ‘Hello’ – measly adopting his accent. And so he had a look at me and he chatted and he said, ‘Do you want to do this?” And I said, ‘no.” And he said, ‘could you walk across the room there.’ So I said, “right-o.” So I walked across the room. So he said, ‘I don’t like the look of that knee.’ I said, ‘oh, it’s pretty painful.’ He said, ‘how long can you stand on it?’ I said, ‘well, ten minutes at a pinch.’ He said, ‘well you’re no use to us. I’ve got terribly bad news for you. I’m afraid I’m going to have to sign you off as unfit.’ And the boy behind him, who was also in full uniform, said, ‘wish someone had done this for me…” And he said, ‘well, this man’s an artist Higgins. You’re a useless oaf. Two jolly years in the RAF would do you no end of good. This man’s got better things to do.’ So I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ He said, ‘I expect my cheque in the morning.’ So I left and I ran to the phone and I phoned my wife and I said ‘I’m coming home, I’m coming home!” And she said, ‘Oh, yes, I know you are, I miss you.’ And I said, ‘I’m coming home this evening!’ And I ran, I got to the gate, then the sentry said, ‘I’ll see you walk past please.’ And I said “yeah” And he said “Right, off you go.” I got home and I got back to Stephen, within two days. And fortunately he’d lost one of his stage managers so I was back in the harness before we knew it.
And you also had a longish diversion into radio didn’t you?
Five years as a Radio drama producer. That was a learning curve. Another one of my guardian uncle figures: this was a man called Alfred Bradley, who was single-handedly producing a great wave of Northern writing and he was swamped by local writers all from the north sending in their plays. He needed someone to help and he persuaded the BBC to create a special post which was another producer. At one point, I arrived just as dumped these forty-six scripts on my desk and just said, ‘read those. And anything you think worth doing, do them.’ So I sorted them out and I started producing well before anyone had shown me anything about how to produce radio plays! The BBC always rather shuts the door after you’ve gone through it, so in my first year there I produced, I think it was 51 plays, one a week!
My secretary and I were on our knees by the end because we were booking actors and recording them and then editing them!. But it was a learning curve and incredible. So by the time they sent me on a course, on the first day, they said, ‘Well to introduce you to radio drama, those of you who don’t know it, we’re going to play you some of the output for the week and we’d like you to comment on it and discuss it.’ And I sat there, listening and they said, ‘Alan, any comments?’ And I said, ‘no, not really as three of them are mine. I produced them!’ So they said, ‘Ah, passing straight on…’
All you want to do on those occasions is break the rules, basically, don’t you?
Yes. Well in fact, bless them, they were teaching and things do move technologically quite fast and even in those days, suddenly tape was coming in and the old recordings on wax discs was going out. This obviously altered the entire technology and they had the freedom to record with the flexibility and comparative cheapness of tape.
And how were you with the old razor-blade?
Oh, I was pretty good, because I’d started under Stephen Joseph. I could splice, but I had a studio manager who could leave me standing he was so fast. But at least I knew enough about it and by then had the freedom of being (a) in a region and (b) in radio when everybody in the BBC was turning their attention to television, which was the new toy with everybody scrambling to get there. I was in the backwater of radio, so as a result, artistically one had an enormous freedom. Alfred had cornered it and very sensibly since he couldn’t be promoted upwards - only horizontally - he stayed a radio drama producer until he finished.
Alfred Bradley was an inspirational figure, a kind of critical figure really in the development of radio drama, as you say, with a remarkable list of names, who he discovered.
He was a man who had a genuine joy in fostering talent. And be it the writing, or in my case, directing, he’d just say, ‘go for it, go for it, go on!’ and then he’d sit there looking proud as a mum.
Now we’re coming to the beginning of the plays that everybody remembers. This is in 1965 and it’s called Relatively Speaking as everybody knows it - but it wasn’t called that, it was originally called Meet My Mother, and then Meet My Father, you know
Yes, Meet My Mother was a title that Stephen suggested. He said, ‘would you write us a play!’ I’d been at the BBC a year and I’d really turned my back on theatre by then, because I’d had that very brief experience in the West End with Mr Whatnot at the Arts Theatre, which universally sank with all hands on board. It was a terrible disaster.
Why was that, do you think?
I think, in retrospect, it was a charming piece done in the round in Stoke. It was a team of actors who’d worked together for a long time and joined in the spirit of it and it then got the West End treatment, which was to echo through the rest of my life. It was over-produced, it had marvellously beautiful sets by a designer called Peter Rice. It had a very starry cast, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Stevens, Marie Law, Judy Campbell and all the right ingredients, but it just didn’t add up. And what is more it was funny when we did it in Stoke, it was a tribute to silent film and it had very little dialogue and a lot of things that had become quite old hat now, invisible tennis matches hitting invisible balls with real rackets. I said to the cast, if this works, we’re going to be in the round, like the central court of Wimbledon, and people are just going to follow the ball and we got them following it, because the ball went with the actors. It was marvellous.
And you love silent movies didn’t you?
Yes, you know the Keatons and the Laurel and Hardies. My kids and my grandkids now are just fascinated by them.
It’s very interesting that from the very beginning you were sceptical about what the West End would bring to your plays. And then some how or another you withdrew from the West End eventually in the year 2002. You just decided that’s it, I’m not doing that any more?
I think I’d done my bit, sixty plus plays and I thought, and - while it wasn’t quite as brazen as that - I thought, ‘What do I really want to do with the rest of my life?’ I want to work in companies which I started with, with groups of actors, drawn from all over the place, a lot of whom go back a very long time. Although I’m totally different, I suddenly felt affinities with Peter Brook actually, who was doing exactly what he wanted to do. He’d opted out of the system. And I’d realised a bit later that I didn’t want to sit in a drafty, slightly smelly West End theatre and negotiate for television names that really couldn’t cut the mustard as far as I could see it. A lot of them can - I’ve had some wonderful performances out of West End shows, and wouldn’t want to belittle them - but on the whole they’ve been slightly less than happy experiences.
Lets go back to Relatively Speaking. You were saying to me that Stephen asked you to write a play.
‘Write me a play for next summer please.’ And I said, ‘Oh, right.’ This was in October the year before. And he kept ringing me up and I was still hadn’t started it because I was busy with my BBC work. Eventually he said, ‘well, I’m sorry it’s getting very very late and I’ve got to the playbill to bed and I’ve called it Meet My Mother.’ So I said ‘OK’ and this was like one of those school essays, you’ve got to write a play about ‘Meet my mother!’ So I sat down and I thought, ‘I can’t write a play called Meet My Mother’ and I rang him back and I said, ‘Look, Meet My Father sounds much better, you know.’ So I then wrote a play, right on the eleventh hour, mostly at night, or after I came home from work. I remember writing it in a cottage in somewhere like Collingham and there was a big ginger cat that used to visit me and look wistfully through the French door and I’d always let it in. It was called Pamela, used to sit on my lap and purr. So I wrote this play on top of Pamela, who became a large ginger writing desk actually. I wrote Meet My Father and I thought, ‘This is terrible! I mean, me, an experimental dramatist suddenly writing this crumby commercial business….’
You say that you set out to write something quite commercial. At that point was it perhaps against some of your instincts?
Yes, but Stephen did qualify the challenge. He said, ‘Look, you know, forget Mr Whatnot and things which are all very experimental for their time.’ He said, ‘why don’t you just try to write a well-made play?’ and I went, ‘Well-made play? I’m a new dramatist, I don’t want to write Rattigan and Coward for God’s sake. Heavens!’ So I tried and he persuaded me and I sat down and tried to write a well-made play. It nearly worked, but not quite. I can see Mr Rattigan or Mr Coward would have improved it structurally, but it sort of had wheels.
It wheeled to the West End and it was a big hit.
I still wouldn’t believe it because I’d just been through the Mr Whatnot experience! Everyone was advising me at that point about what to do with the second million. I was really quite sceptical about this play, even with Celia Johnson and Michael Hordern and then I couldn’t believe it when the reviews started coming in and the box office started rattling! My bank balance went from alarmingly red to alarmingly black in the space of two weeks.
And then you got a telegram!
Oh yes! From the man whom I’d scorned. Noel Coward and there was something to pay on it as well! I always remember that bit.
And what did it say?
‘Dear Alan Ayckbourn, thank you so much for a beautifully written, beautifully constructed play. Yours Sincerely, Noel Coward.’ I rang Richard Briers up and I said, ‘Are you winding me up? Someone’s just sent me a telegram from Noel Coward!’ And he said, ‘no he was in last night. He said he loved it old boy.’ And I said, ‘did he talk about it?” He said, ‘no, he just said ‘How old is the author?’ and I said, ‘Oh, he’s probably 26’ and he went, ‘oh dear god, how depressing!’ and he left the room.” So that was a nice moment.
So there’s this play, which is phenomenally successful, which puts you on the map and which you think is not bad, but that’s just the beginning. But all this in the context of the theatre scene in London changing radically in the sense that Look Back In Anger happens at the Royal Court, Samuel Becket, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter. Did you feel slightly isolated?
Yes, I was writing plays with French windows for God’s sake. Fortune favours the foolish, but I think critics had seen their last kitchen sink that they’d wanted to see for some weeks and here were French windows and Hoo-ray! Here was a dramatist with sunny people who don’t worry about the war in Suez; they just worry about cups of tea. So I got a reputation rather rapidly for being certainly lightweight. So I stuck with that label for quite a few years and then I started writing my heavier stuff.
I just want to go back to Harold Pinter. How did Harold Pinter get to come to Scarborough with The Birthday Party?
Stephen Joseph taught him at Central School Of Drama and Stephen also had close contacts with the famous Encore magazine, which was a theatre magazine at the time. Harold apparently just had this well-known disaster at the Lyric Hammersmith with The Birthday Party and had written an angst-ridden, ‘How they ruined my play’ article and Stephen dutifully read it and rang up Harold and said, ‘I hear you whinging away in Encore and if you want to do it, come up here and direct it if you think it was so badly directed down there. But then you’ll have to take the scratch company, because we’ve only got a company with six people in it” And so he arrived! I remember we auditioned for him in a pub in Brewers Street, upstairs in one of those rehearsal rooms that’s full of freemasonry all over the place. I read for him and he, he really just took one look at us and said, ‘Goldberg, McCann’ and he looked at me and just said, ‘Stanley.’ So I read Stanley, sight unseen, and I think I was sort of and angular, rather sulky, rather sullen-looking person at the time…
Quite good then for the part!
Yes, I looked good for Stanley, and so we started rehearsing with him in Scarborough. We weren’t going to open until Birmingham which is where the company toured. After a couple of days, we all went to the pub without Harold and I said, ‘He’s mad, he’s a lunatic, he’s dotty. This is never going to work, absolute disaster. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ But his passion was fantastic, and he would talk to you like: ‘this is how I want it played.’ He was quite frightening in the rehearsal room! We opened in Birmingham and, as soon as it went on, I knew something rather special was happening, because there was a sort of electricity in the air and I thought, ‘Maybe this guy does know what he’s doing.’ I went actually just through the motions of what he’d told me to do including the terrifying scene, which he insisted I was blindfolded for, trying to find the landlady, Meg, who was a very thin, angular lady, and I was supposed to strangle her. I was blindfolded in the round and walking around, I couldn’t see anything, and I just found her by some miracle. And I put my hands around her neck and she went ‘HUH!’ And I released them again and afterwards she said, ‘my God, you nearly strangled me!’ We stood in the bar afterwards and looked agog at this man, and people were coming up even then and saying, ‘It’s very interesting, relevance to the war in and so-and-so ’ and you’re going “Yes, I’m glad you picked that up’ while thinking “What war?” and Harold’s going, ‘no, that’s all rubbish.’
Did you ever as an actor ever ask him for any explanations?
Yes, I said, ‘very interesting this pianist, isn’t he? He comes on and he talks about his concert career and then two men come along in a van and they bundle him out and he’s taken off somewhere. So, what I’m really interested in knowing Harold is where he comes from and, secondly, where he goes to in the van.” And harold gave me a very serious look and he said, ‘I think the answer to that is, Mind Your Own Fucking Business!’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much…!’ It’s the answer I’ve always wanted to give an actor but never had the courage to! I reminded him and he said, ‘I don’t remember saying that. I would never say that’ and his wife, Antonia, said, ‘Yes you would Harold, that’s just what you’d have said to him! That’s what you’ve always said to people who’ve asked you what something means: Mind your own business. But that was a very valuable note from Harold!
Harold over a number of years certainly grew to admire what you had done. How did you feel about Harold?
I directed a lot of his stuff after that; I did The Collection, The Dumb Waiter, and The Caretaker particularly and several others. I just got steeped in it. And although he was still a difficult writer to sell to the public, I still remember some people from Stoke coming up to me afterwards when we’d just done a barnstorming performance of The Caretaker and saying, ‘we can see all that at home’ and I said, ‘oh, that’s more than I can.’
Is it true that when you went to parties, people were bearing badges saying “I am not Alan Ayckbourn”?
No, it was similar to that. We went to a party which was predominantly playwrights and a contemporary of mine who’s sadly left us now, David Halliwell, who wrote Little Malcolm and his struggle against the Eunuchs, which is his big famous play. He was also an actor in Stoke and he and I went together and he said, ‘aw, I don’t like these badges. I’ll wear yours, and you’ll wear mine. None of these buggers know the difference.’ So I went in and I found myself defending David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm with rather irate Middle Class people saying, ‘I found it rather unsavoury. I mean the language they used was most unpleasant.’ And I was saying - putting on ym best Northern accent - , ‘well, I think you’ve really got to, you know, when you get to it, write about the nitty.’ And I was really doing a great job for David and I heard him in the other corner saying, ‘well I basically write loads of rubbish really” and I thought, ‘thank you David. Give me my badge back.’ So you pay the penalty for being seen as a lightweight.
With Absurd Person Singular, things started to change quite rapidly.
Absurd Person Singular, which I did here, I can remember the dress rehearsal. It finishes with Sidney Hopcroft, the sort-of antihero and villain of the piece, standing on the table with the rest of the cast dancing in this ridiculous party game and he says: “Dance, dance, dance.” And I brought this light onto him and it became terrifyingly frightening. It was like a mad, mad rally. And then we went to blackout and there was total silence and I said, ‘well thanks guys, I don’t know how they’re going to take this on the first night but stick with it.’
Peter Hall was first attracted to my writing from Sheila Hancock who did it in the West End and knew Peter very well, so that was beginning of that relationship. I was beginning to get ‘serious reviews’, the darkness in it -thanks to Eric Thomson’s direction in the West End. Eric and I had a very happy relationship. The relationship between a writer and a director is very important and that’s why I often do them myself these days.
How did Absurd Person Singular emerge? What do you have to have to start writing a play?
The one thing you need is, whatever you call inspiration - the germ of the idea - which you can never legislate for. That is the only thing that can stop me writing a play, because everything else I can do once I’ve got the idea. I can run with it and if I can’t run with it, I’ll just throw it away and wait for another idea. Relatively Speaking started, I can remember very clearly, as a whimsical idea, where a young man asks an older man if he can marry his daughter and the older man says, ‘I haven’t got a daughter’ and that was all. From that, I wove out this story about a boy asking this man to marry his daughter and then I thought, what if the girl is the man’s mistress, that would be interesting. So it became a complication of sexual misdoings. Each play has its own little genesis and some I can remember and some I can’t at all.
With Absurd, I thought I’m writing about three successive Christmases and I want to see the rise of one couple and the fall of the other two over three years and I set them all in sitting rooms. And the interesting thing was that of course parties, unless you’re part of them, are deadly boring things to watch, and so I set the play, as it were backstage, in the kitchen where people panicked: ‘So we’ve run out of crisps. Stop her drinking all the tonic water.’ And little hurried host and hostesses notes to each other. And the play, all through the kitchens, tell you more about the people than ever a sitting room did. Everyone in my plays has roughly the same sitting room. It’s only where they really express their own personality.
It grew from there. If things are working, everything works and if things don’t, you very rapidly know. Someone said to me lately, ‘do you ever give up on a play?’ and I said, ‘no, because I’m now experienced enough because I know if I’ve made an enormous mistake quite early and I know I’m able to reverse out of it. Or alternatively, the mistake is so big that I can’t even see it until the play is opened. I just have to keep faith with it then and say to the actors afterwards, ‘Sorry guys, I made a terrible mistake there, it doesn’t work’ and they go, ‘gee, thanks, we’ve got to play it for the rest of the run.” Fortunately, given the sort of state of things in theatre at the moment, they’re reasonably short runs; I mean the successful ones do run on, but nevertheless, I don’t make small mistakes any more, I make big ones.
There’s a sense that the character development is always affected by what happens and what we’re watching. Do you work out all those changes and those transformations before you actually start to put words in the characters’ mouths?
I work out a lot of that. The things I need to work out are things quite mundane occasionally, like the location – is it one set, in which case we need to locate it in one place. Or is it going to be several locations, what I call sort of television stage plays.
You don’t favour those anyway?
No, I don’t. I always try and start with the Aristotelian principle of one location, twenty-four hours - although twenty four hours doesn’t quite work if the story needs a little time to tell. Relatively Speaking is twenty-four hours, but Absurd Person Singular is obviously three years.
I always have a theory that the longer the time-span, the further back you have to stand. It’s rather like a camera lens, you know, you pan out. So if you’re looking at a story which is five years, you’re looking at it in quite distant detail, but if it’s a play of mine like Absent Friends, which lasts exactly the same time as it does the foyer clock to go round; so stage time equals real time. Then it’s incredibly close up, because every breath the actors take is synchronised with the audience. So every cup of tea takes as long as it takes.
How do you deal with the fact very often in your plays, there is a great deal of humour, but there’s also a very strong undercurrent of sadness, of tragedy even in some instances? What are the notes that you give your actors and what are the inflections that you make to ensure that that performance delivers the subtext of the play?
In general I try not to give inflections, but I do say, ‘look always be true to the character, to yourself.’ And it often chimes with the comedy. There’s a scene in The Revengers’ Comedies when the hero has rescued the heroine, who’s quite comical, from falling down and she confesses that she’s got a lousy marriage and all that and then she suddenly and unaccountably, because she’s hurt her ankle, she starts crying and she throws her arms around him and he’s left holding this woman he barely knows. Almost instinctively the actress went on crying for a very, very long time until she just drains herself and it got progressively funnier and funnier. But it got sadder and sadder. And I went, ‘you know, that’s brilliant. I loved that choice.’ The fact that she cried and his bemused face, when you’re holding someone - ‘there, there,’ and you’re sitting there and another minute passes, she went on for about two minutes. It’s a tremendously long time on stage. And you saw this poor guy’s face going, ‘what am I going to do? I’ve run out of things to say and she’s just chosen me, a complete stranger to cry her heart out with.’ It is both funny and terribly, terribly sad and it depends where you’re standing. I love that sort of humour. It is laughter on the one side, but tragedy on the other. But the two can run together and that’s been my discovery through life in my plays.
And the differences between human beings and their own perception of what’s going on is also very evident in your plays.
I was working on Relatively Speaking with Celia Johnson and I asked her ‘what are you doing while you’re doing this Celia?’ And she said, ‘I’m doing something for the BBC actually. I’m doing an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts.” She said, ‘I’m playing Mrs Alving of course’ and I thought, ‘well you’re hardly going to play a maid, are you?!” I thought, I must watch this and she played her within a razor-blade width of Sheila in Relatively Speaking, but where all her choices for Sheila were comic, all her choices for Mrs Alvey were tragic - there was some comedy always flowing between the two, there was some tragedy between the two. But it was a sure-footed step, just flicking between the two, a tightrope on the other. And I thought, ‘it’s really that close and she could turn my little comedy into a roaring tragedy, just if she stepped to the left, and she could ruin Mr Ibsen’s evening just by stepping to the right!’
What’s actually tragic is pretty narrow isn’t it?
Oh yes. I sometime use the phrase, ‘if you want light, you’ve got to have a bit of shadow,’ because if it’s all bright, you get snow-blind and if it’s all dark, you get depressed. The comedy just lightens the tragedy.
Of the characters you write about, how much comes from yourself, do you think?
In a way, they’re all from me. They’re all versions of me. I mine myself all the time. All the characters are very much cut out of me. While I’m writing, I carry the voices, it’s really quite weird.
How do you write dialogue and how does it happen?
The dialogue’s the easy bit really; once you got the voice. The voice may take a little time because I go through the script once, and just say it: “I’m going to the station” Full stop. I then come back and see who’s talking. If Fred’s saying ‘I’m going to the station.’ And he has this rather circumlocuitous way of talking, he’ll say, ‘maybe I just decided that I’m possibly going to depart for the station’ and you think, ‘oh that sounds like Fred.’ You need to have the voices and they all come from me. But having said that, I probably chip off bits of other people.
And in a way, you have a repertoire of personalities don’t you? Personalities who somehow don’t just emerge in one play, but find themselves in another.
Yes, well there’s only a finite number of beings that you can be. Thank goodness!
You just put them through a different kind of torture somewhere else!
I’ve got a recurring villain who turns up in all, he has a name, his first name always begins with V - Vince and Vic and Val - and they’re all quite dodgy and I really enjoy those guys, because they are manically destructive anti-people. But they’re only there to set up my nice people
And as a director, how much direction do you give? It must be quite intimidating having the writer there!
I always notice the new actors are a bit wary of me. They stare: ‘oh yeah, he’s going to make me do something I don’t want to do.‘ Once you’ve said, ‘OK, the reason we’re here is because I have met you or known you or auditioned you in some cases and have decided you’re the one for me, so let’s see what you can do with it.’ Then my job is to encourage the things I like that they’re doing and possibly discourage the things I think are a bit over the top. But generally, my job is to blend them together as a company because being in the round particularly is such a reliance between each other. I want to encourage that trust between them that they enjoy. It’s like a cricket team going out and flicking a ball between each other because they know that it’s coming their way and instinctively they catch it; it’s total trust and I’m responsible for that. If I’m good at one thing, it’s making a company gel. Because, I hope, I just provide a focal point from which the trust grows.
We were talking about when you’re an actor and the most terrifying thing, I’ve always thought, is there a way around the first read-through? No! There’s frankly not. People have tried, they’ve tried sitting down and talking about Norway [AY Laughs] if you happen to be doing Ibsen! So I just say. ‘Let’s read it. Then we’ll all make fools of ourselves.’ I’m so nervous anyway at a new play of mine that I’m probably being sick in my boots - metaphorically anyway. So we’ll all say, ‘That was fun,’ and then we’ll get down to taking it apart.
Having taken it from the page to that first stage of the reading and beginning production, is that intimidating or is it pleasing to see the thing come to life and are you surprised quite often by the productions as you go through them?
Surprised, yes, and terrified. I just said to someone ‘75 plays and I’m still terrified.’ If I knew I wasn’t terrified, I know there’s nothing new there. I’d be just repeating myself. The new keeps you absolutely sharp and frightened!
I’m apprehensive going into Neighbourhood Watch, I’ve worked with all the company on a previous play Dear Uncle, so I know them all personally now, but three of them were complete strangers to me when we started. I think, hopefully, they’ve grown to know that I’m not going to suddenly throw the script across the room and go, ‘you’ve ruined my play,’ which is every actors’ nightmare. “Right, stop. Miscast. Go Home!” Directors can do terrible things to actors quite often, and there’s some real monsters in the business.
When you’re shaping the play, you have the idea, you have the location, you have the time. Is the drama inherent in the way the plays are constructed?
There’s not only the story to tell, but how you tell it. All sorts of decisions become very important, like when do you start your story? If you start it too late, then everyone’s going, ‘what the hell’s going on here?’ and the audience go, ‘hey, can’t follow this at all!” Start too early though and they go, ‘yeah, we know.” So it’s actually starting it in the right place. And of course finishing it in the right place. I once used the phrase ,which is probably not original, ‘Comedy is tragedy interrupted.’ You can snip it there, just before the roof falls in on them. But if you choose to, you can carry it through to the roof falling in. It’s instinctive really.
If the two act structure, which most of my plays are, is a norm, then don’t finish the first act on a down because you just want to give the feeling that there’s more to come. Just give it a little nudge. I once said to a young dramatist, ‘if you send them out for fifteen minutes, that’s fifteen minutes while they decide whether to go back in.’ Which leads to: ‘do you want to see the rest of this, darling? I don’t know if it’s really interesting….’ ‘no, let’s go home… Let’s go out for dinner!’ You always know if the plays are working, because the bar bell goes and they all come running back in. They want to know and you’ve got their curiosity. I learned a lot of that from writing for children, which is quite interesting because adults, of course, are big children. Kids need to constantly have their attention re-attracted. As any adult knows from reading a child, they will listen as long as the story is not boring or predictable, but as long as you read on and then say “And the pirate looked around the door, And then, and then…”
I just want to talk about The Norman Conquests, where did that begin?
I think the answer to that sounds so facetious really! We were finishing the summer season in Scarborough in September and the local newspaper journalist came to me and said, ‘so what can we expect next year from you?’ and I said facetiously, ‘Probably a trilogy for all I know.’ The following June, I. get a phone call from the theatre manager the following year, he said, ‘hey, there’s a big bit in the paper about your trilogy coming up.’ I said, ‘my what!?’ He said, ‘your trilogy. Has he got it wrong? Shall I issue a denial?’ I said, ‘No, no, maybe I will, maybe it’s the time.” I thought I’ll do it from the viewpoint of the three rooms and then follow it through the weekend. So I started writing it crosswise. And I finished two plays on one night.
I look back on that now - that’s good going! I wrote two last scenes on one night. I was cooking then! I wrote the end of Living Together and the end of Table Manners because they covered the same area and I thought, ‘shall I go for the record?’ and then I thought, ‘I can’t do Round and Round the Garden in the same night!’ I went to bed and finished it in the morning! There were various things running through my mind; I think it’s an interesting structure to start with. I also worked on the principal that we were fighting a lot of rear-guard action against television, which people were getting more and more attracted to and were getting attracted to the big soaps like Coronation Street. And I thought, ‘it’s because they want to see the same people night after night’ and then I thought, ‘well, I’ll give them the same people” and it sort of worked. People were saying, ‘oh, hello Tom’ as the third play went on: “Oh there he is again.” They knew him. They knew he was going to be no good because they knew the end. People love knowing what’s going to happen. That’s why people go to films so many times. They go, ‘oh, this is a good bit.’
And it then went to Greenwich?
Yes, it was one of my first blips with management. [The producer] Michael Codron said, ‘oh, I love it. I love it to death. But I only want to do one of them.’ And I said, ‘No.’ Then another producer came up and he said, ‘oh, I love it, but I’ll only do the other one,’ And I thought, ‘someone’s chosen two out of three. I think somebody’ll actually want to do the other one.” I thought, ‘well they must be quite good because everybody has a favourite.’
My agent Peggy Ramsay rang me, ‘Are we going to do all these scripts, darling?’ And I said, ‘can you leave them on the shelf, Peggy? Just hang on to it.’ And then, serendipity. Eric Thompson, my regular London director, rang me up and said, ‘If you don’t hear from me for a couple of days, I’m going in for a minor op for my leg. Have you got anything for me to read?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I’ve got plenty for you to read. The Norman Conquests!’ He read them and then he rang me up and he said, ‘Fan-tas-tic! Lovely, I love ‘em! We’ll find someone to do them..’ And I said, ‘let’s do them out of London somewhere.’ He came up with Greenwich, which Ewan Hooper was running at the time and he looked a bit bemused when we came up! Then we were getting all sorts of people who were vaguely known: Michael Gambon - he was known vaguely for a series called The Borderer - and then a woman I’d seen in Leatherhead, Penelope Keith, and Felicity Kendal, whom we both knew. It was a lovely cast.
Were you involved in the casting?
I did suggest, I think one or two, I suggested someone we lost by the time we got to the West End, Penny Wilton. It was a very good relationship because, in rehearsals, we were Little E and Big Al - Little Eric and Big Alan - and he’d say, when we got to one of the set pieces, like the seating of the dinner party in Table Manners, which I’d directed. He’d say, ‘well now we’re going to the dinner party. Before we block this, Al, take it away.” And I’d say, ‘right, Tom sits there and then he gets up and he moves over here, and so-and-so’ and I’d say, ‘thank you very much” and I’d sit down again and I did the same in all three plays; all the set pieces. I’d get up and Eric was quite happy to sit back and take a back seat and the actors were quite happy to see the author bound in because it was probably much quicker than working it out on the page. How you do that dinner party scene is pretty tricky. There are ways of working it out - Matthew Warchus worked it out very well in his latest production - but you can get in an awful tangle.
What did you make of those performances, for instance, Michael Gambon’s?
He’s a very, very funny man, but he’s also got enormous power. A few days later when he played Galileo, audiences went “Ooh, he’s quite a big actor too, he’s a serious actor” But we knew that and the fact is that he is reined in through these shows of mine: Sisterly Feelings, Just Between Ourselves, Man of the Moment. You know it’s like a big engine, running at half speed. You know he’s not a small engine straining to get to the top. And that is so nice to see him and, having an inherent sense of comedy never did anybody any harm, because he’s got the power to, if he chose to, he could rev up and leave you standing!
This is where he was noticed, isn’t’ it?
Yes, well I think people, particularly actors, get a bit pigeon-holed. So he was known as my sort of actor and then John Dexter got hold of him for Galileo and the other side of him came out. After that I was writing more textured things that did rely on him asking a little bit more of him and his heavy range. So by the time he got to Man of the Moment, he was very moving.
This was one of the first of your plays to go to Broadway?
It was directed by Eric, who went over to LA, and it had a very strange cast, looking back on it. Richard Benjamin. And Paula Prentiss played Annie. And it escaped them really. I went to see it in LA and I didn’t get there until the previews and I remember sitting next to my partner Heather and saying, ‘this is the one time that I’ve really regretted having written three of these, because I’ve got to sit through two more of them!’ It wasn’t a very happy experience for various reasons and all sorts of things went on backstage. But anyway it turned up on Broadway, where Absurd Person Singular was still ticking along quite nicely.
And is it true of The Norman Conquests that in the early production in London, the audience was laughing so loud that the amplifier broke?
The first one to open was Table Manners and Eric said, ‘I don’t think I can bear to watch this,’ and I said, ‘I can’t bear it either, if you’re not watching it.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we’ll go up to the very top dressing room, where the actors never go. It’s a sort of old disused chorus dressing room, and we’ll go up there and we’ll listen to the tannoy.” So we sat up there and we got these laughs and the speaker cut out and we missed the table scene and the big table party scene and then it came back on again. We came back down and I had a sense, wrongly, that it hadn’t been very successful and I remember going for a walk to Greenwich Park ,which by then was locked, so I remember pressing my face against the railings and I thought, ‘oh well, back to see the actors. I’ll say ‘Sorry about this chaps, better luck next time.’’ And I came back and all there was the press representative of Greenwich on the door smiling, and he said, ‘they all love it! They love it!’ I said, ‘What!?’ And he said, ‘They adore it, they adore it!’ And the actors came out and said, ‘What an evening!’ and I thought, ‘Well, lucky me!’ So then Eric said to me, ‘we’ve got two more of these to go. We better go in that damn dressing room again because it’s unlucky if we don’t!” So I never saw the first nights as I was sat in the dressing room, three times!
Is that an Ayckbourn theatrical tradition then? If you actually see the first night, it’s bad luck?
No, I always sit in the front. If I’m directing, I stay with my chaps on the deck and if the ship’s going down, I stand there saluting, going, ‘everyone, abandon ship!’ No, if I’ve written it, then I’m nowhere near it. If I’m just the writer – just the writer! — I can’t bear to be there and I just hide; I’m nowhere near it. I’ve got drunk in a pub on a couple of occasions and staggered back to the theatre and met actors coming out on their way to a party and I’ve said, ‘well done,” and they say , ‘you didn’t even see it, bastard.’ But I always go in if I’m directing, as you are part of the team then.
Even though you’re emphatically not a political writer, in some of those plays in the eighties - A Small Family Business, you do touch on this sense of Thatcherism and what it is and what the country is going through, don’t you?
Yes, that was an interesting one because I was sitting in the theatre’s green room one day, and we were talking about what it was right to get away with in this modern world; which was the 1980s at that point . Somebody said, ‘well, I think it’s alright to steal food,’ and we all went, ‘oh’ and they said, ‘well, if my child was starving and I needed food, I would steal.’ I said, ‘what, from Tesco’s?’ She said, ‘yes, probably.’ Somebody else said, ‘no, that’s all wrong. It’s right to steal books. Books are public property.’ I said, ‘well, somebody’s written them, there’s no profit in that for them.’ They replied, ‘I mean most people should pay for them. But if you need a book, it’s your right to have it.” And I said, ‘lets start with a level playing field and say no, we don’t steal.” Very po-faced - but as I was saying this, I thought, ‘I’ll write a play about a man who believes this. Jack McCracken. And when his daughter steals a 48p plastic bottle of shampoo from a chemists’ shop and she gets caught by the store detective, he says ‘Right! She should be punished, she has stolen…’ and the family say, ‘what, come on, it’s a bottle of shampoo and you’re going to send the kid to jail?’ And he says, ‘no, she has to go up before the magistrate and he’s going to tell her off. And I shall not yield.’ His family are alienated, so he says, ‘maybe I’ll compromise on that’ and he just keeps compromising. And eventually, he’s into the worst crimes I could think of at that point, which is murder and major drug smuggling and pedalling to minors. And it includes his own daughter, who’d stolen the bottle of shampoo. So it came full circle and it’s a terrible trail of misadventure and a cautionary tale. Compromise at your peril! Again it was down to my mum. She used to come home with a bag - she used to work in offices - with enough HB pencils to start a forest fire. She’d say, ‘oh, they’re just the office’s.’ I’d say, ‘Mum, you’ve got sixteen pencils, five biros, what are you doing? You’re looting the place!’ And she said, ‘well, they’ll never notice’ and I said, ‘no, we don’t need those’ and she said, ‘it’s just the fun of taking them!’ And you know, we’d go to a hotel and she’d be packing up the towels and the freebies and everything was going in there - the bath mat even - the suitcase was bulging. I was walking out of the place, blushing from my ears, thinking, ‘oh, dear. I hope nobody’s going to stop my mother and say ‘excuse me madam, I think you have a bath mat in there.’ Which is awful, but it was a common thing and it still is, I think.
Let me ask you, if you hadn’t been the son of Lolly, would you have written A Woman in Mind? Is that character, Susan, in any way inspired by Lolly?
I was aware that my mother was going, as it were, slightly round the twist and she was increasingly eccentric, even by her standards. Even the doctor advised that she take electrolysis treatment although banging volts into her head didn’t seem like a very good idea, because it didn’t seem to be making her any better. So I found her a job and I found her a flat and I said, ‘you’re getting out of there.’ And she came up to London and she didn’t utter a word and then later on, I brought her to Scarborough when I came up here, and then she worked in a restaurant and started stealing the tips, so she got fired. My mother was a liability.
How old were you at that time?
I was in my twenties by then. So I was old enough to be able to take care of her, but when she worked in the council box office, selling seats for all the theatres, seven or eight of the venues, she kept plugging theatre-in-the-round and discouraging from the others, ‘oh, you don’t want to see Ken Dodd, he’s terribly unfunny now!’ And they’d say, ‘what else is on love?’ and ‘Oh, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is very, very funny.’ And somebody overheard her and said, ‘excuse me madam. You’re displaying a little prejudice in your box office.’ So she got fired from that too. I think that experience stayed with me. And then I read the remarkable Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and I realised the potential for perceiving things that weren’t there or the wrong things and the complex games your brain plays with you. I thought I’ll run a parallel event in the play of a woman who is intelligent and smart and yet, she dreams up this ridiculous family that her sensible brain is saying, ‘come on, nobody has a family like this, all tall and blond and beautiful calling you darling.’ But yet the sadness is she dreams them up. And of course they turn on her, because her perception becomes increasingly confused between her very dull real family and this dream family and she doesn’t know which one to trust.
That’s so familiar to me from a friend of mine, whose mother had dementia and Alzheimer’s. What you’re describing absolutely chimes with that experience, where she doesn’t recognise her own children, but thinks about them and talks about them in the third person as if they were someone else…
Oh, that’s awful
That is a situation where my friend had to both laugh and cry about it because it did make you laugh, but of course it was a sign of desperation and the difficult circumstances her mother was in.
Of course, the most tragic things are most often the funniest. You have to out the comedy if you’re going to grieve. Some of the funniest moments for me have happened at funerals – not that I’ve been through that many, thank god - where people have been really trying to be serious and then somebody drops the notes on the floor and then you’ve got the irresistible desire to giggle - it’s within us all. It’s just there, bubbling.
There was a man who came to the matinee one day at the Vaudeville in the West End, when Julia McKenzie was playing Woman in Mind, and he wrote to her; everyone wrote to Julia, they didn’t write to me because they associated the woman with her. He said, ‘I saw your very funny play this afternoon and had a real hoot, and then I turned at the end to my daughter and there were tears running down her face and I thought, ‘oh dear, something’s upset her. I took her across to the Savoy for tea and asked, ‘what is it, old thing? That was rather fun, wasn’t it?’ and she said, ‘no, it wasn’t.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Daddy, that actually happened to me..’ And he said - and this last sentence will alway stay with me, ‘do you know, I sat down and talked with my daughter for the first time in our lives.’ I thought that’s something nice we’ve done. But the girl had been having a nervous breakdown and he was from the generation that didn’t believe in such things, that old baths was the solution. If she cut her knee, then he’d be all over her. Because her mind was just getting out of kilter, he couldn’t accept it.
When did you first come across Peter Hall?
Peter I first met when he was about to open the new National Theatre; the current National moving out of these huts on the South Bank into a brand new building. He’d got familiar with my work via Sheila Hancock who was starring in one of my shows in the West End, Absurd Person Singular, and she said, ‘You ought to take a look at this guy, because he’s heavier than he looks.’ Peter came along and saw it and he wrote one of his very charming letters and said, could I come along and have a look at the new building and see if it excited me or not. I came along just before it was finished and he was in the middle of rehearsals for Tamburlaine, I remember, and nothing was working for him. In the vast Olivier space there are dozens of lamps at knee level and I said, ‘this is an interesting production. Why are you lighting it at knee level?’ He said, ‘because I can’t get the damn things up again!’ After that he took me to see the Lyttleton, which was unfinished, and I’d never seen such a huge space in my life. And he said, ‘how do you fancy writing a play for this?’ And the stage area alone was nine times the size of the Library Theatre I was running in Scarborough! I looked at him and said, ‘unless you want me to write a football match, I can’t possibly envisage a play you could write here!’ I then said, ‘Well, I’ll give it some thought Peter…’
I went home and I wrote, and I used lateral thinking to write for three smaller stages, so Bedroom Farce was born. I presented it to him and he suggested we coproduce it and he left me with eight weeks rehearsal, which was a vast amount of time as I’d never done more than three at that stage in my life! I said, ‘eight weeks, what are you going to do?’ and he said, ‘we can explore the text!’ and I said, ‘it’s not that deep a text you know, it doesn’t take that much exploration!’ So he did the first two weeks while I was still finishing a play off in Scarborough, then I joined him and he went into cahoots. And we did it in three days! As one of the actors described it later, Peter came forward and discussed the play seriously and I came forward and put the jokes in. So between us we got quite a nice balance. And then all of a sudden, Peter clapped me on the shoulder about three days later and said, ‘Alan, we can see you’re well in charge of this. I’m just popping off somewhere.’ And I said, ‘oh, where are you going?’ and he said, ‘I’m just going to direct Volpone.’ And I said, ‘that’ll keep you busy for a bit!’ and he was, the National has two huge rehearsal rooms. We were in Rehearsal Room Two and he was in Rehearsal Room One with Volpone and I never saw him again, except for the time we got to the technical rehearsals when he was of immense value. It was a very happy association, and Bedroom Farce was of course, history has it, a huge hit for the National; one of its most popular opening shows. It outstripped Tamburlaine I’m proud to say. So we decided to do another, but it wasn’t altogether harmonious because there was a very ugly strike going on for Peter at the stage hand strike and he was obviously besieged, quite honestly, by the unions and civil disobedience and all sorts of nasty anti-social behaviour going on. So the poor chap was really in a bit of a stew. He was also being lambasted by certain critics for putting in such a cheap commercial dramatist, quote “West End”, into the hallowed precinct of the National!
The mentor of Samuel Becket and Harold Pinter going down market!
Yes, and he very gamely said, ‘we wanted to produce the best of current theatre as well as all the great classics and mind your own business!’ and I’m very glad to say he didn’t take the critics’ advice; one or two of them really went to town, saying, ‘this is a national disgrace!’ I was rather pleased with myself because I’d never caused such furore before! He immediately commissioned me to do more so I included him in my loop and we did Sisterly Feelings next, which was a big double play, and I got the space which really intrigued me with the Olivier. With the Lyttleton, i thought, ‘well I’ve done pros arch’, but the Olivier was a huge challenge and I said at the time that, ‘this is the one that sorts the men out from the boys dramatically, if you can make a play work here, it is vast!’ Michael Bryant, who was one of the leading actors in the company and I said, ‘tell me about this theatre.’ And he said, ‘well, if you’re playing in an ordinary theatre, you stand five yards apart and talk. If you’re playing a dramatic scene, you stand fifteen yards away and shout at each other and it’s really hard work.’ But the distances make Sisterly Feelings work as it’s a big open air play. Peter was going to co-direct with me, but then Christopher Morahan stepped in at the last moment, so they weren’t still quite trusting me with my own show at the time.
It’s interesting that you won their confidence for your writing, but not for your direction and then of course Peter handed you A View From The Bridge.
Yes. He asked me to take leave of absence from Scarborough. And I was vey doubtful but he said, ‘it’d be 18 months.’ And he dangled the most enormously attractive carrot that he could possibly have done. He wanted me to direct a show in the Cottlesloe, a show in the Olivier and a show in the Lyttleton with the rider that the show in Olivier, the biggest of the three houses, should be a new one by me. But apart from that I had liberty all. So I chose a typical, traditional English farce Tons of Money, from the twenties which hadn’t been revived for a long time and I stuck that into the Lyttleton. And the second play I decided to do was A View From The Bridge, which I wanted to do in the Cottesloe. And having persuaded Michael Gambon to be part of that company - and he was in all three plays - I was trying doggedly to form a rep company, so a lot of the actors went right through three plays. It was a seriously upper-class rep company if you like, but I also managed to use a huge number of Scarborough regulars in the ranks so it was very nice and it was a very exciting time. A View from the Bridge we produced in the middle of winter and the National sent us out to some church hall to rehearse it, which was freezing, and I can remember it quite clearly, it was quite a short play and we used to do half days on it! I’d say, ‘listen guys, I’m just dying of cold.’ And Michael would agree so, I must say, we rushed through it. But, of course, if you get the right cast, directing is a lovely job. If you get the wrong people, it’s hell; it’s like pushing custard up hill actually.
Arthur Miller came to see the show and loved it. He thought it was the best production of A View From The Bridge that he’d seen, which was quite a compliment really.
I had an inkling that it was alright when we’d done a run-through. We done a run in one of the big rehearsal rooms at the National and a lot of people came in, including the press office. We got to the point when we were pretty on top of it and Michael suddenly, as he can do, just pulled out all the stops and went for it. It just took your breath away and I walked forward from my seat at the end and he was lying obviously dead on the ground and I patted him on the shoulder and said, ‘nice one mate,” and I turned round to go back to my seat and I just looked at this row of faces. And there was a sea of mascara and tears and people were just crying and I thought, ‘wow, we’ve moved this lot.” So we were very optimistic and then it opened to the most extraordinary reception and I don’t think I’ve ever had a first night like that. I’m always a bit nervous of curtain calls, so we did quite a brief, cursory curtain call. And I realised that after we’d done it the audience was refusing to stop clapping and – you know the size of the National - I took off from the Cottesloe, ran down a sea of corridors, through the wretched dressing rooms, trying to get the actors back on stage and all I could hear through all the tannoy speakers was “Bravo, bravo!” And I couldn’t find any of the main principles! I just got the guy playing a very small part with one line, and I said, ‘get back on! Anyone just go on. Anyone. Go and bow.” So that was the most amazing evening. That was a memory I shall treasure.
And what about Michael Gambon? What is special do you think about him and why do you like working with him so much?
He’s an actor of immense range and huge power. And I likened him once to driving a Ferrari; you put your foot gently on the accelerator and you realise that you can go to about 80mph quite quickly and as you work with Mike, you gently and cautiously put your foot down and your nerve breaks before his. I don’t quite know where that man stops frankly. The sky’s the limit. There was a moment in A View from the Bridge when his daughter, whom he loves, rejects him. He has stage directions asking him to just cry. And I remember seeing it originally with Anthony Quail, in the original production in the Watermill Theatre when I was a schoolboy, and he did the English thing, turned upstage, and buried his head in his hands and cried quite movingly. I looked at Mike in our production and he instinctively did the same and so I said to him, ‘you don’t think you can do all that downstage? Just facing the audience.’ And he said, ‘What? Crying? I’ll give it a go.’ So he did and I said, ‘that’s great Mike. Now just take your hands away from your face.’ He said, ‘you bugger, you want blood, don’t you?” So he’s a great big guy, he’s so powerful and he just stood there and he went for it. Two days later he shook us all rigid. He just stood there, a great big guy and crumpled. And there were tears running down his face and it was amazing. He said, ‘something like that?’ And I said, mopping my eyes, ‘yeah, something like that.’
What memories do you have of Michael in particular in your own work?
In Man of the Moment he played a little man, Douglas Beechey; the man for whom fame is ten seconds. He shrank - he can become from being very assured and powerful to a man who’s completely at odds with his environment. I can remember him saying the lines, ‘this is glorious, glorious,’ and standing on a patio by the pool and then he sits on this sun lounger and somehow the sun lounger doesn’t fit him; he’s all over the place. I’ve never seen anyone look so uncomfortable on a sun lounger. It’s quite the most wonderful piece of physical business. I was so moved by his performance that when the play was published a few weeks after it had opened, I gave him an inscribed copy and said, ‘this may not mean much to you, but here it is and I’ve signed it: ‘To Mike’ and I said, ‘I’ll be in tonight to see the show’ and I’m sitting in the audience and he comes on as Douglas and there’s the script sitting out of his pocket! You could read Man of the Moment by Alan Ayckbourn. I went up to him afterwards and I said, ‘what are you doing? Why would you come on with a script in your pocket? Everyone could see it!’ He said, ‘well, he could have been reading it on the plane!’ I thought, ‘well, that is so surreal, I cannot believe it!’ But that is Mike; the joker in him.
There’s a real sense though that for you, Scarborough and the company are very important. The actors whose names people aren’t familiar with, somehow that understatement, you really believe in them and their painful lives. I can see why you resist the the kind of names and stars we know.
I discovered quite early on if you bring a, quote, name on to the stage, there is an air of expectation from the audience that this is more important that anybody else on the stage. Having Celia Johnson for instance on Relatively Speaking, where she was amazing, because that role demanded that once the actor is on, they’re always the star or the co-star in the scene. But I wrote another play soon afterwards, which we persuaded Celia much against her better judgement to do a play, which disappeared and didn’t get revived again for years, called Family Circles. She played a mother who had a series of quite small scenes. A nice cameo role, I think you’d call it, and it was quite important. But, nonetheless, one sensed the temperature in the auditorium dropping off when she wasn’t on and the scenes in which she wasn’t on for, were thus rated slightly less important. What is more, people were quite disappointed that they didn’t see quite enough of Celia; I suppose if you’ve paid your money to see Celia Johnson, you want to see her all the time. Whereas if you’ve paid to see the play, then there’s a whole load of actors whom you just perhaps look up afterwards, but you’re seeing first and foremost the characters and the situation. And that was the way I was brought up and I’ve always enjoyed working most.
I want to ask you about Alain Resnais. Now I’ve heard of improbable partnerships before, but I’ve never heard one as improbable as your partnership with Alain Resnais! The creator of Last Year at Marienbad, the most intellectual, the most elusive, a sort of God of French cinema at that moment. And he loves Alan Ayckbourn!
He’s a delight. He was coming to Scarborough for two or three years with his then girlfriend, later his wife, Sabine Azema, before I met him. Somebody said, ‘hey! Alain Resnais’s in tonight!’
Here in Scarborough?
Yes! We were doing a play called The Revengers’ Comedies and I said, ‘oh, yeah, great and Jean-Luc Godard’s in the gents!” So I went out and there was this massively tall man with his white mane of hair, who looked so out of place and on his arm was the most drop-dead gorgeous woman I’d ever seen. I thought, ‘ That has to be Alain Resnais!’ So I said, ‘hello, Bonjour!’ and he didn’t speak very much English and I’ve got virtually no French so we falteringly talked and introduced ourselves. And I said, ‘what are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘I have come to see your play.’ And I said, ‘wow, that’s an honour.’ He said, ‘we love Scarborough and we stay at a hotel and eat in a café called The Green Lizard and we have crab and chips and we enjoy all the joys of Scarborough’ and I thought this is surreal. He kept coming back and then he asked if he could make a film of mine. And then later, he said, Sabine and I want to get married and we’d like to get married in Scarborough, would you and Heather [Alan’s wife] be witnesses?’ and I said, ‘I’d be absolutely honoured!’ So they both came and we got them a taxi from this house to the Scarborough Register Office just up the road and I said to the taxi driver, ‘this gentleman has come all the way from Paris to get married here in Scarborough. Isn’t that amazing?” And the driver said, ‘what’s amazing about that?’ said the driver. So we went and witnessed their wedding, then we took them out to dinner and I said to Sabine, ‘oh, this is amazing. It’s so nice that this is your wedding night and we haven’t given you a proper present. What would you like most?’ And she said, ‘I would love to be in a play of yours in Scarborough.’ I said, ‘you’re a big movie star,’ and she said, ‘oh yes, but my English is terrible. I couldn’t play one of your plays.’ I said, rationally after a couple of glasses of nice wine, ‘I’ll write you a part in French!’ So a year or so later, I wrote House and Garden and I wrote a French actress who spoke no English and I got it translated by a local teacher. Sabine then bashed it into some sort of reasonably colloquial French. And suddenly there I was, sitting on stage with Alain in the audience with a digital camera, directing Sabine Azema and I felt more like Jean-Luc Godard than ever! That was just amazing.
Alain and I continued the relationship and then he wanted to make a film of one of my plays and there were then about fifty-odd of them, so I said, ‘well take your pick.’ He said, ‘I think I’ve read most of them, I’ve seen a lot of them and I would like to do Intimate Exchanges!’ And I thought, ‘oh dear, he’s lost it now…’ and I said, ‘no, Alain, that is not a play you can film. It’s got sixteen endings and if you ran it end to end, it runs to probably about thirty-five hours.’ And he said, ‘no, I do not wish to do sixteen endings, I wish to do only twelve endings because some of them don’t work in French!’ So I said, ‘what, you want to make a film with twelve endings?!!’ He said ‘No, of course not. I want to make two films of six endings each.’ I said, ‘I think you’re battier than I am!’ He then went away and got it translated and the play itself is all set outdoors, and any other film would grab a camera, pray for fine weather and go and sit in a field for a bit. Not Alain - he built the entire village indoors! So there is a sort of surreal quality about the film with a lot of clumping footsteps which there was no attempt to hide, as actors come on and off patios, walking obviously on to rostra and behind it are backlots of a field so the whole play becomes Alain-esque, if I can use that phrase
He’s created this sort of artificial world of the natural world?
Yes, he loved it. He wanted me to be in it originally. He said, ‘I would like eventually to be filming a scene and track around and there you’ll be sitting watching it!’ and I said, ‘oh no, not for me!’ so he abandoned that particular idea.
A few years later I wrote a play called Private Fears in Public Places and it was a bit filmic for me filmic. It had fifty-two scenes in it, so it was quite bitty and ripe for filming. So he did it; he just took that script and translated it and actually made it almost shot for shot. I heard from the actors that he refuses to work before midday. This was told to me by Lambert Wilson, who was one of the actors, and he said, ‘I’ve never worked on a film set like it. Alain arrives and then he shakes hands with everybody, including – as there’s not a big crew, because it’s French - the most junior tea person. And when he’s ready, he does just one set-up, maybe two, and then he calls it a day. But he doesn’t half film that one set-up. It’s filmed from absolutely every angle. You’re legless! And then he just takes it away under his arm and edits it.” He’s most unconventional, but he can get away with that in France.
I remember when I watched it for the first time, I was holding on to the seats, waiting, it was a white knuckle ride. And it started with the snow, and I was thinking, ‘his is interesting.’ And ninety minutes later, I realised, as the word Fin came up on the screen I had been like that for about ninety minutes. I was waiting for something awful to happen and I couldn’t believe it. So I came back home and I promised to ring Alain and the phone rang. He said, ‘Alan? This is Alain.’ And I said, ‘Alain, it’s a beautiful film. Thank you so much.’ And I could hear him go, ‘this means so much to me.’ And I said, ‘what do you mean? You’ve just made a wonderful film. I think it’s great.’ And he just said, ‘now I can let people see it.’ And I said, ‘we’ve just let an audience in at the theatre!’
So he didn’t want anybody to see it before you’d seen and approved it?
No. I don’t know what he’d had done. Burnt it or something. Poor producers I mean [Both Laugh]
You’ll have to write the play about Alain Resnais one way or another. Alain Resnais’ Visit to Scarborough!
The other greatly famous person who came to Scarborough to see a show was Stephen Sondheim. It was a few years ago now, but I said, ‘where can we eat before the show? Because Stephen wants to eat before the show.’ And somebody came up with the bright idea of a fish and chips shop called Whackers. So I took Stephen Sondheim into Whackers. So we’re sitting there with the obligatory red, squeezy tomato sauce bottle and he’s going ‘what are we eating?’ and I go, ‘these are mushy peas’ and this composer’s sitting next to me, going, ‘we’re having mushy peas and cod with tomato sauce!’ [Both Laugh] I mean, this was Stephen Sondheim, the most civilised, the most lauded composer in the western hemisphere, which is most extraordinary. Scarborough can be a great leveller!
It seems you allowed yourself to grow into Scarborough over the years, haven’t you? You could be anywhere, but you choose to be in Scarborough. Have you grown to love Scarborough, you know?
I’ve grown to love it, but like all places - because you care a lot about it - I have my rows. Along with a number of regional towns, it’s had its ups and downs and it’s been hit by recession. It was a great holiday resort and sort of got very wrong footed at one point when everybody fled to the Costa del Sol and abandoned the traditional seaside holiday.
The current theatre was opened in the teeth of opposition. There was a sort of defeated feeling in Scarborough that nothing good was ever going to come of it. When we did manage to open it, I was very insistent that on the whole, even if we could have raised money from huge organisations, we needed to make Scarborough people feel as if they contributed.
It was theirs?
It was theirs, yes. It’s your theatre, folks. The building’s owned by the council and Scarborough Theatre Trust has a lease on it; I’m not part of that anymore. It opened to everyone’s amazement and all that, ‘you’ll never do it’ showed it can be possible. We can open something we can be really proud of. And because it was flying in the face of quite a lot of current trends at the time, we got an awful lot of press coverage including all the major news networks and, but they did go around and interview the Scarborians, with the interviewer saying, ‘good afternoon sir, may I just stop you for a minute and ask you feel about the new theatre?’ ‘New theatre? I didn’t know there was one!’ We realised we still had a bit of a hill to climb, but - having said that - there is a huge hardcore of devoted people about, which I won’t say a word against. So we got the support, but we always need more. It is hard work opening theatres in regions, it really is.
It’s interesting that if you look at the audience. I imagine the audience here is older, by and large, in Scarborough. But in London where your plays have recently playing, young audiences are discovering Ayckbourn again. It’s rather fascinating, this sort of universal appeal your plays have, not just in England, but around thew world.I wonder why it speaks to so many people and so many generations.
I think it’s probably to do with the fact that I do write about people. I don’t write about issues very much; my plays brush on social issues occasionally, but they’re fairly common to most nations I think. Even in Neighbourhood Watch, the feelings of social insecurity are something you can recognise, be you Venezuelan or Chinese. It’s very gratifying.
And do you think it’s also partly, as you say, it’s about people?
Ian McKellen used to do a one man show about Shakespeare and he used to always start it with, ‘name one happy marriage in Shakespeare,’ and there was a long pause and someone would just shout out, ‘The Macbeths! But only for a short time!’ And I think there’s two things, really. As a result of my experiences in life of disappointment in relationships, I think that chimes with a lot of people - however optimistically you start out. Some guy once said to me, ‘well I thought my marriage was bad until I saw that one!’ So, [AA Laughs]] but you’ll never see one of them in one of my plays.
I really do believe that women understand men fairly well - not really well. And most men have no idea what makes women work at all. Women are a complete mystery to them. You can check this with the average alpha-male! Women are another species. This is the sort of thing that I exploit. I’ve got my plays littered with men just shaking their heads, saying, ‘i don’t know why she threw the tea-service at me. All I said was, ‘jolly well done.’ And she just threw the tea service at me… A mystery, absolute mystery!”
Of course, these men aren’t quite aware when they speak, how far they’re undermining their spouses.
Yes, I talked to a girl and she’s talking about her girlfriends and I said, ‘why, do women need girlfriends?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know a woman who doesn’t need a good friend.’ And I said, ‘yes, but it’s rather special isn’t it? Why can’t men do that job?’ And she said, ‘oh, if you’ve got a problem, a man tries to fix it and then he submits all sorts of solutions, most of which you’ve already thought of. And anyway, you don’t want it fixing, you just want to talk about the problem. A girl will just sit there and go, ‘oh God, that’s awful. Oh, I know, I know.’ And that makes me feel better because I’ve told her the problem. But men want to fix it and when they don’t, when the woman refuses to let them fix it, they get a bit stroppy and they go, ‘oh, I’ve done what I can. I’m going to the pub. You can take your pick on the solutions I’ve presented. And bugger you!’’
They don’t really understand the problem in the first place
In Just Between Ourselves, the wife comes and says, ‘I need help Dennis.’ And he says, ‘well just make a little list of all the things you want me to do and I’ll just do them and I’ll fix them and if anything, a hat, needs fixing, a washer, I’ll do that, you know. If there’re any electrics…’ And she said, ‘no, darling, I need mental help!” He goes, ‘aw, no. Got me there love. You try and think of a few things I could fix.’ It’s a big problem, but it’s given me an endless source of comedy. It’s comedy of recognition. I think comedy always stems from, ‘yes, that’s us... I know those people... That’s my in-laws to a tee.” That’s the secret, I think.
And so often in the plays, you roar with laughter, but quite often at the end of it, just feel, ‘this is terrible.’
They do end in violence quite a lot of time! There’s a play of mine, which we’re thinking of reviving, called Things We Do For Love, and this is about a woman who has this singularly failed to fall in love with anybody until she’s mid-forties. And then when she does go, she goes absolutely hook line and sinker for a man who is completely inappropriate. For a start, it’s her best friend’s husband to be and they’ve got nothing in common except a sexual attraction, which takes them both over. They finish up in a vicious fisticuffs - it’s quite a funny fight, but it’s also quite frightening if it’s staged right. And she’s sitting on the sofa completely incredulous because she thought of herself until then as a civilised human being. And suddenly she’s reduced, as she says to herself, ;I’ve become an animal! I mean, behaviour of this sort, I never would have thought I would countenance. I condemned it when I saw it in television, when I saw it in books and now I’m doing it.’ And it’s this thing called love and need and passion which suddenly takes over her.
We care, we always care more for people we love. We therefore get angry with them occasionally. I have said cruel and hurtful things to people I’ve really loved. People care and that is, I think the heart of my plays. The characters at heart love each other, or need the approval of each other. And passions they feel spring from that.
Finally, when you had the stroke in 2006, what went through your mind when that happened?
It was a shock really and one always thinks one’s immortal until something like that happens. I was lying in the hospital, I was there for eight weeks and slowly, as the panic went down, I was thinking, ‘well, at least I can direct, but I don’t know quite whether the writing thing will come back. But I think as soon as I’m reasonably mobile, I can certainly retackle the body of work.’ And then, mysteriously, a little trickle of an idea - and I always start with these little flickers - came and I thought, ‘thank God, there is a tomorrow.’ I’ve written six or seven plays since then. So, things are nearly normal. I’m still not as boundingly active in direction as I should be. Probably to the gratitude of the actors; they at least know where the hell I’m sitting. And if people hug me on the first night, I tend to want to fall over, because I’m slightly unstable. But apart from that…
You are so prolific, it must be in your DNA. When you have an idea, there’s this sense that you start to be pregnant and you let it gestate. You give it nine months and then you write it in three days. That seems to be your way
That’s the way. Sometimes it’s stillborn and just disappears but normally, if it survives the first few months… It may undergo some changes as it grows
Do you write notes down at all?
Sometimes these days. I will make a little schematic, but nothing too much. One of the biggest problems is finding characters’ names! Because I’ve used most of the common ones. My characters tend to be called strange names like Brandon and Wurzel and things like that. I have a book of baby’s names and I try and find a name that suits a character
And do you hear their voices?
Not at that stage. I have to get to know them. When I went for long walks, I used to walk along the beach and I’d start to improvise them occasionally. I’d ask them metaphorical questions, ‘what do you think of pollution on Scarborough’s beaches?’ ‘well, it’s a disgrace and they should be shot.’ But normally, they grow as the idea develops. It all sort of comes slowly and there’s no specific order. I’ve tried to put an order on to it. I try to think in minimums; it’s a healthy thing and it’s good economically. There’s an inverse ratio to the amount of productions my play has to the amount of characters that are in it. If you write a four-hander, you’re laughing and if you write a twelve hander, very few places can afford to do it outside of the National and the RSC and the big subsidised companies. Very few theatres can afford to do big anymore because they are a bit wary of doing new plays with a big cast of characters. So all these factors are important. Playwriting is, in one sense,an immensely practical art. You have to have an eye on the physical - how you’re going to start and, in particular in my case, how you’re going to stage it. What resources do I need to make this story work? My great lighting designer, Mick Hughes - who’s a legend of a designer - always talks about lighting ‘helping to tell the story.’ He is slavish to the play and I love the man for that. But does the light help the story? Does the sets help the story? Does the costumes help the story? Do the sound effects help the story? All of those contribute to the whole and you sometimes witness a production where your lighting is going on merrily away and you think, ‘did the lighting designer ever read this play, let alone see it? And did the director ever have word with him? Because this is ridiculous!’ There’s so many lights going on, we can’t see any of the actors. And there’s extraordinary bursts of music bursting in and the sound designer is obviously having a really good time. None of the things seem to add up. Good directing and good acting unites these elements together.
It’s interesting to talk about story and character because all your characters have a story and they could all go on afterwards and you could learn more and more about them.
People used to say, ‘could you write a sequel to that?’ and I always replied, ‘Oh no, come on, you know, the gag’s finished.’ They’ve had their dignified ending and that’s the end of that particular character. The play has its natural full stop.
Or an undignified ending!
Undignified ending, quite often. Just Between Ourselves has a very downbeat ending with the wife sitting in a chair with the rug around her, unable to go back into her own house, or into her own garage even and she’s completely abandoned and gone into herself into a sort of catatonic trance. I was just leaving the theatre in Scarborough, and a man came up to me and he said, ‘I’ve solved your ending for you. What she does is, I’ll tell you exactly what she does. When she’s given the cake and they all sing Happy Birthday to her, she picks up the cake, she smashes it in her mother-in-law’s face and she makes her dash for the garage and she reverses the car out and she drives away.’ And I said, ‘wow, that’s kind of a difficult ending to do on stage, you know, driving a car out of a garage,’ and I said, ‘but more important than that, don’t you think we might have betrayed the character? Where she is and suddenly doing some sort of terrible deus ex machine is just going to say ‘Oh well, with one single bound, she was free!’ and that is not being honest with a character. So I really cannot take your suggestion sir, write your own damn play!’
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