Our regular delve into some of my things in The Alan Ayckbourn Archive skips a play this week to arrive at Mr Whatnot.
Premiered at the Victoria Theatre in 1963, Mr Whatnot is a notable play for serval significant reasons. It marked the first time Alan Ayckbourn had directed the world premiere off one of his plays and it was the first of his plays to transfer to the West End – of which more later.
My favourite item in the Ayckbourn Archive though is derived not from the world or the West End premiere of Mr Whatnot, but rather an amateur production of rather unusual providence.
In 1965, following some traumatic reviews of the West End premiere of Mr Whatnot, Alan took a job at the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer based in Leeds for five years. Initially, he had no thought of writing for the theatre again, but his mentor Stephen Joseph fortunately soon changed his mind about that.
Whilst in Leeds, Alan discovered an aspiring actor called Robert Peck who he employed in a number of roles for the radio and, later, for two years at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. The same Robert Peck who would become rather more famous as Bob Peck, star of the classic BBC thriller Edge of Darkness, a Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre veteran and – amongst much television and several films – the game hunter in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
At the time, Bob was a member of the amateur Leeds Art Theatre of which Alan was the patron and, in 1968, asked Alan if he would do the company a favour and help with the new production as the planned one had fallen through. Alan agreed to both provide a play and direct it, choosing Mr Whatnot. He cast Bob Peck in the titular role as the mute piano tuner, Mint. In the Ayckbourn Archive, there are several photographs from rehearsals from this production including this favourite with a pensive Alan looking on at Bob Peck.
It’s a favourite photo of mine providing as it does a very rare look at Alan involved in an amateur drama company as well as two men who had huge respect for each other and their respective work. Alan would reunite with Bob in 1985 when he took the lead role of Guy in Alan’s production of A Chorus of Disapproval for the National Theatre.
Whilst we’re looking at Mr Whatnot, it’s always been a source of fascination that the West End premiere starred the British comedian Ronnie Barker as Lord Slingsby-Craddock; at this point Barker was beginning to make a name for himself but had not yet risen to huge fame. Although the West End production was a disaster (the shortest run of any Ayckbourn play in the West End – including the more famous musical Jeeves), Barker and Alan hit it off and would work together again – albeit rather surreptitiously.
Barker so enjoyed playing the character of Slingsby-Craddock that he essentially asked Alan to write him into his 1969 TV series Hark At Barker. Alan, under contract for the BBC, was contractually not allowed to write for the comedy show as it was on ITV However,using the pseudonym of Peter Caulfield, he wrote for both series of Hark At Barker penning the links between sketches which featured Lord Rustless; whom Barker had created several years earlier inspired by his work in Mr Whatnot.
Alan’s significant contribution can be seen in the frontispiece to the script for the first episode of series one of the show which notes ‘Hark At Barker by Peter Caulfield and various authors’; most of the various authors were pseudonyms for Ronnie Barker apparently! Barker himself talks about the Alan’s connection and contribution to the character of Rustless in his authorised biography.
“Absolutely. He [Slingsby-Craddock] was Lord Rustless mark one, definitely…. When I did Hark at Barker – that was him, albeit with sketches. Alan Ayckbourn wrote all the links for that show but I don’t think he admits it. He called himself Peter Caulfield, but I don’t know whether he would like people to know that was him or not. He liked the character in Mr Whatnot, so he knew what the character was about. Rustless was really giving a lecture to the audience on a subject, such as ‘communication’ or ‘servants’ or something and he would illustrate it with sketches, which enabled me to pay lots of different parts.”
It’s a fascinating insight into a rarely known aspect of Alan’s career not least because it marks Alan’s only venture into television. Alan has been committed to theatre throughout his life and, unlike most of his contemporaries, has never been persuaded to move into television or film; even for the filmed adaptations of his plays, he has minimal involvement at best. Aside from a short screenplay for a play for television – Service Not Included – Alan’s only little known foray into screenwriting was Hark At Barker.
Despite its West End battering, Mr Whatnot would become a success for Alan and was revived successfully by the author in Scarborough in 1976 with many well-received productions – both professional and amateur – over the subsequent years. As it stands, it is the earliest of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays which has been published and which is available for performance.