Favourite Things: Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking is – as all fans of Alan Ayckbourn fans know – his first big play. It’s his first significant success in the West End and helped make Alan a household name during the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s also the play – from an Archivist’s perspective – where things start to get interesting. With an acknowledged success comes more reason to preserve contemporary items relevant to the play, which eventually become part of the Ayckbourn Archive. There are more original cuttings of reviews, programmes, newspaper articles and other ephemera relating to the earliest productions of the play than anything he previously wrote. There is a sense that playwriting is now Alan’s significant career strand – it’s worth remembering that Alan only retired as a professional actor the year before he wrote Relatively Speaking.

Alan Ayckbourn circa 1965, the year he wrote Relatively Speaking (© To be confirmed)

Of course, Relatively Speaking was not only exceptionally popular in the West End in 1967 but continues to be popular today and is consistently revived by both professionals and amateurs, so there is a wealth of archival material from its first production at the Library Theatre in 1965 to the present day held in Archive – Salisbury Playhouse recently announced it will be reviving the play in-the-round from 4 – 28 September 2019 and, no doubt, programmes and press cuttings from this production will soon enter the Ayckbourn Archive for posterity.

As a result, it starts becoming more difficult to name my favourite things – as Alan becomes more famous and successful, so there are more items in the Archive to look at and choose from! So I’m limiting myself to three items and the story of one which unfortunately can’t be shown here.

My first item is actually rather famous in itself. Relatively Speaking began its life in 1965 at the Library Theatre as Meet My Father. Two years later, it moved to the West End opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 29 March 1967. Early in its run, it was seen by a rather more established playwright at the time, Noël Coward, who – impressed by what he had seen – sent a telegram of congratulations to its author as Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, notes in Grinning At The Edge.

Noël Coward’s telegram to Alan Ayckbourn held by the University of York (© Haydonning Ltd)

“A telegram arrived at the BBC in Leeds which Alan assumed to be a practical joke, especially when it turned out there was 14 shillings (70p) to pay for the delivery. It read: DEAR ALAN AYCKBOURN. ALL MY CONGRATULATIONS ON A BEUATIFULLY CONSTRUCTED AND VERY FUNNY PLAY. I ENJOYED EVERY MOMENT OF IT = NOEL COWARD.”

Alan has expanded on this story in the past suggesting he actually threw it into the bin – not believing it was authentic – before receiving a telephone call from the actor Richard Briers, appearing in the play, who had spoken to Coward after seeing the show – at which Alan promptly retrieved the crumpled telegram! The telegram is now safely held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York and is, undoubtedly, one of the most significant holdings in the collection.

The cover of the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Relatively Speaking with Leeds Art Theatre.

My second favourite item is not an obvious choice, as it’s a programme for an amateur production of Relatively Speaking; given there have been thousands of performance of Relatively Speaking since 1965, programmes are not that unusual! However, this one is rather special.

Although Alan Ayckbourn is well-known for directing his own work, he did not direct the world premiere of Relatively Speaking at the Library Theatre nor the West End premiere – directed by Stephen Joseph and Nigel Patrick respectively. Alan did not, in fact, direct Relatively Speaking professionally until 1977 when it was revived at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough. But his first stab at directing what is arguably his most famous work was with an amateur company.

The interior of the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Relatively Speaking with Leeds Arts Theatre

Between 1965 and 1970, Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC based in Leeds. During that period he became patron of Leeds Art Theatre (for whom he directed Mr Whatnot as noted in a previous blog). In 1970, he directed Relatively Speaking for the first time with Leeds Art Theatre at Leeds Civic Theatre. It’s a rather nice oddity to think of a nationally famous playwright at that point (and about to become even more famous with the West End premiere of How The Other Half Loves later that year) directing a local amateur company in one of his most famous plays.

Moving slightly back in time and Relatively Speaking‘s place not only as Alan’s first major West End success, but also the first of his plays to be seen on television. On 21 July 1967, the BBC broadcast a 50 minute excerpt from the West End production of Relatively Speaking marking the first time any of Alan’s work had been seen in a substantive form on television. Sadly this does not survive in archive nor does a full length adaptation of the play produced for the BBC’s Play of the Month in 1969 starring Donald Sinden and Celia Johnson and directed by Herbert Wise (who would go on to direct The Norman Conquests for ITV in 1977).

John Stride (Greg), Donald Sinden (Philip), Celia Johnson (Sheila) & Judy Cornwell (Ginny) in the 1969 BBC TV adaptation of Relatively Speaking (© BBC)

Although the television adaptation does not survive, seven mint-condition publicity stills from the broadcast were recently rediscovered within the Ayckbourn Archive and offer a fascinating insight into the production. Whilst they will never replace the opportunity of seeing how Relatively Speaking was adapted, they do offer a chance to get a feel for the actors and the production values (and issues such as the 15 year age discrepancy between Donald Sinden’s Philip and Celia Johnson’s Sheila leading to, according to Alan, a conscious decision by Herbert Wise to film most of the production in long-shot). As an archivist I try to be optimistic and hope nothing is completely lost; these photos are a good example of that, turning up 50 years after the broadcast and preserving some of its history in a small way.

And so to my final favourite – and unseen – item from the archive. When Alan Ayckbourn first wrote Relatively Speaking (or Meet My Father as it was), he delivered it to the Library Theatre’s Artistic Director and the plays’ director, Stephen Joseph, who declared it too long and promptly decided to cut the play, as Alan Ayckbourn records.

“[Stephen Joseph had cut] rather a lot of important bits, because he didn’t seem to mind where it was cut as long as it was cut. When he did this you would point that there were some important bits of information missing, but he’d just say: ‘Don’t worry, people. They’ll follow it.’ and they generally did. It was very good, and Peter Bridge came up with the director Nigel Patrick and they declared it was great.”

Alan has noted that Stephen would draw thick marker lines through swathes of dialogue in the original manuscript; all of which sounded apocryphal and more of a good story than hard fact. And then, in 2007, Doctor Paul Elsam discovered an original manuscript of Meet My Father in which, literally, swathes of pages have thick marker pen lines through the dialogue. It’s a fascinating document to see.

This then formed the basis of a project I undertook to reconstruct the play as originally performed in 1965 leading to a manuscript which is approximately a third shorter than the play we know today. Although only created for research purposes – and it will never be allowed to be performed – it is a personal project of which I’m very fond.

Of course, what Alan doesn’t mention about Peter Bridge and Nigel Patrick is that when they asked for the play to read, Alan gave them the uncut original manuscript rather than Stephen Joseph’s edited script. They didn’t seem to notice and it all worked out rather well in the end for everyone concerned.

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