The First Ayckbourn Film Festival

As part of Alan Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday celebrations, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has announced the first Ayckbourn Film Festival for September.

I’m delighted to be involved in the event and to have worked with the SJT”s projectionist Steve Carley in his huge efforts to bring this exciting event to fruition.

Film and television adaptations have been synonymous with Alan’s plays practically since his first major West End success with Relatively Speaking in 1967. Indeed, less than four months after the play opened, the BBC screened 50 minutes of extracts from the production during prime-time television. Two years later, it would be adapted by the BBC for Play of The Month in 1969 starring Celia Johnson and Donald Sinden; sadly neither of these versions survive in a archive.

The Ayckbourn Film Festival is offering a rare chance to see five (or four depending on how you view Smoking / No Smoking!) of the playwright’s preferred screen adaptations over a single weekend in The McCarthy at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. For four of the six screenings, I’ll be providing a brief introduction and context to the films which are rarely seen on the big screen.

Smoking / No Smoking

The festival will open with the most acclaimed of the film adaptations of Alan’s work with Smoking / No Smoking (1993). A film duology based on the play Intimate Exchanges directed by the famed French film auteur Alain Resnais. As Ayckbourn fans know, Intimate Exchanges has a potential 16 different combinations (and to see all of them requires 16 trips to the theatre!) Resnais chose to adapt just 12 of them, which can be experienced in two films – although it must be stressed both films do not have to be seen to enjoy the experience. See either Smoking or No Smoking or the two together and they’re still very enjoyable movies; the structure of each movie makes clear what both the film-maker and Alan were attempting with Intimate Exchanges.

Smoking / No Smoking won a raft of Cesar Awards in France including Best Film and Best Director as well a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival among others. It stars Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi playing – as with the original play – all ten roles in a stylised setting inspired by Scarborough and North Yorkshire. It’s a rather remarkable experience as each film looks at how the characters’ lives might have altered branching out from a simple decision of whether to have a cigarette or not. It’s a very ambitious film with superb performances and one which Alan Ayckbourn is a great fan of.

Smoking / No Smoking is followed by Alan Ayckbourn’s favourite adaptation of one of his plays, Private Fears in Public Places – or Coeurs as it was known in France on its premiere.The play Private Fears In Public Places premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2004 and was toured to New York the following year by the SJT to great acclaim.

Private Fears in Public Places

In 2006, Alain Resnais adapted the play into another award-winning film which remains a peak in the screen adaptations of Alan’s work. The action is transplanted from London to a snow-bound Paris in which the lives of six disparate and lonely people interconnect and drift apart. Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi once again team up with the director alongside an exceptional cast of Lambert Wilson, André Dussollier, Laura Morante and Isabelle Carré.

I would strongly argue that Private Fears in Public Places is one of the definitive Ayckbourn plays from the 2000s and the film adaptation is the definitive film of an Ayckbourn play; it’s also worth seeing if only as Alan Ayckbourn’s favourite screen adaptation of his own plays!

The remaining two films are a bit of a coup for the SJT with the BBC adaptations of Absent Friends and Absurd Person Singular. This is believed to her the first time these acclaimed adaptations have been seen in cinemas – making this a very special event for Ayckbourn fans.

Absurd Person Singular (© BBC)

Alan’s website www.alanayckbourn.net regularly gets asked when the BBC will ever repeat these films or release them to buy. Whilst the answer, as far as the playwright and I am aware is, no, at least we can now offer an exclusive and unique opportunity to see them as part of the Ayckbourn Film Festival.

Absent Friends and Absurd Person Singular were both broadcast by the BBC in 1985 and were directed by Michael Simpson. They were exceptionally popular at the time and featured fairly remarkable casts. Absent Friends stars Julia McKenzie as Diana – a performance which so impressed Alan, that he cast her as Susan in the West End premiere of Woman In Mind – alongside Tom Courtenay, Dinsdale Landen, Maureen Lipman, Hywel Bennett and Kate Lock.

Maureen Lipman also features in Absurd Person Singular alongside Michael Gambon, Prunella Scales, Geoffrey Palmer, Nicky Henson and Cheryl Campbell. It is, in fact, the only recording of an Ayckbourn play in which it is possible to see Gambon in action; Gambon has appeared in more West End productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays than any other actor and has won three Olivier Awardss whilst being directed by Alan. He is immensely fond of the playwright whom he considers the finest theatre director he has worked with.

Both television films have been given permission for the screenings by the British Film Institute in order to mark Alan Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday and the SJT is delighted to have the opportunity to screen them.

The Ayckbourn Film Festival promises to be an exciting event for any fan of Alan Ayckbourn – particularly those who haven’t had the chance to see Smoking / No Smoking or Private Fears in Public Places on the big screen or are just yearning for an opportunity to see Absent Friends or Absurd Person Singular again. I know I’m very excited to be introducing the plays before getting a chance to enjoy them myself!

Ayckbourn Film Festival Schedule

Friday 20 September: Smoking (subtitled) at 2.45pm with an introduction by Simon Murgatroyd

Friday 20 September: Private Fears in Public Places (subtitled) at 7.45pm with an introduction by Simon Murgatroyd

Saturday 21 September: No Smoking (subtitled) at 2.45pm

Saturday 21 September: Absent Friends at 7.45pm with an introduction by Simon Murgatroyd

Sunday 22 September: Private Fears In Public Places (subtitled) at 2.45pm

Sunday 22 September: Absurd Person Singular at 7.45pm with an introduction by Simon Murgatroyd

Bookings are available now via the SJT box office (01723 370541) or at www.sjt.uk.com. Tickets are priced at £7 per film or £25 for all five films.

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