Ayckbourn at the BBC

Some of you keen Ayckbourn fans may have been enjoying the rare chance to hear one of Alan Ayckbourn’s radio productions currently playing on BBC iPlayer.

The 17-Jewelled Shockproof Swiss-Made Bomb, written by Roy Clarke, was directed by Alan Ayckbourn and first broadcast during January 1968 – three years into Alan Ayckbourn’s less well-known career as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC.

But how – and why – did Alan Ayckbourn end up working for BBC Radio for five years between 1965 and 1970? The answer lies with his play Mr Whatnot and its brutal reception and failure as Alan’s first West End transfer. So badly was Alan affected by this, he considered leaving theatre for good and found a job with the BBC.

“In the mid-sixties, I worked alongside Alfred Bradley for five years as a fellow radio drama producer at the BBC Woodhouse Lane Studios in Leeds. Alfred was, I believe, instrumental in me getting the job. Indeed the post was only created in response to the enormous backlog of unproduced new play scripts that had accumulated on his desk, a victim of his own successful, self-generated, one man new play policy. Alfred was hugely influential and encouraging to this fledgling producer, who prior to his arrival in Leeds had never even set foot inside a sound studio. Although only a dozen or so years older than I, Alfred turned out to be what I later referred to as one of my ‘guardian uncles’; those remarkable people whom I was lucky enough to meet in my early years who subsequently shaped and informed my life. I remain indebted to him.”

The Old Broadcasting House (2011) on Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, where Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC. (© Tim Green)

Bruised by the reception to Mr Whatnot, Alan phoned his agent – Peggy Ramsay – for advice. She was apparently talking to Alfred Bradley in the office who – keen to get Alan off the phone – told Peggy to tell Alan to apply for a new post at the BBC; the position having been created to cope with the huge amount of scripts which had accumulated as a result of Alfred’s success encouraging new writers, but which he had neither the time nor the resources to produce.

Alfred, himself, was a highly respected radio producer who championed northern writers and helped launch the careers of Alan Plater, Keith Waterhouse, Alun Own and Stan Barstow among others.

Alan’s appointment was carried in The Stage newspaper on 26 November 1964. It is probably the only article ever written to mis-spell both Alan’s surname (printed as Ayckbourne) and that of his early writing pseudonym Roland Allen (printed as Roland Alan)! He began work as a Radio Drama Producer, based at the BBC Woodhouse Lane Studios in Leeds, early in 1965 and would stay with the BBC until 1970.

He initially earned £38 a week from the BBC – more than double what he had been earning at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, when he left his job there during 1964.

Despite having no formal training as a radio producer, within his first year Alan believes he produced more than 50 radio plays (including individual serial episodes). These ranged from 30 to 90 minute pieces and were originally broadcast across the BBC Home Service and BBC Light Programme. Following the restructuring of BBC Radio in 1967, Alan’s work would regularly appear on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 4.

Whilst it is unknown just how many plays he eventually directed at the BBC (although Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website now has details of approximately 90 of them), it is not implausible to suggest it could well have been more than 200 plays during the five year period.

As a script-editor, Alan also read hundreds of new plays. Alfred insisted every writer who submitted a play deserved a written response, so it was Alan’s responsibility to respond to the submissions. Alan felt this demanded objectivity and articulacy, which he later felt fed through into his own writing.

Notably, two of Alan’s radio productions were nominated for the prestigious Prix Italia Award, both by Don Haworth. The first nomination was for There’s No Point Arguing The Toss (first broadcast in April 1967) and We All Come To It In The End (first broadcast in July 1968).

Alan would also direct a number of actors on the radio who would go onto significantly successful careers on stage and screen. Most famously, he was the first person to employ Bob Peck as a professional actor having met him in Leeds within the amateur dramatic circuit. He would also work with actors such as Ben Kingsley, Robert Powell, Joan Sims, Eileen Derbyshire, Stephanie Turner, Elizabeth Bell, Wilfred Pickles, James Bolam, Elisabeth Sladen and Leslie Sands among many others.

As he continued to work for the BBC, so he realised his real desire was to go back into the theatre; he even – unsuccessfully – applied for the post of Artistic Director of the newly build Leeds Playhouse in 1969. He still had a close connection with the Library Theatre, Scarborough, though and during the period he was at the BBC, he also wrote Meet My Father (later retitled Relatively Speaking), The Sparrow, How The Other Half Loves and The Story So Far… (later retitled Family Circles) for Scarborough.

In 1969 – and again in 1970 – Alan accepted the post of Director of Productions at the Library Theatre for the summer seasons; essentially juggling two full-time jobs. Often his BBC secretary would pretend he was still in Leeds but out of the office when taking calls and Alan would then ring back from Scarborough, pretending to be in Leeds!

With success in the West End following Relatively Speaking and a planned transfer of How The Other Half Loves, plus his commitment to Scarborough, it became obvious by 1970, that Alan could no longer continue at the BBC. He left on 23 June 1970 and, within two years, would accept the position of the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, a position he would hold until 2009.

This ended Alan’s foray into the BBC and his only significant professional venture outside of theatre. Whilst this is a little-known and research area of Alan’s life, it undoubtedly had a huge impact and, arguably, provided the groundwork for the role of Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

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