Fifty-five years ago today on the first floor of Scarborough Library, something extraordinary was taking place.
It was the opening night of a play called Meet My Father, written by a rather disillusioned 26 year old who had decided to quit theatre for a job at the BBC the previous year.
Neither he nor the audience could ever suspect this inauspicious debut would kickstart a career which would make Alan Ayckbourn one of the most successful living playwrights in the world.
Yet two years later, Meet My Father would take the West End by storm, delighting audiences then and ever since. Of course, you may know the play better as Relatively Speaking.
This is the story of how a playwright who had apparently given up playwriting found success writing a play which still resonates today.
Prior to writing Meet My Father, there was no certainty that Alan Ayckbourn would ever write again. In 1964, Alan had had his first taste of the West End when Mr Whatnot opened at the New Arts Theatre starring Ronnie Barker. It was a play the critics savaged with an almost malicious glee and which Bernard Levin described as “the most stomach-heavingly twee, arch, coy and gigglesome concoction that can have ever been seen in the West End.”
Obviously upset by the experience and with “no thought of writing again – certainly not for London or the stage”, Alan took a job at the BBC in Leeds working as a radio drama producer.
“Stephen asked me simply for a play which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies. This seems to me as worthwhile a reason for writing a play as any.”
Alan accepted the commission and began work on his seventh play, Meet My Mother. This initially involved little more than lying to Stephen about how little progress he was making, for it was eight months before Alan actually put pen to paper. Even the title was an impromptu creation plucked from thin air to satisfy Stephen’s need to have details for the summer brochure.
Stephen altered the title to Meet My Father as he thought it looked better in the brochure. Alan said he didn’t mind, not revealing it made little difference to a blank manuscript.
With rehearsal deadlines eventually looming, Alan retreated to a cottage in Collingham with his family. There he attempted to create “a piece that was, if you like, actor-proof. A play that would have a mechanism in it that would need only the slightest of pushes to make it work.”
As he began writing on the first night, a muse appeared in the most unexpected place. “At 2am, there was a rattling on the patio doors and there was a big ginger face there, belonging to a cat named Pamela. I put my notepad on top her while I wrote.” Pamela, a neighbour’s pet, obviously didn’t mind and “sat unmoved as I tried out sections of newly written dialogue in her direction.”
Having practically written the play overnight in a “sheer frenzy”, Alan was not terribly happy with the result and considered it “easy and glib. In fact I was rather ashamed of it.” The script went off to Stephen Joseph and Alan did not look at it again until the first night of Meet My Father at the Library Theatre on 8 July 1965.
The production was directed by Stephen who considered it “a very funny play”, although that didn’t stop him making a substantial number of alterations. “Characteristically,” remembered Alan. “He just tore the middle pages out at random. Despite this, it seemed to work.”
Was Alan exaggerating? In 2006, a copy of Stephen’s long-lost edit came to light. Within it, page after page scored out by thick black lines. That there was anything left to perform is just as miraculous as the fact it worked on stage!
The producer Peter Bridge immediately optioned the play for London but still sore from his experiences with Mr Whatnot and to this day still waiting for the previous play Standing Room Only to appear in London, Alan did not have high hopes. The title was the first thing he was told to change so Meet My Mother which had become Meet My Father became Taken For Granted, briefly becoming Father’s Day before emerging as Relatively Speaking.
Nigel Patrick was appointed as director and immediately announced that the first scene needed changing; not least the action had to be moved to the afternoon. Apparently the audience would not be prepared for an unmarried young couple to wake up together in the morning, but it would be acceptable for them to do so in the afternoon. Such was the ’60s.
Alan continued to refine the play while casting began and immediately bagged a bona fide rising star in Richard Briers who adored the play. Celia Johnson, the popular star of the film Brief Encounter, was another casting coup soon to be joined by Michael Hordern and Jennifer Hilary.
The revised play, now two rather than three acts, was premiered in a pre-West End try-out tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. It would visit Edinburgh, Sheffield, Oxford, Leeds and Liverpool before arriving in London.
The play made headlines early in the tour, but largely due to Jennifer Hilary’s legs. On its opening night, Nigel Patrick decided the hemline on her dressing gown was too high. Demanding an extra button be sewn on, he memorably said: “Don’t let the audience see too much of your legs or they’ll miss half the dialogue.” Obviously the leaked story gave the play a fine plug and a number of newspapers a chance to print photographs of the said legs.
Even at this stage, the play was not finished. During the tour Alan was approached by Tom Erhardt, then an employee of Peter Bridge and later Alan’s agent, who suggested the play should end – as it began – with the slippers. Never entirely happy with the climax, Alan altered the final scene to put the emphasis back on the largely forgotten slippers. The satisfying twist suggesting Ginny has been having another affair and aggravating Phillip’s doubts about Sheila’s fidelity.
Relatively Speaking opened on 29 March, 1967, at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London, and Alan braced himself for a repeat of his Mr Whatnot experience. Yet the majority of critics fell over themselves to praise the play and the revival of quality comedy at a time when it was considered unfashionable to be writing such things.
Alan literally achieved overnight success as his mother recalled: “Alan took me to see it on the second night and in the interval we went for a drink. As we made our way to the bar, there were dozens of pressmen and photographers who surrounded Alan. He looked back and said, ‘Lolly, I’m sorry,’ and I went back to my seat to wait for him. When he came back, I said, ‘It was wonderful, wasn’t it?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’m still laughing. I can’t believe it!’”
The reviews were ecstatic and Relatively Speaking played to packed houses. It even found fans amongst distinguished fellow writers. On 2 May, a telegram arrived at the BBC purporting to be from Noël Coward. Alan was convinced it was a hoax though as there was 14 shillings (70p) to pay for postage! The telegram was crumpled up and thrown away, but fortunately later retrieved for posterity.
As a result of the success of Relatively Speaking, his next play was eagerly awaited. When How The Other Half Loves opened in London in 1970, it was if anything an even greater success and began what can only be described as the ‘Ayckbourn Phenomena’.
Meanwhile, Relatively Speaking became the first of Alan’s plays to be published and was soon being produced extensively at home and abroad. Since 1967, the play has been adapted twice for television in the UK, the BBC also adapted it for the radio and it’s been produced twice in the West End.
Alan would direct it for the first time in 1970 for an amateur production for Leeds Art Theatre at Leeds Civic Theatre. He would later direct it professionally for the first time with its 1977 revival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round as well as directing a production marking the 40th anniversary of opening in the West End at the Stephen Joseph Theatre during 2007.
Fifty-five years on, it’s still incredibly popular. Were it not for the Covid-19 crisis, the play would have transferred to the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, from the Mill at Sonning during the Spring. It is performed by both professional and amateur companies around the world and is one of Alan’s perennially popular plays.
Which the playwright appreciates despite being wary of its huge success. And whilst fond of the play, he admits to despairing it when some people still hold it up as a quintessential Ayckbourn play.
“I tend to wince even now when people say – seventy-seven plays later – that this is still the best thing I’ve written!”
You can find out more about Relatively Speaking at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.