Ayckbourn’s Adventures On The Small Screen: Part 1

On 21 July 1967, a play by Alan Ayckbourn was show on television for the first time. It was a recording of the West End production of his breakout hit Relatively Speaking.

To mark the anniversary of this broadcast, I’m looking at how Alan Ayckbourn’s plays have fared on the small screen this week in two articles.

Ayckbourn’s Adventures On The Small Screen

Part 1: 1967 to 1979 By Simon Murgatroyd

It’s 53 years since an Alan Ayckbourn play was first shown on television – and thirty years since the last TV adaptation of an Ayckbourn play for British television.

Over 23 years, there were 19 television adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays which, by and large, proved to be exceptionally popular. Yet, since 1990, there have been no Ayckbourn plays adapted for TV.

The adaptations of Alan’s plays for the small screen are frequently overlooked and generate polarising opinions. Yet for many people, they provided a first experience of a specific Ayckbourn play or of the playwright himself.

There is little doubt this is a mixed blessing though, which Alan himself reflected on in 1979 when considering an adaptation of Bedroom Farce for television.

“I guess the reaction to the TV will be the usual – those of the audience who saw the play in the theatre will be disappointed; those who saw it for the first time on television may enjoy it.”

Alan Ayckbourn in 1975 – possibly reflecting on the quality of the television adaptations of his work… (© To be confirmed)

This has always been an issue with the television versions of Alan’s plays. Given that most of them originally had viewing figures in the millions, the majority of viewers will never have seen the original plays nor can they compare them to the medium they were intended for.

This is problematic as, objectively, no matter what their quality, the television adaptations frequently pay little heed to the author’s intent or sometimes even the original script. But then, Alan has always chosen to play no part in these productions and all plot and script decisions and alterations – for good or invariably bad – are entirely the filmmakers’ own.

Yet, the other side of the coin is television generates far greater exposure for the playwright and plays than any number of successful theatrical productions. But was this actually a good thing?

For although we are now spoilt by the richness of live-streaming and the desire to provide an accurate representation of the theatrical experience, this was rarely the case previously. And it has always particularly irritated Alan Ayckbourn.

Television – prior to streaming and specialist channels – tended to run to neat scheduled slots, theatre does not run to neat slots. The vast majority of plays adapted for television during the 20th century were generally shoe-horned into these slots with questionable thought as to how it might affect the play.

For example, when Granada Television adapted the National Theatre’s production of Bedroom Farce, a stage running time of 135 minutes was cut to 104 minutes. Rarely has any Ayckbourn play adapted for the screen not faced this problem, ranging from losing 20 minutes in each of The Norman Conquests to more than an hour for Way Upstream. Realistically, to lose so much material must have some effect on the play. As Alan has pointed out, if you really can cut a half-an-hour of material from his plays with no effect, then he is not doing his job properly!

Given these limitations, it’s interesting to see how television has chosen to deal with Alan’s plays and how they have fared. In the first article, we’re looking at the period from 1967 to 1979.

The first Ayckbourn play to reach the small screen was Relatively Speaking, appropriately enough given it was his first major theatre success.

There are actually two television productions of Relatively Speaking within two years – sadly, both have been lost and are no longer in Archive at the BBC. The first was shown on BBC1 on 27 July 1967 and was recorded at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, featuring the hit West End production of Relatively Speaking.

A newspaper report for the 1967 adaptation of Relatively Speaking

Given the significance of this production – which starred Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern, Richard Briers and Jennifer Hillary – it’s incredibly sad it has not survived to offer an insight into what Alan’s first West End hit looked like.

It was apparently watched by 2.5m people (far in excess of anything even a successful West End play could hope to reach), but only ran for 50 minutes featuring extracts from the play. Quite how satisfactory a viewing experience it was is debatable, although it probably helped shift a few tickets at the theatre.

This was followed in March 1969 by the first true adaptation of an Ayckbourn play for television, again the play being Relatively Speaking. Sadly very little is know about the film other than it starred Celia Johnson again alongside Donald Sinden (who directed the first UK tour of the play) with John Stride and Judy Cornwell playing the younger couple. Alan Ayckbourn recalls that it was notable because such was the age discrepancy between Celia Johnson (61) and Donald Sinden (46), that the majority of their scenes were filmed long-shot so as to preserve the illusion they were of similar ages!

John Stride & Celia Johnson in the 1969 adaptation of Relatively Speaking (© BBC)

The director of the adaptation was Herbert Wise, a noted director who would go on to film The Norman Conquests for television during the 1970s. The production ran for 90 minutes, which probably did a little more justice to the play than its 1967 fore-runner!

The next two small screen outings are very obscure and do not come from the main body of Alan’s work. In December 1972, Alan was featured on the arts magazine programme Full House. This included a performance of Alan’s short one act play Countdown, with Clive Dunn and Sheila Hancock as the Man and Woman.

Countdown is part of the Mixed Doubles collection of plays by various playwrights including Harold Pinter. Again, it is not believed any copy of Countdown has survived for posterity – but given its short length, it seems likely (or at least one would hope so), it might be a rare occasion when an Ayckbourn script was presented unexpurgated on television. Alan himself has vague memories of the production and that it was a note-worthy cast; Hancock would star in the West End premiere of Absurd Person Singular the following year.

This was followed by Alan’s first and final foray into screen-writing with Service Not Included in 1974. Alan had been approached to write a piece by Herbert Wise, specifically for the BBC arts programme Masquerade.

A rare shot from Service Not Included including the playwright’s wife, Heather Stoney, in the background (© BBC)

Alan – with a fair amount of rewrites – produced a screenplay for a half-hour film set around an office party at a hotel. The action loosely follows a waiter as he moves around the party, offering glimpses into the conversations and lives of the attendees.

It’s not a terribly successful production, but the nugget of the idea (a waiter moving between customers) was salvaged and used to far greater effect in the one-act play Between Mouthfuls as part of Confusions.

Service Not Included has survived in the BBC Archives and is of interest largely due to it being Alan’s only foray into screenplays, that it was again directed by Herbert Wise and its large cast included Alan’s now wife Heather Stoney in a mermaid fancy-dress outfit!

We move onto safer and more familiar territory with Time And Time Again in 1974, the first real attempt to attempt to present an Ayckbourn play faithfully on television. The aim was to transfer Eric Thompson’s successful 1972 West End production to the small screen and it managed to keep most of the original cast including Tom Courtenay as Leonard.

A scene from the television adaptation of Time & Time Again (© ATV)

Caspar Wrede directed the piece and was largely involved in pushing the project through. Intriguingly, the original plan (which was, astonishingly, not run past either Alan or his agent) was to cast Michael Gambon as Leonard.

Again, coming as it does prior to the advent of video recorders, this has rarely been seen since its original broadcast and no amount of research has uncovered a complete version within archives.

What is known is that to make it fit its allocated running time of 90 minutes, the final scene was cut! Alan – obviously – felt this had a hugely detrimental effect on the piece and must have left many viewers either unsatisfying or quite confounded!

This was despite the fact Casper Wrede made the strange decision to show the off-stage cricket match. Whilst this may have had a certain comedy value, it does tend to miss the point as the humour in the play comes from leaving Leonard’s sporting ineptness both to the imagination and the observers’ comments. This decision also drew publicity as it featured a credit for Len Muncar as MCC Cricket Advisor – it seems rather over the top to ask someone from Lord’s cricket ground to advise on a few inconsequential cricket scenes!

In 1976, the BBC did consider filming Confusions (with the exception of Between Mouthfuls, ironic given it had been inspired by a screenplay), but negotiations came to nothing. As a result, the next Ayckbourn television project is undoubtedly the most famous.

The Norman Conquests was first broadcast in the UK in 1977, although negotiations to adapt it for both the big and small screen had been taking place since its West End opening in 1974. It is easily the most viewed of Alan’s television plays (combined figures for the trilogy have been put at 30m in the UK and 100m in the USA) and the most well-remembered.

The boardgame scene from Living g Together (© Thames Television)

Despite a stellar cast including Tom Conti, Penelope Keith, Richard Briers and Penelope Wilton, it is not quite the triumph many would have you believe. Its limitations as a very stage-bound adaptation of the trilogy shine through and although it stays close to the original script, Tom Conti gives a credible but rarely memorable performance as Norman.

Far more successful – and rarely noted in discussions about the adaptation – is Penelope Wilton as Annie and David Troughton as a wonderfully awkward Tom. It also benefits considerably from Round & Round The Garden not being studio-bound

Considering the wealth of talent involved, including Herbert Wise returning to Ayckbourn directing duties, it is entirely possible that the production just wasn’t able to reach its full potential as it was seriously affected by a technical strike during filming, which reduced the filming block by half. Given the limitations that must have put on the production, it’s a tribute to all concerned the trilogy is even remotely the quality it achieves.

It is also the only Ayckbourn adaptation which has been easy to obtain – in America it’s been commercially available since the 1980s and it’s been on DVD in the UK since the early 2000s. Sadly, as the second article will discuss, there’s never been any serious motivation to release the TV versions of the plays commercially.

The following year saw Just Between Ourselves filmed to celebrate Yorkshire Television’s first decade of existence. This was heralded as a major television event and featured a strong cast including Richard Briers as Dennis and Stephen Moore as Neil.

A scene from the TV adaptation of Just Between Ourselves (© Yorkshire Television)

Again, there were arguments about the length of the piece (it lost about 15 minutes) but the final product is one that Alan has previously said stands as one of the better film dadaptations of his plays. His only proviso was the original broadcast was almost ruined when the sombre ending finished with a tight close up on the comatose Vera’s face as the credits rolled. The tension then broken by the continuity announcer’s cheerful plug for the rest of the evening’s schedule!

Unfortunately, this is another adaptation that doesn’t appear to have survived. When the BBC was researching the Imagine documentary on Alan Ayckbourn during 2011, they only managed to find one half of the play in archive.

Not to be outdone by Yorkshire Television, BBC North produced a rarely seen Ayckbourn piece in 1979 which is a fascinating document of an actual show. Alan agreed to let the BBC record his first revue Men On Women On Men – created with the composer Paul Todd – with the majority of the original Scarborough cast.

The Scarborough Evening News reports on Men On Women On Men (© The Scarborough News)

The musical revue was recorded in a studio in Leeds, but is to all intents and purposes the live production filmed. It is credited as being directed by Alan (which makes this, rather than By Jeeves, the first time Alan stepped behind the camera). Although slightly abridged, it is a very rare case of a recording of something which approximates the live experience; Alan has almost without exception never allowed live recordings of his own productions.

Men On Women On Men was produced on a shoe-string budget, recorded in black and white (in 1979!) and was probably one of the cheapest stage-to-screen adaptations of Alan’s work. It would be followed by Bedroom Farce in 1980, which went to the other extreme and began a decade which saw some of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous plays recorded for television.

Many of which should probably never have strayed from the stage….

To be continued…

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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