Ayckbourn’s Adventures On The Small Screen – Part 2

Earlier in the week, we marked the anniversary of the first Ayckbourn play to be screened on television in 1967.

Today is actually the anniversary of Just Between Ourselves being broadcast own television in 1978 and, appropriately enough, the concluding part of my exploration of Aslan Ayckbourn’s plays on television.

This article includes, arguably, the golden period of Ayckbourn TV adaptations as well as a couple of truly forgettable adaptions.

Ayckbourn’s Adventures On The Small Screen

Part 2: 1980 – 1989 By Simon Murgatroyd

Between 1969 and 1990, Alan Ayckbourn had 19 plays broadcast on television in the UK. For many people, it would be their first experience of a specific play or even of the playwright himself and Alan himself once noted that television takes in a far wider and varied audience than theatre can ever hope to.

But that does not necessarily mean that plays written for the stage necessarily work on television or that just because they can be adapted for the small screen, they should be.

During the 1980s, a number of Alan’s most famous plays were broadcast and clearly illustrate this argument. For while some did good service to the original play, others are so far removed from the original intent, they bear scant resemblance to what the playwright wrote or intended.

The 1980s began with an attempt to transfer the wildly successful National Theatre production of Bedroom Farce to television. This had been one of the venue’s biggest early hits and had transferred to both the West End and Broadway.

Bedroom Farce was produced by Granada television and directed by Christopher Morahan, who had worked with Alan on the National’s production of Sisterly Feelings. Alan’s main bone of contention (and one which he has had with practically every film) was its running time. The play was allocated a two hour slot including adverts, which actually meant 104 minutes rather than its stage length of 135 minutes. A rather brutal cut to what is inarguably a taut play.

The play retained much of the original cast (with the exception of Michael Gough being replaced by Michael Denison as Ernest). It was a huge ratings success and even led to protracted attempts to create a spin-off television series centring on the adventures of Ernest and Delia!

It was not necessarily a terribly successful adaptation though and illustrated a peculiarity of Alan’s writing. He frequently talks about using cinematic techniques within his plays and Bedroom Farce makes particular use of the cross-cut. However, this is still a theatrical version of the cross-cut which arguably didn’t translate well to the screen. The quick and seamless jumps between bedrooms on the stage was not successfully captured on screen and a lot of the pace was lost (which becomes a problem when you’ve already cut half-an-hour of your running time).

Despite its shortcomings, its ratings success led the Film Institute to screen it at the National Film Theatre in 1998 during the Popular Television Of The ‘70s And ‘80s festival and, if only for the fact it is a version of the hugely successful National Theatre production, it deserves attention.

It would be five years before the next major Ayckbourn screen adaptation. In the meantime, in 1984, Alan was asked to contribute to the English Files education series for a programme about bringing a play to the stage.

Alan wrote a short one act play, A Cut In The Rates, specifically for the documentary which recorded the process from read-through to rehearsal to the first live performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. A fascinating and unique insight into Alan’s working practises; this has rarely been seen since.

Lavinia Bertram & Michael Gough in A Cut In The Rates (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It’s also interesting to note that it featured Michael Cashman prior to finding fame on BBC’s EastEnders and his subsequent extraordinary political career and championing of gay rights. The play was written to take advantage of the props for the venue’s current production of Michael Cashman’s play Before Your Very Eyes and was subsequently published and has become a popular short one-act play for amateur companies, particularly in drama festivals.

1985 saw the first of a trilogy of Ayckbourn adaptations in quick succession, which heralded the best attempt yet to successfully bring Alan’s plays to screen. All were produced by Shaun Sutton for the BBC and directed by Michael Simpson. They featured strong ensemble casts, many of whom had worked previously with Alan. The first was Absurd Person Singular in 1985, which featured Michael Gambon, Maureen Lipman and Geoffrey Palmer. The running time was approximately the same as the play and there were minimal alterations to the playtext.

The cast of Absurd Person Singular (© BBC)

Interestingly – and unusually – the director chose not to expand the plays out from their original setting and remain confined to the kitchens. With clever editing, Simpson ingeniously worked around the limitations of the confined space and avoids it feeling too theatrical. Alan himself reported he was happy with this film.

Given the fact that Michael Gambon has appeared in more West End productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays than any other actor – and is also regarded as one of the great Ayckbourn actors, it is the only chance to see him recorded performing in an Ayckbourn play. Frustratingly for UK viewers, a remastered version of the adaptation has been available to stream in the USA for several years but has never been made available in the UK. The quality of the piece was emphasised when special permission to screen it was given to the Stephen Joseph Theatre for the Ayckbourn Film Festival during 2019.

This was quickly followed by Absent Friends, the best known of this BBC trilogy. It was broadcast in September 1985 and is generally remembered for Julia McKenzie’s extraordinary performance as Diana; her pivotal speech about the Royal Mounted Police is done in one shot with the camera slowly tightening onto her face and remains a very powerful and moving piece of television.

Absent Friends (© BBC)

Running slightly abridged, but not noticeably so, it also remains bound to the living room and also features a nice, understated performance by Tom Courtenay as Colin. The strength of McKenzie’s performance persuaded Alan she was perfect for the West End transfer of Woman In Mind, which she won huge plaudits for.

Again, the film stayed true to the play and remains one of the best adaptations of Alan’s plays which holds up well today, despite a less than stellar performance by Dinsdale Landen as Paul.

Christmas Eve 1986 saw the premiere of Season’s Greetings, which in 2003 was selected by the British Film Institute as one of the best examples of the ‘television play’.

Again Michael Simpson directed a strong ensemble cast in a programme which ran for 110 minutes – again a slight reduction on the stage running time but infinitely better than the original plans for a 90 minute version. Remaining faithful to the play, it completes a strong trilogy of films for the BBC and demonstrated that by staying faithful to the text and the playwright’s intentions, the plays could be adapted successfully for television.

Like the other two plays, Season’s Greetings was blessed by a strong cast including Barbara Flynn as Belinda and Peter Vaughan as Harvey – reprising his acclaimed West End role. Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website receives more requests about this television adaptation than any other. Sadly, when it was repeated one BBC4 during 2011, the viewing figures barely registered a pulse – presumably a reason the BBC has not rushed to repeat any of the other plays since.

The cast of Season’s Greetings (© BBC)

The unlikely success of these three plays – sadly never made available commercially – should have boded well for future productions. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

In 1987, the BBC produced a highly ambitious film of Way Upstream, which even had its première at the London Film Festival. In hindsight, it was probably too ambitious.

The play is infamously set on a cabin cruiser, afloat on a flooded stage, which cruises into near fantasy territory. It is an intensely theatrical creation and part of its inherent appeal is the unlikely experience of watching a boat moving on water on stage, experiencing torrential downpours. It is a coup-de-théâtre.

When filming the play, the obvious decision to use a real boat on a real river was taken. Challenging, no doubt, but the wonder of the piece is instantly lost. Boats on a river you can see everyday, boats on a river on stage not so much.

The director Terry Johnson was obviously dedicated to the piece and put a great deal of thought and effort into transferring the play onto the screen, but as has happened in other Ayckbourn adaptations (the film of A Chorus Of Disapproval being a prime example), at some point it simply ceases to be Alan’s play and becomes a film sharing a plot and characters but not the same intentions. The running time lost an hour to fit a 90 minute slot, the play was cut, dialogue moved and along the way, much of the humour was lost.

Broadcast on 1 January 1988, the play generated a huge amount of attention and strong ratings, but as Alan would later admit, it had become less his play and more Terry Johnson’s view of the play. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but stood side by side, the play and the film bear little resemblance to each other; although the film does have several very effective scenes.

Crucially, the over-riding optimism in the relationship between the protagonists Alistair and Emma and much humour is subsumed in the film by darkness and a quite unexpected level of violence. The intentions were good, but the end-result did not reflect the play.

Which brings us full circle to Relatively Speaking; the first filmed Ayckbourn play is also, as of writing, the final Ayckbourn play to reach British television.* Broadcast in 1989, it saw Shaun Sutton and Michael Simpson back in the picture with a cast featuring Nigel Hawthorne as Philip and Imogen Stubbs as Ginny.

Promotional image for Relatively Speaking (© BBC)

It’s a fair question to ask, other than its popularity, why Relatively Speaking was chosen for television. The play famously manages to stretch credibility – and essentially one joke – to absolute breaking point without snapping. The characters are utterly subservient to the plot – Alan himself has noted it is a play from a period where he concentrated on technique and plotting rather than characters.

This is crucial as Simpson’s previous adaptations were ensemble character pieces and worked well on TV precisely because they concentrated on the characters. Relativity Speaking’s character are wafer-light and do not bear scrutiny. Nor does the plot; if the audience is allowed time to reflect on what’s happening, the game is up. The play barrels along sweeping the audience along, only afterwards might they question what has happened.

The film, despite being in period and its cast, just feels slightly lost and suffers from some strange production decisions. The actors seem uncomfortable and what remains an extremely funny piece of nonsense on stage, just becomes a likeable, but not particularly funny situation comedy on television.

This marked the end of television’s 21 year relationship with Alan Ayckbourn. For whatever reasons – be it the decline of filmed plays on television, a perception for a time of Alan being unfashionable – there have been no television adaptations in the UK since 1989. Ironically, there has been an increasing number of foreign language adaptations of his plays never seen in the UK and Alan’s only major foray into screen-directing was in Canada for a television production of the musical By Jeeves. *

And with the passage of time, memory of the television plays grows dimmer. Only The Norman Conquests has been made available commercially in the UK. There is no sign of any others being released to stream or buy in the foreseeable future or being repeated on television. Why is this?

Perhaps Alan is not considered fashionable or the quality of the productions not seen as high enough or the cost of remastering the tapes too much. More likely, it is a commercial decision by the right’s holders of the plays. For, it has to be emphasised, Alan has no issue in most of these productions being released nor, in many cases, would have any say anyway. One suspects it all boils down to the perception they might not make financial sense for the companies involved.

Which is a shame, for despite their inconsistencies and often poor reflection of the original play, they remain for many people an introduction to Alan’s plays and an indication of the playwright’s popularity that so many of his plays have been adapted for television and received such wide exposure.

If the nature of theatre is transience – which is one of the reasons why Alan Ayckbourn does not allow recordings of his live productions – then in a sense, these TV plays have also achieved this.

Unseen for so long and unlikely to be seen again, they have achieved a transience of their own, surviving only in the memories of those who saw them and perhaps in this, they finally come closer to the plays themselves than was ever managed on screen.

* The Revengers’ Comedies (or Sweet Revenge as it was released) is sometimes regarded as a TV film, but it was actually always intended for cinema release. By Jeeves was actually commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and has never been show on television in the UK.

Simon Murgatroyd, 2020

You can find out more about the television, film and radio recordings of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays in the Encyclopaedia section of the playwright’s official website by clicking here.

You can find the few filmed adaptations of Ayckbourn’s plays which have been released commercially in the Ayckbourn Store here.

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

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