With such a long career behind him, it would be very surprising if the playwright did not admit to some mistakes along the way.
Perhaps one of Alan’s most notorious regrets was his decision to allow the film director Michael Winner to adapt his popular and award-wining play A Chorus of Disapproval into a film.
With hindsight, it is was misjudged and misguided on practically every level and the resulting film, which bears only a desultory similarity to the play, stands as testament to that fact.
The film premiered in New York on 18 August 1989 and to mark this ignominious anniversary, I’ve written an in-depth look at what led to the film being made, drawing from the Ayckbourn Archive held at the Borthwick Institute For Archives at the University of York.
Utter Disapproval: A Chorus of Disapproval From Stage to Screen by Simon Murgatroyd
“I’m quite pleased with the result and I think, whatever else, it satisfies my determination to remain to some degree theatrically exciting. The stage plays of mine that seem to me most successful are the ones that really couldn’t be done as well in another medium, whether it’s TV or film.”
Alan Ayckbourn’s thoughts on his play A Chorus Of Disapproval in the immediate aftermath of writing it.
Alan Ayckbourn’s passion for film is well documented and it is something which he has frequently cited as informing his playwriting. Despite this, Alan works solely in the theatre. He writes plays, not screenplays, and has shunned the opportunity to work in film and television. He also has a strong conviction that his plays do not adapt well into other mediums; which given the varying quality of the screen adaptations of his work is a fair point. Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are intended for the theatre and despite their often cinematic feel, generally do not transfer well to the screen.
The pitfalls of adapting Alan’s plays to film are exemplified by A Chorus Of Disapproval. Directed by the late Michael Winner and released in 1989, the film may have its own merits but taken objectively as an adaptation of one of Alan’s most successful plays, it is a failure which manages to neither capture the spirit, tone or intention of the original play emerging instead as little more than a contrived English sex comedy. Which is not something that could really ever be applied to the original play.
Alan’s views on filmed adaptations of his plays were quite set by the time he wrote A Chorus Of Disapproval. By 1988, there had been 11 television versions of full-length Ayckbourn plays and although the majority were well-cast and well-intentioned, few could be considered completely successful adaptations of the plays. Alan has always been hands-off with the screen adaptations of his plays, having very little involvement except to generally argue the plays should retain their original length, the texts should not be cut and that strong casts, not star names, were vital to making the plays work. All these issues would raise their heads on the first film adaptation of an Ayckbourn play.
That film was A Chorus Of Disapproval and it was directed by Michael Winner. His interest in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays can be traced back to 1974 when he took the actor Burt Lancaster to see Alan’s play Absurd Person Singular at the Criterion Theatre in London. Winner had just released the action-thriller Scorpio, starring Lancaster, which exemplified Winner’s work throughout the ‘70s as a purveyor of violent and slick thrillers including his most famous film, Death Wish. Winner had first come to notice as a film-maker in the early ‘60s with films such as West 11 and The System, which were rooted in working-class Britain and the alienated youth of the day. It was only after the success of the Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais World War II comedy Hannibal Brooks that Winner was lured to Hollywood and a less cerebral form of film-making. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s he would largely abandon the urban-realism of the ‘60s for popular and violent action vehicles such as the Death Wish series and Dirty Weekend.
In October 1974, Winner wrote to Alan expressing delight at Absurd Person Singular and suggested the pair might have an opportunity to work together at some point in the future: “I really thought the writing was exceptional. It makes me very keen indeed to see if we could not find some film venture that we could work on in a manner that suits you,” wrote Winner. Alan replied that he would be delighted to meet the director for lunch at some point, but did not believe there would be much hope for a project together. “The point is, I think of myself primarily as a theatre writer. Theatre does, at present, and hopefully always will, provide me with the mainspring for my work. I tend to regard film or even TV with a certain apprehension probably because although I enjoy both as a spectator, I don’t know a lot about them. Nor am I used to thinking in filmic terms. My best and practically my only ideas seem to revolve round essentially theatrical notions.” They would not get to share that lunch for more than a decade.
In 1984, A Chorus Of Disapproval premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, and the following year opened at the National Theatre, London, where it was a tremendous success for the playwright. Michael Winner saw the production and immediately contacted Alan about how much he had enjoyed the play and his interest in adapting it for film.
Although much of the correspondence has been lost, a later letter indicates Winner was nothing if not persistent in his pursuit of the play and it was this enthusiasm which convinced Alan to meet the director for lunch to discuss the play and a possible adaptation. The lunch led to an agreement that Winner would direct a film but with certain provisos such as Alan having approval of the casting. In a letter to his agent, Margaret Ramsay (better known as Peggy), Alan confirms his lack of enthusiasm about the idea of a film noting: “It could be OK as a movie” and had a “better than even chance” at success.
The rights to make the film were sold to Winner for $100,000, apparently financed by Winner himself, which Peggy considered an absolute bargain when she confirmed the deal with the director, writing: “As you know we sold it at a rock-bottom price and it is worth far, far more than what we sold it for. We have had amazed reactions from everyone, not least the National Theatre, who think we ‘gave’ it away. Now both Alan I feel justified in accepting your offer, based on your splendid enthusiasm and your wanting Alan to be as involved as is humanly possible.” Peggy was renowned for her brashness and passionately looking after the interests of her clients and her candid correspondence with Winner seems uncomfortable from the start; which was reflected in Alan’s own correspondence with Winner.
The contract assigning the rights was signed on 28 May 1986 and Winner immediately began work on the script. He hoped Alan might adapt it, but Alan was unconvinced and not particularly interested, so Winner turned to the playwright Nick Darke instead, possibly at the behest of Peggy. Winner and Alan met again on 26 June to discuss the script and Winner sent the notes of the meeting – which included a heavily altered ending to the film – to Darke to incorporate into his adaptation; although Winner was already indicating he would probably end up writing most of the adaptation. Darke subsequently contacted Alan with his thoughts and notes on the film, which did little to reassure Alan.
“The notes from Nick Darke had a suitably depressing effect. I suspect you sent them to me in order to stampede me into taking over the screenplay.” So began a three page letter to Winner which communicates very clearly Alan’s belief the play was already being lost in the direction Winner intended to take – and ultimately would clearly take – towards a sex-driven farce. Alan notes the play, in his mind, best resembles The Government Inspector and proceeds to give a blow-by-blow account of what the play is about and what it definitely isn’t about. The letter ends with an essential question: “Most important – and I really should have asked you this first – why did you want to film it, anyway? What’s a film going to do to improve it? Or add to it? That sixty-four more stage productions wouldn’t?”
Winner’s response was consolatory if non-committal suggesting he wanted to make “that play into a film with as little change as possible”, but the next paragraph effectively negated this by noting, “Change there has to be because in order to get down to film length there has to be shortening, and in order to get down to film style there has to be more scenes.” Whilst it was again suggested Alan might adapt the script himself, by mid-August it was confirmed that Winner would write the final screenplay, with Alan believing this was probably the best course of action. “I do think it’s better that you do it, anyway. Yours, after all, was the initial enthusiasm and most other screen writers are going to approach it, as Nick has done, by trying to justify it as a film by ‘improving’ the original.”
Winner’s first draft is dated 11 September 1986 and was sent to Alan just as he had begun his two year sabbatical from Scarborough at the National Theatre as a company director. Alan’s most crucial concern was a fear Winner would dilute the relationships with the lead character Guy, who has two simultaneous affairs in the play both very different in nature. Guy is in love with one married woman, Hannah, and also has a purely sexual relationship with another married woman, Fay. In the film-script, both relationships were evidently sexual with Alan noting that “all these suggestions of bed scenes seem strangely at odds with their [Guy and Hannah’s] relationship as I see it. I think the whole point about it is they don’t ever get down to it.”
Winner’s response is interesting as it was probably a motivating factor in Alan’s growing dissatisfaction with all that was to follow. Although Winner agreed with the majority of Alan’s points, he completely disagreed with Alan’s view of the relationship between Guy and Hannah, insisting Alan’s thoughts were “absolutely at odds” with – incredibly – what he perceived as having been written. He writes at length about why he believes Guy and Hannah’s relationship to be sexual and asks Alan to consider writing a scene in which the pair consummate their love – despite the fact he must have known Alan would refuse given he had conceived the relationship as non-sexual. The playwright and the screenplay writer were clearly at odds.
Less than two months later, Alan wrote to Peggy admitting he now had huge regrets about the film project. Although admitting Winner’s current draft of the screenplay was acceptable, the director pushed for new dialogue from Alan for some of the new scenes. Concentrating as he was on his work at the National, he wrote to Peggy, “I find Chorus and the idea of re-writing or even re-reading it extremely boring.” More crucially though, he states “the whole idea of working in film fills me with sudden dread” and that he honestly has no desire to work in film. Convinced that all he and Winner are doing is “trying to devise ways to make it work as a film,” Alan devastatingly ends by saying: “I really wish I’d been strong enough to say no in the first place” and asks whether he or Peggy should break the news to Winner that he had no desire to write the new dialogue or to have any further substantive involvement in the film.
The result of that decision is unknown, but given the pace at which events had been moving beforehand, it is interesting that the project appears to stall in late 1986 following Alan’s decision to step away from the film. There is a year between archived correspondence before Winner notifies Alan on 7 November 1987, he intends to push on with filming in March / April 1988 in Scarborough and that he has now begun initial casting enquiries. Winner also questions how much Alan wants to be involved in the production and confirms he is now adapting the script alone.
Winner visited Scarborough in December 1987 to scout locations with Alan giving him a short tour of the town. Winner used the opportunity to argue his case for cutting the play substantially so it fell below the two hour mark. No record is kept of Alan’s response, but given he had argued vociferously in the past that television and radio adaptations kept the original running times of his plays, it’s hard to believe he took the suggestion of excising half an hour’s worth of material terribly well.
By January 1988, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons had been signed for the film. It is worth noting that although the film now appears to have a formidable British cast, this was not necessarily true at the time. Although Hopkins had been in several notable movies, he was hardly a house-hold name in film and was three years from his Oscar-winning performance as Hannibal Lector in Silence Of The Lambs in 1991. Similarly Jeremy Irons was hardly a huge box office draw and was largely known for the TV series Brideshead Revisited and The French Lieutenant’s Woman; again his Best Actor Oscar was several years away with Reversal Of Fortune in 1990. The rest of the cast, although familiar to British audiences, would have largely been unknown to an international audience.
Winner also raised the question of how the film should be credited with the belief that Alan’s name should go before his own. Given Alan’s previous feelings and how increasingly little of his original play was actually being used in the film, it is hard to judge whether this was an honest offer or just a means of helping promote the film by making sure Alan’s name was in a prominent position.
The movie was officially announced in February 1988 and a press conference followed later that month in Scarborough, while Winner was still scouting for locations. He made it clear this was a low budget movie which was relying on good-will: “I’m doing this for nothing and all the actors and actresses are taking much less than their normal money.” An article in the Yorkshire Evening Press also indicates the police were called on at least one occasion while Winner was scouting locations after he trespassed in a local hotel. Winner himself also did not seem certain of the film implying the chances of success were “iffy” and that “Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are not natural box office subjects for film. Something which is very good in one medium like the stage is not necessarily good for another like the cinema.” Perhaps the question should again have been asked, why then was he filming it?
No sooner had Winner left Scarborough then he found himself at the centre of some unwanted attention when on Sunday 28 February, the News Of The World ran a centre spread “Michael Winner whipped EastEnders girl and used her as love slave” which led to the rather unlikely entry in Winner’s autobiography: “My fear that I would be alienated by right-thinking society proved unfounded when I walked around Scarborough looking for locations for my movie A Chorus Of Disapproval. Women would stick their heads out of windows and say, ‘Hello, Michael. You can come up and whip me any time.'”
Following two years of pre-production, filming eventually began in Scarborough on April 11 1988 and was scheduled for six weeks with fifteen weeks for post-production and a budget of £1.5m. Although the attentions of a film crew were welcomed by the town’s council, the Scarborough Evening News reporting a number of traders around the town were upset at how business had been negatively affected by the demands of the film crew.
All of this was missed by Alan, who within days of filming starting had taken off on a holiday to the Virgin Islands, absenting himself from Scarborough for the majority of the shoot. In correspondence to Winner, Alan later notes that he only made two extremely brief visits to the production – indicating his disinterest given how close he lived to the location filming.
On 5 May, the Scarborough Evening News announced Winner needed 900 people to fill the Royal Opera House theatre to portray the audience for the production of The Beggar’s Opera in the play. This would lead to accusations of impropriety later when it was announced the extras would not be paid but there would be a bingo game with a winner receiving £500. On the given day of 12 May, an estimated 500 people turned up at the theatre. What now seems slightly surreal is the promised bingo game was called by the then up-and-coming Labour MP and Shadow Energy Spokesman John Prescott, who would go on to become the Deputy Prime-Minister alongside Tony Blair. Mr Prescott, MP for Hull, had been invited to watch filming after Winner had met met him on a train to London. Bingo as a means of remuneration was perhaps not the wisest choice though and led to criticism the extras had not been paid for a day’s work and, even more unlikely, a complaint from the Broadcasting And Entertainment Trades Alliance, who criticised Winner for not using one of its members to run the bingo game, representing as it did the country’s bingo callers.
Renowned for the speed of his shooting and for bringing all his films in on time and on budget, Winner and his cinematographer Alan Jones on one day managed 53 set-ups, breaking his personal record of 52 on previous films. Shooting wrapped on time and Winner immediately began to edit the film under the pseudonym of Arnold Crust. By late June, he had assembled a rough cut of the film which Alan saw in London, Alan noting Anthony Hopkins was too “malevolent” and that the reaction shots needed shortening. Soon after and with his eyes on the future, Winner wrote to Peggy asking for the rights to film Alan’s recent play A Small Family Business, which had been a huge success for the National Theatre since opening in 1987. Winner offered $200,000 for the rights and 3% of the profits. Alan was non-committal but patently had no intention of selling the film-rights.
Alan saw a further rough edit of A Chorus of Disapproval in August and at this point he began to express disquiet with Winner’s version and wondered whether films “can say what my plays say, given the way that my plays try to say them.” Perhaps more damning though is what he believed had been lost from the play both specifically and generally, including one of the plays’ most famous scenes where Dafydd ap Llewellyn rages against the arts in the UK. More generally, he felt Winner had lost how English people “use amateur dramatics for their ends. All – company, power, sex, escapism – seem to have got a bit blurred. Well, apart from the sex.” Alan’s feelings about the film were also presumably about to have an effect; Winner notified Alan the Writers Guild had agreed to the credit ‘Screenplay by Alan Ayckbourn and Michael Winner’ and that he intended to have the main title on screen as Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval. Alan’s reaction to this is unrecorded in archive, but it is telling that the final film and posters do not bear his name above the title.
A Chorus of Disapproval’s premiere was arranged for North America on 18 August 1989 and as that date approached, the publicity machine began to kick in. At which point, it became obvious that Alan wished to distance himself from the movie. An interview in the August issue of 20/20 saw Alan note “it’s not really my play any more.” Winner immediately seized upon this and wrote accusing him of “knocking the film madly.” Alan denied he had knocked it and to take it in context: “I said it wasn’t as good as the play – but then as Miss Rice Davies put it, ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I?’ Otherwise, I’ve been wasting the last 30 years of my life.”
In August, Alan wrote to Winner saying he would not be attending the Royal premiere of the movie. Expressing regret that he agreed to the movie, Alan apologetically noted: “I know this may be construed as indirectly knocking the film – which I don’t intend it to be at all. But the fact is that I’m not happy with the result.” Alan would later confirm that he was unable to attend due to the premiere clashing with the writing period for his new play.
The movie premiered in New York at the Paris Theatre, followed by a screening at the Music Hall Theatre in Los Angeles on 1 September 1989. The American release was limited and largely confined to the American Art House circuit. The reaction was not positive with the New York Times critic Vincent Canby being particularly vitriolic: “A Chorus Of Disapproval is virtually a textbook demonstration of how to take a good, very theatrical comedy and transform it into a laughless movie mess without junking the funny lines, characters and situations…. Mr Winner is a man of few doubts. He stands by his mistakes and, whenever possible, he repeats them.” The movie failed to chart in America and took a total of just $216,373 in the USA. It is very hard to offer a comparison to this but the most obvious is the release of Shirley Valentine in October 1989. Based on Willy Russell’s play, this grossed more than $6m in America. To put this all into perspective though, there was obviously a market for a good British comedy as the previous year had seen A Fish Called Wanda take more than $63 million dollars in America alone.
A Chorus Of Disapproval had a Royal premiere in the UK at the Curzon West End on 19 October 1989 attended by the Duchess of York with proceeds going to the Newspaper Benevolent Fund and the London Hospital Children’s Unit. Although Alan did not attend this, he did attend the regional premiere of the movie in Scarborough at the Royal Opera House, on 28 October.
Reviews of the film were very mixed and although Michael Winner asserts in his autobiography: “critics on the whole loved the movie”, this patently wasn’t the case. The critics were largely taken by the cast, but most admitted the movie itself was flawed – particularly those who had seen the original play. The difference of opinion can be seen at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here with a newspaper advert for the film loaded with positive remarks from the critics; next to the advert are the actual quotes as published. The movie opened on general release in the UK on 3 November and was released on video in August 1991 with a region 2 DVD release in 2007.
As for the playwright himself, in 2014 he told the BBC he “thoroughly hated” the film and that Michael Winner handled the material with all “the delicacy of Mike Tyson.”
As the first film adaptation of an Ayckbourn play, A Chorus Of Disapproval is always going to be of interest, but it is hard to judge it favourably if viewed in terms of Alan’s play. It’s not enough to ask whether A Chorus Of Disapproval is an enjoyable film or not – and that decision ultimately is for the viewer to decide. The real question of its worth is does the movie reflect and do justice to the play
Perhaps the best guide to this is how much of Alan’s script survives. You can get a real impression from the running times: the film runs for 99 minutes and the play on average ran for approximately 140 minutes (without interval) during Alan’s own 2004 revival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. But this doesn’t reveal the true picture because Winner added some of his own material. Just how little of Alan’s original script survived intact was revealed by Michael Winner himself, who in May 1988 said: “In the present script, of actual new words about three percent are mine, ideas for new scenes a little more. What we’ve probably done is cut about half of the original [script] and then added.”
It’s fair to say that cutting half of any play-script is going to have a substantive impact on the material. The plot may practically follow the same route (or at least head in the same general direction), but removing that much material can leave nothing but superficialities. It is not realistic to expect it can in any way accurately reflect Alan Ayckbourn’s intentions from the play.
Alan Ayckbourn once said the film was not his play, but Michael Winner’s view of his play. Which is a fair comment. The film is Michael Winner’s A Chorus Of Disapproval, there’s very little persuasive argument – particularly after viewing – that it can be considered Alan Ayckbourn’s play.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.