Season’s Greetings: The Play That Nearly Wasn’t

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Season’s Greetings at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.

But did you know that Season’s Greetings was not the play Alan Ayckbourn intended to write? Despite becoming a perennial classic of the Ayckbourn play canon, Season’s Greetings was a last minute replacement for his original advertised play.

The poster for the world premiere of Season’s Greetings in 1980 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The play which should have been celebrating its 40th birthday was a thriller called Sight Unseen. We know this as on 25 July 1980, the Evening Standard newspaper reported Alan’s new play had a title – Sight Unseen – and the idea for it was formulating in the playwright’s mind.

“I’ve a glimmer of an idea at the moment but if I told you the plot it would sound ridiculous,” noted the playwright in the article.

Flash forward a month and Alan was reported to be writing the play by The Stage, the Scarborough Evening News and various other regional newspapers, where a little more detail was revealed by the playwright.

“I’m about to write play 25 and am pacing nervously. It’s called, somewhat fittingly, Sight Unseen. Assuming I finish that, I shall have it rehearsed and into repertoire by the end of September.”

The Scarborough Evening News report on Sight Unseen from 25 August 1980 (© The Scarborough News)

The various articles announce the play as part of the theatre’s winter season and that it would be his first thriller. Although the press officer, Stephen Wood, admitted the theatre knew little more about the play than its title, it was rumoured to be a whodunnit with a typical Ayckbourn twist – the murderer would alter each night.

In context, this was at the point where Alan Ayckbourn was still writing plays to the latest possible deadline – generally the day before rehearsals began. This had been his writing method essentially since the 1960s and would persist until approximately 1987.

These newspaper articles were published between 23 and 26 August with Sight Unseen announced to open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round on 24 September; at this point the theatre generally had a three-week rehearsal period which was scheduled to begin on 3 September.

We don’t have an exact date, but less than a week after the articles were published, all Alan’s plans had been thrown out of the window. He had quickly encountered difficulties with both his concept and his characters and he realised a drastic alteration was needed.

“It’s wrong to say I was actually into the dialogue stage,” said the playwright. “I was into the construction stage: I was putting up the fences. I then did a volte face and left myself with just two things from the thriller. One was that I set it in a hallway, which I quite liked.”

The company was informed of the change of plan and rehearsals were pushed back a day to accommodate Alan writing a new play – Season’s Greetings. Ironically, on the same day that The Stage newspaper announced details of Alan’s new play being Sight Unseen on 4 September, the playwright was actually holding the first company read-through of Season’s Greetings!

A photograph from the Scarborough Evening News of the cast read-through for Season’s Greetings on 4 September 1980 (© The Scarborough News)

As a result of the slightly delayed rehearsal, the opening night of the new Ayckbourn was pushed back a day to 25 September and the rest, as they say, is history. This hastily penned, late addition to the theatre’s 1980 winter schedule became a huge hit and subsequently went on to become one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most popular and frequently revived plays.

But what of Sight Unseen? What proved soo problematic to the writer that he abandoned it so late in the process? Several years later, the playwright would open up about his experiences and the particular problems facing the play.

“I like thrillers, I really enjoy reading them, and I quite like whodunnit plays. But if you’re going to write a good whodunnit, everyone’s got to have done it, you see; and you then pull away about six motives and leave one there. And then you say: ‘Ah yes, he’s the one who did it, because he was the only one who had the front door key.’ But the point is that I first of all had to write a cast of homicidal maniacs, because they all had to have killed Mr. X. And that was extremely boring. When you’ve got a couple of homicidal maniacs it’s quite fun, but here they were all saying: ‘I really hated him, I’d have killed him if I’d had the chance.’ And I felt there were awful limits in having to prescribe your characters’ behaviours. I’m very used to letting my characters roam around much more freely than that. To have to saddle them with a load of hatred and malice, or even sheer clumsiness, was very hard. And I didn’t want to write a straight whodunnit where we just eliminated it down to one: I wanted to write a whodunnit where any one of them could have done it – to keep it absolutely open. And I came to the conclusion it was rather a boring thing to write.”

Of course, the keen Ayckbourn fans amongst you will know that Alan did actually write a whodunit play with a random ‘killer’ just a few years later with It Could Be Any One Of Us in 1983; although that play had its own fair share of problems too and the playwright would not be happy with it until he revised it in 1996 adding the, you would have thought, rather essential element of an actual murder victim to investigate.

For many years, this was the entire story of Sight Unseen. Advertised and announced but with few solid details about what the play might have been.

And then in 2010, working through some hand-written notes from the period, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist discovered two pages of notes attributed to Season’s Greetings. But which, upon closer inspection, whilst certainly sharing character names familiar from that play, their actions were distinctly not the same.

Neville Bunker’s original fate revealed in Alan Ayckbourn’s notes for Sight Unseen (© The Scarborough News)

The notes include the names of the characters, most of which are familiar from Season’s Greetings: Neville, Belinda, Giles, Jocelyn, Bernard, Veronica, Eddie, Derek and Phyllis, Amidst the short descriptions of several of them is one telling difference though: ‘Neville Bunker – victim, 45.’

At some point, early in the planned play Neville is killed and from there it would evolve into a whodunnit with five possible suspects: Neville’s wife Belinda (named both Belinda and Melinda on the page), his sister Phyllis, his younger brother Derek, his older brother Bernard and his wife, Veronica.

The notes also provided the motives for each of them killing Neville – although the playwright’s hand-writing makes it difficult to precisely read the intentions of Phyllis.

○ Melinda [sic] kills Nev to free her

○ Derek kills Nev to free her [presumably Belinda / Melinda]

○ Bernard kills Nev to avoid family break-up

○ Veronica kills Nev to avoid family break-up

○ Phyllis [tries] to kill Belinda, [but] she [kills] Nev, her brother

More notes about Sight Unseen from the Ayckbourn Archive (© Haydonning Ltd)

These notes were proof that there was more to Sight Unseen than previously thought and that it was a completely different play to both Season’s Greetings and his later play It Could Be Any One Of Us, which only utilised the idea of a random killer but no other plot points.

These fascinating notes are now held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York and form an intriguing part of the history of Season’s Greetings.

And what of Season’s Greetings, what survived from Sight Unseen and went into the new play? What has to be remembered is Sight Unseen had not only been cast but the set was also being constructed by the time Alan abandoned the play. So he knew he had to write a play for the same cast and in the same location of a hallway with rooms running from it.

And, of course, he had already essentially created a set of named characters with relationships for Sight Unseen, most of which he would carry through to Season’s Greetings presumably because he had to write the new play so quickly.

It is extraordinary to think, 40 years on, that one of Alan Ayckbourn’s undisputed classics was never planned and so hastily written. That it is still so popular four decades on is testament to Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinary skills as a playwright and story-teller.

You can find out more about Season’s Greetings at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website and Sight Unseen is one of many plays featured in his Archivist’s book Unseen Ayckbourn.

This article is written by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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