Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations

Did you know that on 11 November 1987, Alan Ayckbourn’s popular play for children Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations was first shown on television?

This rarely seen adaptation was adapted by the BBC and screened several times over the following couple of years. To mark the anniversary of this, here’s a quick look at Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations.

A Brief Guide to Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations by Simon Murgatroyd

Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations was Alan Ayckbourn’s first success as a writer for a younger audience and has proved to be astonishingly long-lived; it is currently considered the most performed of all of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays!

The short play, conceived with performance by schools in mind, was written in 1969 and continues to be popular to this day. Whilst Alan’s writing for children and young people is now an accepted and extensive part of his playwriting canon, in 1969 he had only had negative experiences writing in this area.

His first two plays aimed at family audiences were Dad’s Tale (1961) and Christmas V Mastermind (1962). Both were, it would be fair to say, disasters. Each has just had one production and have never been subsequently produced again – both have been long withdrawn by the playwright. Following their failures, Alan vowed never to write for children again as he felt it wasn’t something he was capable off doing successfully.

Then, in 1969, whilst working for the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer, Alan was approached to contribute a play for a publication containing new plays for children. Despite his previous experiences, correspondence held in the Ayckbourn Archive in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York reveals what enticed him to try his hand again at writing for a young audience.

Cover for the original publication of Ernie’s Incredible Illucaintions (© Hutchinson Educational)

“The idea to write this play came about firstly because I was asked by Alan Durband, who was collecting a number of short plays for children for publication in a book he had been commissioned to do. He wrote, amongst a number of other playwrights, to me to ask if I’d be interested. I’d done very little writing for younger children but decided to have a go and Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations was the result. I tried to write a play which a large class of children could perform – a play that everyone could take part in. I also wanted to write something that would draw on the imagination of children and cause them possibly to explore other ‘Ernie’ situations of their own.”

Intriguingly, it is notably one of the few plays that Alan Ayckbourn has written that he has neither directed nor performed in and it marks the only time that Alan Ayckbourn has professionally written a play without a specific performance space or venue in mind.

The plot is very simple and concerns Ernie being taken to see a doctor by his parents, who are concerned about their sons hallucinations – or ‘illucinations’ as Ernie has it. The introduction to its publication describing it thus:

Alan Ayckbourn’s Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations is a bright comedy based on the extraordinary powers of Ernie Fraser, a day-dreamer with a difference. Like all schoolboys Ernie has a vivid imagination, but Ernie’s thoughts have a disturbing habit of turning into reality. After a number of embarrassing episodes, Ernie’s parents decide to consult a doctor, who is sceptical. Several of Ernie’s adventures arc acted out for us in flashback, but when Ernie fails to produce a Brass Band on demand, the doctor diagnoses group hallucination and recommends a visit to a specialist. However, ‘Ernie’s incredible illucinations’ aren’t to bc dismissed quite so lightly, as you will see…

The play was published in Playbill One by Hutchinson Educational during 1969 alongside plays by David Cregan, David Campton, Donald Howarth and Beverley Cross and would go on to be published in a number of different publications over subsequent years including as a single playtext by Samuel French.

The play was immediately picked up for performance in schools and apparently the playwright’s own sons appeared in an early production of the play. It has consistently been performed in schools since that day and Alan has often recalled that he has had three generations of families talk about performing in the play! The first professional production took place in 1971 when the Unicorn Theatre For Children produced the play at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End; it has subsequently been produced by professional and amateur companies on numerous occasions.

In 2013, the publishers Samuel French announced that between 1996 and 2013, it was the single most produced Ayckbourn play of that period. Research since indicates that it is highly likely to be the single most performed of all Alan Ayckbourn’s plays.

The teacher’s guide for Listening and Writing which included Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations (© BBC)

Intriguingly, the play was part of BBC Radio For Schools’ Listening and Writing programme and the text is reproduced within the Spring 1974 teacher’s guide. Research suggests it was recorded as a radio play and broadcast on 25 January 1974 on BBC Radio 4 VHF at 11.20am. Sadly, no other information has been discovered and no further details or confirmation of this broadcast have been discovered.

The play was definitely adapted fo television though by the BBC and broadcast on BBC1 on 11 November 1987. Directed by Colin Cant, it starred Anthony Flynn as Ernie with Melanie Kilburn and Tim Barker as his Mum and Dad. It has been screened at least three times by the BBC but sadly has never been released commercially or made available elsewhere.

Alan Ayckbourn has frequently said he is very fond of the piece and has always been amazed by its success and longevity. It has proved consistently popular with schools from the 1970s through to the present day and it us undoubtedly a stepping stone in the playwright’s realisation that he was capable of writing successfully for young people.

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

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