Ayckbourn At The BBC

On 26 November 1964, The Stage newspaper ran a short article announcing that the playwright and actor Alan Ayckbourn has taken a post as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC, based in Leeds.

Alan worked at the BBC from 1965 to 1970 and it had a significant impact on his life & work, not least in meeting Alfred Bradley; a renowned radio producer who was a much admired and respected drama producer, whose passion for encouraging new writing and writers saw him inspire many leading Northern writers of the time.

The blog today has extracts from two interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about his radio experiences. The first is by Ian Watson and drawn from his book, Conversations with Ayckbourn – the first serious mass-market book to look at Alan’s life and career. The second interview is an extract from an interview with Alan Yentob for the BBC series Imagine for a 2011 special on Alan.

Alan Ayckbourn (left) and Alfred Bradley (right) (© TBC)

Conversations with Ayckbourn by Ian Watson

Ian Watson: Did radio never appeal to you as a medium?

Alan Ayckbourn: No. Frankly, I didn’t know what the job was when I applied to join the BBC [in 1964]. I thought I was going to be sorting out Alfred Bradley’s filing. But it seemed quite a good way to pass a little bit of time while I thought about what to do after Mr Whatnot [the play flopped in London in 1964 and Alan considered giving up his playwriting career]. When I got there I found that, far from sorting out Alfred’s filing, I was going to be doing my own programmes and running with a great deal more responsibility than I’d had in the theatre. I think the single most important thing it gave me was the moment when, with a little bit of guidance from knowledgeable secretaries and other people, I was actually going to put a whole show together. I was to book the artists, book the studio, and do all that sort of business: it was almost like a finishing school.
Radio itself, I must say, I went into without enormous enthusiasm, although I’d been a great listener as a child. But once in, I found it was a magic place. At that particular point in the history of the BBC, it was such a backwater (television was the place) that you could work totally unobserved doing the most interesting things. It did two things: it gave me a great opportunity to do far more plays – I did more plays in a year than I’d done in ten years in the theatre – and it also foisted upon me the occasional plays that I didn’t want to do, which, of course, in the theatre you can generally avoid because you don’t accept them. And it’s quite good occasionally to do a play you don’t want to do. You actually have to learn a little bit of technique: you’ve got to keep the actors going, just for the length of the play. They know it’s bad, you know it’s bad, but if you ever admit it, it’s gone. And some of my best work was done on those things.

Watson: It wasn’t at that stage as technical a medium as it is now, in so far as it wasn’t stereo, was it? It was purely monaural. Did you feel that you explored the medium as a medium?

Ayckbourn: Oh, yes, very much, because I was fascinated by sound. I had, of course, with Mr Whatnot, been a tape-recorder freak. There was some wonderful equipment there and we had great fun with the gear.

Watson: But you never felt moved to write for radio yourself?

Ayckbourn: No. I think I was dealing so actively all day with writers that I felt it would almost be cheating to write my own plays for radio. And I also wasn’t actually very inspired to do so. I did try one script, which I sent to Colin Shaw (the Head of North Region) when I’d just joined, but he wasn’t very keen, and I wasn’t very keen on it either, so I gave it up.

Watson: Since leaving, the medium hasn’t attracted you at all?

Ayckbourn: No. It’s a narrative medium, it’s a different sort of medium, it’s not mine. I’m really too basically a visual writer for that.

Imagine by Alan Yentob

Alan Yentob: You also had a longish diversion into radio didn’t you?

Alan Ayckbourn: Five years as a Radio drama producer. That was a learning curve. Another one of my guardian uncle figures: this was a man called Alfred Bradley, who was single-handedly producing a great wave of Northern writing and he was swamped by local writers all from the north sending in their plays. He needed someone to help and he persuaded the BBC to create a special post which was another producer. At one point, I arrived just as dumped these forty-six scripts on my desk and just said, ‘read those. And anything you think worth doing, do them.’ So I sorted them out and I started producing well before anyone had shown me anything about how to produce radio plays! The BBC always rather shuts the door after you’ve gone through it, so in my first yeat there I produced, I think it was 51 plays, one a week!

Yentob: Wow!

Ayckbourn: My secretary and I were on our knees by the end because we were booking actors and recording them and then editing them! But it was a learning curve and incredible. So by the time they sent me on a course, on the first day, they said, ‘Well to introduce you to radio drama, those of you who don’t know it, we’re going to play you some of the output for the week and we’d like you to comment on it and discuss it.’ And I sat there, listening and they said, ‘Alan, any comments?’ And I said, ‘no, not really as three of them are mine. I produced them!’ So they said, ‘Ah, passing straight on…’

Yentob: All you want to do on those occasions is break the rules, basically, don’t you?

Ayckbourn: Yes. Well in fact, bless them, they were teaching and things do move technologically quite fast and even in those days, suddenly tape was coming in and the old recordings on wax discs was going out. This obviously altered the entire technology and they had the freedom to record with the flexibility and comparative cheapness of tape.

Yentob: And how were you with the old razor-blade?

Ayckbourn: Oh, I was pretty good, beause I’d started under Stephen Joseph. I could splice, but I had a studio manager who could leave me standing he was so fast. But at least I knew enough about it and by then had the freedom of being (a) in a region and (b) in radio when everybody in the BBC was turning their attention to television, which was the new toy with everybody scrambling to get there. I was in the backwater of radio, so as a result, artistically one had an enormous freedom. Alfred had cornered it and very sensibly since he couldn’t be promoted upwards – only horizontally – he stayed a radio drama producer until he finished.

Yentob: Alfred Bradley was an inspirational figure, a kind of critical figure really in the development of radio drama, as you say, with a remarkable list of names, who he discovered.

Ayckbourn: He was a man who had a genuine joy in fostering talent. And be it the writing, or in my case, directing, he’d just say, ‘go for it, go for it, go on!’ and then he’d sit there looking proud as a mum.

Extract from Ian Watson’s Conversations With Ayckbourn, published by Faber in 1988 (second edition). Although no longer in print, it is available through second-hand book dealers here.

With thanks to Alan Yentob and the BBC for allowing Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website to reproduce material from the Imagine documentary.

Please do not reproduce these articles without permission of the copyright holders.

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