On 7 December 1975, Alan Ayckbourn’s famed The Norman Conquests trilogy made its Broadway debut at the Morosco Theater.
To mark this anniversary, I’ve dug up an article Alan Ayckbourn wrote for the 40th anniversary of the trilogy’s world premiere in 2013, where he offers some facts you may or may not know about the award-winning trilogy which has been performed around the world.
40 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About The Norman Conquests
(though some of them you probably may have done) by Alan Ayckbourn
1) I never intended to write a trilogy originally but I mentioned the idea to a local press man at the end of the season the previous year (Him: What you are planning next, Mr Ayckbourn? Me: (airily) No idea, yet. Who knows? Maybe a trilogy.) Motto: never talk off the record to journalists…
2) When the trilogy was publicly announced in the spring the following year, I was forced to write them whether I wanted to or not. Actually I still quite fancied the idea.
3) All three plays were written in less than a fortnight.
4) They were constructed cross-ways i.e. all the scenes 1, then all the scenes 2, etc.
5) Consequently I finished two of the plays in the space of a single night. (I realised then I had never done that before and probably never would again). I proved myself wrong; some years later I was to write House & Garden.
6) Half way through writing them, I heard from one of the actors, (Christopher Godwin, cast to play Norman) that his current job had been extended by an extra week and that he would be unable to join us till the second of our initial three week Scarborough rehearsal period.
7) To compensate for his absence, I wrote the character of Norman out of scene one of one of the plays altogether.
8) I dictated the plays, as was my custom at the time, from half illegible pencil notes to a long suffering assistant (Heather, now my wife) who typed each page on to stencils (before photo-copiers in those days).
9) We then ran them off page by page on a hand cranked duplicator, pausing after completing one set of pages in order to replace one stencil with the next.
10) We then punched up the pages, paginated them by walking round in circles in our tiny Hampstead home, finally assembling each script individually. Thirty-six in all. Six sets for the cast, three sets for the stage management, one set for the theatre management, one set required to register at the British Library and one set for me, author and director. Quite a cottage industry, playwriting in those days!
11) The plays were originally entitled Fancy Meeting You, Make Yourself at Home and Round and Round the Garden. Originally they had no overall title.
12) The plays had no intended ‘proper sequence’ and were meant to be seen in any order. They still are.
13) Due to the absence of Norman we were forced to wait for him and for the initial rehearsal week concentrated principally on the first scene of Fancy Meeting You.
14) Fancy Meeting You thus became known, by default, as the ‘first’ play in the sequence. The belief continues to this day that this was my original intention. (“I’m afraid I did see them in the wrong order but I must say I really enjoyed them, despite that.”) Very irritating!
15) After the initial rehearsal period, in 1973, all three plays opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough in the space of three weeks: Fancy Meeting You, 18 June, Make Yourself at Home, 25 June and finally Round and Round the Garden, 2 July.
16) Despite the brevity of rehearsal, not one of the actors had a serious ‘dry’ on any of the first performances and, even if they had done, being in the Round there was no prompter to help them out. In emergency, you dig yourselves out, lads!
17) Midway through the run, up at Scarborough hospital, Chris Godwin’s wife, Christine, gave birth to their firstborn, Ben, during mid-performance. I went onstage at the curtain call and announced the happy news to a stunned Norman – and a gleeful audience.
18) The plays proved extremely popular during that summer of 1973 and audiences, once word got round as to what was happening, built through the season, until seats in the 250 seat temporary makeshift Library auditorium were at a premium.
19) Despite their Yorkshire success, London Managements who ventured north were somewhat less enthusiastic, claiming trilogies were never popular with a West End audience. Though what that was based on, heaven knows.
20) Finally, separate managements each offered to produce a different one in a separate production. I declined the offer feeling, if they all had different favourites, that we might just be on to something.
21) Near the end of the run, Michael Codron, my regular producer (Time and Time Again, Absurd Person Singular) rather reluctantly agreed to produce all three. Jubilation.
22) A few weeks later he withdrew the offer, having had second thoughts, deeming the venture too big a risk. I went home to tell my partner. It is one of the few occasions when I have known her really angry!
23) Some weeks later, my agent Peggy Ramsay phones to ask what was to become of the enormous pile of scripts of the unwanted trilogy which were cluttering up her office, “taking up valuable shelf space.” Depressed, I tell her she can burn them as far as I’m concerned.
24) Fortunately she doesn’t because my regular London director at the time, Eric Thompson, phones to say he is going into hospital briefly for a minor operation and had I anything new for him to read?
25) A few days later, Eric phones again, full of excitement, saying they must be done again. He suggests Tom Courtenay might be interested. Tom had previously worked with us both on Time and Time Again and was still friendly, so it seemed like a good idea to approach him. Tom says yes, depending on the rest of the cast.
26) In search of a London theatre to mount them, Eric suggests we approach the Artistic Director of Greenwich Theatre, Ewan Hooper. Over lunch, we sell Ewan the idea.
27) Eric suggests Felicity Kendal as Annie, Michael Gambon as Tom and Mark Kingston as Reg. I suggest Penelope Keith whom I’d seen recently as Fiona in a production of How The Other Half Loves as Sarah and Penelope Wilton, whom we both adored, as Ruth. Miraculously they all said yes.
28) Learning of our plans, Michael Cordon, ever the shrewd one, offers to underwrite the cost of six weeks rehearsals in London with, in return, the option of first West End refusal to transfer them.
29) Two of the plays are re-named. Fancy Meeting You becomes Table Manners and Make Yourself at Home, Living Together. Round and Round The Garden stays as it is, We agree on the overall title. The Norman Conquests is born.
30) We start rehearsals in April the following year at a more leisurely pace than previously. Table Manners premieres 9 May, Living Together on 21 May and Round and Round the Garden on 6 June.
31) On the opening night of Table Manners, Eric is so nervous he refuses to sit in the auditorium to watch the show. We compromise and both sit, unknown to the cast, in a spare dressing room at the top of the building, listening to the performance through the show relay system. Well, at least we’re still in the same building as the performance!
32) Halfway through the show, audience reaction gets so loud it overloads the show relay system which cuts out and we miss half the dinner party sequence. We both sit anxiously, high in our distant dressing room for return of signal, like Houston waiting for astronauts to emerge from the other side of the moon.
33) Despite the good omens, for some reason I am convinced the show is a failure and immediately afterwards set off for a walk in the darkness intent on pacing round Greenwich Park, only to find it closed for the night. I return to the theatre to meet a jubilant press officer who says the critics were universally positive. Never wholly trusting critics, I don’t believe him.
34) The following day, my fears are dispelled. The reviews are sensationally good. Later that day I drive with Eric to start on final bring back rehearsals for Living Together. On the way there, Eric says, “Great reviews”. I say, “Yes”. “You do realise”, he says, “that we now have to do it all over again”. “Yes”, I say, “we need to do it twice more”. For the rest of the journey we sit very quietly.
35) All three shows get great reviews, though, and run to capacity at Greenwich. Michael Codron unsurprisingly takes up his option to transfer them.
36) The last Saturday, 29th June, are notable for three things:-
37) First, it is the first time we perform a ‘triple’ day, morning, afternoon and evening.
38) Second, in the gap between shows at lunchtime, one or two of the cast engage in an impromptu game of football with the audience.
39) Third, I am approached by a ticket tout at the front of the theatre who tries to sell me a matinee ticket at three times the official price. At this moment, I know we have a hit!
40) Between 1st and 8th of August 1974, The Norman Conquests transfers to the Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud) in Shaftesbury Avenue. Penelope Wilton, who had previous commitments, is replaced by Bridget Turner to play Ruth.
And… Somewhere or other, somewhere in the world, in some language or other, individually or all together, there’s usually a performance of The Norman Conquests going on. Nice that.
Alan Ayckbourn (2013)
Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.