The Lone Screenplay

A little known fact about Alan Ayckbourn is he has only written one produced screenplay within his entire six decade career.

This little known and little seen television play is called Service Not Included and was screened by the BBC in 1974. It is a unique piece of Ayckbourn history as it is the only time he has written a piece specifically for television and, in all likelihood, it will never be seen again.

In 1973, the television director Herbert Wise contacted Alan Ayckbourn about the possibility of him writing a screenplay for the BBC. Wise had previous experience with Alan’s work having filmed the original – now lost – television adaptation of Relatively Speaking in 1969 starring Donald Sinden and Celia Johnson.

Wise had been commissioned to create a series of late night television plays entitled Masquerade and wondered if Alan would be interested in contributing a script. At this point, Alan was on the peak of becoming a household name in theatre – he had West End success with Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves and Time and Time Again and his biggest West End success was imminent with the premiere of Absurd Person Singular.

Alan – who had no previous experience of writing screenplays – agreed and was commissioned by the BBC in July 1973 to write a thirty minute piece for Masquerade. The series would consist of six plays all united by the theme of ‘a masked fancy dress party, taking place now in a large 19th century country house.’ This was his remit.

Wise advised Alan the screenplay should have no more than four main speaking parts and not more than four sets. Alan responded positively in July 1973 noting he had already had an idea about ‘an end-of-convention party for a group of Rentokil representatives and their wives.’

He wrote his first screenplay in November 1973 and sent it to his agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay on 1 December), noting: ‘It has taken me more time than any full length play ever took me [to write] – and I’m far less sure of the result.’ The script was also sent to the BBC on the same day, with Alan suggesting to Wise, it was ‘very downbeat for me’.

Jullian Curry in a rare image from Service Not Included (© BBC)

Although the screenplay – titled Now Being Served – was well-received, there were initial concerns about the budget and the size of the cast, which included a three-piece band. However, by January 1974, a slightly larger budget had been arranged for the production and only the band had to be dropped.

A final draft of the screenplay – now titled Service Not Included – was sent to Wise on 4 February 1974, who was reported to be pleased with the script and its perspective of the masquerade.

With everything in place, the first read-through of the script took place on 18 March 1974 with filming scheduled for 26 to 27 March following a week of rehearsals. Filming took place entirely on location at the Berystede Hotel, Ascot. It starred Julian Curry and Alan Thompson and even included a cameo by the actor now playwright’s wife, Heather Stoney.

Service Not Included was broadcast on BBC2 at 10.25pm on 20 May 1974 and was the fourth of five episodes of Masquerade broadcast; it is not known what happened to the advertised sixth episode and whether it was filmed or not.

Sadly, there is no indication of how successful Service Not Included was nor what kind of viewing figures it achieved. Only one review survives in archive from The Stage on 23 May 1974 and whilst admitting the piece to be ‘enjoyable’, the critic Elizabeth Allen also notes it was ‘neither original nor very exciting.’

Service Not Included has no plot as such, but offers a waiter’s eye view of an end of conference party at a hotel. All the events of the night are seen through the eyes of the waiter Jace, offering snippets of conversation between the party-goers. The idea was later refined for stage when Alan wrote the one act piece Between Mouthfuls for the play Confusions that same year; within it a waiter moves between two tables and the audience hears only what the waiter hears as he moves back and forth between the diners.

That was the only outing for Service Not Included. It was never repeated by the BBC and has never been released commercially or on streaming services. It does survive in archive at the BBC, but one suspects the film will probably never see the light of day again.

The only other time the screenplay has been made public was during an event organised by Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, in 2011 where participants had the exclusive chance to be involved in a read-through of the screenplay. This was the first – and likely, only – time the screenplay had been ‘performed’ since it was filmed in 1974.

Herbert Wise would later return to Alan and ask if he would write another screenplay for a different series, but although Alan indicated he might be interested, it never came to fruition – likely due to the fact that from summer 1973, Alan was phenomenally busy as the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, as well as writing and directing and being involved with the regular West End productions of his work.

However, Wise would go on to direct the very popular television adaptation of The Norman Conquests in 1977 which marked the first time a living playwright was given six hours of prime time television in the UK and which also proved to be a huge hit in North America.

Alan himself would never write another screenplay – be it for television or film – and has remained completely committed to the stage. Which makes Service Not Included, if nothing else, an intriguing and unique piece of Ayckbourn history.

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

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