In 1982, Alan Ayckbourn made a significant departure in his writing. Previously largely confined to the middle-class suburbs, the playwright took to the water and sailed into a wider world.
With Way Upstream, Alan took a direction which would have enormous implications for all the writing which would follow. For not only was he moving out of the home into the world at large – and thus beginning to tackle wider social themes – but it also marked a first step into the fantastic, introducing previously unseen fantasy or allegorical elements.
This would have a tremendous effect on his work, particularly following Henceforward… in 1987 when the playwright felt increasingly comfortable bringing fantasy elements into his writing: his most recent work, The Girl Next Door, is a play grounded in the Covid Lockdown of 2020 and the Blitz of 1942, but what unites them is a fantastic element allowing past and present to collide.
For many years, Way Upstream’s reputation was tarnished by the notorious production at the National Theatre which flooded the venue. Subsequently, it has been re-evaluated and seen for its actual qualities as the playwright’s first state-of-the-nation play.
One aspect of the play’s history that has largely been forgotten though is the BBC film, which was broadcast on New Year’s Day 1988 and which at the time drew a lot of interest.
Coincidentally, it also practically marked the end of a long-run of adaptations of Alan’s plays for television with just one more following it in 1989 and none produced after that.
Looking back on the film, one wonders whether it was just a step too far for the Ayckbourn television audience, which probably hadn’t experienced the darker side of his writing as theatre audiences had and for whom it might have sat uncomfortably with previous expectations.
For instead of the suburban, sitcom qualities which previous TV adaptations had emphasised, Way Upstream lost much of the playfulness of the original work for a more cruel and violent, location-filmed piece.
Quite why this happened is not easy to ascertain. Certainly the director – the accomplished playwright and director Terry Johnson – was passionate about the play and doing it justice. The cast is generally good, most notably in Stuart Wilson’s Vince and Barrie Rutter’s Keith and it still looks a handsome production with a budget obviously far above most of the theatrical adaptations of the period.
Having had a chance to see the film again recently, I was reminded of Alan Ayckbourn’s opinion that his plays rarely translate well onto the screen. They are films made for the stage and – as anyone who has seen Way Upstream in a theatre will testify – it’s an intensely theatrical experience straight from the moment you walk into the auditorium and see a body of water with a cabin cruiser on it where the stage would normally be!
By filming on location, any sense of theatricality was lost. This is a film, portraying a trip up a real river on a real cabin cruiser and were this one of his earlier, more grounded works – albeit set on the river – it would probably have made a fine adaptation.
But this isn’t traditional Ayckbourn. As the play progresses, it ventures into almost Peter Pan territory and the line between what is real or fantastic becomes hard to draw. In the theatre, that shift is gradual and easier to achieve because it’s not real anyway – there’s almost something absurd in watching a play set on a boat on water inside a building on what we know is, somewhere beneath the water, a stage.
The film though roots itself in a recognisable and realistic world with two couples going on a river cruise and despite its more outlandish elements as Vince boards the boat and disrupts the natural order, it still feels relatively grounded in reality.
Added to this, the film is constrained by its 90 minute running time, a good half-an-hour at least shorter than the play. Although it is generally a well-judged adaptation with no glaringly obvious cuts, it feels a rushed journey which impacts on the humour of the first act and the relationship between the central characters, Alistair and Emma, which is never allowed to develop to show a couple lost but still in love rather than seemingly falling out of love.
What humour survives is then all but lost as the play becomes more violent than fantastical. Vince’s piratical takeover becomes – as critics of the time pointed out – a violence-tinged threat which then escalates into an extraordinarily brutal fight – more a beating – between Vince and Alistair, which makes it undoubtedly the most extreme Ayckbourn work in any medium. It probably also explains why it was broadcast at 10pm rather than prime time.
In both play and film, we know Alistair is doomed to lose the fight from the start and the play essentially makes quick work of Alistair before, beaten and bruised, he gets his coup-de-grace by knocking out a distracted Vince with a tin of beans. In the film, it becomes a dragged-out fight where Alistair is essentially brutalised and practically drowned. All, apparently, to take advantage of a very scenic backdrop.
Arguably the violence contained within the play – which is undoubtedly present – becomes emphasised because the humour hasn’t had enough space to breathe. The result quickly becomes unpleasant to watch.
Way Upstream is one of Ayckbourn’s dark works, but as any fan of his work knows, where there’s dark, there’s always a considerable amount of light to illuminate it.
Most curiously, the film – so rooted in its reality – struggles to deal with the climax of the play as things turn more fantastic. Having survived the fight in the play, Alistair and Emma flee on the boat upriver where the voices and figures of the others mysteriously appear to taunt them from the riverbank until they crash through Armageddon Bridge into an Eden like place beyond.
Obviously faced with the difficulty of adapting this, the film creates a nightmare sequence for Alistair which jars wildly with what has gone before. The characters return as a sea-weed and mud-stained monstrosity, a machine gun-toting Nazi-esque figure and a back-lit, smoke-shrouded vampire before Vince smashes through the side of the boat to drag Alistair back into the river.
The violence of the piece goes up another notch and despite its subsequent play-accurate finale, there are too many questions to allow us to enjoy the destination and the re-affirmation of Alistair and Emma’s love and relationship in their practically dream-like paradise. Indeed, one almost questions whether they survived going under Armageddon Bridge and if this is the after-life, which again sits uneasily with the direction of the majority of the film.
The result is a mixed affair. It’s distinctly well-made and well-intentioned and, initially at least, captures the feel of the play albeit as a screenplay rather than a theatrical work.
But the subtleties of the play, the sense of allegory and interpretation are lost in an overly realistic film which struggles to contain the violence or to deal with the play’s fantastical elements which become too prominent to ignore.
However, it’s still interesting and, as Alan has himself said, should be taken more as an interpretation of his play rather than a faithful adaptation. And it also demonstrates just how popular Alan was at the time for the BBC to commission a film such as this, which would debut at at the National Film Theatre during the 1987 London Film Festival.
Ultimately though, as I watched, I get the feeling I do with 95% of the filmed works of Alan’s plays – they’re far better on the stage than they ever are on the screen.
Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do no reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.