Ten years ago last month, town and cities across the UK were caught up in what became known as the London Riots.
More than 3,000 people were arrested and five people killed with the riots making headlines around the world with the causes and repercussions still discussed to this day.
A month later, on 13 September 2011, Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play Neighbourhood Watch opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and whose themes seemed to reflect the state of the nation – despite having been written in October 2010.
This interview with Alan Ayckbourn by his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, from 2011 looks at the playwright’s thoughts on the play, what inspired him and his thoughts on the state of the country at the time.
Neighbourhood Watch: In Conversation with Alan Ayckbourn
Simon Murgatroyd: Neighbourhood Watch was written in October 2010, but by virtue of opening in the immediate aftermath of the inner-city riots in 2011, became very much associated with these events. What were your thoughts when writing the play?
I became interested in the apprehension people seem to feel and to share. I imagine the threat is greatly overestimated, but whenever there is a burglary near you, you hear people say, ‘They’re getting closer and the police are doing nothing.’ And the police tend to be blamed, which I think has caused a rift between ordinary people and the police. I just took this one stage further with people benignly setting up – with the best intentions – a neighbourhood watch scheme. It’s begun as responsible, self-governing scheme without violent intentions but also, crucially, with a clear remit. Of course, as soon as you start doing this, you attract all the wrong elements and everything erupts from there.
And I wrote this play back in autumn 2010 and then – in the middle of the rehearsals – the riots in London started. We watched unbelieving. At one point,they were restricting the sale of baseball bats to people who didn’t have a legitimate cause to use them as they were obviously buying them as weapons. All this chimed with what I had written in Neighbourhood Watch.
And that’s interesting because although the play is obviously not about the riots, you’re looking at similar events but not through the prism of the police or the rioters, but the average person on the street.
It does present the other side of the coin – which is typical for me – as it isn’t about the rioters or the police, it’s about the bystanders who feel that they need to react to events like the riots. A lot of my plays are about people on the margins who feel threatened but who haven’t actually been threatened and who, maybe in the case of Neighbourhood Watch, somewhat over-react. Although, nonetheless, you can see why they react the way they do and why they feel events are out of their control.
Why do you think people feel this way?
We’ve got a fantastic way of disseminating information these days; partly through the press, partly through the media, partly through television and the internet. There is an immediate and somewhat graphic reportage. But if you speak to someone who’s apparently in the middle of a riot or a rumpus, and say, ‘how are you?’ I think they tend to say, ‘how do you mean?’ You say, ‘people are looting and burning the buildings all around you!’ and it turns out they’ve been in the pub unaware!
What we read in the papers or see on the television often amplifies events and you immediately see it on your TV or computer screen and think, ‘oh my God, there’s a war!’ But it’s not necessarily what’s actually happening.
A few hundred years ago, you could have a war and half the country wouldn’t even know about it unless a group of blood-stained soldiers trampled through your village, saying, ‘that was a terrible battle up at Bosworth. Dear-oh-dear, that was a right pasting.’ Those days of innocence are lost! It’s so different and there is now a very sensitive network, so if you ‘twang’ the net, people really do notice. With Neighbourhood Watch, we ‘twanged’ the net early and got a lot of attention.
It’s been suggested that Neighbourhood Watch represents a more cynical attitude to society on your behalf, would you agree?
I’ve a great affection for individuals – but I’ve never been terribly fond of groups of individuals! I’ve always been very suspicious of people who are passionately like-minded, particularly when they form into some sort of organisation – be it a political party or a religious sect.
Neighbourhood Watch was therefore a morality tale of what happens when you band yourself together with so-called like-minded people against what you perceive as an enemy – but maybe as a result of being part of that group, you generate even worst things. Someone told me after seeing the play, that a friend of his in America took refuge in a gated community. She perceived danger from the society all around her – and if you live on your own and read the papers at all or watch television, it does appear to be coming at you the whole time and you can become quite paranoid! So she went into a gated community and found that having locked the door on all the evils outside, the place inside was more like Hell than outside. When you lock people up together, who have perhaps not chosen to live together – be it a prison or a gated community – it can be extremely volatile and dangerous.
Indeed when you form an informal, quasi-military organisation which the two innocents in Neighbourhood Watch do, you can attract the most appalling elements and people who grab hold of the opportunity to exercise a sort of power on their fellow individuals.
It brings to mind, the committee from you play Ten Times Table in that groups of people – such as Neighbourhood Watches – tend not to come to the most rational decisions.
Committees have a way of being taken over by lunatics and extremists. Sane people often haven’t the patience or staying power to serve on committees. So the people in charge of them are often those with nothing better to do but manipulate other people’s lives. Then there are sub-committees, which are answerable to nobody and do all the work from finance to, in this case, retribution! Very few normal people volunteer for those, as that’s another evening out of their lives, so you find people volunteering for sub-committees who shouldn’t be in charge of a box of matches let alone the future of an estate.
What quickly emerges from this scheme is a particularly extreme British version of the gated community you mentioned earlier, do you think these are an increasing possibility in this country?
There is a sense of impotence these days, an instinct to build little fences around ourselves. Because my English people are inherently polite people, they very rarely contradict each other and are happy to go along with things until, usually, it’s far too late.
I don’t think we’ll ever become an extreme fascist state in this country over night, but we might over the years just drift into it and people will then ask how on earth did we get here? The English are not for turning! But gently nudging? The English are for nudging.
You can find out more about Neighbourhood Watch at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.
Interview by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.