Investigating Clue

Alan Ayckbourn’s connection to the cult classic film, Clue, was explored in yesterday’s video on the Ayckbourn YouTube Channel.

If you’re interested in finding out more, today’s blog has an exclusive extract from Unseen Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd, which gives a fuller history of Alan’s close encounter with Hollywood.

Unseen Ayckbourn is written by Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, and looks at the unproduced, unpublished, unfinished and altered works from Alan Ayckbourn’s long career in theatre and is available from Amazon and Lulu Books.

Clue – An Extract from Unseen Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd

Alan Ayckbourn’s interest in board games has been well-documented over the years and whilst games have played a substantial part in several plays, he has never dedicated an entire full-length play to games.

Yet in the early 1980s, he almost had that opportunity when Polygram Pictures and Universal Pictures were actively considering making a film based on the famed board game Cluedo (Clue in the USA).

Poster for the actual movie Clue from 1984 (© Polygram Pictures)

In January 1981, Lynda Obst, vice president in charge of creative affairs at Polygram, approached Alan’s agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay, noting that Alan had been suggested as a potential script-writer. The film was being produced by Debra Hill with Jon Peters and Peter Guber as executive producers (regarded as two of the most powerful producers in Hollywood during the 1980s).

Peggy, knowing Alan’s passion for board games, passed the request on to the writer which apparently “greatly amused” him and, unusually for Alan with regard to screenplays, he replied he was open to the possibility of discussing the project.

Cleverly, Peggy suggested to Polygram that Alan first write Clue as a stage play, which could then be adapted into a film. This appealed to Alan as potentially it would involve Universal putting money into the theatre.

Coincidentally, the previous year he had already begun work on a thriller called Sight Unseen, which had been abandoned at the last minute in favour of Season’s Greetings (but would ultimately form the basis of his later thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us). This, combined with the challenge of writing a script which could be successfully opened out into a movie, intrigued him.

Alan suggested the play could be written for the summer of 1982 and joked that as his next play was due to go the National Theatre, this would be a good play for them!

Although the studio agreed in essence to this proposal, an initial screenplay was requested which seemed rather pointless to Alan as he felt there would be no need to write a play if a screenplay existed. He had also begun to have a number of reservations about the idea having gone back to the original board game.

“I dug out my old Cluedo board which was interesting. What of course the Cluedo inventor has done is what the inventors of all the classic games have done. He’s taken every cliché from the genre and boiled them all down into a board game. It’s even subtitled in the rules Murder at Tudor Close, and the whole thing is a mixture of every Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Allingham murder mystery you’ve ever read….

“Nothing wrong with that I suppose, providing they want another in the endless series of nostalgia movies. Do they really want another Murder on the Nile / Orient Express, particularly when there’s about two hundred of that good lady’s books still left to adapt. Not to mention Dorothy L. Sayers.

“No, as I see it we must somehow concentrate on the project’s most original theme, which is perhaps somewhat oddly the fact that it is a board game. I am not suggesting that the characters all be dressed as wooden counters whilst the audience are expected to throw a dice – though I wouldn’t rule that out – but unless it’s set somehow within the framework of a game then the Cluedo part of it will essentially be lost and all we’ll have is a run of the mill thriller.”

Alan’s involvement in the project was reported by the New Standard newspaper in an article on 11 February 1981. However, by the time Alan had fulfilled his playwriting commitments and turned his attention to Clue in June 1981, the project was already unravelling. Peggy was not convinced a suitable deal could be arranged and shortly afterwards Alan withdrew from the project, which was put on the back-burner by the film’s producers.

Clue would eventually be made into a movie with a story by John Landis and Jonathan Lynn and screenplay by Lynn. It was filmed in November 1984 with Lynn directing, Debra Hill producing and featuring Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd. It was perceived as a less than successful attempt to create a comedy thriller from the boardgame.

Notably, several random final reels were distributed to some cinemas to incorporate the game’s element of a random killer (although most cinemas were apparently only given one climax, defeating the raison d’être of the film). However, critical opinion concluded this was just a gimmick and none of the climaxes made sense anyway.

The movie had an approximate budget of $15m and took just over $14m at the US box office, which meant it wasn’t a success originally, but in subsequent years it became something of a cult classic and is still popular today.

Meanwhile, Alan’s experiences with Clue and Sight Unseen would undoubtedly inform his experiences when he wrote the multiple choice murderer thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us in 1983; a play which depending on a card game at the start presents a murder with one of three potential killer each night.

Unseen Ayckbourn is available from Amazon and Lulu Books priced at £12 and further details can be found here.

Clue is playing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from 24 – 25 September 2021 and further details can be found here.

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

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