A Jolly Good Never Seen Idea

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s family play, The Jollies.

It debuted on 3 December 2002 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and told the story of how a magical cabinet transformed the Jollie family, putting a young boy into an adult’s body and his Mum into a child’s body and their thrilling adventure to restore themselves to their correct bodies.

But this wasn’t the original idea for the play. It began as something completely different and marks a rare case of Alan Ayckbourn announcing a play which turned out to be completely different in every way than anticipated.

In this exclusive extract from Simon Murgatroyd’s book, Unseen Ayckbourn – 2023 Edition – illustrated here for the first time with relevant material from the Ayckbourn Archive – the story behind the lost version of The Jollies is revealed.

The Jollies by Simon Murgatroyd

In 2002, Alan Ayckbourn set out to write a family show for the Christmas slot at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, inspired by the country’s growing obsession with reality television shows such as Big Brother.

The premise of the play, The Jollies, involved a family living under the constant eye of the camera who aren’t all they are portrayed to be.

“The Jollies is about this futuristic (not that futuristic) fly-on-the-wall show about a typical family but is actually completely false and an excuse for product placement and although when on camera (thrice daily, live) they are all smiling and loving they’ve secretly grown to hate each other. Should brighten someone’s Christmas with any luck.”

This information was passed onto the theatre’s marketing department and promotional letters sent out to schools in June; the first two weeks of the Christmas schedule being geared towards school bookings with tickets put on sale well in advance of the summer holidays.

Alan Ayckbourn’s suggested copy to promote The Jollies, which was used as the basis for the letter which went out to schools announcing the Christmas production (© Haydonning Ltd, held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives).

Alan Ayckbourn also outlined a proposal for the poster for the play and initial designs were being considered (see below).

Initial poster concept for The Jollies (© Haydonning).

What transpired was very different to what was planned. Having announced the play, Alan began writing it in August but quickly realised his original idea wasn’t working and he couldn’t write the play as conceived.

A week later he contacted the theatre to say he was writing another play with a different title – neither of which he was sure of yet!

Alan Ayckbourn’s email to the Stephen Joseph Theatre Press & Marketing Officer announcing his idea for The Jollies has fallen apart (© Haydonning Ltd, held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives).

Fortunately, three weeks later, Alan was inspired and wrote a new play using the same title The Jollies, but totally different in content to his initial idea.

“I cleared a writing space three weeks ago and hit a brick wall. Total disaster. Nothing happened. I said to my wife, Heather, that’s it – that’s the end, I’m finished. Then I got back from Bath on Sunday and began a completely new play. It’s got the same title as the one I’d abandoned, The Jollies – because we’d already sold 1,500 seats – but it’s a brand-new piece.”

The schools which had already booked were actually not informed of the change – although press releases and subsequent letters made no secret of the totally different plot; fortunately no school noticed the change or queried it with the theatre!

Unseen Ayckbourn – 2022 Edition is available now and full details on how to buy it – including signed copies – can be found by clicking here.

You can find out more about The Jollies at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website in the Plays section by clicking here.

This article is copyright Simon Murgatroyd, all rights reserved 2022. Please do. not reproduce it without permission of the copyright holder.

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