The Curious Case of the Play That Never Was

This summer Alan Ayckbourn will revive his classic play Season’s Greetings at his home venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Season’s Greetings has an unusual history though as it wasn’t actually the play Alan set out to write in 1980. On 27 July 1980, the Evening Standard announced Alan’s latest play would be called Sight Unseen. No clue as to its content was given although the playwright noted ‘I’ve a glimmer at the moment but if I told you the plot it would sound ludicrous.’

An extract from Alan Ayckbourn’s correspondence to Christopher Morahan © Haydonning Ltd.

At this point, he wrote to the director Christopher Morahan at the National Theatre noting: ‘I’m about to write play 25 and am pacing nervously. It’s called, somewhat fittingly, Sight Unseen. Assuming I finish that, I shall have it rehearsed and into repertoire by the end of September and will actually have a few days to spare when I shall make haste Nationalwards.’

Report from The Stage on 4 September 1980 regarding Sight Unseen © The Stage Media Company Ltd

By mid August, various newspapers reported that Alan had ‘locked himself’ away to write his latest piece Sight Unseen. This being literally the case. Alan throughout his career is renowned for essentially going into seclusion when writing his plays, emerging from his office only to forage for food and leaving strict instructions not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Fortunately, he’s a little more relaxed about it all now!

The subject of Sight Unseen was still a secret though with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round’s press officer Stephen Wood saying: ‘No one has a clue what the play is about, and we shall not until Alan gives us the script.’

And no-one would – officially – ever find out what the play was about. Rehearsals for Sight Unseen were scheduled to begin on 4 September 1980. On, approximately, 1 September, Alan contacted the theatre to – rather worryingly – note that he was going to write an entirely different play called Season’s Greetings. Rehearsals were pushed back a day (as was the opening night) as Alan stormed through the script writing an entirely different play.

Alan himself has briefly spoken of what happened, but has never gone into depth about the proposed play; in a recent interview regarding Season’s Greetings he professed he had forgotten all about Sight Unseen. However, a contemporary interview does shed some light on the play: ‘It’s wrong to say I was actually into the dialogue stage. I was into the construction stage: I was putting up the fences. I then did a volte face and left myself with just two things from the thriller. One was that I set it in a hallway which I quite liked.’

Of course, cynically, one could also say that given the play was a week away from going into rehearsals, it was probably fairly opportune to utilise a hallway set which was presumably already being built!

Extract from Alan Ayckbourn’s notes for Sight Unseen © Haydonning Ltd.

Other than the confirmation the play was a thriller, nothing else was known about the play until 2010. Whilst working in the Ayckbourn Archive, I came across two pieces of foolscap paper with random handwritten notes on them which – at first glance – appeared to refer to Season’s Greetings. Until a closer look revealed that Neville is not killed by a random murderer in Season’s Greetings! Given the names of the characters are largely identical to those used in Season’s Greetings, the notes are indicative of a thriller / whodunit plot and the random murderer idea would be revived two years later, these were obviously Alan’s notes for Sight Unseen.

These two sheets of paper offered a huge insight into what Alan was planning and how certain elements were recycled for Season’s Greetings (such as the set and the character names) and for his 1983 thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us (a thriller where the murderer is randomly determined each performance).

Extract from Alan Ayckbourn’s notes for Sight Unseen © Haydonning Ltd.

As these extracts from the notes demonstrate, the play was about the murder of Neville Bunker and who was responsible for it. Several characters share similar names and relationships to those in Season’s Greetings, although Belinda is variously referred to as Belinda, Melinda and Angela. The notes also clearly indicate there’s a random murderer and what each person’s motives are – although no hint is given as to how the random choice would be made. As can be seen from the notes, these reasons are:

  • Melinda kills Nev to free her
  • Derek kills Nev to free her [presumably Melinda / Belinda]
  • Bernard kills Nev to avoid family break-up
  • Veronica kills Nev to avoid family break up

Obviously Alan had second thoughts about this play which largely can be traced back to the same problems which would dog him while writing It Could Be Any One Of Us in that for a random murder thriller to work, everyone has to have legitimate reasons to murder the same person, which essentially means you have a house full of homicidal maniacs. Alan decided that, as a result, ‘it was rather a boring thing to write.’ His solution to this problem when he wrote It Could Be Any One of Us was not to have an actual murder, but that posed its own problems and he later rewrote the play to incorporate a death.

As it is, Sight Unseen was forgotten with the success of Season’s Greetings. But behind one of Alan’s most popular plays lays one of his most obscure unwritten works and the play that never was.

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Favourite Things: Love After All

Continuing our look into some of this Archivist’s favourite items in the Ayckbourn Archive with Alan Ayckbourn’s second play Love After All (1959).

The Ayckbourn Archive actually holds very little regarding Love After All and that’s perhaps not a surprise. 1959 marked Alan’s first year as a professional playwright, it would be surprising if he had the foresight to have started saving material for posterity so early in his fledgling career. Let’s not forget, Alan at the time considered himself first and foremost an actor and that appeared to be the trajectory upon which he was heading. The playwriting was a nice sideline that kept him in LPs and home comforts for his family!

The Ayckbourn Archive holds no more than two dozen contemporary articles and reviews for the only two productions of the play (it was produced separately by Studio Theatre Ltd in Scarborough in both 1959 and 1960), a couple of programmes, a selection of publicity photographs and a scan of the original manuscript.

The cover of the sole surviving manuscript of Love After All held in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library (© Haydonning Ltd)

The latter is my favourite item by far and away for Love After All and one of my all-time favourite items in the entire Archive. Why, you might well ask? It’s not as though it’s even the original item. Well, let’s head back in time.

Love After All was written in a very brief window during the autumn of 1959 as a result of the success of Alan’s first play, The Square Cat. Having done stellar business, Stephen Joseph – the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough – asked his protege to knock out a second play for the forthcoming winter season. Alan agreed and, swiping inspiration from the plot of The Barber of Seville, wrote Love After All.

The Edwardian-set farce was another success and it was decided it would be revived for the following summer season. However, the original director Clifford Williams – who would go on to a long and successful international directing career and was hugely influential at the Royal Shakespeare Company – was unavailable during the summer of 1960 and a replacement, Julian Herington, was appointed. He disliked aspects of the original play and asked Alan to rewrite it for a contemporary setting with some notable changes. Alan didn’t like the new version, Stephen Joseph didn’t like the fact that Herington’s two productions consumed the summer season’s entire production budget and Herington never worked for Studio Theatre Ltd again. The play was also never performed again.

A page from Love After All highlighting one of the more interesting scenes (© Haydonning Ltd)

By the time Alan started achieving major success – starting with Relatively Speaking in 1967 and consistently throughout the 1970s from Absurd Person Singular forward – there was an obvious interest in this playwright, where he had come from and what he had written previously. Alan was of a view that his early writing was just that, early writing showing nothing but a young man learning his craft. He had no desire for the early works to be dug out and performed, so he began batting the question away when asked about these plays noting he had either destroyed them all or was attempting to destroy them all.

Now it’s hard to know whether this was true – not many copies of the plays were produced in the first place and there’s natural wastage and loss. Original copies of The Square Cat (1959) are held in four Archive collections, The Sparrow (1967) in just one. It seems likely Alan did his best to ‘lose’ what manuscripts he came across. And with Love After All, he was very successful. When I took on the role of Archivist in 2005, it was accepted that Love After All – in both its versions – had been completely lost. It’s obvious in Paul Allen’s Ayckbourn biography, Grinning At The Edge, that he has not found the play nor is there any indication of anyone else accessing it.

The sole surviving Love After All page held in the Ayckbourn Archive complete with Steven Ayckbourn’s drawing (© Haydonning Ltd)

My early exploration of the Ayckbourn Archive turned up just a single sheet of the Love After All manuscript held in Archive – preserved not because it was a coveted piece of a lost manuscript but because his first son, Steven, had drawn a picture of a car with two people on it (possibly the earliest surviving portrait of Alan…). Obviously this was a highly prized manuscript if Alan was letting his sons use it for drawing paper!

And then the strangest thing occurred. In 2007, a long-thought lost Noël Coward play – The Better Half – was found by two Welsh researchers in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library (Prior to 1968, every play in the UK had to be submitted for approval by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office). Which led me to think, Love After All was written in 1959 and it would have had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office – so presumably it was hidden somewhere in the British Library….

Sure enough, with the assistance of the British Library, I ventured down to London in 2007 and discovered, within the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, there was a pristine copy of Love After All, apparently never once accessed since being stored. As both Archivist and geek, this is equivalent of the moment Indiana Jones discovered the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Admittedly, I had to deal with fewer snakes although the bag check system at the British Library can be quite intimidating….

It’s one of the high points in my career as an Archivist, finding Love After All and restoring the complete Ayckbourn play canon for the first time since, in all probability, the ’60s. Hence why it’s one of my favourite things, even in a scanned form.

Am extract from the Love After All manuscript (©

There is an enduring mystery, I suppose – aside from what the second version of Love After All was like as, sadly, that has never been recovered. That mystery is why no-one had never previously looked to the British Library for the play. But one could ask that about the Coward play or any of the discoveries which turn up in apparently obvious places. I always presume that with Alan having said the play was lost, people took him on his word and, to be fair, Alan is a person perpetually looking forward to his next play or production and never had the inclination nor desire to seek out the play. But there were other, often far more qualified, researchers than myself looking into Alan’s work who missed this opportunity.

But that’s by-the-by. What we have is a manuscript of, admittedly, a fairly ropey play which will forever be something I’m inordinately fond of! It generated a fair amount of publicity too including coverage in The Times – which was slightly strange having previously been a journalist and more used to writing rather than being the news! It’s a script that is never going to ever strike anyone as a founding triumph of a playwright who would become one of the most successful British writers of the 20th century. But it’s a little bit of history which I’m proud to have contributed towards restoring.

Before They Were Famous…

As anyone who follows the Stephen Joseph Theatre on Twitter (and if not, why not?) may have recently seen, this year’s BAFTA Award winning Best Actress Jodie Comer made her professional stage debut at the SJT.

Jodie Comer as Ruby in the world premiere of The Price Of Everything (2010) at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough © Tony Bartholomew (tony.bartholomew@btinternet.com)

Jodie, of course, has sprung to fame with the hugely popular and acclaimed BBC America series Killing Eve as the fashionable yet psychopathic assassin Villanelle. Yet in 2010 she made her professional stage debut in the world premiere of Fiona Evans’ play The Price Of Everything in The Round at the SJT.

And whilst the play received mixed reviews, The Times critic Libby Purves saw a star in the making in Jodie when she wrote: ‘[She is] in her first stage outing (not even a drama school graduate) and gives a sensationally natural, well-judged performance: Lairy, challenging, then suddenly childlike.’

Jodie isn’t obviously the first discovery the SJT has made (and it helps the SJT having a phenomenal casting agent in the shape of Sarah Hughes) and this week’s blog is going to head back over the decades and pick a notable figure from each decade who went on to what was, presumably, unimagined success on stage and screen. Admittedly, picking just one person a decade means we’re missing a lot of talent but perhaps we’ll do a follow up blog in the future to look at some of the other famous faces who made early steps at the SJT.

Heading back to the 1950s, when the Library Theatre was founded in Scarborough in 1955 by Stephen Joseph. Our first famous face isn’t actually an actor today (nor has been since 1964), but he started as an actor, had every intention of being a professional actor and then became one of the the UK”s most successful living playwrights. I’m referring, of course, to Alan Ayckbourn.

Alan Ayckbourn (left) in The Ornamental hermit at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957 © Scarborough Theatre Trust

We know Alan today as a prolific and popular writer and director who has won numerous plaudits and awards over six decades of playwriting. Yet he joined the Library Theatre in 1957 as an Acting Stage Manager (a stage manager who also acted). He was not then an aspiring writer but had his eyes fixed firmly on the stage and during his acting career between 1957 and 1964, it’s arguable he became one of the most experienced in-the-round actors in the country. Harold Pinter, who directed him in his professional directorial debut of The Birthday Party in 1959, noted Alan was ‘born to play Hamlet’. Yet, fate took Alan on a different path and he became a playwright, director and Artistic Director. And in doing so, was in part responsible for finding and employing quite a few actors (and writers and directors and technicians and so on) who would go on to great success in theatre and the wider Arts industry.

John Nettles in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Sparrow (1967) at the Library Theatre, Scarborough © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Two of Alan’s early finds are illustrated in our first two choices from the 1960s and the 1970s. In 1967, Alan premiered his little known play The Sparrow at the Library Theatre. Amongst the cast was Robert Powell – although he was already making an impact in the acting world and three years later would be cast in the BBC’s Doomwatch before finding international fame in 1977 as the titular character in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. But of equal note was a young actor named John Nettles who played the role of Ed in the play very early in his professional career (so early in fact, that according to Wikipedia, he wasn’t even working professionally as has only apparently been active professionally since 1969 – which given The Sparrow and the fact John was also working with Alan at BBC Radio prior to 1969 too is patently incorrect). John would go on to a hugely successful stage and screen career working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, perhaps most famously, on television in the TV detective series Bergerac and Midsomer Murders.

Bob Peck in the world premiere of Leonard Barras’s The Shy Gasman (1970) at the Library Theatre, Scarborough © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Moving into the 1970s and possibly Alan’s most famous discovery (he once joked he had discovered this actor in a cellar in Leeds and had been searching cellars for comparative talents since!) with Bob Peck – or Robert Peck as he was then credited. Alan had discovered Bob in Leeds during the late 1960s where he had employed him at the BBC (and, not that we’re going to keep picking at this particular scab, at least four years prior to Wikipedia crediting his professional acting career starting…) before bringing him over to Scarborough. Strictly speaking, Bob was employed during the 1969 season as an actor and assistant stage manager at the Library Theatre, but we’re going to start with his first full season as a professional actor in 1970 which included roles in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Story So Far… and The Shy Gasman by Leonard Barras. Bob went on to a phenomenal acting career including both the RSC and National Theatre, but on television went from the likes of Z Cars to the water-cooler moment of 1985 as Ronald Craven in the thriller Edge of Darkness. And if you’re of a certain age (i.e. mine), you’ll always remember him as Robert Muldoon in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (‘Clever girl…’). He would work again with Alan – coincidentally as he shot to fame with Edge of Darkness – in Alan’s production of A Chorus Of Disapproval for the National Theatre in 1985.

Emma Chambers as Lucy in the world premiere of Invisible Friends at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (1989) © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Staying in the 1980s and I’m going for the much loved, late actress Emma Chambers. Although Emma was probably best known for her role of Alice Tinker in the BBC series The Vicar of Dibley, Emma got her Equity card working for Alan in the 1987 world premiere of Henceforward… at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, a role she revived with Ian McKellen and Jane Asher in the West End. In 1989, she would star as Lucy in the world premiere of Invisible Friends at the SJT, again reprising the role in London opposite Claire Skinner with Alan’s 1991 National Theatre production. Claire would also notably feature in the 1989 / 90 seasons at the SJT including Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Othello which included Michael Gambon, Adam Godley, Ken Stott and Rupert Vansittart amongst others.

Lia Williams with her son, Joshua, in Scarborough 1990 © Yorkshire Regional Newspapers

Moving into the 1990s and there’s a plethora of choices (and that doesn’t even include Janie Dee who has always credited Alan with an early boost to her career in Dreams From A Summer House despite the fact she was doing pretty well for herself at that point). There’s also Tamzin Outhwaite who Alan cast as a chorus-girl in his production of They’re Playing Our Song and subsequently played Evelyn in his 1997 revival of Absent Friends just prior to her finding national fame in the BBC soap EastEnders – and a very successful subsequent TV and stage career. But I think I’m going with Lia Williams, who was a relatively unknown actress when Alan cast her as Angie in his body-swapping play Body Language at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1990 and who is generally acknowledged to then have had her breakout moment the following year when Alan cast her as the lead in the West End premiere of his epic The Revengers’ Comedies. In Body Language, Lia had to both portray a glamour model as well as – after an unfortunate accident involving a helicopter and a slightly deranged surgeon – an obese journalist. Lia has gone on to an acclaimed career on stage and screen working with the RSC and NT, in the West End and on Broadway as well as in television series such as The Crown and Seaforth.

Billy Howle (centre with sword) in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Orvin – Champion of Champions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (2003) © Tony Bartholomew (tony.bartholomew@btinternet.com)

Entering a new millennium and our final breakout star – if we take Jodie Comer as the’10s choice – is an example of how the SJT encourages talent from a very young age. For example, Joanne Frogatt of Downtown Abbey fame took her first steps on stage as part of the SJT’s Rounders youth group. Another alumni of Rounders is Billy Howle who made his professional stage debut in 2003 at the SJT in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Orvin: Champion of Champions – a collaboration with the National Youth Music Theatre. Billy gained early attention in Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts in New York, before coming to wider public attention with the acclaimed movie On Chesil Beach. He was recently seen opposite Richard Gere and Helen McRory on the BBC’s MotherFatherSon and Chris Pine in Netflix’s Outlaw King.

And that’s barely even skimming the surface of talent who have worked – both experienced and inexperienced – at the SJT in Scarborough. You can find a complete index of actors who have worked at the SJT since 1955 at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here. It’s worth look to see how the SJT is an example of how vital regional theatres are in the UK to discovering and promoting talent, be it on-stage or off-stage, and how, who knows, the next time you’re at a regional theatre like the SJT, you may be looking at a future award-winning actress or actor or soon-to-be household name.

Favourite Things: The Square Cat

As part of my weekly blog, I’m going to be regularly delving into the Ayckbourn Archive to highlight a favourite item pertaining to each of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays (which, given the sheer number of plays, should keep me going for some time regardless of anything else I write!)

The Ayckbourn Archive is full of fascinating items – from behind-the-scenes photographs to rare manuscripts, author’s notes to correspondence – and this is my chance to highlight a few. They may not necessarily be of great historical significance or offer a piercing insight into the playwright. But all of them are items which have given me pleasure or I’ve found interesting in my role as Archivist.

So we’ll step back in time 60 years to Alan Ayckbourn’s professional playwriting debut, The Square Cat, which opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959 and which was directed by Alan Ayckbourn’s most influential mentor, Stephen Joseph.

Alan wrote his first four plays under a pseudonym, Roland Allen. This was largely because, by 1959, he had been an established actor in Scarborough since 1957 and he wished to differentiate between the actor and the writer; not that they were a secret, Stephen Joseph wrote in the original programme that Alan and Roland were one and the same.

The name is also a nod to how Alan wrote the play and this is where my first favourite thing comes into play. Alan has long since acknowledged that his first play was a collaboration between him and his first wife, Christine Roland, as Alan’s biographer Paul Allen notes: “The Square Cat, billed as by ‘Roland Allen’, was largely the product of her [Christine Roland’s] knowledge of stagecraft and his [Alan Ayckbourn’s] nascent gift for plotting and dialogue.” When choosing his writing pseudonym, Alan combined his wife’s name (Christine Roland) and his name (Alan Ayckbourn).

Alan Ayckbourn & Christine Roland (© Haydonning Ltd)

When curating an exhibition for Alan Ayckbourn’s 60th birthday in 2009, I came across this photo for the first time. Taken on the set of The Square Cat, it is the only photo pertaining to the play’s production with the author(s) Roland Allen: Alan and Christine together. One cannot imagine that the 20 year old man in the photo would believe he would still be writing plays 60 years on nor that he would achieve such extraordinary success.

Although Christine apparently played a small role in helping Alan to write his second play, Love After All, she wouldn’t contribute to Alan’s play-writing after that point even though Alan continued to use the pseudonym from 1959 – 1961. He only dropped it in 1962 when he left the Library Theatre for a period to help found the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, with Stephen Joseph. From that point forwards, all his plays were attributed to Alan Ayckbourn.

Tying in with this, the Ayckbourn Archive has a little oddity from the original programme for The Square Cat (and how proof-reading was as essential then as it is now – so says the man who yesterday had Alan Ayckbourn ‘indicted’ into the American Theatre Hall of Fame until a sharp-eyed reader caught the mistake!). The programme for the world premiere production mis-spells the pseudonym as ‘Roland Allan’ as can be seen below; this was a genuine mistake as flyers for the season produced in advance of the programme had correctly spelt the name ‘Allen’. It’s just a quirky little note for the play for which Alan would reputedly earn £47 and which, it’s fair to say, had more than a little impact on his life to come!

Extract from The Square Cat programme (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

You Spin Me Round…

Yesterday I had the opportunity to lead the OutReach Play Reading at the Stephen Joseph Theatre exploring Alan Ayckbourn’s popular play A Chorus Of Disapproval.

A Chorus Of Disapproval premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, in 1984 before Alan directed a hugely successful production at the National Theatre in 1985 which won the Olivier, Evening Standard and DRAMA Awards for Best Comedy.

The original production of A Chorus Of Disapproval where the double revolve can – just – be seen on the ground (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Preparing for the play reading, it struck me that there’s an aspect of the world premiere of A Chorus Of Disapproval that is absolutely unique to that production, that was completely integral to the play as first conceived and which has never been repeated subsequently. And which is barely even remembered at the playwright’s home theatre and key notes for which have only just been discovered within The Bob Watson Archive at the SJT.

As anyone who is a fan of Alan Ayckbourn will know, the vast majority of his writing has premiered in Scarborough in one of the three homes of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The majority of these have also been staged in-the-round for which Alan predominantly writes; the idea that Scarborough was ever a try-out for the West End was always nonsensical as Alan writes his plays for in-the-round performance and you can count on one hand and have a couple of fingers and a thumb left over for the number of in-the-round Ayckbourn productions seen in the West End.

The opening state of the two revolves for the original production of A Chorus Of Disapproval (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But being in-the-round applies to most of Alan’s plays, so what makes A Chorus Of Disapproval so special? In 1980, a double revolve was installed in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round for Alan Ayckbourn’s musical Suburban Strains. It was used several times, but did not became a permanent feature of the theatre.

What’s been forgotten – and largely lost over time – is Alan had the double revolve re-installed for the original production of A Chorus Of Disapproval; a central circle revolve with a second revolve running around it so the stage could revolve in two different directions. Alan wanted to keep the staging for A Chorus Of Disapproval as simple as possible and – working with the designer Edward Lipscomb and lighting designer Francis Lynch – came up with the idea that a few props moved into different positions on the revolve alongside different lighting states were all that was needed to keep the play moving quickly whilst giving the audience enough to realise the play had moved into different locations (in Suburban Strains, the revolves had largely been used as a device to indicate where the lead character, Caroline, was in her life as the play flitted backwards and forwards in time). For A Chorus Of Disapproval, it also eliminated the need to haul scenery and props on and off stage between the fast-moving scenes.

Another example of the revolves position from later in the play (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Within The Bob Watson Archive, there are the plans for the states of the revolve for each scene of the play and how they would be moved for each scene. This is recorded nowhere else. Of course, if you have a Samuel French script of A Chorus of Disapproval – or indeed any of Alan’s plays – there’s rarely any mention of staging them in the round and they frequently give the inaccurate impression of being intended for end-stage performance. But, more than this, the revolve is not even reflected in the original rehearsal manuscripts. The stage directions, whilst obviously written with the round in mind, do not refer to the revolves, so all decisions regarding this were made by the director whilst in rehearsal.

Given A Chorus Of Disapproval is one of the most frequently performed Ayckbourn plays since 1984, it is extraordinary to think that it has never been staged again as the playwright originally envisaged and produced – and likely never will given the impracticalities of installing double revolves or even working out how the play was originally produced with them.

But it’s a fine example of how archives can offer insights that would otherwise not be recorded or preserved for posterity. Were it not for the discovery of the plans for the revolves at The Bob Watson Archive, it would be barely remembered how unique the original production of the play was.

Into The Archive: Correspondence – Part 1 Peggy Ramsay

In the list of the most influential people in Alan Ayckbourn’s life, it would be fair to say the literary agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay had a huge impact.

And she is also the perfect person to introduce to one of the most significant aspects of the Ayckbourn Archive. When the University of York acquired the Ayckbourn Archive for the nation in 2011, more than a tonne of written material from 1957 to 2006 was transferred into the Borthwick Institute for Archives. A substantial proportion of that was derived from the voluminous correspondence kept by Alan.

Indeed, alongside the press cuttings and articles, correspondence makes up the most significant proportion of the Archive. In decades to come, anyone researching the life and plays of Alan Ayckbourn will find this an invaluable resource chronicling as it does key moments and people within the playwright’s long career.

(1) Correspondence between Peggy and the West End producer Peter Bridge from January 1968. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd.

Which brings us back to Peggy, as she was known to her playwrights. Peggy was the agent to a swathe of some of the most significant playwrights of the era and can be defined as a huge influence on Alan and his career. Her forthright – often brutally honest opinions – make extraordinary reading as does the lengths she would go to protect her playwrights. Her own Archive is held in the British Library and was recently brought to the public’s attention with the excellent book Peggy To Her Playwrights, edited by Colin Chambers and within which a number of letters to Alan are featured.

To help get an idea of the type of correspondence held within the Ayckbourn Archive, here we’ll highlight several of the Ayckbourn / Ramsay letters. In future articles, we’ll look at some of the other figure who feature in correspondence in the article such as Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, and West End producer, Michael Codron.

(2) Correspondence between Peggy and Alan regarding the Norman Conquests West End transfer in August 1974. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd

The correspondence between Alan and Peggy highlights not only the fondness they had for each other, but also her forthright character. The pair didn’t always agree, particularly over Alan’s playwriting, but she remains an inordinately important influence and key to Alan Ayckbourn’s career and the combination of both the correspondence held between the University of York and the British Library offers an unparalleled insight into Alan Ayckbourn and British theatre from the period.

The first example (1) is actually between Peggy and the West End producer Peter Bridge, who was responsible for Alan’s first major West End success, Relatively Speaking in 1967 at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Although a huge success for Alan, Bridge over-ran the play and began asking investors and rights-holders to forego royalties. This was not unusual in the West End, but it was something Peggy felt strongly about as can be discerned from the letter which discourages such behaviour from producers.

Later correspondence between Alan, Peggy and Bridge held in Archive chronicles the deterioration in their relationship when Bridge felt that Peggy and Alan had betrayed him by allowing Michael Codron (with whom Alan had a phenomenally successful relationship in the West End from the ’70s to the ’90s) to produce his work.

Correspondence from Alan to Peggy regarding It Could Be Any One Of Us in November 1984. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd.

For the second example (2), we move to the 1970s and, arguably, Alan’s most famous creation The Norman Conquests. The trilogy had a rather torturous path to the West End after its premiere in Scarborough in 1973. As West End managements were not necessarily convinced the public would be willing to go to the theatre on three occasions to see a play, they demurred from taking it on. Which led to Alan and the Greenwich Theatre initially staging the production before it transferred into the West End with Codron producing. The letter demonstrates Peggy’s forthright thoughts and why she feels Alan’s suggestion that Round And Round The Garden shouldn’t be the first play to be seen. In actual fact, Alan was just trying to dispel the notion that there was a correct order to the play and that Table Manners was the ‘first’ play of the trilogy. It had actually been produced first of the three plays in Scarborough purely for practical reasons, the actor playing Norman wasn’t available for the start of rehearsals, hence why Norman doesn’t appear until well into the play! Alan was just trying to discourage this from gaining traction. Sadly it was a losing battle as most productions off the trilogy tend to open with Table Manners despite Alan’s insistence that there is no correct order to either producing or seeing the plays.

Another decade and another letter with Alan writing to Peggy regarding his random murderer thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us (3). When originally written, there was generally deemed to be an issue with the play as it was a whodunnit without a murder. At the time, Alan – as can be seen when Peggy raises this issue – took exception to the criticism and argued strongly that it affected the nature of the plot and play. Interestingly, the letter makes note of a possible West End production in 1986 and Alan revising the play. It would never transfer into the West End but, in 1997, Alan would indeed get round to revising it and… oh yes, adding a murder.

Correspondence between Peggy and Alan regarding Woman In Mind from August 1994. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd.

Finally, Peggy’s passion and belief in Alan’s writing can be seen in this extract from a letter regarding Alan’s acclaimed play Woman In Mind (4). This letter is interesting for several reasons, not least in its honesty from Peggy about how she feels the play will be received (her experience of it early in its West End run did not convince Peggy it would be a success) and also how important it is in Alan’s play canon. Of course, Peggy was wrong on the first count (but right on the second) as although the play was generally agreed to have had difficulties in Scarborough, its transfer to the West End with Julia McKenzie was extremely well-received and established the play’s reputation as one of Alan’s key works. The letter also amply demonstrates Peggy’s penchant for writing hand-written notes onto her typed letters; this being prior to common usage of word-processors. Peggy’s letters are often crammed to the margin with her hand-written notes and corrections providing fascinating insights into her thought processes.

Although these four letters only cover the tiniest amount of correspondence between Alan and Peggy in archive, I hope they give a brief glimpse and insight into this fascinating relationship. Peggy was Alan’s agent until her death in 1991, when Tom Erhardt took over from her (who was also a key figure in Alan’s life). If you would like to know more about Peggy and her extraordinary career, I can highly recommend not only Colin Chambers’ Peggy To Her Playwrights but also his biography of her Peggy: The Life Of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent (Nick Hearn Books, 1997). I end with an extract from the latter, which helps explain why Peggy was so important to Alan.

“He [Alan Ayckbourn] says she had no reason to take him on except her instinct. She admired his technical boldness and liked his point of view (acerbic on marriage and masculinity, symapethic towards the underdog. She saw in the very first plays a wilder writer than was evident in the author of West End successes like Relatively Speaking or How the Other Half Loves, and one who was in touch with human suffering. She did not tell Ayckbourn to write plays of greater ‘relevance’ but did nudge him in the direction of his darker side and responded favourably to his more serious suggestions…. She gave him self-confidence when it mattered. ‘Be generous with your talent,’ she urged, ‘and keep writing.’ She offered him the wisdom of her many years’ experience, on managers, actors, directors and designers. He was glad that she was on his side in negotiations: ‘She would sound off like a fifty-one-gun salvo; you didn’t point Peggy at anyone unless you intended to use her.'”

The Fall & Rise Of The SJT Archive

As an Archivist, I’m occasionally asked if I have any favourite archive-related stories. As it turns out, I do. Several in fact, but my favourite involves my second Archivist role.

In context, I’m privileged to care for two archives. The first of which, obviously, is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archive but I am also the Honorary Archivist for the Stephen Joseph Theatre caring for The Bob Watson Archive.

The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre © Simon Murgatroyd

And my story concerns the slightly alarming history of The Bob Watson Archive and what it is today. Now, this isn’t first-hand and elements are possibly apocryphal – although I’ve heard it from enough people over the years, including the theatre’s late original Archivist Bob Watson – but I have no reason to doubt the essential story is true.

It was approximately three decades into the life of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough – Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre which had been founded in 1955 as the Library Theatre by British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph. There was no actual Archive in the theatre at this point, but material from the company’s early years onwards was kept and stored in an administration office.

Until a fateful day. A member of staff who worked in the office was apparently increasingly irritated by the lack of space to work and all the ‘rubbish’ apparently collecting around them.

As the story goes, it was bin day at the theatre and staff coming to work noticed there were rather a lot of bin bags that morning, but thought little more of it – and why would you? The disposal lorries came along and took away the bin bags, whose contents were never seen again…

And you can see where this is going….

Soon afterwards, it became obvious there was rather more space in that office than there previously had been. And there was rather less of the theatre’s history than there previously had been.

The Archive, this history of the company from 1955 – including material relating to the playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s formative steps into theatre – was lost in an instant. Presumably a treasure trove of historical documents and material all became land-fill or was incinerated. It’s not worth thinking about – or at least I try not to think about it.

Bob Watson – the SJT’s first Archivist © Yorkshire Regional Newspapers

There is a happy ending though for our sad story does not end here. For that, we have to thank Bob Watson, a passionate supporter of the theatre and a founding member of the Friends of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Voluntarily, he took on the role of Archivist and began restoring the Archive by whatever means he could. Given he never had a budget for the Archive, this is more of an achievement than you imagine!

When the company moved to its present home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 1996, Bob was officially named Archivist and for the first time, a permanent space was given to the Archive. Admittedly, this was originally the cloak room for the building, but a late change of plan saw it converted to an office (albeit an office that is not the most spacious in the world with a small, inoperable window looking onto the atrium and a steel beam cutting across the room at a head-cracking height – as my cracked head can testify on numerous occasions). This became the Archive.

Over the years, Bob did an extraordinary job of restoring the Archive, finding programmes, newspapers articles and reviews, photographs and documentation pertaining to the earlier plays as well as keeping it up to date with current productions. It was an exceptional achievement and a job that he was passionate about. He created the foundation upon which the current Archive was built and which proudly documents the entire history of the SJT – including a substantial Ayckbourn collection which includes prompt scripts for his world premieres going back to the 1970s.

Stephen Joseph’s desk, his books and the bear from Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia © Simon Murgatroyd

I got to know Bob whilst researching for my MA on Alan Ayckbourn and I remember with great fondness the moment he showed me the manuscript of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat. I was holding history in my hands and that moment was to play a pivotal role in my life.

A week later, the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s playDrowning On Dry Land took place and with it the first night party. Bob was a huge fan of the parties, usually dancing and photographing the evening away. This party was no different and afterwards he went home where he passed away in his sleep. I suspect Bob could have imagined no better way to go.

Bob had filled me with a passion for the archive and, working as Deputy Box Office Manager at the SJT, I spoke about how Bob’s work needed to be continued and the Archive cared for (as any theatre archivist will tell you, any substantive period of neglect can take months, if not years, to rectify and catch up on). Alan Ayckbourn appointed me Honorary Archivist fitting in work between box office shifts (and occasionally during box office shifts – the dark periods during the winter were a pretty brutal time at the SJT!) This eventually led to me becoming Alan’s own Archivist, which became a full-time role but still incorporated my role as the SJT’s Honorary Archivist.

The Archive collapse of 2018 – the bear could have shown a little more concern © Simon Murgatroyd

In 2011, the SJT renamed the Archive in honour of Bob. It’s a small but substantive archive that now has its own gallery space in the corridor outside as well as a permanent small exhibition space at the front of the office which includes Stephen Joseph’s desk and the six foot tall garden gnome, Monty, from Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch. Like many theatre archives, it relies on goodwill, favours and donations as, until 2018, it had never had a departmental budget (and when Executive Director Steve Freeman allocated £250 for that year, it seemed like a small fortune!) Sadly that same year, the shelving in the Archive collapsed (see photo) leading to a six month period of restoration – although the Archive is now back up and running with far sturdier shelving! I try not to think about that day too….

It is mainly an in-house resource but I’m always delighted to talk to people about both it and Alan’s Archive and occasionally give visitors the extremely cramped tour of the Archive (just mind your heads on the beam). And in particular tell the tale of how it was once nearly all lost when someone threw everything away just to make a little more room in their office!

Into The Archive: The Scripts

So far in this weekly-ish blog, we’ve asked what is an Archivist? (not, sadly, as someone suggested, a nemesis for Doctor Who) and why Alan Ayckbourn is significant in British Theatre.

But what, you may ask (or not), is the Ayckbourn Archive and what is held in it? I don’t know what you think of – if anything – when you picture an archive, but I tend to gravitate towards vast library stacks in subterranean cellars with automated storage and retrieval systems (but then I need to get out more) or perhaps you think of dusty rooms full of box files (closer to the truth, although hopefully lacking the dust) or perhaps, you have no concept of what an archive might be.

The truth, as far as the Ayckbourn Archive is concerned, is a lot of document wallet boxes, folders, ring binders and file boxes held between the Borthwick Institute of Archives at the University of York (material between 1959 and 2006) and in Scarborough (predominantly material between 2006 to the present day) alongside a couple of iMacs where much of the archive is also stored in a digital format.

The Ayckbourn Archive is, essentially, a historical collection of material pertaining to Alan Ayckbourn and his professional theatre career. It began, informally, in the 1960s from articles and reviews haphazardly collated into scrapbooks and grew exponentially from there.

Over a series of articles, I’ll be looking at different areas of the Archive, illustrating them with some of my favourite pieces. We begin with the foundation of the Archive which is, naturally enough, Alan’s plays.

The first page of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat (© Haydonning Ltd)

The Ayckbourn Archive – and when we say this, this is the entire Ayckbourn Archive across what is held both by the Borthwick Institute and the playwright in Scarborough – holds an entire collection of play-scripts from his first play, The Square Cat (and several earlier, unproduced plays) through to his latest, Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present (and truth to tell, beyond, as there are three recent full-length plays as of writing which have yet to be produced).

The early manuscripts are obviously the rarest and most valuable with Alan’s second play, Love After All, being the rarest of the scripts; there is believed to be only one extant copy of the manuscript for this and it is held in the British Library with a copy held in the Ayckbourn Archive. The Square Cat, comparably, is surprisingly profligate with originals held by the Ayckbourn Archive, the British Library, Manchester University and personally by the playwright.

The cover of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Sparrow (© Haydonning Ltd)

Probably the rarest manuscript in the actual Ayckbourn Archive is his 1967 play The Sparrow for which it is believed there are only two surviving copies (and intriguingly it is not listed within the British Library online catalogue). Given the play has only been performed once for just three weeks, it is a genuine Ayckbourn curiosity not least because the production featured the actors John Nettles and Robert Powell as well as the playwright’s wife, Heather Stoney.

Original manuscripts of all the early withdrawn plays can be found in the Ayckbourn Archive which include: The Square Cat (1959, original), Love After All (1959, copy), Dad’s Tale (1960, original), Standing Room Only (1961, original), Christmas V Mastermind (1962, copy), Mr Whatnot (1963, original) and The Sparrow (1967, original). The Archive also holds the original permutations of Relatively Speaking (originally titled Meet My Father and substantially different to the the play today) and the early permutations of Family Circles produced originally as The Story So Far… and then Me Times Me before eventually becoming Family Circles; an awful lot of effort for a play which Alan later admitted he wished he’d ‘left it alone.’

An original Absurd Person Singular manuscript from 1972 (© Haydonning Ltd)

Original typed manuscripts are held for all the classic plays from the 1970s from Absurd Person Singular through to The Norman Conquests – two of which written and originally produced under the far less catchy titles of Fancy Meeting You (Table Manners) and Make Yourself At Home (Living Together), Bedroom Farce to Taking Steps. In the 1980s, there is the original three-act version of Season’s Greetings featuring Uncle Harvey’s unseen off-stage wife, Shirley, as well as the revised, definitive two-act version in which Shirley was later excised.

The earliest complete draft of the musical Jeeves (© Haydonning Ltd)

For fans of flop musicals – and who doesn’t love a flop musical? – the Archive holds several permutations of Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s notorious 1975 collaboration Jeeves. An in-depth discussion of the development of the scripts can be found here, and here, but in archive there is the original 202 page script An Evening With Bertram Wooster – which is a mind-boggling length. In context, the revised 154 page script apparently ran for five-and-a-half hours during the original run-through!

An example of Alan’s hand-written pencil notes, here for Season’s Greetings (© Haydonning Ltd)

Prior to 1984, Alan hand-wrote all his first drafts before dictating the plays for typing. As a result, a number of hand-written first drafts are held in archive and which provide a fascinating insight into Alan’s playwriting process and his desire to doodle on practically every piece off paper he’s ever been given. They also illustrate his – and I hope he will forgive me for this – torturously difficult to read hand-writing. In archive, there is an original hand-written copy of his seminal play Absurd Person Singular just waiting to be ‘translated’ by someone with a lot of patience and very keen eyesight.

One of my favourite manuscripts is A Chorus Of Disapproval, for which only the first act in handwritten first draft form exists. This was due entirely to Alan coming into possession of his first word-processor midway through the writing process. The first draft of Act 1 was hand-written, Act 2 typed and edited until the final draft. It’s an intriguing idea that we can place the moment so exactly when technology affected a writer’s life so completely. Not widely known now is that Alan dictates all his work now into a computer with voice recognition software (it’s subtly alluded to in his 82nd play, Better Off Dead).

Perhaps surprisingly, it is only in more recent years that we tend to have differing drafts of the plays. But prior to A Chorus Of Disapproval, Alan would hand-write the manuscript and then dictate it for typing and which became the first and, usually, final draft; it’s worth considering that prior to 1987, Alan tended to write his plays to the latest possible deadline (the day before rehearsals) so the turn around of writing to producing manuscripts was frequently little more than a week and didn’t leave much time for second or third drafts. After 1984, Alan tended to edit completely on his word processor, later computer, and only the final draft would tend to be kept.

An original manuscript for the first production of Make Yourself At Home – later to become famous as Living Together from The Norman Conquests (© Haydonning Ltd)

Of course, technology has had a huge effect and by the 1990s, a certain magic is lost. The certain magic of opening an aged, typed 1970s script with hand-written notes, sellotaped in inserts and accompanying errors is lost with cleanly bound, word-perfect, Arial font manuscripts. Perhaps that’s just me though!

Alongside all the full-length plays, there are also manuscripts for all the revues, adaptations, one act plays, children’s plays and miscellany alongside the ‘grey’ plays, unused notes and other treasures. But we’ll save those for another blog!

The Significance of Alan Ayckbourn

Tomorrow Alan Ayckbourn will celebrate his 80th birthday, while July will mark the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut.

Alan Ayckbourn ©Tony Bartholomew
(mail@bartpics.co.uk)

As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, it’s obvious to me why Alan is so significant to British Theatre. But on this special occasion, I believe it’s well worth re-iterating his immense contribution and achievements over six decades.

In the list of playwrights who began their careers in the 20th century, there are very few who can say they’ve achieved quite so much as Alan Ayckbourn. He was once described as a ‘theatrical animal’ and it’s an accurate description. He began his life as a stage manager and actor, he’s been both lighting and sound technician, he’s a playwright – obviously – and an acclaimed director, he’s been an Artistic Director and has dedicated his life to the theatre. He frequently notes that his proudest achievement is not all the plays nor all the awards, but the conversion of Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema into a permanent home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, for the company he joined in 1957 and which was created in 1955 by his most influential mentor and father-figure, Stephen Joseph. It’s not perhaps what most people would presume Alan is proudest of, but it shows his commitment to what he has always loved.

Alan’s achievements are frequently measured in quantity: he’s written 83 plays and no other living British playwright has produced that many plays. But quantity does not always necessarily equate to quality (although I’d argue Alan has achieved both!) So let’s ask why his playwriting career is so significant.

Alan began writing professionally in 1959 at the age of 20 with the premiere of his first play, The Square Cat, at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. By the age of 22, he had his first play to be optioned for both the West End and for television with Standing Room Only (alas, neither made the transition). At 25, his had his first West End transfer with Mr Whatnot. Sadly, that wasn’t a success. Three years later, Relatively Speaking was and Alan became an overnight sensation with comparisons to the likes of Noël Coward.

And Coward even recognised this major new talent with a telegram (held at the University of York) congratulating him on the success and quality of the play.

Richard Briers & Celia Johnson in the West End premiere of Relatively Speaking (Copyright: Houston Rogers)

Relatively Speaking is still performed around the world to this day, 52 years later. It’s been adapted for television twice as well as for radio. It’s perennially popular and was revived very successfully in the West End in 2013; not many plays five decades on by living playwrights are still being revived today. It was swiftly followed by How The Other Half Loves into the West End in 1969, which was also a phenomenal success, running for two years as well as becoming the first Ayckbourn play to be staged on Broadway.

It’s in 1972, that the real significance of Alan’s work becomes apparent though. With Absurd Person Singular, Alan wrote one of the enduring classics of late 20th century theatre and which is rarely omitted from ‘plays of the century’ lists. It won him his first major award with an Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Over this five year period, he would win three Evening Standard Awards for Best Comedy / play amongst other accolades.

Absurd Person Singular went into the West End where it also ran for two years and would also run on Broadway for more than two years, becoming the second longest running comedy after Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941 – 1943). It’s been produced three times in the West End and twice on Broadway as well as being adapted for television and radio.

It was popular, successful and won critical acclaim. It was also – like How The Other Half Loves – a play which experimented with structure – a recurring theme of Alan’s plays frequently ignored. Where How The Other Half Loves is regarded as the first major play to run events in two locations (occasionally two different times) simultaneously, Absurd Person Singular was the first of Alan’s off-stage plays, taking place in the less obvious location and prominently featuring off-stage characters. In subsequent years, Alan’s desire to experiment with how to tell stories on stage and the sheer possibilities of theatre become a vital aspect of his work. Be it the three viewpoints of The Norman Conquests or the simultaneous staging of two intersecting plays (House & Garden), plays running forward, backwards and in realtime (Time Of My Life) or leaping over the years – forwards or back (Joking Apart, A Brief History of Women & Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present), plays told subjectively (Woman In Mind) or cinematically (Private Fears In Public Places), plays with random elements (Sisterly Feelings, Roundelay) or branching pathways to numerous different endings (Intimate Exchanges). Not to mention the rivers, swimming pools or any other technical challenges he likes to fill his stages with. This is a writer perpetually challenging himself to push the boundary of theatre and how to tell stories.

The Norman Conquests in the West End (copyright: Christopher Davies)

Absurd Person Singular was followed by the award-winning The Norman Conquests trilogy, arguably another ground-breaking experiment with three plays set in different locations within the same household over the course of one weekend. Each play stands individually, but builds in magnitude and humour with each part seen. The London production in 1974 featured a cast of Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendall – most of whom went on to do quite well for themselves, you might say…. It was adapted for television and Alan became the first living playwright to be featured in six hours of British prime-time television and which was a massive hit for PBS in North America, even earning an Emmy nomination. The National Theatre named The Norman Conquests as one of the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century.

When Absent Friends came to the West End in 1975, Alan became the first playwright to have five shows running simultaneously in the West End; the same year saw him become the first playwright to have four plays running simulteously on Broadway.

And all this by the time he was just 36 years old.

In 1977, Alan would direct at the National Theatre for the first time, having been chased down by its Artistic Director, Peter Hall, to write a piece for the new home of the company. Bedroom Farce was the result and it was regarded as the first major commercial success at the National Theatre’s South Bank home and would begin a long and successful relationship between the playwright and the company. Bedroom Farce is, again, another perennial favourite regular revived around the world (and it has subsequently been revived twice in the West End) and the National Theatre’s production was adapted for television.

Let’s mention television because it’s significant. Or rather not. Alan is arguably the only major playwright of his era not to have been lured away by television and film – although plenty of offers have been made. He has written just one short filmed screenplay, but other than that has resolutely avoided the lure of the screen (despite being an admitted cinephile). Whilst there have been more than 30 television or film adaptations of his work, he is rarely involved in any way in any of them. His attention is focused purely on theatre, specifically regional theatre. His championing of and passion for regional theatre and new playwriting cannot be underestimated. And all while based in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough of all places – even my fellow Scarborians I feel would agree this is not the most obvious place to find a world-famous playwright and internationally renowned theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn, Arthur Miller & Michael Gambon (copyright: National Theatre)

The National Theatre would come calling again during the 1980s, when Alan took a sabbatical from Scarborough to become a Company Director at the NT for two years. During that time, he wrote and directed A Small Family Business – regarded as a highly significant play of the 1980s and a great influence on the writer Mark Ravenhill. He also directed Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge with Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone; it won the actor the second of his three Oliviers in just five years, all for productions directed by Alan Ayckbourn! Miller would go on to say it was the best production of his play he had ever seen. Quite an accolade.

Let’s segue to Ayckbourn the director. Alan began directing professionally in 1961 at the age of 22. He has directed more than 350 productions subsequently in his home theatre in Scarborough, in the West End, at the National Theatre as well as on and off Broadway. He is, inarguably, one of the most experienced and acclaimed theatre-in-the-round directors in the world and has ceaselessly championed the form for which the majority of his plays have been written. He remains a consummate director of his own work, constantly pushing himself and anyone fortunate enough to have seen his production of Joking Apart last year would be hard pressed to argue that, 40 years after its debut, this was the definitive production – beautifully directed by Alan and performed by his Scarborough company.

Back to the playwriting and if we can agree that Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests – at the very least – are classics of 1970s British Theatre, then the 1980s has an equally enviable hoard to choose from: A Chorus Of Disapproval, Woman In Mind, A Small Family Business and Man Of The Moment amongst others. All could convincingly argue for a place in important plays of that decade.

These plays also highlight an important if neglected fact about Alan. People have often tried to pigeon-hole him and his work – farceur, comedy writer, situation comic – but even a cursory glance at his canon reveals that is inaccurate and unfair. He is far more diverse than he is often given credit for. In Alan’s mind, he writes plays. Not comedies or tragi-comedies or farces or any other label, just plays. Because the best plays – whoever writes them – rarely are just one thing. The best plays balance light and dark, joy and sadness. The best Ayckbourn plays can take you from laughter to tears in an instant. And he’s not just a suburban situation comedy writer as many would have it, he’s written thrillers, musicals, tragi-comedies, speculative fiction, whodunnits and yes, farces. But what is common to practically all Alan’s plays – and is a factor in his popularity around the globe and over time – is he deals in universals. He explore themes common to us all such as relationships, family and how we communicate with each other. The relationship between men and women is at the core of many of his plays and no doubt explains why his work has been translated into more than 35 languages (including Welsh, Japanese, Hebrew, Icelandic, Cantonese – even Esperanto) and have been performed from England to Australia, North America to Russia, continually for five decades.

Janie Dee in the world premiere of Comic Potential © Tony Bartholomew

During the 1990s, Alan dedicated himself to the Odeon / Stephen Joseph Theatre project. On top of everything else, Alan is one of the longest serving Artistic Directors this country has seen. From 1972 to 2009, he was Artistic Director of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre, successfully running a theatre company whilst writing and directing in Scarborough and London. This is a decade which also saw plays such as Comic Potential – firmly launching the actress Janie Dee into the public eye, who credits Alan and Scarborough as being touch-stones of her formative years in theatre – and House & Garden; Alan returning to the National Theatre and essentially taking over the whole building with two plays sharing the same cast running simultaneously in The Olivier and the Lyttelton before spilling out into a foyer converted into a village fair. It wasn’t widely reported at the time, but Artistic Director Richard Eyre dismissed criticisms of the NT being too populist with this production by noting that at a difficult time financially, House & Garden essentially provided the financial success the NT needed to keep itself afloat.

Regarding London’s West End, it’s important to emphasise just how much of a contribution Alan has made. Take a deep breath. For every year between 1970 and 2000, Alan had between one and five plays running in the West End and / or at the National Theatre. 39 of his 83 plays have been produced in the West End (not including the fringe). He has had plays produced by the National Theatre (11 at the last count), The Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has directed more than 40 productions in London and is believed to be the only playwright to have had productions running simultaneously in the West End, at the National Theatre and on the London fringe.

He’s also been recognised for his many contributions to British theatre. In 1987, he received a CBE and in 1997 was Knighted for services to theatre; the first playwright to be knighted since Terence Rattigan. He is the only playwright to have received both the Olivier and Tony Special Awards, recognising his achievements on both sides of the Atlantic. His work and plays have also received almost 40 major awards during his lifetime.

Can we seriously argue by this point that Alan Ayckbourn is anything but a hugely significant figure in British Theatre? There is more than enough there for anyone to be proud of or to aspire too. Yet he keeps writing and directing. In the 2000s, Alan reached his 70th birthday and suffered a stroke and, perhaps understandably, began to lighten his load. He stepped down as Artistic Director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and turned his attention solely to regional theatre; his last new work to be seen in London was the Damsels In Distress trilogy in 2001 and his most recent stint as a director in the West End was directing Janie Dee in the highly acclaimed revival of his play Woman In Mind in 2009.

Matthew Cottle in the world premiere of Neighbourhood Watch (copyright: Tony Bartholomew)

Yet he was still writing and still writing plays of note. I would challenge anyone to not consider Private Fears In Public Places (2004) and Neighbourhood Watch (2011) as significant pieces of contemporary British drama and – in the case of the latter – alarmingly prescient of the state of the nation; although Alan has always been particularly good at predicting trends. Just look back to Absurd Person Singular and how it is held as a pre-cursor to the rise of Thatcherism and ruthless entrepreneurialism. He has discovered a new audience for his work with his bi-annual trips to the Brits Off Broadway festival in New York since 2005, where he is lauded now more than he ever previously been in the Big Apple.

And all the while, he has largely shunned the limelight and the fame, preferring to live in Scarborough, concentrating on his playwriting and directing, shining the spotlight on and supporting regional theatre as well as encouraging young playwrights. Talk to Tim Firth or Torben Betts or any number of playwrights who got their breaks at Scarborough to hear how influential Alan has been in helping and launching their writing careers.

But there’s one other thing which also makes Alan significant. Which can’t be measured or weighed, which isn’t tied to facts or figures. It is the people he has inspired and the passion for theatre he encourages. This isn’t just the uncountable number of people around the world who have enjoyed Alan’s plays over the decades. Talk to those who have worked with him, – from actors to designers, directors to writers, box office staff to administrators – and you’ll hear about a man who has encouraged and inspired others in the theatre. He inspires an extraordinary loyalty amongst people who have worked with him and I steadfastly believe he has opened the eyes of many people to the limitless exciting possibilities of theatre. He certainly inspired me when I saw my first Ayckbourn play at the age of 16 and I doubt I’d be working in the theatre today if not for his encouragement and belief in me. I know many other people who would say the same. Alan’s passion and pleasure in working in the theatre is contagious and that, to me, is just as significant as anything else he has achieved. He has given so many people, so many extraordinary experiences in the theatre.

So let there be no doubt, Alan Ayckbourn is significant. British Theatre would be a lot poorer without him and his plays. As he celebrates his 80th birthday and 60th playwriting anniversary, one can only say, long may it continue and congratulations from one of the many, many people inspired by all you have achieved.

Archiving Ayckbourn

Simon Murgatroyd – Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist shamelessly promoting his own book…

I’m Simon Murgatroyd and I’m Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist.
Not so much a declaration from the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but from AA (Alan Ayckbourn).
I’ve been in this role since 2005 and this website (www.archivingayckbourn.com) and this blog are a little opportunity to talk about my work. If you’re looking for someone talking about Alan Ayckbourn specifically, may I recommend you head over to the 4,500 pages of my website www.alanayckbourn.net – there should be enough to satiate your curiosity there.
And if not, then I’m not doing my job.
And, I suppose, that’s a very good place to start. What is my job and what does it entail?
I get asked two questions very frequently: 1) What do you do? ‘I’m an Archivist’and 2) What’s an Archivist? Someone who archives’.
OK, I don’t really say that, but I’d like to.
The truth is my role as an Archivist is very different I suspect to the majority of other Archivists out there – even theatre Archivists. Because I’m rather specific. I’m Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist. I specifically deal with the works and career of the Scarborough-based playwright and director.
I think I may be the only Archivist dedicated to a living playwright out there, but not only do I stand to be corrected, I’d also love to hear from any other Archivists in a similar situation. It’s a lonely occupation!
So what is it I do? There are two foundations upon which my job is built. Maintaining the Alan Ayckbourn Archive and running the playwright’s official website www.alanayckbourn.net. On top of which, there are then built an ever-shifting array of jobs, which constantly make my work fascinating and totally enjoyable – I’m in my dream job after all!
The Alan Ayckbourn Archive is split between the playwright’s personal physical Archive and a digital archive. The majority of the physical Archive, which is now out of my hands, resides in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. The university acquired the archive for the nation in 2011 and more than a tonne in weight of written material was taken into Archive. The Archive at York covers, essentially, Alan’s professional theatre career from 1957 to 2006.
Anything since 2006 I’m responsible for updating, maintaining and archiving in preparation for its eventual departure to York to complete the Archive. So in my office, overlooking Scarborough’s South Bay (and which looks gorgeous this afternoon), I have press cuttings, interviews, programmes and other ephemera since 2006 which are all part of the Ayckbourn Archive.
For my own research purposes in the office, I also have a personal archive of approximately 1,000 interviews with Alan since 1963 as well as every published Ayckbourn play script, the majority of published works about Alan and a multi-media collection of work relating to or by Alan.
This then forms the basis of the Digital Archive, which is itself the bedrock of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website. The Digital Archive has more than 50,000 items from throughout Alan’s professional career and includes photographs, posters, correspondence, press cuttings, interviews, the playwright’s own notes and anything else which seems relevant (and as an avid Ayckbourn collector, that’s a pretty broad remit!)
The Digital Archive forms the basis of Alan’s official website and from which information and illustrations are drawn. The website itself (of which more in a future blog) is practically a full-time job in itself. Since its founding in 2001, I have designed, curated, administered and written the entire website. With 4,500 pages which are being constantly updated and expanded on, I suppose it has essentially become my life’s work.
From this, I’m a researcher, writer, resource and anything else you’d care to imagine with regard to Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. I provide answers about Alan and the plays to anyone who enquires, I write articles for the website, publications and programmes (as well as my own book Unseen Ayckbourn), I’m constantly researching for new information and material about Alan as well as adding everything to the Archives and website that’s he’s constantly generating (Alan’s officially premiering play 83 this summer at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but he’s actually finished his 86th…).
So broadly, that’s what I do. That’s what an Archivist is. Or rather what this Archivist is. In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking at my work on the website, with the Stephen Joseph Theatre and all the other things my work entails – as well as offering a glimpse into what’s it’s like to be archiving Ayckbourn.
Which seems like a good point to stop and take a breath.
Welcome to Ayckbourn Archive and the wonderful world I work in, thanks for joining me and I hope you’ll join me again soon.