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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'”