Talking gnomes, wives, mothers, virtues and vices with Alan Ayckbourn

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is 79 today.  I saw him a few weeks ago when I was hosting The Oldie magazine's Oldie of the Year Awards and Sir Alan was honoured as the most prolific - and popular - dramatist of our time.  He has 82 full-length plays to his credit, and more in the pipeline.  At the Oldie bash, he gave a wonderful acceptance speech – wry and self-deprecating – but told me afterwards that he had inadvertently forgotten to mention that his new play, due to open Scarborough in September is entitled 'Better Off Dead'!  ‘On second thoughts,’ he added, ‘in view of the occasion, that might been have inappropriate.’

It was a privilege to meet him again - and to meet his wife, Heather.  I had met him before,  sixteen years ago this week, as it happens.  It was the week of his 63rd birthday and of the Queen Mother's funeral.  If you're interested in theatre and the remarkable life of one of our most remarkable playwrights, you might enjoy this account of that encounter.  

April 2002. 

On Tuesday last, after the Queen Mother’s funeral, I went to the Aldwych Theatre off the Strand and had a good laugh.  Queen Elizabeth would have approved.  The play was a revival of Bedroom Farce, starring two of Her Majesty’s favourite comic actors (Richard Briers and June Whitfield) and written by the Queen Mother’s favourite living playwright, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.  ‘Well, yes,’ says Sir Alan, beaming at me like a benevolent gargoyle, ‘she did come to a lot of my plays and, of course, she had the garden gnome from Time and Time Again up at the Castle of Mey.’

Queen Elizabeth saw one of Ayckbourn’s comedies of suburban life at the local repertory theatre in Windsor and took a fancy to the gnome that was a central feature of the set.  At the end of the run, by royal command, the gnome was transported to the grounds of Her Majesty’s Scottish castle.

Richard Briers, Ali G, garden gnomes, Alan Ayckbourn – when it came to popular culture, Queen Elizabeth had the common touch.   With sixty-two plays to his credit (and two more on their way to the West End this autumn), and, per annum, as many revivals as Shakespeare, Ayckbourn, 63 last Friday, is, by a margin, Britain’s most popular, most prolific, most performed, playwright. 

He rarely gives interviews and does not come to London more than he has to.  He is based in Scarborough, the Yorkshire seaside town where he runs (and helps subsidise) the local theatre (specialising in new writing: his own and other people’s) and lives, in some style, in a converted Victorian terrace that was once three houses and a primary school.  He dresses down (canvas shoes, beige slacks, white tee-shirt, slack paunch to the fore), but entertains royally.   He treats me to a four-course dinner in his spacious, gracious candle-lit dining room (polished wood, polished silver, crisp linen, fresh flowers), served by Mary, the housekeeper, and John, the butler (who doubles as an electrical maintenance man at the theatre by day).

Sir Alan (‘I was the first playwright to be knighted since Terence Rattigan.  Tom Stoppard says it was him, but it was me’) has been entertained by The Queen several times.  He has even stayed overnight at Windsor.  Given that family angst is at the heart of much of his drama, I wonder whether he has considered writing a play based on the Royal Family.

‘No,’ he says firmly (he speaks softly, with quiet authority, in a neutral accent, occasionally lapsing into a well-observed funny voice when telling a story), ‘I don’t write about real people.  I might borrow so-and-so’s nose, but all the experiences and feelings in my plays belong to me.  I don’t need to look outside.  I am still mining my own life.’

There is much to mine, starting with Ayckbourn’s ambivalent feelings about his mother, Lolly Worley, a popular novelist, daughter of a Shakespearean actor, a lively lady with a fondness for drink, cigarettes and men.   In the address he wrote for her funeral (she died in 1999, aged 93) her only son concluded, ‘She gave me far more complexes, hang-ups, phobias, prejudices, inspirations and self-insights than any writer has a right to expect from a parent.’   Over dinner, he says to me, more starkly, ‘My mother was a liar,’ and then, waving a hand towards my notebook, checks himself: ‘That sounds too harsh.  She’s dead, poor soul.  My mother was a pathological inventor.  She told me more untruths than truths.’

She told him she had married his father, Horace Ayckbourn, violinist, sometime deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, and ladies’ man, at Marylebone Register Office in 1938.  In fact, she never married him at all.   Alan was fifty-one when he discovered (via his stepfather) that he was illegitimate.  ‘Rather romantic, really,’ he says now.

Lolly had a life-long interest in men: two husbands (as well as Alan’s father), sundry lovers (including the publisher, Michael Joseph), the occasional passing sailor.  ‘Being admired by men is what kept her going,’ says Ayckbourn.  ‘It took her a long time to accept that men weren’t after her any more.  In the nursing home, aged 85, she still thought the twenty-five year old medical orderly had an eye for her.  He hadn’t.  The realisation killed her.  People who haven’t got something to live for no longer live.’

Ayckbourn’s plays are set in Middle England.  Ayckbourn’s parents were raffish middle-class.  Alan was sent to Haileybury.  He says, ‘I have been in Scarborough for forty years, but I haven’t written a Northern play.  Why ?  Because everything of me was formed when I lived in London and Sussex between the ages of four and seventeen.  It was a rich childhood for a writer.  The rows going on around me were instructive.’

He recalls his mother hitting his stepfather (a local bank manager) over the head with a spoonful of mashed potato.  He remembers how Lolly threw his father’s framed photograph at him in fury, ‘telling me all men were bastards’.   He is not sure how his parents came to part.  ‘My father may have had one affair too many  He was at the front of the strings section.  He just had to turn around and there was another curvaceous second violinist, and off he went.’  Horace died of cancer, aged sixty, when Alan was seventeen.  ‘I only saw him for odd weeks here and there in the school holidays, but we had a similar sense of humour.’  Ayckbourn talks about his parents dispassionately, as though they were characters in a play.  Lolly used to complain of her son’s failure to show emotion and Ayckbourn acknowledges that when a trauma occurs, such as the death of his father, he appears not to react.  He says to me, ‘I think I spread the emotion out over several years.’   

Ayckbourn describes his childhood as ‘lonely rather than miserable’.   His abiding memory is of listening to his mother and her friends.  ‘As a child, I heard a lot of women’s talk,’ he says.

Ayckbourn left school (with two A Levels), became an actor (Worthing, Leatherhead, Sir Donald Wolfit’s company), and then found himself in Scarborough, where he came under the influence of the artistic director of the local theatre, a champion of new writing, Stephen Joseph (son of Michael Joseph and Hermione Gingold).   Encouraged by Joseph, Ayckbourn turned from acting to writing and, from the outset, his plays revealed a special sympathy with women.  ‘I realised when I was quite young that girls were getting less of a shout than men,’ he says.  ‘In many ways things have got better for women over the past forty years.  The progress for women has meant correspondingly increased confusion for men.  That’s what I have chronicled in my plays.’

What, I ask him, since’s he’s the master, is the essential difference between men and women ?

‘Men don’t listen.  They like to be listened to.  A bloke sees himself as Mr Fixit.  Tell him your problem and he says at once, “What you should do is . . .”  Women understand instinctively that there is a time to listen.  They know men are good for taking the tops off bottles, but they need their girlfriends to listen to them.  If you want to kill a woman, take away her girlfriends.’

On the night of my visit to Scarborough, Ayckbourn’s wife, actress Heather Stoney, is away, visiting her sister.   Ayckbourn and Stoney have lived together for thirty years, but only married in 1997.   How come ?  ‘Inertia, really,’ he says, with a shrug.  ‘My first wife, Chris [another actress, Christina Roland], and I married very young, had the boys [two sons, now aged 43 and 41] and separated quite early.  We didn’t get round to a divorce.  I settled with Heather, and then the “K” came up, and I knew that Heather would like to be Lady Ayckbourn, so I said, “Would you like to be married?”   She said, “It might ruin everything.”  It hasn’t, I don’t think.  And the way the timing of the divorce happened, Chris got to be Lady Ayckbourn as well.  She uses it occasionally.  I think she quite likes it.’

Ayckbourn is an odd mix.    He plays the relaxed, easy-going, egalitarian but, at the same time, he is clearly keen on his K (‘Though people singularly fail to cope with it .  The milkman said, “Congratulations on your knighthood, Mr Ayckbourn”’)  and I reckon his six honorary degrees and two honorary fellowships are important to his sense of self-esteem.

Within the theatre, he plays the shy-yet-affable, senior-yet-accessible company man, but I imagine he is single-minded in the pursuit of his goals and doesn’t let old affections get in the way of what he wants.  In recent days I have spoken with four actors who know him well and like him a lot: each, unprompted, used the word ‘ruthless’ with regard to him.

Ayckbourn is a self-proclaimed hands-on man of the theatre (‘I’m up at the front end, I’m at the helm’), and famously the man who understands women, but when it comes to all the tedious tasks – running the house, doing the VAT - he lets Heather take the strain.   His plays have been translated into thirty languages and are performed around the world.   How many millions has he made ?  ‘I don’t know what the money is,’ he says, ‘Honest.  Heather sorts out the paperwork.  She is my conscience.’  

She is also, I imagine, the person who enables him to do precisely what he wants.  He wants to eat, drink, swim a few lengths in his pool, direct plays, write plays, run his theatre.  That’s all.   When the going gets unpleasant, he can slip quietly into the rehearsal room or close the study door.  For his mother’s funeral, he wrote the eulogy, but he got Heather to deliver it.  When his mother was in the nursing home, Alan mostly stayed away.  His wives did the visiting for him.

We spend five hours together.   He is funny, easy, gracious throughout.  When I ask him to summarise the virtues and vices of the English, he obliges at once:

‘Vices?  The ability to isolate ourselves from each other; the delight men take in not understanding women; the way we mistrust art.  Overseas, you get respect from being a playwright.  Not here.  And then there’s class.   Put three Englishmen on a desert island and within an hour they’ll have invented a class system.   Virtues?  We have a sense of humour; we are basically well-intentioned; we love animals and we never complain.  You go down to the beach and they’re all sitting there, in a Force 9 gale, with a light sleet coming in, doggedly determined to make the best of it.  It’s very impressive.’

When I ask him about himself, he is less forthcoming.  ‘I don’t like being criticised,’ he says, slowly, after a pause.  ‘I get depressed, just for a couple of days, when a new play has opened.  I lose all confidence.  On first nights I give super parties, but I never stay to the end.  I have to leave before I get maudlin.  It’s the same as the end of a love affair.

Throughout dinner he maintains good eye contact, but keeps his distance.  He looks open, but he feels tight shut.   He gossips, but gives little away.  We have a number of friends in common.  They really seem to love him: he talks about them with much less feeling. 

I don’t think being unreachable is a pose.  It’s a protective habit.  It’s just the way he is, wrapped up in himself and, mostly, content to be so.  He is a writer, after all, a professional observer.  He admits to me, ‘Even when I’m doing something spontaneously, I think, as I’m doing it, “I’ll use that”.’  

‘So’, I say, as we drain the last of the Rully, ‘if I’m after the real Alan Ayckbourn . . . ‘   ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘go see one of the plays.  There are plenty to choose from.’  He grins at me, mirthlessly, with beady eyes.  He is the Cheshire Cat.  Just as you think you’ve pinned him down, he disappears.

Gyles Brandreth