Playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn at 80: why the seaside suits him - and how watching black and white movies as a kid inspired his writing

Think of Scarborough ...  sea, sand, kiss-me-quick hats, rock, slot machines, donkeys, deckchairs, ice-creams ... and Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Thursday, 28th March 2019, 5:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th March 2019, 6:08 pm
Playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn turns 80 in April
Playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn turns 80 in April

When it was suggested that the multi award-winning playwright is as synonymous with the resort as smutty postcards, he laughed heartily and said: “That’s nice. I like that.”

He came to Scarborough in 1957 by accident – to work with Stephen Joseph at his theatre which was then based at the library – and stayed through choice.

His sons, Stephen and Philip, were born and brought up here in their early years and the town became his home.

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He has lived in an elegant town house in the Old Town for 25 years, a home he shares with his second wife Heather Stoney. “When I heard the theatre was by the seaside it made perfect sense as to why I wanted to come here – so I came and it was seaside plus,” he said.

“It is the size of the place I like. I’m not a big urban writer. I could not write about Birmingham, Manchester or London with any comfort.

“Most of my plays are set in smaller communities than that. I was known as a suburban writer for some time. I think of myself as a small-town writer,” said Alan.

“Scarborough for that reason remains interesting to me. Everybody sorts of knows each other and in that way it is like a large village.

“They have certainly heard of each other, even if they don’t recognise one another in the street. At the same time it has an enormous flow of people coming through it – holidaymakers and newcomers.

“It has a cosmopolitan feel and yet at the same time it is essentially English. Scarborough has all the national concerns and smaller concerns of its own,” he said.

Scarborough is where he started writing plays – the first was The Square Cat for the Stephen Joseph company in the summer of 1959 and Stephen, who was his mentor, commissioned a second play, Love After All, for the winter of 1959.

His 83rd play Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present opens at the Stephen Joseph later this year and though not about his own special day is a nod to the fact he will be 80 on April 12.

Alan was artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 1972 to 2009.

A stroke in 2006 continues to take its toll physically and he stepped down from the role.

It did not slow down his brain. He has put the finishing touches to his 86th play.

“When I ran the theatre I was there nearly every day. Now I am rarely there except for when my shows are on.

“That leaves me an awful lot of the year to play around with writing.

“I am pathologically incapable of sitting still without at least the thought of a play in my head and I would be very lonely if I did not have a few characters writhing around in my brain.”

Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present moves backwards – the antithesis of A Brief History of Women, his plays from two years ago.

“Playwriting is an exercise in storytelling and keeping several dozen people on the edge of their seats for two hours.

“The way it is told is almost as important as what it says. I always feel I do not want to start a play until the journey I am going on. You can change your mind – go via Malton or Pickering but you will get to York in the end.

“The more you do the more risk you can take because you are sure you are not going to go off road.”

Going to the theatre is a busman’s holiday for Alan. Get him on the subject of books – crime and Jo Nesbo in particular – box sets, TV quiz shows and films – especially films – from Alec Guinness in Man in the White Suit to Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire – then you’re away.

Growing up in London, as kids, Alan and his brother watched up to 16 films a week – sometimes twice.

“We saw a lot of rubbish but we did see some wonderful films, largely black and white.

“That taught me all the basis of structure I needed to know. When I started to write for theatre my brain was working in cinematic terms rather than theatre terms which is why I have bent a few conventions in my time.”

The bending of the rules can also be seen in Season’s Greetings – also in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer programme.

Directed by Alan, it will be the first time the Stephen Joseph has staged the play since its premiere at what was its base at Westwood in 1980.

Alan will celebrate his 80th birthday with his family and later in the year the family will have a special blow-out – to mark Alan’s 80th, his son Stephen’s 60th birthday and his grand-daughter’s 20th birthday. The timing of the party will coincide with his other son’s birthday later this year.