Alan Ayckbourn: A chorus of approval

Alan Ayckbourn has long been based in Scarborough. Now, he is expanding southward. He tells Ivan Waterman why having a launchpad in Surrey will help his West End openings
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Sir Alan Ayckbourn recalls with a wide grin the moment he was knighted by the Queen in 1997. He was left speechless by an attack of nerves and severe shyness as she informed him: "This is for the good times you have given us." Sadly for Sir Alan, the monarch appeared to be talking in the past tense. The Queen Mother may have been one of his greatest fans, but, after his emergence as a fiery feminist playwright with the acidic Woman in Mind a decade earlier, his later works needed to be vetted before they could be viewed by a royal.

"Yes, they used to come and see me," he says with a smile, relaxing in his artistic director's office in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in the heart of Scarborough. "But my plays took a turn for the worse with them when they became very dark. It wasn't intentional; they just went that way.

"The court would come to see my new work, using their vetting process. They would then mark them down as 'unsuitable for royals of a nervous disposition'. I think they preferred my earlier, lighter farces." He smiles again. "So, there you are. I never thought of myself as 'dangerous' like John Osborne, but I suppose it is something of an accolade, like joining a grown-up club. Well, it didn't do me any harm, did it?"

Indeed not. In fact, the next exciting chapter in the extraordinary life of Britain's most widely performed playwright - William Shakespeare apart - is about to begin, as he forges a special union between North and South. His new parables are to be premièred at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, in Guildford, Surrey, after their usual dry runs at the SJT. There will also be major revivals from the sparkling Ayckbourn back-catalogue as a prelude to nationwide tours, which he will manage and direct.

No, he isn't about to desert his cosy theatrical sanctuary overlooking the North Sea. The venture, he explains, is more in the way of a natural progression in the long association between his base in Yorkshire and the prestigious Surrey venue. Lengthy negotiations were finalised between him and the Yvonne Arnaud's inspirational director, James Barber, before the curtain went up on a short run of Sugar Daddies, playing to packed houses, this year.

Ayckbourn also expects his successful 1982 holiday saga Season's Greetings to be revived and launched on a commercial tour from the YA. Aside from retaining creative control of his productions, he sees financial benefits for everyone involved. "The Yvonne Arnaud is one of the best-run regional theatres in the country," Sir Alan says. "I like the people there and how they treat us. I spoke to Jamie Barber, and we agreed that we should formalise our relationships.

"Regional theatre has been strapped for cash for a long time. I would like to bring back some money. I was looking at some of the tours of my plays, and they were doing very nicely with a couple of stars from Coronation Street and the like. I thought, 'Hold on... why aren't we seeing the profits?' Perhaps it's time to plough that money back into the system."

He describes the Yvonne Arnaud as a "friendly receiving house" where revivals of Bedroom Farce and Damsels in Distress have prospered. The theatre has also hosted the pre-West End runs of Ayckbourn blockbusters such as Woman in Mind. "We have a long history, and this is taking that co-operation one step further," he says.

Sugar Daddies will be the 64th play in a 40-year career: his Mr Whatnot opened at the New Arts Theatre, London, in 1964, though ardent followers point to the West End production of his first major success, Relatively Speaking, three years later as the more genuine theatrical landmark.

Ayckbourn's new offering, Sugar Daddies, is another dark comedic episode, involving an unremarkable girl from a London catering college and an elderly man who is almost killed by a hit-and-run driver while dressed as Santa Claus. The human flotsam and jetsam are united by strife, a theme thoroughly explored in previous Ayckbourn plays. She takes him back to the flat she shares with her sister, and the blue touch-paper is lit. The Christmastime collision results in a bizarre bond between the 20-year-old Sasha and 80-year-old Uncle Val, as he is known. Alison Pargeter and Rex Garner, who took the original roles in Scarborough, are likely to continue all the way through to the West End later this year.

The terrain is typically Ayckbourn, with the male and female of the species re-creating themselves or toying with society's deepest conventions. He plants his emotional mini-bombs liberally throughout, before subtly padding his grand finale with layers of verbal gelignite. He says: "The play is about how we tend to want to reinvent ourselves, to push our James Bond personas. I really like that idea. We want to be somebody else, if only briefly. But that never works, because within 20 minutes or so you are rumbled and people know who you are and where you have come from.

"We are in that kind of age. There is a total obsession with age-gaps at the moment, so we are dealing with topical territory. I have to say the play gets very dark indeed. The main characters are both not what they seem at the outset."

The affable Ayckbourn, 64, was born in London just before the outbreak of the Second World War. He was raised in Sussex and educated at Haileybury, in Hertfordshire. He became a live wire at BBC radio drama in the Fifties, where he was recognised as a senior executive of the future. But his heart lay in writing and the stage, and it wasn't too long before his mentor, Stephen Joseph - son of the publisher Michael Joseph and the actress Hermione Baddeley - encouraged him to put Broadcasting House in his past and join him at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.

Ayckbourn's private life was in turmoil, providing him with artistic inspiration for all the wrong reasons. He was just 19 when he married the actress Christine Roland. They had two sons, Steven and Philip, by the time he was 26. Their stormy romance ended in volleys of acrimony, which he has never quite forgotten. "Yes, it was not the most happy of times. My biographer pointed out to me how many times I had used the theme of broken marriages in my plays," he says. "I hadn't realised before then how much that part of my life had influenced me. It must have looked as though I was trying to get a message across. For a time, I was actually known in the theatre as the 'scourge of marriage'."

Today, his eldest, Steven, 44, has returned to university to take an IT course, while Philip, 42, runs a theatrical company. "I think I cast rather a giant shadow over both of them," Sir Alan confesses. "Steven wanted to be a production manager. But who knows? He may still end up there. Philip is also starting to write. He shows much promise, but I have always supported them, no matter what."

Shortly after he was knighted, he married his long-term partner and personal assistant, the former actress Heather Stoney. They live a short walk away from his office at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in a row of interlinked Victorian properties, and he maintains a bolthole in London. The Scarborough auditorium, converted from an Odeon cinema, became his "home" more than 30 years ago.

Inspired originally by film comedy greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his plays have been translated into 35 languages and are hugely popular in France, Holland and Germany. "Why? I don't really have an explanation," he says. "But it seems that certain aspects, foibles, of British humour, do travel. I am very glad of it." Sadly, when his plays have been adapted for the silver screen, paying customers have been seen rushing for the exits. He diplomatically prefers not to analyse why Michael Winner's star-studded version of his operatic piece A Chorus of Disapproval hit all the wrong notes.

No, the patron saint of the chattering classes has more to occupy his mind. He could retire tomorrow and live well from the royalties that continuously flood in from The Norman Conquests and Bedroom Farce, but he always feels the urge to move on. The gangly theatrical icon is modest about his astonishing, award-winning achievements. Only Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn can lay claim to similar space in modern-day, middle-class, middle-income comedy drama. "I haven't seen Frayn for a long time," he confides. "I am told his latest, Democracy, is very good. Alan Bennett says he doesn't see other plays at all any longer. He'd be worried that it would be a bad experience. He'd hate it if it was good; or he'd still feel awful because he didn't write it, which is very Bennett-like. I see more because I run a theatre. I have to. I need to know what's happening."

Ask the genial Ayckbourn about his favourite piece of work, and he responds: "That's the play I have yet to write! You never know what is around the corner. But I promise you I am still just as enthusiastic now as I was when I got cracking back in the Sixties."

'Private Fears in Public Places', Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (01723 370541; tonight to 4 September. 'Season's Greetings', Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (01483 440000; 6 to 16 October. 'Sugar Daddies' opens in the West End next year