Alan Ayckbourn: You Ask The Questions

(Such as: have you ever caught anyone walking out of one of your plays? And why do you choose to live in Scarborough?)
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The Independent Online

The playwright Alan Ayckbourn was born in London in 1939. His mother, Irene, was a novelist, and his father, Horace, a violinist who left home when he was eight. On leaving school, Ayckbourn became an actor before writing his first play, The Square Cat, in 1959. Since then he has written over 60 more, including The Norman Conquests and Just Between Ourselves. After Shakespeare, he is the second most performed playwright in the world. Knighted in 1997, he lives in Scarborough with his second wife, Heather, and has two sons from his first marriage.

You were the Queen Mother's favourite playwright and once spent a night at Windsor Castle. Would you ever write a play about that particular family?
Sue Hayes, Southampton

No. I don't fancy the Tower. Plus, I never write about real people. I write about amalgams of real people. Two or three people might go towards making one character - and there's always a large dose of me in there somewhere. The royals were big fans of mine. But I think I got a bit dark for the poor old Queen Mum with Woman in Mind. Her advisors told me she probably wouldn't want to see a woman going gently batty, which is what happens in that particular play. She liked the early comedies like Time and Time Again. I know she took home the garden gnome from the set of the Windsor production of that play.

I heard a story that your mother once hit your stepfather over the head with a spoon of mashed potato? Was she an inspiration for your later work?
Bella Lim, by e-mail

Yes, it's true. My mother was a big influence. She probably started me writing, because she was a writer. If she'd been a plumber, I probably would've been welding happily to this day. She was an eccentric. When she had problems with her second marriage, I brought her to London and found her a job and a flat. Then I moved to Scarborough and she followed me there, becoming a waitress. She wrecked the restaurant and they fired her. She was good stuff. Bits of her were always popping up in my plays.

Have you ever walked out of a play? Have you ever caught anyone walking out of one of yours?
Jo Pattenden, Colchester

I've walked out of productions of my plays quite a lot. I walked out of one terrible matinee performance of Family Circles halfway through the first act. It was like watching someone drawing a moustache on my baby. As I stood up, a man sitting behind me got up as well and said, "Are you leaving, too? I don't blame you." I didn't have the heart to tell him I was the writer.

You and your wife have been together for decades, but you only married in 1997. Is living in sin the secret of a happy relationship?
Liam Turner, Pulborough

Well, I got very nervous after my first marriage ended. We were married so ridiculously young. We mutually wrecked that marriage and I was anxious not to do that again. I decided to get married in 1997 because I thought, "Well, we're turning 60 now. It'd be nice to make an honest woman of her." I also managed to time it so that both my first and my current wife can call themselves Lady Ayckbourn, if they wish. I thought they both deserved it. However it's only when we're opening garden fetes that we use our titles really.

What is it about Scarborough? Do you enjoy sitting on the beach having freezing picnics? And what do you find to spend your money on there?
Karen Browne, London

It's the perfect place for me to write. It's small enough to allow me to observe its society. I sit in restaurants quite often and listen to the conversation at the next door table. I've seen some tragic events unfolding from behind my menu. It's an awful habit, but my wife has got used to my glazed look. Those conversations often turn up in my plays. As for Scarborough, I don't sit on the beach, but I do walk a bit. I spend my money on CDs, DVDs and food and drink.

You are our most prolific playwright. Do we take you seriously enough?
Ben Tyler, by e-mail

I think so. The death of all plays is scholastic analysis. Academics are always finding meanings in my plays that don't exist. One phoned me up and said, 'I've been doing my thesis on Absurd Person Singular and I hope you agree with my theory on what the title means in relation to the play.' I didn't have the heart to say that I'd thought of the title years before while talking to my wife and thought, 'If I ever get stuck for a title, I'll use that.' It has no relevance to the play whatsoever.

Are you a fan of Big Brother? Do you enjoy snooping on the lives of 'real people'? Or are made-up people more interesting?
Caroline Walker, Newcastle

No. I don't think of Big Brother contestants as real people. They are in such an artificial situation, acting up for the cameras. It's like when I meet people who say, "I've got a great idea for a play!" Those are the very people I dodge. It's the things that people give away by mistake that are interesting - not their public front.

How long does it take you to write a play?
Gina Wright, Basingstoke

I conceive the play over a period of about nine months to a year. It just grows in my head, nothing is written down. I write it in about 10 days, on average. If I hit a serious block, I tend to just throw the thing away. I don't work all night. I don't eat much in the day so at 6pm, it's time to stop work for a glass of wine and a good meal.

You started out as an actor. Did we lose a fine theatrical talent when you became a writer?
Paula Hanmer, London

I was a competent actor. I was pretty good at villains - guys with staring eyes, saying things like, "You're in deadly danger in this house, my dear". I wasn't trained, so I didn't have a full repertoire of arm movements. Instead, I used to stand very still, which gave me great authority and a certain mysteriousness.

If your childhood had been run-of-the-mill, would you have become Britain's most prolific playwright?
Maureen Sands, Wareham

It obviously helped having a volatile childhood. And it helped being married young and having children young. Although that's all turned out rather happily. There's no acrimony. One of my sons lives next door to me with his third wife. It's really nice. I think to myself, "You lucky bugger. You didn't really earn this". They had quite a funny childhood - at one point they had to sleep on the floor. This son lived in America for a long time and I thought I probably wouldn't see him again, but then he turned up in Scarborough and said he'd like to work in the theatre.

I hear that your own life has provided the inspiration for all of your 60-plus plays. How long before you run out of material?
Henry Smart, Bristol

Oh god. Hopefully, never. Every writer's fear is writer's block. Every time you finish a play, you feel empty. You've given birth and it's gone. There are some days when I have no discernable play in my head. It's a very bleak feeling because I've always been "with play". But something always pops up.

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, 'Sugar Daddies', opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on 17 July