Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ayckbourn at the BBC

One of the least well-known aspects of Alan Ayckbourn's professional career is his association with the BBC.
Between 1965 and 1970, Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC in Leeds, employed by the renowned producer Alfred Bradley, who was passionate in encouraging new writing.
Although largely ignored, there is no doubt Alan's tenure at the BBC (during which he was often directing at and working with The Library Theatre in Scarborough) had a huge influence on his work as a writer and director.
Arguably, the demands of his job at the BBC and the pressured environment were extremely useful when he took over as Artistic Director of The Library Theatre in 1972, aged just 33.
Unfortunately, not a lot is known about Alan's career at the BBC. There is no listing of the hundreds of plays he directed for the radio and it is not even known which, if any, of these plays survive in the BBC archive. However, here is a brief guide to Alan Ayckbourn's career at the BBC from with quotes from the playwright.

> Alan Ayckbourn worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC in Leeds between 1965 and 1970.

“Radio was and still remains the medium where the impossible can be made to happen once every second. The only limitation is the speed of the listener's mind itself in its ability to grasp events. And the average radio listener is quick. I know.”

> He worked with Alfred Bradley, a highly respected radio producer who championed northern writers and helped launch the careers of Alan Plater, Keith Waterhouse, Alun Own and Stan Barstow among others.

“I was influenced by him. Alfred’s strongest point was obviously his relationship with his writers. And I suppose I learned from him a certain amount about how to treat writers, and how to draw them out.”

> Alan joined the BBC after his first West End production, Mr Whatnot, flopped. Alfred Bradley was in Alan’s agent office at the moment Alan rang her for advice and Alfred told him to apply for a new post at the BBC.

“I joined the BBC with no thoughts of writing again - certainly not for London or the stage.” (which although a famous quote was not entirely true as by the time he began working for the BBC, Stephen Joseph had already commissioned a play for 1965 at the Library Theatre from Alan!)

> Alan's position at the BBC was created to cope with the huge amount of scripts which had accumulated as a result of Alfred’s success encouraging new writers, but which he had neither the time nor the resources to produce.

“I didn’t know what the job was when I applied to join the BBC. I thought I was going to be sorting our Alfred Bradley’s filing.... When I got there I found that, far from sorting out Alfred’s filing, I was going to be doing my own programmes and running with a great deal more responsibility than I’d had in the theatre.”

> Despite having no formal training as a radio producer, within his first year Alan produced approximately 50 radio plays. These ranged from 30 - 90 minute pieces and were predominantly for Radio 2 and 4 with occasional pieces for Radio 3 and BBC North. He would go on to direct several hundred plays whilst at the BBC.

“It gave me a great opportunity to do far more plays - I did more plays in a year than I’d done in ten years in the theatre.”

> Although very different mediums, Alan feels his work for radio - particularly its tight deadlines - was an asset to him when he subsequently devoted himself full-time to the theatre.

“As a director who was previously from theatre, I learnt the virtues of speed and economy. With two or three days to produce a finished product for broadcast, you can't afford to hang about!”

> As a script editor, Alan read hundreds of new plays, the responsibility of which - as Alfred insisted every writer deserved a written response - demanded in Alan’s view objectively and articulacy, which he felt fed through to his own writing.

“I’d already been working with actors, of course, and I suppose I had learned the hard way about directing them. But now I learned something about writers.”

> Alan initially earned £38 a week from the BBC - more than double what he had been earning at the Victoria Theatre when he left in 1964.

“The job did come my way with an astronomic salary. It was £38 a week: it was unbelievable.”

> During his tenure with the BBC, Alan still managed to write several plays including Meet My Father (later retitled Relatively Speaking), The Sparrow, How The Other Half Loves and The Story So Far... (later retitled Family Circles).

> By 1969 and 1970, Alan was juggling two jobs as he was employed as the Director Of Productions at the Library Theatre in Scarborough during the summer. Often his BBC secretary would pretend he was still in Leeds but out of the office and Alan would ring back from Scarborough, pretending to be in Leeds!

> Alan left the BBC on 23 June 1970 in order to concentrate on his playwriting career. Within two years, he would accept the position of the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, a position he would hold until 2009.

“Radio itself, I must say, I went into without great enthusiasm, although I’d been a great listener as a child. But once in, I found it was a magic place.”

> Despite working for six years with the BBC, perhaps surprisingly Alan never wrote a play for the radio during this period or subsequently - although he has frequently been asked to do so since.

“I think I was dealing so actively all day with writers that felt first it would almost be cheating to write my own plays for radio. And I wasn’t actually very inspired to do so.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ask The Archivist: Earliest Play

Ask The Archivist is a regular feature allowing you to put your Alan Ayckbourn related questions to the playwright's archivist Simon Murgatroyd.
If you have a question regarding any aspect of Alan's work, email it to: (labelled Ask The Archivist) and we'll publish any interesting questions.

Question: In Paul Allen's biography of Alan Ayckbourn, Grinning At The Edge, he mentions Alan wrote several plays before his first professionally commissioned play The Square Cat. Do any of these survive and what is the oldest surviving Ayckbourn play?

Answer: The Square Cat is regarded as Alan Ayckbourn's first play - largely because it was his first professional commission and the first of his plays to be performed. However, prior to that Alan had been writing during his teenage years and had shown a number of these plays to Stephen Joseph; his mentor at Scarborough's Library Theatre, Stephen Joseph.

Depending on which interviews you read with Alan concerning these plays, there were between nine and a dozen plays written between the start of his professional acting career in 1956, aged 17, and the premiere of The Square Cat in 1959. These are known to include plays inspired by both Pirandello and Ionesco, but details of the rest remain vague at best.

In the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute at the University Of York, there are several manuscripts which have confidently been dated as being written prior to or in the immediate aftermath of The Square Cat. These are one act plays which have never been produced or published and are: The Season; The Party Game; Relative Values; Mind Over Murder.

Details on all these plays are sketchy at best as the playwright has little memory of writing them, but - with the possible exception of Mind Over Murder - there is no reason to doubt these were part of the dozen pre-professional plays. Of these, following research by Alan's Archivist and consultation with the playwright, the most likely contender for the earliest surviving play is The Season. This is a play in four scenes (for each season) which sees a young girl and a mysterious Traveller meeting and falling in love but moving forward in time with each scene from medieval times to a post-apocalyptic landscape. There may well have been plays preceding The Season, but unfortunately all record of them has been lost.

To submit your question to Ask The Archivist, email Simon Murgatroyd at: labelled Ask The Archivist.