To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.
60 Years At The SJT: 1980
1980 saw Alan Ayckbourn write what is arguably one of his most famous plays and which has proved to be perennially popular with Season's Greetings.
Yet it is a play that shouldn't exist. It was neither planned nor intended. Most of the characters and the location came from another play entirely. It was only a rarity in Alan's writing career which led to him creating what is now seen as a quintessential Ayckbourn play.
His original plan for the autumn of 1980 was to write a thriller called Sight Unseen. The playwright had never written a thriller before and admitted he was nervous about it in a letter to the director Christopher Morahan in August 1980.
“I’m about to write play 25 and am pacing nervously. It’s called, somewhat fittingly, Sight Unseen. Assuming I finish that, I shall have it rehearsed and into repertoire by the end of September.”
|Extract from Alan Ayckbourn's letter to Christopher|
Morahan mentioning Sight Unseen.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Despite the fact Alan had not written a single word of the play, it was announced the public on 23 August 1980 when the Yorkshire Post published that the new play, Sight Unseen, would premiere on 24 September at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.
As for what it was about, no-one was any the wiser, as the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round press officer noted: "All we have at the moment is a working title for the play. No one has a clue what the play is about and we shall not know until Alan gives us the script."
The script was never to arrive....
Alan set to writing the play - as usual very close to the deadline of the start of rehearsals - but there was quickly a problem.
“It's wrong to say I was actually into the dialogue stage. I was into the construction stage: I was putting up the fences. I then did a volte face and left myself with just two things from the thriller. One was that I set it in a hallway which I quite liked.”
The few remaining notes which survive of this idea are held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York and they give a clear indication about who the victim was and the potential reasons for his murder....
> Belinda kills Nev to free her
> Derek kills Nev to free her
> Bernard kills Nev to avoid family break-up
> Veronica kills Nev to avoid family break-up
|Alan's notes showing the potential outcomes of Sight Unseen.|
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
What he did have, as the notes above show, was utilise the names for the characters and the setting. From there, he very quickly began to construct an entirely new play based around Christmas at the Bunker household, home to husband and wife Belinda and Neville; previous potential murderer and victim from Sight Unseen!
|Alan's original character notes for Sight Unseen including|
Belinda and Neville who would appear in Season's Greetings.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
As to why writing Sight Unseen had suddenly thrown up an unexpected obstacle, Alan would later talk about the pitfalls of writing thrillers for the stage and, particularly, of one where the murderer could be anyone..
"If you're going to write a good whodunnit, everyone's got to have done it, you see; and you then pull away about six motives and leave one there. And then you say: 'Ah yes, he's the one who did it, because he was the only one who had the front door key.' But the point is that I first of all had to write a cast of homicidal maniacs, because they all had to have killed Mr. X. And that was extremely boring. When you've got a couple of homicidal maniacs it's quite fun, but here they were all saying: 'I really hated him, I'd have killed him if I'd had the chance.' And I felt there were awful limits in having to prescribe your characters' behaviours. I'm very used to letting my characters roam around much more freely than that. To have to saddle them with a load of hatred and malice, or even sheer clumsiness, was very hard. And I didn't want to write a straight whodunnit where we just eliminated it down to one: I wanted to write a whodunnit where any one of them could have done it - to keep it absolutely open. And I came to the conclusion it was rather a boring thing to write."
So a play was announced and then withdrawn before being replaced by a quickly devised play which turned out to be a classic. But there's another little known side to the story, which might have seen Alan premiering a very unexpected piece at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
|The first public mention of Sight Unseen|
in the Evening Standard in July 1980.
Copyright: Evening Standard Ltd
Polygram Pictures and Universal Pictures were actively considering making a film based on the famed board game Cluedo (Clue in the USA). It was a very serious proposal which had already attracted Debra Hill as producer with Jon Peters and Peter Guber as Executive Producers; the latter would go on to become two of the most powerful producers in Hollywood during the 1980s.
As for why they contacted Peggy, they were looking for writers for the piece and Peggy knew who to suggest it to. Alan had long had a passion for board games (as fans of The Norman Conquests may well have surmised) and the suggestion he might write a script for Clue “greatly amused” him.
Perhaps surprisingly - given his lack of interest in writing screenplays - he told Peggy he was open to discussing the project, but there was a caveat. It would be first written as a play and then adapted into a film.
This idea appealed to Alan as potentially it would involve Universal putting money into the theatre, specifically the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round as that is where the play would have presumably premiered.
The concept of turning a board-game where anyone could be the killer might have had limited appeal to many writers, but - of course - Alan had been thinking of writing the same idea with Sight Unseen. However, he soon realised this might be equally problematic to write.
“I dug out my old Cluedo board which was interesting. What of course the Cluedo inventor has done is what the inventors of all the classic games have done. He's taken every cliché from the genre and boiled them all down into a board game. It's even subtitled in the rules Murder at Tudor Close, and the whole thing is a mixture of every Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Allingham murder mystery you've ever read…. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, providing they want another in the endless series of nostalgia movies. Do they really want another Murder on the Nile / Orient Express, particularly when there’s about two hundred of that good lady's books still left to adapt. Not to mention Dorothy L. Sayers.
“No, as I see it we must somehow concentrate on the project's most original theme, which is perhaps somewhat oddly the fact that it is a board game. I am not suggesting that the characters all be dressed as wooden counters whilst the audience are expected to throw a dice - though I wouldn't rule that out - but unless it’s set somehow within the framework of a game then the Cluedo part of it will essentially be lost and all we’ll have is a run of the mill thriller.”
By this stage, the news had leaked out and the New Standard newspaper reported on 11 February 1981 that Alan was involved in a movie adaptation of the famous board-game.
|The New Standard report on Alan's involvement with Clue.|
Copyright: Evening Standard Ltd
Shortly afterwards, with Peggy unconvinced d a deal could be struck, Alan withdrew from the project perhaps knowing that his radical approach to the script would not be deemed palatable to Polygram; this supported by the fact that when Clue was eventually made into a movie in 1984, it was a very conventional and run-of-the-mill comedy-thriller which had little to do with the game except a gimmick of random final reels with different killers; none of which made much sense and were irrelevant as most cinemas only received a complete movie with no alternative reels anyway.
So ended a most unusual chapter with Alan and the Stephen Joseph Theatre; although there is an epilogue.
After being unable to write Sight Unseen and turning down Clue, Alan would go on to write his first thriller in 1983 with It Could Be Any One Of Us. It's notable feature? A random murderer every night.
Just like Sight Unseen.