Alan Ayckbourn

From the bow window of his drawing-room, more a belvedere of curved glass, Sir Alan Ayckbourn can contemplate the North Sea. It’s the reason he moved his bed here, while convalescing after his stroke last year. Well, not his bed – a hydraulic one on loan from the hospital. The playwright adopts a comedy Yorkshire accent as he recalls the words of the orderly who came to take the bed away: ‘I see you’re standing then. Normally when I come to collect these it’s because the patient is dead.’

Although Ayckbourn’s house – actually three Victorian terrace houses knocked into one – overlooks Scarborough’s South Bay, he is not a Yorkshireman himself. Far from it. He was born in Hampstead and went to school in Hertfordshire. But he clearly delights in northern bluntness. Indeed, he tells me with an ambiguous grin about the time a local taxi driver dropped him off at his theatre in Scarborough and noticed a poster on the wall. It was for an Alan Ayckbourn play and it was peppered with press quotations praising the production. ‘If you’re that good,’ the taxi driver said, ‘what are you doing here?’

The short answer is that Ayckbourn, who is now 68, first came to Scarborough as an 18-year-old actor in 1957, liked it and stayed. The longer answer is that Scarborough is where his mentor, the theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph, founded the theatre-in-the-round that was to become Ayckbourn’s spiritual home.

Ayckbourn is not only the most prolific playwright of his generation but also the most widely produced. He is probably, in fact, the most successful-in-own-lifetime playwright there has ever been, including Shakespeare. And nearly all of the 70 plays he has written have had their first performances at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. Many have ended up in the West End, too. There and Broadway, where a street was briefly renamed Ayckbourn Alley in his honour.

He has two plays opening in the next couple of weeks and they follow this pattern. Absurd Person Singular, written in 1972 and probably his best-known play, is about to open at the Garrick Theatre. It stars Jane Horrocks and David Bamber. A new production of his play A Trip to Scarborough, meanwhile, is about to open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. With time shifts between the 18th century, the Second World War and the present day, it is loosely based on the original play of the same name by R.B. Sheridan. Unusually, exceptionally in fact, this play is not set in the South.

‘I’m not sure why this is the only play I’ve set in Yorkshire,’ Ayckbourn says. ‘I suppose it is because your voice as a writer is formed early and before I reached puberty I was branded a cockney – so I still write with a cockney voice in my head.’

Actually, his ‘voice’ is more genteel than that. He is usually described as ‘the Molière of the middle classes’. His domain is usually an unspecified Middle England, probably somewhere around Peterborough. His genre is usually the ‘serious comedy’ of suburban manners – astute observations about middle-class foibles, artful dissections of the failures of family life, pitiless but funny examinations of the strange and loud egomania of the unhappy. It is said he creates happiness by depicting unhappiness, and this formula has served him well.

But his commercial success hasn’t necessarily endeared him to the cognoscenti. Faber & Faber declined to publish his plays in the early 1970s because it regarded him as ‘too successful’ (it relented in 1986, after the production of Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval at the National Theatre, and has been his publisher ever since). What Faber meant, of course, was that Sir Alan Ayckbourn didn’t seem to be in quite the same league as Sir Harold Pinter, Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare.

When I ask him how he feels about not being mentioned in the same breath as these ‘heavyweight’ playwright knights, Ayckbourn doesn’t seem defensive. ‘I’m comfortable with it now. Years ago I did think: why aren’t I being taken very seriously? But as someone once told me, I have an ability to make audiences laugh so I should treasure that. I don’t want to lose that. There are plenty of people who can make audiences cry. Woody Allen has spent years trying to be taken seriously off and on, but we all go back to Bananas. Unlike David Hare, who writes about the state of the nation and current affairs, I write about domestic affairs. I see myself more as a Jane Austen who never bothers with the Napoleonic Wars going on around her.’

He may be known for his comedies, and occasional farces, but in recent years his plays have been getting a little dark. Does he think his stroke will make his writing darker still? ‘I don’t know. I do look at my writing in terms of pre-stroke and post-stroke. I found it hard to get back into writing because you have to be on your own and I felt quite frightened about that. I’ve never really analysed how I write and I wasn’t sure whether the instinct would still be there. I had taken it for granted, up to that point, that the part of the brain responsible for creative writing would function automatically – but a stroke is a dysfunction. I’m still not quite right. These fingers are a bit odd.’ He waves them. ‘And this foot is less than mobile. That thing one doesn’t like to talk about, that shaft of light that suddenly arrives and we think of as inspiration, would it still be there?’

Ayckbourn has two jobs, it should be explained. As well as being a playwright, he is also the long-standing artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (though he has announced he will be giving up that demanding role next summer, to become an associate director instead).

‘When I first came round in the hospital after my stroke I imagined writing would be easier to get back into than directing, because writing is sedentary and solitary while directing is more active. But actually it was the other way round. I got straight back into the rehearsal room, with the doctor telling me it was too soon. I found it a shot in the arm. I get so excited when I get into a rehearsal room. I am like a racehorse being ushered into the starting gate, under starter’s orders.’

It helps that his rehearsal studio – a converted school – adjoins his house. Indeed, everything seems to be handy for him here. He has his own indoor swimming pool. One of his sons – he has two, both in their forties, both from his first marriage – is living with his family in a large flat upstairs. ?And one of the actors in his company is renting a flat from him downstairs.

He has no regrets about giving up his own early career as an actor. ‘At least as a writer you are standing beside the thing you have created. As an actor you are inhabiting that body they are criticising. It is direct and personal. Your personality and your appearance are being criticised. It’s like a head butt. Critics who maul actors don’t understand what it does to them. The actress Charlotte Cornwell once sued a female critic for saying her arse was too big. I did think she was right to sue. The critic had overstepped the mark.’

Surely it is just as bad for a playwright, because it is his mind that is being criticised? ‘I do get depressed and lose confidence if criticised over a new play. But I can put this much distance’ – he holds up a finger and thumb – ‘between the work and myself, even for a new play. If someone says now that they think the Norman Conquests [a trilogy written in 1973] were rubbish it doesn’t bother me because they are miles away and I have to think twice to remember I wrote them. With a new play, I am always anxious when offering it to actors. I await their reaction with trepidation.’

After all these years, all that success? ‘I think because when I write something new it really is new, sufficiently new to make me nervous. That’s the test. If I am unfazed, I know I must have written it before. That it is the same old formula. I stopped acting when I was no longer nervous about going on stage.’

He is beyond retirement age, he clearly doesn’t need the money: is it a form of failure that he still hasn’t got writing and directing plays out of his system? ‘I don’t suppose my wife would want me under her feet if I retired,’ he says. ‘Besides, I think if I walked away from the theatre I would probably die. Sometimes you need something to retire to. When I’m not writing or directing I wander around not knowing what to do with myself. But does it amount to failure? I’m not sure how to answer that.’

Actually he answers it with an inscrutable smile. For all his southern gentility, openness and politeness, there is something oddly wooden and closed about Sir Alan, as if he is a man playing himself. His voice is actorly and hesitant, a little ingratiating if anything. His laughter is polite, but he is not fully engaged. Such is his diffidence, he is incapable of holding eye contact for longer than a couple of seconds, preferring instead to stare ahead of himself. When he does try it, he has to swing his whole body round, holding the gaze almost as an act of will before retreating. He has few close friends, it is said, and finds it difficult to be spontaneous because he is always thinking ‘I could use that’. Self-absorbed, that is what he seems – the self-absorption of a child.

It is reflected in his feverish writing method. He writes very quickly, taking a week or two for the dialogue once he has his idea. In fact he always starts with the title, which goes on the posters before the writing process begins. He draws on his own life in a lateral way. He thinks his stroke, for example, might throw up some material. For a while it left him confusing the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. A reversal of word circuits was diagnosed, a relatively normal side-effect of strokes. A title for a play has duly come to him: The Man Who Couldn’t Say No.

He finds writing dialogue the fun part. ‘The trick is to make characters sound convincingly different: some might talk in short sentences, others long, others will fade away.’ He sometimes feels they are with him, crowding round his head – and when he goes to bed they are in suspended animation until he brings them back to life in the morning. ‘My wife, Heather, will touch my head sometimes as she is on her way to bed and say: “Blimey, it’s overheating tonight”.’ He treasures his hang-ups, he says. ‘Please God, don’t make me sane. My characters have faults that roll out of me. Most of the flawed characters are me in some phobia or other, some prejudice or other. I’m sure I had terrible childhood traumas but I have mined them so much now they are neutralised.’

His father, Horace, was a first violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. One day he ran off with the second violinist, abandoning the young Alan and his mother, Irene. Horace had never been married to Irene though, partly because she was already married to someone else, and only divorced him to marry a bank manager in 1948. (Ayckbourn had an arrangement that was almost as complicated: he separated from his first wife after 10 years but did not divorce her for 30 – and only did so then in order that he could marry Heather, the woman he had been living with for those same 30 years.)

By all accounts, Irene was rackety and bohemian. She once put two ailing newborn puppies in the oven, on the vet’s advice, and then forgot about them. A volatile woman with a fondness for drink, cigarettes and men, she would pick up sailors and GIs and tell Alan they were his uncles.

She once threw his father’s framed photograph at him in fury and told him that all men were bastards. When she died in 1999, Ayckbourn wrote a eulogy which included the line: ‘She gave me far more complexes, hang-ups, phobias, prejudices, inspirations and self-insights than any writer has a right to expect from a parent.’

‘Although I had a stepbrother, I was essentially an only child,’ Ayckbourn says now. ‘And I remained a loner. My insecure childhood gave me an emotional energy. Alan Bennett’s characters are reassuringly ordinary whereas mine tend to be extraordinary – my women, particularly, because my only contact with them was through my mother’s extraordinary girlfriends, journalists mostly. Girls remained uncharted territory for me for a long time. I was shy among them. They were another race, and I suppose that is why I was drawn to the theatre – as a way of meeting girls.’

Something else he seems to have inherited from his mother is a passive-aggressive streak. The play of his that is about to open at the Garrick is the first one he has allowed in the West End since his self-imposed moratorium in 2002. His complaint then was that West End producers had lost their nerve and wouldn’t put on plays unless there was a television personality or Hollywood actor attached to the show. The last straw for him came when a feeble-voiced and stilted Madonna was cast in a play.

Does this mean he has forgiven the West End now? ‘Yeah, yep. I won’t take the new ones there, though. They are welcome to the revivals. With Absurd Person Singular they have a cast of proven actors. None has come off a Dubonnet advert. That’s what I really objected to: the casting of people who weren’t proper theatre actors. Some Hollywood actors struggle to be heard beyond row three. And the trouble with putting an actor from ­EastEnders in a play is that audiences will come in who don’t normally come to the theatre and they will expect those actors to be the same as they are on television. When they are not they will go away disappointed and not come back to the theatre. My mum was a bit like that. She would ­confuse an actor with the part he was playing. She would say, “He’s a nasty piece of work.” And I would say, “But Mum, that’s just the character he is playing”.’ Beyond the bow window, seagulls are wheeling and screeching. It is a reminder that the theatre in this country does not begin and end on Shaftesbury Avenue.

In his slightly apprehensive way, Ayckbourn has been trying to imagine how his play set in Scarborough will go down with a local audience. ‘When you meet Yorkshiremen for the first time they can seem quite rude,’ he says, levering himself up from his chair with the aid of a walking stick. ‘If I meet them on their way in to see one of my plays they will say: “Am I going to enjoy this, then?”‘

What do they say afterwards?

He grins the ambiguous grin. ‘Usually they will say: “Not bad”.’


Russell Brand

Before I meet Russell Brand I meet his cat. At least, I’m assuming it’s his cat because: a) I’m sitting in his kitchen in Hampstead, and b) The cat has one of those diamanté-studded collars on it, the sort of thing that Brand himself might wear, only around his wrist, and with metal studs rather than fake diamonds.

It is early evening and he is behind schedule, upstairs somewhere meeting a deadline. When – eventually – he descends the staircase, he is barefoot; tall and lean in black jeans and black jumper; padding as softly as a panther. His left eyebrow forms a permanent arch; his lower lip a puffy curve; his long, black mane is down, rather than back-combed up, which is how he wears it when doing his show on television or when performing comedy on stage – award-winning comedy, quirky, effervescent, stream-of-consciousness comedy.

By his own exuberant standards, he seems subdued, weary and, well, dignified today – more dignified than you would expect. He also seems distracted: he fiddles with the flat-screen Bang and Olufsen TV; he languidly circles the kitchen table; he plays with the dimmer switch before opting for muted lighting, which casts his neatly bearded features into partial shadow. When he settles it is with the side of his head resting on an upturned hand, as if offering it on a plate. He has about him an air of wanton self-possession. This, you sense, is not a man to whom you would lightly entrust a wife or grown daughter.

I am here because Russell Brand is about to publish his life story.

This you might think a little premature, given that he is 32 years old. But the man has lived. With candour bordering on the pathological, he spares his readers little as he turns seedy episodes – the crack dens, the orgies, the brothels – into picaresque anecdotes. Everything is played for laughs – from his teenage bulimia and his expulsions from school and drama college, to his numerous sackings, his 11 arrests for petty crimes, his sexual humiliations, his Olympian promiscuity and drug abuse, and, finally, his treatment in a clinic for heroin addiction, and, after that, for sex addiction (he calls it being sent to winky nick).

His prose is vulgar at times – he would prefer ‘saucy’ – but it is also pleasingly deadpan and, on occasion, lyrical. I tell him so and then add that I sensed he was holding a lot back – my little joke. He looks puzzled. ‘In what?… Why?’ To be fair, if you have to explain something is a joke, it probably isn’t one. ‘Right,’ he says, nodding thoughtfully. ‘Because I’m so open about everything, you mean? Right.’

Open is one way of putting it, I say. Dementedly honest is another. He’s addicted to honesty. Stuff you would hesitate to tell your best friend, he tells the world.

‘Really? What like?’ Like the time he spat in a girlfriend’s face. Or the time he pleasured a man in a public lavatory for a TV show he was doing (it was never aired), despite being, in his own words, ‘hysterically heterosexual’.

‘You’re the first person to read it who isn’t involved in the publishing process. Now you’re making me nervous that I’ve said too much.’

He feels exposed? ‘Not really, no, because although I am the subject, the instrument referred to in the book, I think I can be quite objective in the way I make jokes about all the things that ‘appened to me.’

To rob them of their power to wound, he means? ‘That’s the mentality which has seen me through, Nigel.’

A word about his delivery here. It is quite fey and whispery, then he will get excited – ‘cited’ he would call it – and become shouty and deeper voiced. He hams up his Essex accent, dropping his ‘h’s’, as in ‘appen, and ‘g’s’, as in slumberin’ (take them as read for the rest of this article). He deliberately uses rotten grammar: ‘Them things.’ ‘I weren’t.’ And he would refer to ‘me grammar’ rather than ‘my grammar.’ Yet he also uncoils extravagant sentences, full of quaint old-fashioned vocabulary and Victorian syntax. When he does this on stage he spirals his hand like a hypnotist.

He seems to be on a roll at the moment – he has his own Radio 2 programme as well as a show on Channel 4, and he has a budding acting career (among other films, he is in the soon to be released St Trinians and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, from the team behind Knocked Up). He has even had a fling with Kate Moss. So where did it all go wrong, as the hotel waiter once asked George Best? Brand traces it back to several things: being an only child, having parents who separated when he was six months old, being ‘fingered’ by a tutor when he was seven. ‘A lot of the things, to me, are quite ordinary because they are literally what happened. It couldn’t be more mundane. Having spent time in treatment, around drug users, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had mildly intrusive sexual encounters as a child.’

But most people don’t end up having treatment for sexual addiction as an adult. That, to me, seems unusual. ‘It’s not something I would have done if left to my own devices. I was coerced into it. Like with drug addiction, once a problem is highlighted people become more judgmental. More than if you just kept quiet about your addiction. I haven’t used drink or drugs for five years so I am a much less volatile prospect than once I was.’

His public persona seems egomaniacal, yet in private, judging by his memoirs, he doesn’t seem to like himself that much. Does the bravado hide self-loathing? ‘I imagine really, Nigel, what with the self and the individual being arbitrary constructs rather than objective ideas, that if you are resolutely happy with who you are then you are drunk on an illusion. And I am not. I accept there is a conflict there, though. Because I am, as you have said, egotistical. I am compelled to pursue ambitions and goals whilst at the same time recognising they are futile.’

See what I mean about him being dignified? I mention a childhood incident in which he stamped on flowers because he had been expressly told not to by a park keeper. A cry for attention, surely. One to do with his father being absent. Is it that he would rather have people hate him than ignore him? ‘If the park keeper hadn’t told me not to stamp on the flowers, I wouldn’t have been compelled to do it. The flowers were innocent casualties in all this. I sometimes just think, what will happen? What’s the worst that could happen if I do this?

‘Usually the answer is: not much. Looking back, I wish I had rebelled more. I wish I had gone further. I wish I had been in more trouble at school. I wish I had taken more drugs. I wish I had been rude to more people. I wish I had been sacked from more jobs.’

The most memorable sacking, for the record, was when he wore an Osama bin Laden costume for his MTV show, on the morning after 9/11.

‘Come on guys,’ he said to his viewers. ‘Get over it. It was yesterday. We’ve got to move on.’ Quite funny that, but only in retrospect.

Conformists, I suggest, don’t just conform because they are boring but because they don’t want the stress of non-conformity. They conform because it makes them happy and frees them to think of higher things. As Socrates is said to have said, the greatest form of freedom is slavery.

‘Yes, but conformity was never an option for me. I didn’t feel contentment. The demands to conform are deeply encoded, yet the penalties are so inconsequential when breached. For petty rules, I mean.

‘If a policeman gives me an ultimatum not to drop my trousers of course I am going to drop them. When that happened to me I wasn’t arrested. What will happen if I do take heroin in front of people at work? Nothing. Well, I got sacked, but so what. And what if I do refuse to get off this aeroplane? OK, I got thrown off but I wasn’t charged. Actually, I am less like that now I have stuff to lose. Before it was: what are you gonna take from me? A lump of me nothin?’

His non-conformity, he adds, has another dimension. ‘As Socrates said, the male libido is like being chained to a madman. That was certainly true in my case. I was literally sex mad.’

‘I have not had sex for approaching 14 days. There is someone I might be interested in. I have known her for a while. Not sleeping with her yet. Not sleeping with anyone. But I took the other phone numbers out of my phone – 784, but who’s counting?’

Through my laughter I ask if he does know the actual number. I presume he doesn’t, given his drug-related memory losses. ‘It cannot but sound coarse and bragging to put a number to it. It’s a lot, though, because I have been devoted to it. I’ve worked hard. The figures are a reflection of years of toil and dedication. I would say to any young womaniser out there if you are prepared to commit your life and sanity to the cause you should be able to archive these quite bafflingly high figures.’

And yet there was Amanda, a girlfriend he refers to in his memoirs. She left him because of his infidelities. He seems to have loved her. Did he? ‘Mm. It was certainly a f—ing nuisance. If that’s a synonym. I think that relationship was held together by conflict rather than compatibility. But I loved her, yes.’

How come he can’t show restraint in the way other men can? Are his sexual urges more powerful, does he suppose? ‘I’m not sure. It’s difficult to ascertain. Sex is a biological necessity. It is also good for my self-esteem because it makes me feel powerful. I also have a tendency towards addiction, so those things combined amount to a powerful motivating force. Also when I sit in a park and see beautiful women walking past I see an avenue to an alternative reality: all those possibilities, all those adventures. It’s not just me thinking I want to come, but me thinking what if I fall in love? I wonder what stories she has. I wonder what she will look like cleaning her teeth. I wonder what she will tell me about her father. I wonder how she treats her pets. I wonder what her bedroom will smell like.’

He describes being overweight as a teenager before becoming slim at 16 and losing his virginity. Was his hysterical heterosexuality also about making up for lost years of feeling sexually unattractive? ‘It was astonishing to go from feeling all tubby and unlovely and odd and obscure and bland in Essex to having beautiful girls find me attractive and exotic. It was like some Shakespearean mistaken identity.’

He still associates sex with guilt – ‘afterwards a fog of guilt descends’. When he made that contract with himself did he worry that he was denying himself the prospect of more meaningful encounters – ones combined with feelings of love, ones free of guilt, ones after which he would not feel, as he says he usually does, le petite mort? ‘Sometimes I do feel as if I am in love with the women I am having sex with. I don’t know whether this is a masquerade or a pose but often I feel incredible intimacy and unity, not only with a regular sexual partner, but also in fleeting encounters with strangers, a shared humanity and bond. Why is it, Nigel, that longevity is considered a necessary part of the feeling of love? Why can’t you fall in love for half an hour? Is it less valid? Who cares about the difference between an hour and a decade and a lifetime.’

Besides, heroin was his true love. His descriptions of the drug are disturbingly poetic and tender. ‘Yeah. First time I tried it it was beautiful. It was a relief.’

Doesn’t talking about heroin in such loving terms rather unsettle him, because he knows he can never have it again? ‘Part of the mentality of recovery is one day at a time. I don’t have to not take drugs for the rest of my life. I only have to not take drugs today. Also those feelings of love come at a price because heroin itself is demanding. It won’t let you just have a little bit. If you want heroin you have to give up everything else. First it will take your job, then your girlfriend, then your house, then the clothes you are in, then it will take your skin. And when there is nothing left to take it will take your life.’

He was told he would be dead in six months unless he went into rehab. ‘At the time I felt rather pleased. Really? So long?’ One of the doctors at the Residential Treatment Centre for Sexual Addiction thought he was bipolar (what used to be called manic depressive). Had that diagnosis ever come up before?

‘Three times, at school, at drama school and then ‘im. I’m aware of an oscillation but I’ve spent most of my adult life on drugs. It is hard to diagnose what it is, whether it is an inherent or inveterate chemical imbalance. I don’t know. It wasn’t self-inflicted as a child. I still felt volatile inside then. Anyway, the down times are a necessary correlation of the up times. With friends and people I know well there will be moments where I get uppity and show-offy, but most of the time, I’ll be sitting watching and listening quietly. The performance isn’t all there is – that would be unbearable.’

Now for the cheap psychology. It could be that he behaves badly to others to justify to himself the potential rejection he fears. He will tell you how temperamental he can be – hurling glasses of water during an argument – also how indifferent, cruel and affected. As he found when he got clean, he doesn’t enjoy his own company much. A lot of it seems to be to do with his father: ‘Sometimes he would turn the light of his attention on me and it would be brilliant,’ he writes in his book. ‘He’d tease me and wind me up and be very funny, but he’d get bored really quickly, and then I’d just be there again – all tubby and useless.’

It would make sense of his ‘priapic excesses’, as he calls them, because his promiscuity could be seen as a way of winning his father’s approval (his father was something of a lothario, one who had no moral qualms about sleeping with prostitutes). Not far below the surface bravado, then, is insecurity: fear of being alone, fear of being bored, fear of rejection. Conversely, Brand seems to have had almost too much attention from his mother, in that he was left with a rampaging ego. He’s funny about it, of course. ‘My mum thinks I’m an excellent swimmer, simply because I’ve not yet drowned.’

In the Hampstead kitchen there is, next to a stack of vegetarian cook books, an award for the world’s sexiest vegetarian. And in the hall there is a biography of Peter Cook, next to an antelope skull encrusted with diamanté. It amounts to a shrine. His other heroes are Alan Bennett, Huxley and Camus. And that’s another thing he feels insecure about, or at least frustrated. He has a quick wit, certainly, but he also seems to be highly intelligent. And to compensate for his lack of formal academic training, he has become an autodidact, an obsessive one, inevitably.

‘I get excited by it. But I still feel when talking to friends who have been well educated that I am just skitting on the surface of knowledge, that I have no depth. I know enough about Chomsky or Derrida to have a superficial conservation but I can’t keep it going.’

That said, he does still see himself as a typical Essex man who likes football and ‘birds with big bottoms and big boobs’. And the prostitutes he had ‘joyless sex’ with? ‘I haven’t done it since the sex clinic. I should probably have mentioned that in the book!’ He laughs and pulls a mock worried face.

‘Frankly I’ve had no need or time. I would say, though, I do feel comfortable among vagrants, prostitutes and drug-users. I seek them out. Like homeless people, they are raw and honest because they don’t have the same protective social layers as everyone else. They don’t have the material possessions. Unlike me!’ He raises his arms and looks around. ‘Look at me ensconced in my lovely home.’

He has things to lose now, I tell him. ‘And I’m sure I’ll find a way to lose them.’