Standing Room Only: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview from 2000 sees Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd interviewing the playwright about Standing Room Only and its science-fiction themes.

Simon Murgatroyd: Where does your interest in science / speculative fiction come from?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I was brought up on a diet of sci-fi from different sorts of novelists - such as the non-science based writing of Ray Bradbury, which is much more fantastic and he creates these wonderful worlds, which is very different to the [Isaac A] Asimov world where, obviously, the famous books are about robots which interested me a great deal - the idea of artificial intelligence, as artificial intelligence has galloped over the horizon during my lifetime in a way that was unthinkable. And I guess all those, Robert Heinlein and so on, have influenced me. Lots and lots of classic writers at the time when the science-fantasy magazines were out, the little square magazines, that you bought every couple of months or whenever they came out; mostly American. I began to love the allegorical stories they told, when they were using science-fiction as an allegory of, if we continue thus, then we will finish up here. This particular realm of science-fantasy wrote about the present day from a future stand-point, which - of course - is a very strong part of science and speculative fiction. Reflecting the present day or extending the trends of the present day to its logical conclusion. And actually the worlds that science-fiction has devised have no real bearing on anything except on what we all agree. We all agree certain rules of time-travel, I don't think anybody's ever really experienced any time-travel to contradict it!

Critics, with regard to your sci-fi inspired plays, make comparisons with J B Priestley and George Bernard Shaw. It seems to me though your influences are rooted in literature and films.
I think it's an easy handle, because Priestley was one of the few, not by any means the only other, but one of the few major dramatists who quite famously played with time. Which is now very interesting. I would say Priestley certainly had some effect on me, but I think I was brought up in such a background of films and magazines and novels of the science-fiction era that I was a child of sci-fi. Science-fiction really developed on the scene post-war when I was growing up. The American magazines and the movies and even the very early horror films, which were less Freddy Krueger rather more Them! - giant ants in the desert. There was also the nuclear scare at that point and I guess the magazines influenced me. Undoubtedly I read more than anything else, I read The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, all those classic books, I Robot, the Asimov trilogy, the Heinlein books, non-stop Brian Aldiss - fine, fine books. They all had an effect in that you are what you eat and you are what you read as well and I think this had all been churning around in my mind.

Moving back to the start of your writing career, tell me about Standing Room Only.
Standing Room Only was interesting. Stephen Joseph was very interested in this. David Campton was the writer in residence when I was writing. He took a lot of his ideas off Stephen, who was very keen to encourage David into what was his very famous Four Minute Warning and all those plays about nuclear disasters. Most of them were post-nuclear, babies with green hair, all that business. They were also called Comedies of Menace at that time; it was a generic name for them, which seemed to include everything from Pinter to dark science-fiction. I was not particularly interested, unlike David, as I really don't like having ideas pushed at me. But Stephen did manage to push two at me; one was Standing Room Only. The original brief was to write a play about overpopulation. At the time, there was this great panic that by the year 1996 the world would be at a standstill, as the birth-rate would have quadrupled. Stephen suggested, in a rather bizarre way, that I set a play on Venus, where the population had exploded away from Earth and had now filled up Venus. That seemed to me sort of unlikely, even given that it was a fantasy, that we ought to concentrate on the Earth. I suddenly had this idea of a traffic jam in Shaftesbury Avenue, set on a bus. It was projected science-fiction. It said, by this age, children will be no longer smiled upon and there'd be very complicated exams in order to have them. The girl has an illegitimate baby on the bus, delivering the child on the top deck, and all that. It's pretty way out.

You mentioned earlier, the possible pitfalls of writing science-fiction and fantasy elements into your plays, as regard to the audience. How do you deal with this?
I am very aware that for everyone that loves science-fiction or fantasy, a number loathe it or suspect they loathe it based on experiences of what they perceive to be science-fiction: hanging round spaceship hulls with magnetic boots and using positronic screwdrivers! They may not find that all that exciting. With a play like Communicating Doors, I was keen not to emphasise the time-travel or the future setting. In fact, Communicating Doors is a romance and I went to a great deal of trouble so that the audience wouldn't find it hard to grasp. Although you do start in the future, I didn't make too much of it early on. There's the civil war, but besides that, in truth, nothing too distinct. With the time-travel element, we were able to make people feel not scientifically threatened. You just have to tread very carefully and you can get away with it. What you have to do as you do with an alien environment in a play is to cast one of the characters as if they've been in the audience.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.