Better Off Dead: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview between Alan Ayckbourn and his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd about Better Off Dead took place on 12 March 2018.

Simon Murgatroyd: Introduce us to your new play
Better Off Dead.
Alan Ayckbourn:
This is a play about a gently going out of fashion thriller writer, Algy, who lives in the wilds of North Yorkshire and has shut himself off from the hurly-burly of publishing and London. He's proud to be a writer of detective fiction and his main character is called DCI Tommy Middlebrass, who is a rough, gritty detective, well past his sell-by-date. Algy's very reluctant to seek publicity and has a love / hate relationship with the press. Reluctantly, he grants an interview with a writer who claims to have been at school with him, although Algy can't remember a thing about him.

This is your first play in which the protagonist is a writer, is Better Off Dead at all autobiographical?
I was aware that I was writing about a writer, so I had to distance myself from him slightly. However, he’s a writer who’s the same age as me and he’s chosen to live in the north and writes in a shed occasionally - which I’ve been known to do. But then, so do a lot of writers. If people want to think it’s autobiographical, then so be it. He and I are fairly closely aligned but he still remains just an aspect of me.

Do you share any similarities?
There’s an aspect of Algy that is certainly me - the angrier side of him. I’ve said it before but I think anger drives comedy; the best comedy is angrily driven and I suspect that Algy is the angry element of me. Only he does things I would never do - including roaring at the world that he’s been unjustly treated, which I don’t feel.

What else can you reveal about the play?
It’s, certainly, for me, quite an interesting new exploration of memory and existence and how frail one’s existence is. How memory fails, how you’re forgotten and how the hero - a writer - is fading away from the social scene, from public awareness.

How does that relate to Algy?
He’s one of those writers who fears their ‘serious’ work is going to be discarded by history in favour of their ‘frivolous’ work. A.A. Milne wrote Winnie the Pooh for Christopher Robin, but he also wrote masses of plays and lots of other stuff, but he’ll always be remembered as 'the Winnie the Pooh man'. Although I think that’s quite a nice legacy. It’s when people say to me, ‘you’ve never topped Relatively Speaking - that’s my favourite’. And I think, ‘Oh, that’s a wasted life then!’

Does Algy’s writing feed into the play?
Definitely. Algy is a one-character novelist and if you live with a character as long as he has with Middlebrass, he becomes of part of him. This gives Better Off Dead an interesting double story-line in that fact and fiction begin to blend. Algy’s personality slips quite frequently, particularly when he’s riled by people irritating him, into this darker side. Everything he wants to say in real life he voices as Middlebrass.

Is that something you experience as a writer?
You just have the voices there and you live with them. In my case, I’ve got them all going simultaneously. Algy mainly writes about this one central character so he’s only got this one voice in his head, but for me whatever play I’m writing, I’m a six, seven, eight character person and so I’ve got a multiple personality whilst I’m writing! I know with my Mum, when she wrote, I think she probably stepped over the line on more than one occasion when the reality became the fiction and vice versa. All her life, I would say, ‘no we didn’t do that, you made that up.’ I think the danger is that you, as a writer, start to live in your dream worlds and if you’re used to all your life creating worlds where things are ordered and people do as they are told, then suddenly the real world becomes much less attractive so you begin to inhabit the dream world a lot more. Then you rather resent coming back to the real world.

And what of the awful journalist?
He’s a wonderfully incompetent journalist - I love him. He’s a journalist who’s more interested in his own problems than whoever he’s interviewing! His crass piece of journalism leads to all sorts of problems.

Is he based on any of your own experiences?
Years ago, I did a live telephone interview with Radio Merseyside and the journalist asked if I was excited to have a play on at the Playhouse. I said ‘yes, Im pretty excited. I love it when a play of mine is done in Liverpool.’ She then asked if this was my first. By this point, I was fairly well into my career in the ‘80s so I said, ‘no’. “Oh,’ she said, ‘you’ve had other plays done.’ I said ‘I’ve had this play done several times including in the West End.’ She responded, ‘thats nice’ and she just carried on as if I was some unknown playwright so I started cussedly reeling off all the stuff I’ve done until she cut me off with a record and the producer ended the interview! She’d done no research at all and I thought, ‘you’re very lucky too get me as if I’d been Steven Berkoff, I would have roared at you on your live radio show!’

You mentioned Better Off Dead is also about memory - which you also explored in Roundelay and Arrivals & Departures - what are you looking at here?
There’s a sort of nostalgia about the past, which is disappearing in different ways for the characters. Algy’s wife is slowly losing all memory, but she still has the memory of the marriage to Algy, which he doesn’t have because he’s always moving on which he doesn’t because he’s still moving forward, but he’s also being forgotten by the world in general.

Speaking of memories and nostalgia, Better Off Dead also sees you working with Christopher Godwin for the first time in 40 years; Chris having originated some of your most well known characters from the ‘70s.
Chris made it known he would be interested in coming back and working with me, so I said to him last year, there’s an interesting part for you in Better Off Dead. He’s got an affinity for my plays and I’m looking forward very much to working with him again. He’s had a great career including the RSC and the National Theatre after he left Scarborough in the ‘70s. He loves acting and this part will give certainly him a chance to act!

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.