Relatively Speaking: Background

It is no great exaggeration to say Relatively Speaking made an overnight success of Alan Ayckbourn and fundamentally changed his entire life. It is impossible to read the weight of glowing London notices without the realisation that just one night marked the difference between a little-known writer becoming one of theatre’s hottest properties. Of course, the reality is Alan paid his dues over many years and neither he nor the play were quite the overnight phenomenon sometimes portrayed.

Alan Ayckbourn had been writing professionally for six years before he wrote
Relatively Speaking. His first play, The Square Cat, was commissioned by Stephen Joseph and produced at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959 and by 1963 he had produced another five plays. Yet the success of Relatively Speaking is even more remarkable considering the events surrounding its immediate predecessor, Mr Whatnot.

Mr Whatnot was premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1963. It was a well-received romantic-comedy with a mute lead character and an enormously complex sound plot. It was an unusual piece which required delicate handling that was not present when it transferred to the New Arts Theatre in London on 5 August 1964. Despite featuring the popular comedian Ronnie Barker, Alan’s first West End play was met with some merciless notices and closed two weeks later. Deeply upset by the experience, Alan considered stopping writing for good. Perversely, his biggest failure paved the way to success.

In the immediate aftermath of
Mr Whatnot, Alan contacted his agent Margaret Ramsay, better known as Peggy. Coincidentally she was meeting the renowned Northern radio producer Alfred Bradley, who suggested Alan apply for a post as Radio Drama Producer at the BBC studios in Leeds. Successful in the interview, Alan accepted the job and began working at the BBC in December 1965, entering "that great paternalistic womb for the wounded to crawl into". There to “lick his wounds” and with “no thought of writing again - certainly not for London or the stage.”

The Library Theatre's Artistic Director - and Alan's most influential mentor - Stephen Joseph had other ideas. In October 1964, after Alan's interview with the BBC but before he began working for the organisation, Stephen rang Alan up ostensibly to congratulate him on the new job but to also ask if he would "knock off something for our summer season - some jolly little comedy." Alan accepted the commission to write for the Scarborough venue and Stephen suggested the young writer attempt to craft a ‘well-made play’.

Come February 1965, Stephen contacted Alan again to check on progress and was met with “the usual cascade of unashamed lies about the unwritten work.” Alan’s response was the play was “fine” although he had not written a line of it; a situation unchanged when Stephen asked for a title for the play in April. Publicity leaflets were due to be printed, but Alan had still not given thought to a title - never mind the play! Stephen suggested
Meet My Mother with Alan later asking if it could be altered to Meet My Father, which he felt sounded more dramatic (an alternative version of the creation of the title can be found in Behind The Scenes).

The problem with writing the script though was that Alan was taken with Stephen’s suggestion he write a ‘well-made play’: “It intrigued me as an exercise…. I remember sitting down and trying to write a piece that was, if you like, actor-proof. A play that would have a mechanism in it that would need only the slightest of pushes to make it work. In doing so I had to apply all my mind and technique to such an extent that I became very depressed. In fact, I kept putting it off.”

With the practical deadline of rehearsals approaching in June, Alan began writing in mid-May. He had rented a small cottage in Collingham and there, with his wife and a neighbour's cat called Pamela who would come and sleep on the playwright's lap as he worked, he wrote the first draft of the play over three nights. “The devious plot was the result of sheer frenzy and the dialogue, of tearing haste. In just over a week the play was written aided by my wife's blue pencil, her constant suggestions and her cups of coffee.” Alan felt the resulting play was actually rather “easy and glib. In fact I was rather ashamed of it.” Despite his unhappiness with the piece, it was submitted to Stephen. Alan avoided Stephen for a week, convinced the director would not like the play either. When the pair did eventually collide, Stephen’s unexpected comment was “You’ve written a very funny play.” It didn’t alter Alan’s perception of it.

Stephen did cut the play for the opening night at the Library Theatre on 8 July 1965, although Alan made light of the alterations: “When he [Stephen Joseph] found it was over-running, characteristically he just tore the middle pages out at random. Despite this, it seemed to work.” The play may have been edited (in fact, a quarter of the script was cut by Stephen - see
Behind The Scenes), but it was essentially still the same play which manages to stretch credibility - and essentially one joke - to absolute breaking point without snapping.

Meet My Father was well-received by audiences and, more importantly, by the producer Peter Bridge, who optioned it for London and brought the director Nigel Patrick to see it in Scarborough. Both were passionate about the play - with the caveat it needed a new title as Meet My Father was deemed "too provincial" as well as a new first scene.

Although Bridge had seen Stephen Joseph's edited version of the script in Scarborough, Alan went back to his original manuscript largely ignoring Stephen's revisions as he honed the script into the taut comedy that exists today. Not only did he work on and substantially alter the first act, but he also altered the climax; although not to its final form. As for the title, that too had changed. A statement for royalties dated 26 August 1965 declares: “
Meet My Father now called Taken For Granted.” Patently this was not the eye-catching title desired as the title soon reverted back to Meet My Father. A draft of the play dated 18 April 1966 has Meet My Father and Taken For Granted crossed out with Father’s Day in its place. It would be the better part of a year before a satisfactory title was found.

Peter Bridge began the process of transferring the play to London, initially hoping to attract the actors Alec McCowen and Lynn Redgrave. Nigel Patrick, who had agreed to direct in August 1965, soon asked Alan for alterations to the script, not least moving the first scene to the afternoon - it was bizarrely argued audiences would be offended if a young, unmarried couple woke up together in the morning! Alan agreed to change the time - although it eventually reverted back, restoring an Aristotelean form to the play - but stood up to further cuts.

On 10 August 1965, Bridge confirmed he had a leading man in Richard Briers, a rising star of television who felt the play the best thing he had read. Joan Greenwood had turned down the role of Sheila feeling it too slight, which opened the door for the much admired actress Celia Johnson to step in. Bridge was pushing for Hugh Williams to play Philip, but found a suitable compromise in Michael Hordern. The remarkable cast was rounded off by Jennifer Hilary as Ginny and rehearsals began in January 1967, by which time the title had settled as
Relatively Speaking and it was now a two rather than a three act play.

On 21 February, the play began a short try-out tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from where it would move to Edinburgh, Sheffield, Oxford, Leeds and Liverpool. The opening night of the tour - and arguably the play’s profile - was given a welcome boost by Jennifer Hilary’s legs, which were featured in several national newspapers the next day. Allegedly, Nigel Patrick decided at the last minute the hemline on Jennifer’s dressing gown was too high and an extra button should be sewn on. Memorably he was quoted as saying: “Don’t let the audience see too much of your legs or they’ll miss half the dialogue.” It’s hard not to be cynical and offer plaudits to whoever was marketing the play for coming up with this story.

The script was still evolving and a crucial alteration took place during the tour. Tom Erhardt, an employee of Peter Bridge and Alan’s agent between 1991 and 2013, suggested the play should finish where it began, with the slippers. Alan, never happy with how the play had ended, liked the suggestion and altered it to the now familiar climax which both aggravates Philip’s doubts about Sheila’s infidelity and suggests Ginny has had other affairs.

Relatively Speaking opened at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London, on 29 March 1967 and Alan - following the experiences of Mr Whatnot - braced himself for the reviews. He needn’t have worried, the majority of critics fell over themselves to praise the production. True, it was considered insubstantial and slight, but this did not stop the plaudits for the quality of the piece; Alan’s dialogue, Nigel Patrick’s direction and the cast were rewarded with high praise. The night before, Alan Ayckbourn had been a virtual unknown in London; on 30 March he was a star as his mother, Mary James - better known as Lolly - recalled: “He took me to see it on the second night and in the interval we went for a drink. As we made our way to the bar, there were dozens of pressmen and photographers who surrounded Alan. He looked back and said, 'Lolly, I'm sorry,' and I went back to my seat to wait for him. When he came back, I said, 'It was wonderful, wasn't it?' He said, 'Yes, I'm still laughing. I can't believe it!'" Alan’s fortunes had turned and the play would continue to generate excellent reviews in the coming weeks as the periodicals were published.

The play made impressions elsewhere too: on 2 May, a telegram arrived at the BBC purporting to be from Noël Coward. Alan wasn’t convinced it was genuine as there was 14 shillings (70p) postage to pay and he crumpled it up and there it away, certain it was a hoax. It was genuine though and, fortunately, he retrieved the telegram which read: “Dear Alan Ayckbourn all my congratulations on a beautifully constructed and very very funny comedy I enjoyed every moment of it = Noël Coward.” (see
Behind The Scenes) On top of this, the play became the first Ayckbourn to be visited by royalty when the Daily Mail reported HRH The Queen and Prince Phillip had seen the play on 22 May and sat in the 14th row of the stalls; the first of many visits to West End productions of Alan's plays. On television, BBC1 screened Relatively Speaking - actually a 50 minute selection of scenes recorded from the West End production in July 1967 which Peter Bridge reported had been seen in 2.5m homes; this is now considered the first television broadcast of an Ayckbourn play.

Relatively Speaking would run for approximately a year in London for more than 350 performances, although not without complications. On 23 January, Peter Bridge wrote to Peggy noting “losses have been enormous” in recent weeks and the play should have closed in December. Peggy’s response to the play losing £1,000 a week was that a more experienced producer would have closed the play earlier rather than try to milk it dry; the play's original company had been replaced with Judy Campbell, Colin Gordon, Philip Guard and Polly Adams, which may well have contributed to the drop-off in business. This did not stop Bridge launching a tour on 6 February 1968 directed by Donald Sinden, featuring Evelyn Laye (Sheila), Raymond Francis (Philip), John Carlisle (Greg) and Anne Lawson (Ginny). Demand for the play from repertory theatres was huge too and the first repertory production opened at the Richmond Theatre on 8 April 1968 (featuring Rex Garner as Philip, who would create the role of Uncle Val 25 years later in Alan’s play Sugar Daddies). Peter Bridge noted in July 1968 that 34 productions of the play had already been booked and the play became the first of Alan’s to be published.

Still unsatisfied with the play, Alan had continued to revise the first act even after the West End production had opened; this led to several repertory companies requesting (and being denied) the West End version of the play as opposed to what is now considered the definitive version of the play. The play was published, after many frustrating delays, by Evans Plays. It was a problematic edition though as, despite being intended as a play-script for performance, it lacked lighting and sound plots and only had a props list for the first scene! It later transpired Evans had also destroyed the only surviving prompt copy of the script in publishing the play. Despite Evans arguing this was normal practise, Peggy was livid and Alan had to prepare his own prompt script when Samuel French Inc. published the play in America in 1970.

The American producer Saint Subber expressed interest in the play in July 1967, beginning a prolonged, convoluted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to open the play on Broadway. Subber had interested the actress Myrna Loy in relaunching her theatrical career on the back of
Relatively Speaking, although both felt the play needed work to be successful in America. The writer Muriel Resnick was hired to Americanise the script. The result was a breath-taking rewrite which Alan complained contained "vast alterations both to dialogue and plot and… made nobody very happy - least of all me." He recalls much of the dialogue becoming hippy-speak: "There is a line which reads: 'I can't say I'm very taken with this marmalade'. Adapted, it came out as 'This marmalade is a freakout.’" The action was relocated to America and Sheila’s role was greatly increased at the insistence of Myrna Loy. Resnick had apparently never seen the actual play and Peter Bridge noted the first scene had been decimated, Ginny had become totally unsympathetic and there was no indication she and Greg were in love! Alan hated the rewrite and Peggy was concerned the best interests of the play were not being served, while the American contingent argued the new script did not disturb the "fabric and work of the original". With tensions running high and pressure being put on Alan to extend Subber’s option on the play, Alan and Peggy decided to let it die a death. Possibly sensing what was happening, Myrna Loy pulled out prior to this and it was argued the production was now impractical due to a review of the London production by Kenneth Tynan in The New Yorker which commented: "an atavistic country-house comedy written with the sort of smirking cuteness that often accompanies a punning title…. The company was led by Celia Johnson and Michael Hordern, who rowed furiously like stoical scullers trapped in a water-logged skiff." That Tynan is at odds with practically every other critic (and no matter the quality of the play, arguably the fact it was intended as pure entertainment instantly relegated it below Tynan’s well-known sensibilities anyway) made no odds, the project collapsed and Relatively Speaking would not be produced professionally in New York until 1984.

A similar fate met a proposed film adaptation. On 22 June 1967, Peggy received a letter from Warren Brown, the London Story Editor for Universal Pictures, confirming interest in
Relatively Speaking. Peggy was enthusiastic, but ongoing Broadway negotiations were a stumbling block, as should the play successfully open on Broadway, the value of the film rights would increase substantially. 20th Century Fox and Paramount were soon also eager to acquire the rights and Peggy told Peter Bridge she was inclined to ask for £30,000 from Universal plus profit participation. Universal offered £30,000 and limited profit participation. Disappointed, not least because Cary Grant had expressed interest in the role of Philip, Peggy advised Alan to wait for a Broadway opening, which led interest in a film adaptation to quickly fade away.

Several years later, Alan himself adapted the play into a screenplay in the early 1970s as a result of interest from the producer Clive Donner. Although keeping the brunt of the play intact, it was substantially expanded to include the first meeting between Ginny and Greg with expanded scenes between Ginny and Philip and a solution to the play's major plot loose end of what happened to the love letters between the pair of them. The screenplay survives in private collections in several different drafts but was never produced as a film. Years later, Alan would note that he wasn't very happy with the screenplay and that he had taken it too far beyond the original play: "[I] felt on reflection that that particular version of the play merely inflated it without adding anything much except a few extraneous visual gags."

Relatively Speaking was destined for television however as the BBC adapted it in 1969. Celia Johnson agreed to reprise her role of Sheila and was joined by Donald Sinden (Philip), Judy Cornwell (Ginny) and John Stride (Greg). It was broadcast on 2 March 1969 on BBC1, but the quality of the piece is unknown as no copies of the film are known to have survived in archive; although Peggy was unimpressed. Directed by Herbert Wise - who would later direct the television adaptation of The Norman Conquests - it ran for 90 minutes and marked the first time an Ayckbourn play had been adapted for television. Uniquely among Alan’s plays, this is the only play to be adapted twice for television by the BBC; or even three times if you include the original 1967 West End recording. On Christmas Eve 1989, BBC2 screened another version of the play this time starring Nigel Hawthorne (Philip), Gwen Watford (Sheila), Imogen Stubbs (Ginny) and Michael Maloney (Greg). The play has also been adapted for television in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. A BBC Radio adaptation was first broadcast on 25 December 1975 with Michael Aldridge (Philip), Rosemary Leach (Sheila), Nigel Patrick (Greg) and Joanna Wake (Ginny), which was commercially released as a double-bill with Alan's play Season’s Greetings in 1988.

Producing the play in America had proven problematic, but no such troubles affected it in Europe, where it proved to be extremely popular and was translated into numerous languages. Germany’s affection for Ayckbourn plays began here with 51 productions of the play by 1974 alone. By the end of 1967, negotiations were also well under way for a major production in Australia, which opened on 20 March 1968 at the Phillip Theatre in Sydney; Alan’s success was now global.

In 1970, there would be two quietly significant moments in the play’s life. The play finally opened in America at Westport Country Playhouse, Connecticut, on 10 August with Joan Fontaine, sister of Olivia de Havilland, playing Sheila. Alan Ayckbourn also directed the play for the first time in an amateur production for Leeds Art Theatre, for whom he had also directed
Mr Whatnot in 1968. Alan would not direct Relatively Speaking professionally until its 1977 revival in Scarborough. This Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round production had a notable cast of Robin Herford (Greg), Diane Bull (Ginny), Robert Austin (Philip) and Alison Skilbeck (Sheila). Alan would revive the play again at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2007, making it only the third of Alan’s plays alongside Time And Time Again and Absurd Person Singular to be performed at all three Scarborough in-the-round venues (although only the latter two plays were directed by Alan in all three venues). The play continues to be popular with major UK tours in 2012 - with Lindsay Posner directing and Felicity Kendal taking the role of Sheila - and 2016, the latter directed by Robin Herford.

In 1986, Greenwich Theatre staged a revival of
Relatively Speaking to mark its 21st anniversary with experienced Ayckbourn director Alan Strachan at the helm. He directed a well-received production at the Greenwich Theatre which featured Michael Aldridge (Philip), Gwen Watford (Sheila), Michael Simkins (Greg) and Felicity Dixon (Ginny). In 2013, Lindsay Posner's 2012 revival of Relatively Speaking was brought into the West End with a three month run at the Wyndham's Theatre; the first West End production of the play since its original London production in 1967. Well-received, it demonstrated the play had stood the test of the time and deserved its place as one of the Ayckbourn classics.

The impact and effect of
Relatively Speaking has never been forgotten and the play is amongst the most popular and fondly remembered of Alan’s plays. A fact which Alan sometimes finds slightly depressing.

"I tend to wince even now when people say that this is still the best thing I've written."
Alan Ayckbourn

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

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The Relatively Speaking section of Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website is sponsored by Michael T. Mooney