Neighbourhood Watch: Interviews

This section contains interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about Neighbourhood Watch. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant interview.

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd took place on 14 February 2012 and explores Neighbourhood Watch's success and the reaction to it.

Still Watching

Simon Murgatroyd: Neighbourhood Watch was written in October 2010, but by virtue of opening in the immediate aftermath of the inner-city riots in 2011, became very much associated with these events. Were you surprised by the reaction?
Alan Ayckbourn:
It’s had an amazing run. It’s interesting because it does present the other side of the coin - which is typical for me - as it isn’t about the rioters or the police, it’s about the bystanders who feel that they need to react to events like the riots. A lot of my plays are about people on the margins who feel threatened but who haven’t actually been threatened and who, maybe in the case of Neighbourhood Watch, somewhat over-react. Although, nonetheless, you can see why they react the way they do and why they feel events are out of their control.

Why do you think people feel this way?
We’ve got a fantastic way of disseminating information these days; partly through the press, partly through the media, partly through television and the internet. There is an immediate and somewhat graphic reportage. But if you speak to someone who’s apparently in the middle of a riot or a rumpus, and say, ‘how are you?’ I think they tend to say, ‘how do you mean?’ You say, ‘people are looting and burning the buildings all around you!’ and it turns out they’ve been in the pub unaware! What we read in the papers or see on the television often amplifies events and you immediately see it on your TV or computer screen and think, ‘oh my God, there’s a war!’ But it’s not necessarily what’s actually happening.
A few hundred years ago, you could have a war and half the country wouldn’t even know about it unless a group of blood-stained soldiers trampled through your village, saying, ‘that was a terrible battle up at Bosworth. Dear-oh-dear, that was a right pasting.’ Those days of innocence are lost! It’s so different and there is now a very sensitive network, so if you ‘twang’ the net, people really do notice. With
Neighbourhood Watch, we ‘twanged’ the net early and got a lot of attention.

It’s been suggested that Neighbourhood Watch represents a more cynical attitude to society on your behalf, would you agree?
I’ve a great affection for individuals - but I’ve never been terribly fond of groups of individuals! I’ve always been very suspicious of people who are passionately like-minded, particularly when they form into some sort of organisation - be it a political party or a religious sect. Neighbourhood Watch was therefore a morality tale of what happens when you band yourself together with so-called like-minded people against what you perceive as an enemy - but maybe as a result of being part of that group, you generate even worst things. Someone told me after seeing the play, that a friend of his in America took refuge in a gated community. She perceived danger from the society all around her - and if you live on your own and read the papers at all or watch television, it does appear to be coming at you the whole time and you can become quite paranoid! So she went into a gated community and found that having locked the door on all the evils outside, the place inside was more like Hell than outside. When you lock people up together, who have perhaps not chosen to live together - be it a prison or a gated community - it can be extremely volatile and dangerous.
Indeed when you form an informal, quasi-military organisation which the two innocents in
Neighbourhood Watch do, you can attract the most appalling elements and people who grab hold of the opportunity to exercise a sort of power on their fellow individuals.

Was it difficult representing a whole community with such a small cast?
There’s a huge off-stage cast in that play. When I was writing it I drew the whole estate up with the numbers of the houses and who lives where - although as there’s lots of people on the estate, I didn’t do the whole lot! Only having eight people to portray an immense community of 100 or so was quite an interesting exercise in construction. I tried to make sure that elements of the community were represented by individuals; they have quite a large job as they have to not only cover the ground of their own individual characters, but are also representing 20 other people in the community. I hope that was apparent in the play.

The play also features a fascinating character in the shape of Hilda, sister of the tragic Martin.
People very rarely die in my plays, but occasionally they do and I approached Martin’s death scene with some sadness, although I knew he was going to have to go right from the start. The irony of his death was that it just left Hilda to carry on and Heaven help us with Hilda. Martin was the innocent side of that partnership - although he wasn’t totally innocent, but was as good a guy as you get - and Hilda was the dark side of the relationship. I was fascinated by the way the character of Hilda grew through the play. I said to the actor, Alexandra Mathie, this play starts like a very old television series called The Marriage Lines with Richard Briers and Prunella Scales, when they were both very young. The first scene with Hilda scampering around is an episode of this, which then proceeds to just get darker and darker. Technically it’s quite a journey for the two actors playing Martin and Hilda. Most of the other characters develop, but for those two it’s quite a long journey. Hilda, in particular, starts the play at the very end of the story and then has to come back to the beginning. One of the interesting technical challenges as an actor for her, was coming off the stage having given this little homily in the first scene and then cutting back six months to a totally different version of herself, younger, much more innocent and barely recognisable as the woman at the end.

How do you think audiences will respond to Neighbourhood Watch in London?
It’s got my name on it, so they have been warned! It might surprise London audiences, but I just hope it’ll entertain them, even if perhaps it’s viewed as a bit lightweight - although its intentions are actually a bit heavy.
To have actually landed in London though is great - especially at a venue like the Tricycle which allows us to keep the simplicity of the production.

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