Neighbourhood Watch: Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains two interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about Neighbourhood Watch, conducted by Simon Murgatroyd.

Neighbourhood Watch Interview (17 May 2011)

Simon Murgatroyd: Your new play is called Neighbourhood Watch, what is it about?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I think it’s all in the title. It’s a cautionary play. It addresses modern hang-ups such as law and order, health and safety. Are we safe in our beds when there are lawless youths roaming the streets whilst the police seem powerless? It’s tapping into that sort of fear.

Is it as dark as it sounds?
It’s in my dark farce mode. I’ve always been interested in how, out of tiny things, wars are often fought. Whenever history is examined, you always say: Is that really what started it? Helen of Troy was responsible for an awful lot! Neighbourhood Watch begins with a genuine misunderstanding where no-one is prepared to stand down and the reason becomes all but forgotten, but nonetheless causes a war.

And you’re tackling this from the perspective as something as apparently innocuous as a neighbourhood watch scheme?
It’s about committees which have a way of being taken over by lunatics and extremists. Sane people often haven’t the patience or staying power to serve on committees. So the people in charge of them are often those with nothing better to do but manipulate other people’s lives. Then there are sub-committees, which are answerable to nobody and do all the work from finance to, in this case, retribution! Very few normal people volunteer for those, as that’s another evening out of their lives, so you find people volunteering for sub-committees who shouldn’t be in charge of a box of matches let alone the future of an estate. (For more information, please see my earlier play Ten Times Table!)

What quickly emerges from this scheme is a particularly extreme British version of a gated community, do you think that’s a real possibility?
There is a sense of impotence these days, an instinct to build little fences around ourselves. Because my English people are inherently polite people, they very rarely contradict each other and are happy to go along with things until, usually, it’s far too late. I don’t think we’ll ever become an extreme fascist state in this country over night, but we might over the years just drift into it and people will then ask how on earth did we get here? The English are not for turning! But gently nudging? The English are for nudging.

One of the ideas of the play is our perception of real versus imagined threats, do you think that is particularly pertinent to society today?
I think so, because we are increasingly distancing ourselves from reality. We get our information from newspapers or TV or the internet; we are aware of things that are happening but since we don’t witness them first hand relying instead on news media, often amplified, this compounds the sense that society is breaking down. I think there’s too much information which we can’t process fast enough – no wonder we’re in danger of getting badly confused. I’ve been aware that once I’m out of the stream - and when one is a writer, you do tend to keep dipping out and in - the world seems completely demented. Then when you get back to reality, you realise most of your fears were ludicrously exaggerated. Yes, it is risky to walk down certain streets even in Scarborough alone at night but society is not breaking down.

How would you compare Neighbourhood Watch to your last play, Life of Riley?
I describe some of my plays as watercolours and some as oils. I think Life of Riley was probably more a watercolour and this is more towards oil – maybe a pastel! It’s slightly bolder and has some extremely dark shadows in it, but also some light moments. Life of Riley was rather oblique. A lot of people who saw it didn’t quite perceive what was happening and were looking for twists which weren’t there. This one is much more in your face!

Neighbourhood Watch is also touring to New York immediately after it finishes in Scarborough, what do you feel you and the Stephen Joseph Theatre gain from these tours?
I’ve always believed that when we’re touring, we benefit enormously because although this is just another show in Scarborough terms, by the time you get to New York, it’s the first time anyone has seen the play or seen the company. We’ve often been incredibly well praised and certainly incredibly well received and that makes you realise the quality of the work. The last three visits we’ve had to the 59E59 Theatres, we’ve had a lot of accolades and a lot of positive press because New Yorkers are never backward in coming forward. They have really enthused. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm.

Neighbourhood Watch is also rather special as it is both your 75th play and, significantly, the 300th play commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Would you agree it’s a significant achievement at a bleak time for new writing?
It’s a fantastic record - such a high percentage of new work. I do think that proud tradition has become more difficult over the years. My regret is that due to entirely financial considerations – which are more acute now than ever before – there is less and less opportunity for new writing because a new play by an unknown is a huge risk. I’m a profound believer that new writing is the lifeblood of the theatre, but increasingly there are more revivals and new writers are driven into fringe venues or the last two subsidised bastions, the Royal Court and the National Theatre, where they can still afford to stage new writing. I can well see the theatre’s Artistic Director Chris Monk’s frustration because there is so little space to manoeuvre.

Neighbourhood Watch Interview (14 February 2012)

In this interview with Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn reflected on the success of and reaction to Neighbourhood Watch.

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.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Do not reproduce without permission.