Man of The Moment: Articles

This section features articles by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors relating to Man Of The Moment. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to read the relevant article.

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, looks at the two most significant inpsirations for Alan Ayckbourn writing Man of the Moment. A proposed West End double-bill of a new play with Shakespeare's Othello alongside The Great Train Robbery.


“I knew it [Man Of The Moment] would eventually play in tandem with Othello but I wasn’t trying to write my version of Shakespeare which might not quite stand up. Othello is a play about jealousy and the fall of a hero: my play is about the public taste for anti-heroes.”
Alan Ayckbourn in The Guardian, 8 August 1988

One of the more obscure footnotes of Alan Ayckbourn’s career is the rarely reported connection between
Man Of The Moment and Shakespeare’s Othello, as Man Of The Moment was conceived with Othello in mind.

Alan Ayckbourn wrote
Man Of The Moment in March 1988 and surviving correspondence from the time indicates Alan had been in discussions for some time with his West End producer Michael Codron and the actor Michael Gambon about writing a new play which would, having opened in Scarborough, transfer to the West End to run in repertory with an Ayckbourn directed production of Othello. In August 1988, Alan said in an interview that Michael Codron suggested he write a play that ran parallel with an established text and as a result, decided upon Othello; it is not clear whether this suggestion was motivated by a plan to run an Ayckbourn play in repertory with a classic or whether this came later.

Man Of The Moment was thus written to accommodate the entire cast - and apparently understudies - of Othello. When completed, Alan sent the play to Codron and Gambon, to the latter Alan suggested he should play against type and take the role of the unassuming innocent Douglas Beechey, rather than the more obvious, larger-than-life anti-hero Vic Parks. While Gambon agreed with this, it became a point of contention as Codron believed Gambon should play the role of Vic, which would serve as a counterpoint to him playing the lead in Othello.

The plan was first reported in the media in June 1988, prior to
Man Of The Moment premiering in Scarborough, with initial reports suggesting that Gambon would star in the plays which would first open at York’s Theatre Royal in late 1989, before transferring to the Aldwych Theatre in the West End. There was early reported controversy though when the Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal tried to veto Othello on the grounds it was morally wrong for a white actor to play the part of the Moor.

In the meantime,
Man Of The Moment opened in Scarborough whilst casting took place for the West End production of the plays. In February 1989, it was announced by the Daily Mail that Nigel Havers had been signed to play Iago in Othello and, presumably, Vic in Man Of The Moment. This may well have been one of the point of contentions regarding Gambon’s choice of role; Alan had already expressed to Gambon that one of the problems would be finding a powerful enough actor to play Vic opposite him; potentially this may have led to some issues with Havers playing the role of Vic, given that despite being an excellent actor, Havers did not immediately bring to mind the physically and mentally intimidating character of Vic, seeming far more suited to the role of Douglas. It is possible this casting was a result of continued pressure from Codron for Gambon to play Vic, but that is only speculation.

All this was largely irrelevant though as by March 1989, the entire project had been cancelled with The Stage reporting that casting issues (rather than the more widely reported issue of Gambon having issue with playing a black role - which seems unlikely given what finally did occur) were to blame. It was announced
Man Of The Moment would still open in January 1990 and that all plans for an Ayckbourn / Gambon Othello had been dropped.

Man Of The Moment opened at the Globe Theatre on 1 February 1990 with Gambon playing Douglas opposite Peter Bowles as Vic. Ayckbourn and Gambon’s plans to work together on Othello were not forgotten though as Gambon agreed to join the company at Scarborough for a season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1990 where he would appear in the title role of Othello and in Alan Ayckbourn’s revival of his farce Taking Steps.

The Great Train Robbery

“The interesting footnote to the story behind the play is that the man who coshed the driver of the train, Buster Edwards, indeed became - in a much smaller way - a celebrity. There was a film made about him - starring Phil Collins; he became a flower-seller at Waterloo Station, and people used to come and have a look at him: ‘See, that's the train robber’. He was a minor celebrity. But he hanged himself only a year or so ago, it's a very strange and sad end to the story. Heaven knows if it was in any way connected, I don't know. The moralist in me would try and link it. But I really know none of the robbers, I've used the events only to inspire a story which in the end has no reference to the actual robbery at all.”
Alan Ayckbourn, 1996

Man Of The Moment was partly inspired by the Great Train Robbery; one of the most infamous heists in British history and which made celebrities of several of the gang members.

The audacious robbery was organised by Bruce Reynolds and took place on 8 January 1968. The gang consisted of 15 men, armed with iron bars, who ambushed the Glasgow to London mail train and stole £2.6m in used banknotes. The train was brought to a halt by a red light, the thieves then uncoupled the engine and two carriages and drove them to Bridego Bridge a mile away. There the driver of the train, Jack Mills, was coshed by the gang and who would die in 1970 having never fully recovered from his injuries. The gang broke into the second carriage, restrained the workers and made off with 120 mail and money bags which were loaded into vehicles waiting beneath the bridge; all of which took only 20 minutes.

When police arrived, they discovered the signals had been tampered with and an enormous operation was immediately launched. By 9 August, more than £260,000 was being offered as a reward for information leading to the apprehension of the gang.

An anonymous tip-off led to the gang’s hideout at Leatherslade Farm in Bedforshire and between 22 August and 10 December, the majority of the gang were arrested. Their trial began on 20 January 1964 and ended on 16 April with the defendants sentenced to more than 300 years in prison between them. The mastermind behind the plan, Bruce Reynolds, managed to stay on the loose until 1969 when he was captured and jailed for 10 years.

The most famous member of the gang was Ronnie Biggs, the getaway driver, who managed to escape from jail in July 1965 before eventually fleeing to Brazil. Despite repeated attempts to extradite him, he only returned to the UK in 2001, following three strokes, whereupon he was immediately arrested and jailed to serve the remainder of his 28 year sentence.

The other famed member of the gang was Buster Edwards, who remained on the run for three years, only to give himself up in 1966 after fleeing to Mexico. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and was released in 1975, when he opened a flower stall underneath Waterloo Bridge which Alan Ayckbourn would pass on his way to work at the National Theatre between 1986 and 1988.

In 1988, Alan Ayckbourn wrote
Man Of The Moment and a film about Edwards’ life was released called Buster, starring the Genesis band member Phil Collins in the title role. This rather saccharine version of the events, which portrayed Edwards as a lovable rogue and family man (advertised as “Charming, lovable - and wanted for the crime of the century”) saw the criminal eventually handing himself in because he was unable to cope with not being with his family whilst in Mexico. Apparently, the film was never released in Crewe as a mark of respect for Jack Mills, the largely forgotten train driver who had lived in the town. Buster Edwards would commit suicide in 1994.

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