Man of The Moment: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

In the published German edition of tMan Of The Moment Alan Ayckbourn is interviewed by the editor Egon Tiedje about the play, which includes Alan’s more in-depth thoughts and his reflections on television and the media in general.

Egon Tiedje: Man of the Moment has a singular in the title although there are two men really ...
Alan Ayckbourn:
Yes, yes, they are very different men. Douglas has "Man of the Moment" thrust upon him as the result of an act of heroism which was more spontaneous than planned, and was forgotten overnight by the press as they moved on to something else. It's a play about the press, it's a play about the media really. It's about how the media are driven by the public's need for sensation, about the fact that it's always more interesting to learn bad news than good news. (There are all the jokes about people trying to start 'good' newspapers - in the sense that the news is all good - and how they fail immediately, because in the end no one really wants to read them). The play is intended as a contrast between two people. It's based (very very loosely) upon the famous Great Train Robbery, in 1963, when the mail train from London to Edinburgh was robbed. The men who did the deed were a miscellaneous group: antique dealers, small-time crooks and so on. They got away with ten million*, the biggest haul possible at the time, the biggest ever. When they'd stopped the train one of them had coshed the driver, who later and quite quietly died of that injury. But it was the robbers who were made heroes, and not the driver, who was completely unknown. And I realised that throughout our history - whether it be Billy the Kid, Ned Kelly, Dick Turpin - most of our folk heroes are actually people who killed for a living; they were often quite dangerous, antisocial people. We have a love of that sort of thing: Everyone's heard of Jack the Ripper, but nobody remembers (apart from a very few people) who his victims were.
In fact he was faceless and no one's ever found out who he was; but the women, whom we do know about, are of no real interest to us - which is a sad reflection on our society. So I decided to write a play about it. About two men: one a bank clerk, who is very uninteresting but who had years before tried to stop a bank robbery, and the other, the bank robber concerned, who having paid his so-called 'debt to society', is released from prison through good behaviour and goes on to become a mega-star, a huge television personality, doing children's shows and chat-show programmes: he's an immensely desirable entity simply because (that old cliché!) he is in some way or other 'loved by the camera'. As for Douglas, the bank clerk, who was indeed instrumental in the robber's capture and who had subsequently married the girl who was injured in the bank robbery (she had lost an ear in the shooting), both he and the girl are totally forgotten.
And the play's about what happens when a television company brings them together hoping (I think) that sparks will fly when Douglas, the victim, is confronted by the man who injured his wife and has caused so much pain and fear since. The interesting thing about crime, and something that's very rarely mentioned in the media, in the press or on film or on television or even in plays, is the trauma that follows the crime: people seem to get over it very quickly, but in fact they don't, and some never. The play was about this, as well. Of course, the truth of the matter is that Douglas does not confront Vic, he's his greatest fan. Douglas is a Christian, Douglas has 'turned the other cheek', and Vic, the villain, for most of the play looks like getting away with it... much to the frustration of the television presenter who's trying to produce a confrontational programme. Anyone who's been on television (as I have quite a lot of times) knows about that. On two or three occasions people have whispered to me in commercial breaks, 'Can you make it a bit more argumentative, can you disagree more, it's a bit boring, this programme'… Television is really only for people who disagree, as far as I can make out. People watching it slump asleep if they ever have three people on all of whom have the same view. People say, 'Why do you always have television programmes where politicians come on and argue?' And the TV presenters say, 'Because politicians know that in the end that's the only entertainment factor people want'. So
Man of the Moment is a play about that, and how in the end the people trapped in the middle have made the wrong choices about which man they follow... I hope it has a message, I hope it has a moral point. But it's also a comedy, and it's again one of my plays in which you need very carefully to walk the tightrope between the comedy and the tragedy... they exist together. These plays... when I'm directing them they need directing with extreme seriousness, for the comedy to surface of its own accord as soon as it meets an audience.

Jill, I think, makes a basic mistake that many media people make: they confuse the ability to have feelings with the ability to express them adequately, and that's one of the problems she has with Douglas.
Oh yes, she's a monster, Jill really is ... I know 'where she's coming from', as they say, in that she's a media woman in (in this case) the BBC, a huge media structure which is still largely male oriented, and women in those establishments have to fight very very hard to achieve what men achieve far more easily. It's not to say they don't do it, but quite often it creates a certain toughening of the persona, and often only the most aggressive of the women succeed. Jill is based on one that I met; she is almost paranoid, actually. She feels that the whole institution is there to bring her down. She's really, in one sense, the worst type of interviewer as she's imposing her personality on the programme and fails to listen to what people are trying to say. She doesn't listen to Douglas; she's so much part of the Vic Parks world that she's already decided what Douglas is. And I suppose there's something else. The play says: never make prejudgments about people, they will always surprise you, by a degree of sensitivity, of understanding that you didn't think them capable of. One has to be very careful about the contemptuous dismissal of people whom you think you've put into a pigeonhole. Very dangerous. And as for people like Douglas,… I hope by the end of the play (if the play is working right) we, the audience, who laughed when he arrived, really want him to take us with him when he goes, because we no longer want to stay in this place with a man like Vic, who is as violent and dangerous, who has done so much damage to people. He's violent emotionally as I use him in the play... I could have made him do acts of physical violence to people, but I didn't want that, because that sends out all sorts of messages. The violence he uses is towards the baby-sitter, Sharon, who loves him. He uses that love as a terrible weapon against her, and it's the most awful scene he has with her, but I think it says much more than - you know - a single punch on the nose would ever say.

You have been called a moralist occasionally; I mean, that's a rather big word, perhaps you would say that at least you aren't a moralist all of the time...
I'm an entertainer, I'm (I hope) a storyteller. I hope that my plays are always moral, but some of them are more overtly moral... I hate to make claims about any of my work really, I leave it to other people. But I think some of them do verge on being morality tales, certainly plays like Man of the Moment, certainly A Small Family Business (which was written very near that time), even A Chorus of Disapproval (which was again all part of that same era)... they're all quite large-scale for me, plays about people's actions and the choice of actions, and how their actions often come back to haunt them later in the play.

I was not thinking of 'moralist' in the theological sense of sin and virtue and good and evil as abstract qualities but rather in the narrower, pragmatic sense of 'what we do to people and what people do to us', in that sense.
That's true. 'By your own actions, you know, shall you be judged'... It's very easy to make everything very tidy and say, Ah well, that man did the wrong action in Act One, and we must make sure he gets it in Act Three. But 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.

The interesting thing about the television people in the play is that they don't even notice the truth when they see it.
Well, they don't... they tend to take a line, and it's often a line that suits them; I remember when I was first interviewed (when Relatively Speaking had become such a big success) and the critic said, 'Could I say that you've risen from abject poverty to ... ?' and I said, 'Well no, I'm working for the BBC actually, and I don't think they'd like it if I said I was working in abject poverty.' They said, 'What a pity, it'll make a better story.' They're always looking for angles to make a better story. You understand it. But... it ain't nothing to do with the truth, quite often.

* The actual figure was £2.6 million.

Copyright: Egon Tiedje 1996. Please do not reproduce without permission of copyright holder.