Man of The Moment: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Man of The Moment by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
Inspirations For Man Of The Moment: Othello & The Great Train Robberyby Simon Murgatroyd
Man Of The Moment had two major influences in its inspiration. Here are brief introductions to these inspirations and their connection to the play.
Man Of The Moment & Othello
“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.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd 2009
Good And Evil In Alan Ayckbourn’s Playsby Simon Murgatroyd
Jill: Well, perhaps you ought to tell me something you do feel strongly about and we’ll try and include that in the programme.
Kenny: Jill, come on…
Jill: Illegal parking on double yellow lines? Any good? Dogs fouling footpaths? Free double glazing for senior citizens?
Douglas: (thoughtfully) I suppose evil, really.
Douglas: Yes. I feel strongly about that,
Jill: That’s it? Just evil?
Douglas: Yes. Only, it’s often hard to recognise. But there’s a lot of it about, you know.
A silence. Suddenly, there in the garden gateway stands Vic Parks.
Man Of The Moment is a play which confronts good and evil and how we, the audience, perceive it. It is not the first nor the last time Alan Ayckbourn has written about good and evil in his plays, but it is the most significant play to tackle this issue and one of the most disturbing in its conclusions.
Alan’s first truly evil character was Vince in Way Upstream, written in 1982. Vince is a totally amoral character who comes from nowhere to hijack the boat, the Hadforth Bounty, and who, when defeated, seemingly vanishes back into the river. Way Upstream is the first of Alan’s plays to venture into more metaphorical waters and Vince should be seen in this light. His character is given no motivation or definable background, he exists purely as an evil character and Alan once described him as a water spirit. Way Upstream is interesting in being the first of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays to really step out of the suburban home into the world at large; with this step it has often been commented that Alan’s plays begin to take on another dimension, that they are no longer confined to relationships but begin to tackle wider social and moral issues such as the nature of good and evil.
Man Of The Moment is part of a series of what the critic and noted Ayckbourn historian Michael Billington dubs the playwright’s social period and comes after A Small Family Business in the canon. Although the latter is not concentrated on good and evil, it is a play about morality and the nature of evil is raised in the background with regard to how we define our morality. The play is the first of Alan’s to feature a murder*, but concerns itself less with the distinction of whether the characters involved are good or evil, but the morality of their actions. The play traces the fall of a moral man into amorality where he is willing to condone and justify murder, extortion and drug-running without realising how far he has fallen or where his actions have led him. A play similarly predicated upon a moral balance is The Revengers’ Comedies in 1989, an epic two-part play in which an essentially moral man, Henry Bell, and a totally amoral and unstable woman, Karen Knightley, swap revenges. Karen’s increasingly murderous actions are evil, but the play is again more concerned with the morals of both the revengers and the social communities they find themselves in.
In 1995, Alan depicted the most evil (in a fantastic sense) character imaginable when he had the Devil feature in the play A Word From Our Sponsor. The sex-shifting character Valda (Valder depending on which sex it chooses to be) is the motivating force behind this musical. Whilst not as serious a consideration of evil as Man Of The Moment, it is a play which still asks serious questions. The protagonist, a vicar, is aware very early on that Valda is evil incarnate and whose motivations are not only questionable but increasingly and obviously for its own ends and purposes. As he initially accepts the benefits Valda has to offer, the play questions how far we should go to achieve our desired ends, especially when it is increasingly obvious that moral (and artistic) integrity is being compromised.
Since A Word From Our Sponsor, depictions of evil have not been common in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. The closest to an evil character is Uncle Val In Sugar Daddies. Like Vic Parks this is a character with a dubious and criminal background - although the precise nature of his background is kept vague. Val is a character apparently trying to atone for his past by looking out for a young woman, Sasha. However, whatever his true intentions - and they too are deliberately kept murky - what becomes obvious is that Val is a character who can never escape his past and who tarnishes all he touches. As a benefactor, he is constrained entirely by his former criminal life and activities; in a reversal of Pygmalion, Sasha alters from apparent innocence and naivety into someone not out of place in Val’s underworld past. Although there are similarities to A Word From our Sponsor, the character of Sasha is different from the vicar in that while Val believes he has been a corrupting influence on her, Sasha notes that she has not been an unwilling victim and that Val has failed to consider how his actions have been motivated by what she wants.
Val also shares similarities to Vic Parks in that he is also rewriting his own history to better suit the man he appears to be now. Vic honestly believes himself to be a victim of circumstance - even the shooting during his bank robbery is cleverly justified and dismissed in his mind; much as Val has re-invented himself as a charitable old man, giving to good or what he perceives as needy causes - he first appears dressed as Santa Claus. Val may not be as evil a man as Vic and he may have honest intentions, but he is certainly cut from the same cloth as Vic.
Man Of The Moment is unique in Alan Ayckbourn’s play canon in that not only does it seek to tackle and portray evil on stage, but also good and what value society puts on these attributes today. Alan has noted that one of the difficulties in writing the play was not how to portray evil - that he concedes is relatively easy, the trick being not to make evil seem attractive - but how to portray a genuinely good man without him appearing either boring or condescending. Within the play, we have a confrontation between genuine good and evil. Douglas Beechey is a man without jealousy or desire for revenge, who has forgiven Vic’s actions and what Vic did to his wife Nerys. Vic is motivated entirely selfishly, everything and everyone revolves around him and within his world, he is able to control everyone - even the interviewer Jill is caught within his sphere of influence, although as an amoral character herself, she and Vic are similar bedfellows in their desire to shape the world to their perceptions and needs.
The crux of Vic’s character is how someone so patently evil and self-obsessed has become the man of the moment, whereas the true hero of the piece, Douglas, who thwarted Vic’s criminal intentions years before has been forgotten having had his brief moment of fame. The play is an indictment of modern society where evil is, in essence, rewarded or at the very least made famous, whereas good is consigned to the side-lines, ignored or there to be ridiculed. Yet it is Douglas who is the more interesting character, despite his absurdities and apparent naivety; when he finally opens up to Vic’s wife Trudy, Douglas’s experiences as well as his hopes and fears are far more fully fleshed than that of Vic and the good man has the more interesting and involving story. Vic’s fame is built on a lie, for while he apparently preaches to children about not falling into crime, he has both justified and excused himself for his crimes. Ironically, Vic’s portrayal of himself, despite his violent, drunken and abusive ways, is almost that of a good man who made a number of poor decisions. He has lost the self-awareness, highlighted by the presence of Douglas, that he is an utterly evil and amoral creature.
Of course, while the audience is aware of the true nature of Vic, the play’s ultimate irony is at the climax Vic is portrayed as the ultimate good guy as a result of Jill Rillington’s amoral decision to rewrite history to essentially benefit herself - the ‘man of the moment’ having passed from Douglas to Vic to Jill. Thanks to Douglas’s actions in attempting to save the nanny and Vic’s wife, he inadvertently elevates Vic to the status of hero performing the ultimate sacrifice in saving someone else’s life. Douglas is barely even a footnote in history now, his good intentions entirely forgotten in the need to perpetuate Vic’s legacy as Jill manages to finally make a programme about a ‘good’ man who was never less than evil.
* It Could Be Any One Of Us is not considered as it is obviously a very different play to those being considered here (it being a comedy) and as originally written (and at the time Man Of The Moment was written), it did not feature a murder anyway. Only with its revision in 1999, did the play come to involve an actual death.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd 2009. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.