Sir Alan’s dismay at stage casting

Sir Alan Ayckbourn - Photo by Tony Bartholomew
Sir Alan Ayckbourn - Photo by Tony Bartholomew

SCARBOROUGH playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn has criticised West End producers for casting celebrities in leading roles.

The 72-year-old writer, who has been based in Scarborough for the past half century, said that relying on household names without any background in drama was “just ridiculous”.

He made the comments during a recent interview with the Radio Times, following a conversation with a London producer.

Sir Alan said that the producer, who remains nameless, wanted the comedian Harry Hill to take on the role of poet Philip Larkin.

He explained: “We put on a play up here about the poet Philip Larkin. It featured an incredibly fine performance by a not inconsiderable actor, Oliver Ford Davies.

“Producers came up from London to see it. One of them, who shall remain nameless, said to me afterwards, ‘Oh dear, we would need a bigger name to put it on in London.’

“So I asked him who that would be. And without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, ‘Harry Hill.’

“His thinking was, ‘He is a bald man with glasses, therefore he could play Philip Larkin.’ Now, I have a lot of time for Harry Hill, but not as Philip Larkin.”

The playwright added: “There are people like David Tennant who is a first-class actor, full stop, who just happens to have been in Doctor Who.

“But if you come out of I’m a Celebrity and then turn up doing Hedda Gabler at the Royal Court, you could well be on a hiding to nothing. It’s just ridiculous.”

Sir Alan, who has just written his 75th play, is not alone.

A national newspaper widened the debate with comments from Amanda Redman. The actress, voiced a similar concern last month when she warned that talented actors were struggling for work because directors would rather cast reality television contestants.

Redman, 54, who studied at the Bristol Old Vic and appeared in repertory theatre before finding fame in television, complained that “anyone off the street” could win an acting role these days and that drama training counted for little.

She said she was “fed up” with young people wanting only to be famous.

“Sometimes kids who spend years learning a craft find they’re up against people who have done no training at all, but will get parts because they’ve been in a reality show,” she said.

“Anyone off the street can go into acting now. That’s the truth of it.”

West End musicals feature a host of performers who first found fame on reality television.

Chicago has featured several celebrities who had previously appeared on reality shows including Claire Sweeney, Jill Halfpenny and Jennifer Ellison.

Soap operas have also cast performers who found fame via a different route.

Kym Marsh, a member of Pop Idol band Hearsay, was in Coronation Street and her fellow band member Suzanne Shaw had a role in Emmerdale. Boyzone’s Keith Duffy played Marsh’s love interest in the soap.

Conversely actors with a stage background have appeared in soaps – including Sir Ian McKellen, Stephanie Cole and Gwen Taylor. They have been or are in Corrie.

Malcolm Hebden, who plays Norris Cole, has a long association with Sir Alan at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. He appeared in more than 10 world premieres and was an associate director.

l Sir Alan’s work will be celebrated this week in Radio 4 documentary Ayckbourn in Action, which will feature contributions from Sir Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton, Julia McKenzie, Peter Bowles and Martin Jarvis.