Tons Of Money: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This is an extract from an interview by Peter Roberts published in the February 1987 edition of Plays International magazine.

Peter Roberts: Lets talk now of the three plays you've chosen to do here with your company at the National Theatre. You decided to kick off with Tons of Money which was the first of the Aldwych farces which later became identified with Ben Travers.
Alan Ayckbourn: I thought Tons of Money would be less familiar and I wanted to do something unusual rather go for something like Travers' Thark.

You got to know Travers didn't you?
Yes. He was an extraordinary phenomenon. He had a huge success with those Aldwych farces in the '20s and '30s and then for years he dropped out of sight though his plays continued to pop up irregularly in the reps. Then when he reappeared in 1975 with The Bed Before Yesterday on the London stage many people like me were very surprised to find that he had not been dead for many years. He was in his 80s when he came back and a very hale and hearty old gentleman, appearing on the chat shows and so forth. Somebody - I think it was Irving Wardle - asked me if I'd like to meet him and we became very friendly. He came up to Scarborough and saw a production I did there of his Rookery Nook. I knew him from then on to the day he died and as a result of knowing him in that way became more interested in his work and managed later to do Thark rather better than I had done Rookery Nook.
What he confirmed for me was something that I suspected all along, that there was a way to do his plays that was not perhaps the way everybody assumed that they should be played. Not knowing the originals, we all used to make assumptions about what Ralph Lynn, Tom Walls and Robertson Hare used to do with them. We assumed that they were done well over the top. But Ben himself was most adamant that they were done very truthfully and accurately and with a great deal of seriousness and thought. I became very interested in that.
When I was planning the season here at the National Theatre, I discovered that
Tons of Money was the original play round which the Aldwych Company was formed. It was, I suspect, one of those plays that rather came together than was written. Its history was that it was originally two plays but the writers Willis and Valentine put the two works into one and as a single play it had rather gone the rounds without anybody liking it. Then Tom Walls and Leslie Henson - joint producers - saw it and reckoned that with a little bit of reworking they could get it on. It provided Ralph Lynn with a character he had been well know for for many years without having found a vehicle for it. The play opened in Liverpool and when it was brought to Shaftesbury Avenue it was an amazing overnight success and when it eventually transferred to the Aldwych it inaugurated the Aldwych farces of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Ben Travers was generally considered to have worked better with the Aldwych farce team than when he went off and wrote alone. Did he confirm that to you when you got to know him in old age?
His working methods were terribly different from mine - or I would have thought - from most writers. He worked rather like a script writer writing for a couple of comics. He was very much dictated to by the Aldwych farce team and he had to supply what they wanted when they wanted it. In a sense his talent was to be able to put his identity on something that was in a sense supplied to actors on demand. He still managed to produce plays that were recognisably his.

You have yourself worked over the script of Tons of Money for the present production, haven't you?
What we had inherited was French's acting edition which was made up very obviously with what the stage manager had written down to record what had happened on stage when the plays were first done. Much of the dialogue was clearly ad-libbed and there were some inconsistencies.

Do you agree that you cannot really ever wholly recreate those farces because they were not only written for but also sometimes partly written by the actors who first performed them?
Well, it's hard to tell. All you can do is to try to give the flavour of them. What we said to ourselves was, lets try to do this one as accurately and faithfully and as honestly as we can. I think that the National Theatre is the place where this sort of heritage should be seen and examined even if it may not be a major literary contribution to English dramatic literature. Of course one of the problems compared to French farce was that the Aldwych farces were very limited in what they could say and portray about sexual liaisons because of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's office. It was very different when Ben Travers came to write The Bed Before Yesterday in 1975.
What interested me about
Tons of Money was that it does not really have any sex. It's most extraordinary. One of the reasons for its great success, I suspect, was that until it appeared in this country we had mostly translated French farce by Feydeau and others where men were always trying to make it with somebody or trying to get rid of some discarded female. Now English farce, on the contrary, was much more concerned with a completely different ethos: trying to live the good life without actually having to work to make the money to do so. That's something that runs through all the Wodehouse books. Bertie Wooster's modus vivendi is an attempt not to work. Work is never mentioned apart perhaps for something like writing freelance articles. Even as late as the 1950s I remember my contemporaries at school wondering what to do in order not to work and thinking that going into their father's businesses was the best solution, I seemed to be the only one who actually wanted to do something, who actually wanted to work.

Copyright: Peter Roberts.

"I imagine it must have been done by amateurs, since French publish a text of it. But what we got was unbelievable. I mean, illogicalities and non-sequiturs you could drive a coach and horses through. You didn't need to be an intellectual to see them: even the most champagne-fuddled first-nighter must have stopped and wondered 'How did he...? Where did she...? Why are they…?' So we did a lot of work on the text. We had six weeks rehearsals - the most the play can ever have had. Then a week of previews, where again we did an enormous amount of work. And it still goes on evolving and growing and fine-tuning: now it's coming back into the repertory after a month out, I'm sure we shall find more things and do things differently. You have to remember that these things were originally on the road for 46 weeks without ever seeing London, so lord knows how many transformations they went through, all with the purpose of getting the laughs. After all, that's what a play like this is all about: giving the audience a good time."

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd.