The Norman Conquests: Behind The Scenes

Behind The Scenes offers a glimpse at some rarely known facts regarding the writing of Alan Ayckbourn's plays with material drawn from the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York and the playwright's personal archive.
  • The plays were not written as The Norman Conquests - the title by which the trilogy is now known wasn't used until a year after the play opened in Scarborough to promote its London premiere at the Greenwich Theatre. Interestingly, this also indicates different perceptions of the audience for the play. When Alan Ayckbourn decided to write a trilogy for the 1973 summer season at Scarborough, he did so in the knowledge that it couldn't be promoted exclusively as a trilogy and that every play had to stand independently of the other. This was because the theatre relied on the town's summer tourist trade and Alan was not convinced holiday-makers would give up three nights of their week to see all the plays. As a result, although it was advertised the plays worked better together, it was also stressed that they did not need to all be seen to enjoy the plays. When the trilogy transferred to London, it was felt more appropriate to market it as an event and as a trilogy - London audiences seeming far more likely to support the idea of returning to the theatre multiple times. Hence the plays became The Norman Conquests for the London premiere.
  • The Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York contains correspondence from the original Norman, Christopher Godwin, revealing why Norman appears so late in the play Table Manners. This was because Table Manners was the first play to go into rehearsals and Alan knew Christopher would not be available for part of the first week of rehearsals. Hence the huge build-up to Norman! As Christopher Godwin writes (to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's press officer Jeannie Swales on 8 February 1993): "Norman wasn't in the first scene [of Table Manners] because I was finishing a contract in Leicester (I think) and I came in two days late and went straight into that first huge speech."
  • Midway through the run at the Library Theatre, Christopher Godwin's wife gave birth to their first son during a performance. At the end of the evening, Alan Ayckbourn announced the news to a shocked 'Norman' and the audience.
  • In a conversation with Alan Ayckbourn's wife, Heather Stoney, on 8 August 2014, she confirmed that it is only by luck that The Norman Conquests became one of the playwright's greatest successes rather than being forgotten and withdrawn. After the play's initial production in Scarborough, there was interest from London producers, but none of them were interested in taking the trilogy as a whole and each had a different choice of which play they wanted. Unwilling to not have it produced as a a trilogy, Alan put the plays away and genuinely did not expect they would be produced again; history tells us that when Alan's plays have followed this path, they tend to be either forgotten and unproduced or withdrawn. It was only the request by Eric Thompson to Alan if he had anything to read whilst in hospital, which led to Eric reading the scripts and announcing he could stage them in Greenwich, thus kick-starting starting the trilogy's remarkable journey.
  • Although The Norman Conquests proved to be a huge success in London, it was initially doubted that a trilogy could succeed in the West End (Alan turned down several offers to produce the plays either singularly or as a pair). The novelty of a trilogy in the West End and the unexpected success can be seen when a press officer for the Globe Theatre was reported in 1974 as saying: "It's the first time I can remember plays being presented like this, but the idea has really caught on. We are playing to packed houses and the advance bookings are excellent. Many people have booked for the three plays at the one time."
  • In an interview in 2016 as part of the BBC radio programme, Essential Classics, Alan revealed that the unseen role of Annie's mother was probably most inspired by his mother; the only role he was willing to concede she might have played a part in inspiring.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.