The Norman Conquests: BackgroundArguably the most famous of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays and certainly amongst the most successful, The Norman Conquests are an early landmark in Alan Ayckbourn’s writing career.
Yet for something that is regarded as a milestone in 20th century British theatre, the plays had a surprisingly pedestrian origin. In September 1972, in the aftermath of the success of Absurd Person Singular at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, a reporter for a local newspaper (the precise publication being lost to time) asked Alan what he planned to write next. Rather flippantly Alan replied he was thinking of writing a trilogy as apparently he couldn’t think of anything else to say; he did not mention this plan to any other publication and an end of season report in The Stage quotes Alan as saying he would write a new play - no mention of a trilogy - for the following summer. Alan thought nothing more of it until the unidentified newspaper in question ran a story in March 1973, while he was away in London, stating his next project would be a trilogy. A panicked call from the Library Theatre - totally unaware of this development - enquired whether this was true. After a brief consideration, Alan decided it wasn’t such a bad idea and began writing his first trilogy.
In a sense, the inspiration for The Norman Conquests was not only the challenge it posed to write and direct a trilogy successfully, but also the challenge to write a trilogy for a summer seaside audience which would satisfy anyone whether they came to see one, two or three plays, without compromising the plays.
The reality of writing a trilogy was even more complex than it first appeared as paramount in Alan’s mind was not only writing three plays which worked together, but that were - in essence - independent of each other and that could be seen in any order and not necessarily with either of the other two plays. Alan was well aware the plays would dominate the Library Theatre’s summer season and that the theatre relied on tourists who might not necessarily be inclined to spend three nights of their holiday at the theatre and who might be put off by the thought of seeing a trilogy. As a result, the trilogy nature of the plays was not emphasised nor that ultimate satisfaction required seeing all three productions. This is most obvious in the fact the trilogy did not have an over-arching name for the original production. The title of The Norman Conquests would come later in London, in the meantime the only overt reference to the trilogy was the note: “A weekend view of the Norman Conquest” carried in each programme alongside a programme note by Alan simply explaining the concept of the trilogy.
The plays were written simultaneously over a week in May 1973 with Alan writing each play cross-wise (i.e. all the scenes ones after each other, than all of the scenes twos etc). Despite this method of working, Alan firmly believes each play has its own very distinct character: Table Manners is the funniest; Round And Round The Garden the more casual and conventional; Living Together a slower piece with a deliberate slackening of the pace. As to why Norman appears so late in Table Manners (the first of the plays to be rehearsed), this is simply because the actor playing Norman, Christopher Godwin, was unavailable for the first week of rehearsals and the script was written to accommodate this.
The plays - at this point called: Fancy Meeting You, Make Yourself At Home and Round And Round The Garden - opened in the summer of 1973 at the Library Theatre and - once people had realised what was happening - were an enormous success. The local press reported the plays were selling out at every performance and The Stage announced the play had broken every box office record at the Library Theatre. The plays are also fondly recalled at the theatre for the extraordinary occasion when a member of the audience laughed so hard she spat her false teeth out, which her husband came to recover from the box office the next day!
Although the plays were a huge success in Scarborough, a transfer to the West End was by no means inevitable nor - extraordinary as it seems now - was any sort of future guaranteed for the plays. Alan was of the opinion that it was probably not viable to take a trilogy to London (or anywhere else!) and had also been forewarned by his agent Margaret Ramsay (better known as Peggy) and various producers that a trilogy was box office death and it was unlikely anyone would realistically want to pick it up; as Alan subsequently noted, what this assumption was based on given the lack of theatrical trilogies in general is anyone's guess.
Several producers did tussle with the challenge of transferring the plays to London - albeit singularly rather than as a trilogy - but each favoured a different play; this did suggest to Alan all three plays were viable even if West End producers couldn't agree which one was the best. Near the end of the original run in Scarborough, Alan's current London producer Michael Codron reluctantly agreed to produce all three plays in London. Jubilation quickly turned to disappointment when several weeks later, he withdrew the offer having had second thoughts and deemed it too much of a financial risk.
Obviously disappointed, Alan put the trilogy in a drawer and began work on his next play Absent Friends. At which point, it should be stressed Alan genuinely believed there was probably no future for the plays and they were unlikely to ever be picked up again. Historically, several Ayckbourn plays have been 'put in the drawer' and then either never been produced again, withdrawn or only been picked up again following extensive revisions. It is both the playwright and his wife's contention that The Norman Conquests would probably have been forgotten and never picked up again, had they not been contacted by Eric Thompson, who had previously directed the West productions of Time And Time Again and Absurd Person Singular.
Eric was going into hospital and wondered whether Alan had anything for him to read, so Alan sent him a bit of light reading in the form of The Norman Conquests. Eric read them and was very enthusiastic; believing Greenwich Theatre might be a viable venue and suggesting Tom Courtenay - who had starred in Time And Time Again - might be interested in the trilogy. His suggestion the trilogy be mounted at a fringe venue offered less financial risk as well as a testing ground, where if the plays were demonstrated to be both viable and successful, it would be easier to sell a West End transfer. Greenwich Theatre agreed to stage the plays and Eric’s choice of an exceptionally strong cast of relative unknowns (including Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Wilton and Penelope Keith) working alongside the more established Tom Courtenay arguably helped to guarantee the plays’ future and success in London. Not that Eric was totally convinced he had a hit on his hands as Alan Ayckbourn recalls of a conversation on the first of the three premieres: "Eric said, 'Do you realise we could be the first people in history with three flops in a row, because if they don't like one, they sure as hell aren't going to like the others!"' Fortunately for all concerned, the opposite occurred.
To expedite the prolonged rehearsal and help with the casting, Peggy meanwhile contacted Michael Codron - who was aware of the Greenwich plans. A deal was struck that Codron would underwrite the cost of rehearsals in return for first refusal on any West End transfer. In a shrewd move for all concerned, the deal was struck and Codron's involvement kept quiet.
Rehearsals began in London and, unusually, Alan became a participant in the production at Greenwich and was actively involved in rehearsals; Eric would direct the brunt of the play, but when it came to the set-pieces such as the dinner party in Table Manners, he would invite Alan to step in, who would block the scene and direct the basics before Eric took over again. This participation was only made public in a BBC documentary in 2011 and it could be argued The Norman Conquests rather than Bedroom Farce marked Alan's directorial debut in London (despite this, Bedroom Farce is still officially regarded as London directing debut).
As for the plays themselves, there was little alteration to the texts between Scarborough and London, but there were several other notable changes. The trilogy now became known as The Norman Conquests as a means of emphasising to the audience they should see all three plays - although in no particular order. Two of the original titles were also altered: Fancy Meeting You became Table Manners; Make Yourself At Home became Living Together, leaving only Round And Round The Garden unaltered.
The Norman Conquests played at Greenwich from May to June, 1974, and was an incredible and immediate success. Such was the overwhelming response to the trilogy that it was reported at the time there was a rush from West End producers to take on the plays with one article citing the producer Michael Codron had to apparently pay a vastly inflated price to secure the rights as a result of this. This was journalistic invention, though, as Codron had been a silent partner throughout the Greenwich experience. His involvement had been kept quiet as it was felt if the management of Greenwich Theatre realised he had helped fund the trilogy - implying the transfer to the West End was practically a given - there would be scope for the theatre to make more financial demands. As a result, Codron's role in the Greenwich success was played down and he only stepped into the limelight when the transfer was officially confirmed, giving the impression he had only just become involved with it.
Codron took the trilogy into the West End with virtually the same cast - Bridget Turner taking over from the unavailable Penelope Wilton - and it opened at the Globe Theatre on 1 August, 1974. The response to the transfer was just as enthusiastic as it had been at Greenwich and The Norman Conquests would win the Evening Standard and the Plays And Players Awards for Best New Play, as well as winning Felicity Kendal the Variety Club’s Most Promising Newcomer Award. The plays would run until 13 March 1976. The long-running success included a transfer from the Globe Theatre to the Apollo Theatre in December 1975 and when the play was recast in 1975, it included Julia McKenzie in her first Ayckbourn role. Alan would later cite her performance as one of the reasons why he felt she was capable of taking on the demands of the role of Susan in the 1986 West End production of Woman In Mind.
An American production was practically a given, such was the success of the trilogy in London and the response Alan’s previous play Absurd Person Singular had already received on Broadway. The rights to the plays were bought by Philip Langer who initially suggested the London cast transfer to Broadway, but this foundered when Tom Courtenay was not prepared to commit for more than a 12 week season, which financially was not attractive to the American producers. The search for a suitable American cast did see one of the more unusual suggestions for an Ayckbourn play when the acclaimed actor Dustin Hoffman showed interest in the plays. He visited London to see the trilogy and in an interview said he was actively considering the plays. Unfortunately this did not come to pass and the thought of Dustin Hoffman as Norman can only be left to the imagination. Eric Thompson, who had directed the American production of Absurd Person Singular to great acclaim, returned to direct the American production which began life with a short run in Los Angeles before transferring to New York. The trilogy was well received but did not achieve the same level of success as Absurd Person Singular. It ran at the Morosco Theatre from 5 December 1975 to 19 June 1976, winning the 1976 Drama Desk award for Unique Theatrical Experience. With the trilogy running in concert with Absurd Person Singular, Alan’s achievement at having the most plays running simultaneously on Broadway was marked when 45th Street was renamed Ayckbourn Alley for the day in March 1976. This achievement was mirrored in London when Absent Friends opened in 1975 and Alan had five plays running simultaneously in the West End (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and Absent Friends). The American production would be the final collaboration between Alan and Eric Thompson (begun when Eric directed the London premiere of Time And Time Again in 1972).
Back in England, the trilogy was set to become the first of Alan’s plays to enjoy multi-media success. Prior to 1974, his plays had been published by Samuel French as play texts aimed predominantly at the amateur performance market. No-one had shown interest publishing them for a wider audience despite prior attempts to interest a major publisher in the plays. This all changed with The Norman Conquests when several publishers - including Faber & Faber and Methuen - made proposals to print the trilogy. The contract was awarded to Chatto & Windus, who published the trilogy in hardback in 1975; this news was even reported in the Daily Telegraph. Penguin would later buy the paperback rights from Chatto & Windus becoming the first mass market paperback publication of Alan’s plays.
The success of the plays also attracted interest from film and television companies, all keen to tackle the trilogy in some form or to spin it off in other directions. The BBC initially suggested making both an adaptation of the plays and a spin-off television series and other producers followed suit; although practically every suggestion was for a spin-off from the plays in the form of a one-off special or a half-hour television series. Alan himself was “mystified” as to why any of the characters should merit a spin-off, but was prepared to let Peggy handle the process and see what sort of offers came to the table. Concurrent to this, several film companies were suggesting making a movie of the trilogy, although the idea of just one film encompassing all three plays did not appeal to Alan. Strangely, there was very little suggestion of filming the trilogy as a trilogy and the first notable suggestion along these lines did not come until 1975 when the producer David Susskind offered to adapt the plays for television with the original West End cast and Alan’s original scripts. Over the course of 1976, this project was hammered out with Verity Lambert, arguably one of the UK’s most famous and successful television producers, co-producing with Susskind for Thames Television. Throughout the negotiations, Alan and Peggy fought hard for the plays to be presented at their original lengths rather than cut down to fit a specific slot for television; a point which Alan has always felt strongly about when considering the television, film and radio adaptations of his work. Thames Television announced on 11 January, 1977, it was producing a trilogy of two-hour films based on the plays starring Tom Conti as Norman. This was the first time any TV channel in the UK had devoted six hours of prime-time television to a living playwright and the company’s faith in the films seemed well-placed with strong ratings for the broadcasts. The three films, directed by Herbert Wise, were shown on consecutive Wednesdays from 8pm and just a week after the first one had been broadcast, Thames announced the films had been sold to PBS in the USA for a “six figure sum.” Despite their success, Alan was not entirely happy with the adaptations, although much of the blame for this was put on a strike which had taken place in the middle of filming and effected the quality of the production.
Alan's mixed feelings about the television adaptation were not helped when in 1981, Table Manners was released on video in the UK. Neither Alan nor Peggy were aware of this until they saw a newspaper review (for the film buffs out there, Table Manners was released on video in the UK at the same time as Star Wars). Thames Television was contacted and had released the video despite not having contractual rights to do so; as a result a limited two year video release contract was arranged for the trilogy, however it is not apparent whether the all three films were ever actually released on video in the UK following this. Whatever the case, the trilogy made very little impact on video in the UK and was not made available again until a DVD release in 2006 (later re-issued in 2014). In April 2015, the British Film Institute screened the trilogy in a single day as part of a festival celebrating the work of the television producer Verity Lambert.
Following the conclusion of its successful London run in 1976, there was immense interest in the future of the trilogy with one of the first suggestions being a national tour originating with the Cambridge Theatre Company. Alan, however, was keen that the plays be released to repertory theatres as soon as possible where he saw a more natural home for them. No-one could actually see how a tour of The Norman Conquests would work anyway - significantly Michael Codron had already dismissed the idea unless each theatre on the tour committed to at least three-week long visits. With considerable demand from repertory theatres across the country, the trilogy was released for production in 1976 and the first regional production was staged by the recently opened Theatre Clywd, Mold, on 9 August 1976. Other productions soon followed throughout the UK, cementing the trilogy as a popular draw and Alan’s burgeoning reputation as a playwright. In 1977, The Norman Conquests was apparently the most performed work in the country followed by Macbeth and Alan’s previous hit Absurd Person Singular. It was estimated that in 1977, 950,000 people saw the trilogy on stage in the UK alone. Amateur rights were released in 1978 and it remains one of the most produced of Alan Ayckbourn’s works. In 2013, the publishers Samuel French reported that combined productions of the three plays made The Norman Conquests the second most performed Ayckbourn play by amateurs since 1996 after Ernie's Incredible Illucinations.
Although the television adaptation of the trilogy had been a huge hit, a more satisfying adaptation was created by the BBC for radio in 1990. Directed and adapted by Gordon House, the three part adaptation featured a strong cast, many of whom had previously worked extensively with Alan Ayckbourn. Robin Herford, Diane Bull, Jon Strickland and Tessa Peake-Jones featured in what was a very popular adaptation of the trilogy which was released commercially in 1993 on cassette and is frequently repeated on BBC Radio to this day. In 2010, the BBC released it on CD and as a digital download for the first time as part of the launch of its Classic Radio Theatre series. In 2015, the BBC broadcast a new adaptation of the trilogy in BBC Radio 4, directed by Peter Kavanagh and featuring Helen Baxendale, Nigel Planer and Julian Rhind-Tutt in the cast.
The significance of The Norman Conquests and its place in 20th century British theatre was highlighted in 1999 as part of the National Theatre’s NT2000 celebration. This named the trilogy as one of the 100 Plays Of The Century, where it represented 1973. A platform featuring the original Norman - Christopher Godwin - and Mark Kingston (Reg in the first London production) marked the event in June 1999.
Plans to revive The Norman Conquests in London had long been rumoured with the National Theatre at one point apparently considering a revival to mark the 20th anniversary of the trilogy in 1993. Although nothing came of this, in 2006 Kevin Spacey - Artistic Director of the Old Vic - made a surprise announcement that The Norman Conquests would be revived in London for the first time since 1974 with the acclaimed and award-winning Matthew Warchus directing.
The production was confirmed in May 2008 with the unexpected news that the interior of the Old Vic would be adapted so The Norman Conquests could be performed in the round as originally produced and written by Alan Ayckbourn, marking the first time a major London production of an Ayckbourn play was performed in the round. The trilogy opened in September for a three month run featuring Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes, Paul Ritter, Amanda Root, Amelia Bullmore and Ben Miles. Despite the popularity of the plays, it was acknowledged that staging a trilogy in the West End - particularly given the country was in the early stages of recession - was nothing but a considerable risk. The result defied everyone’s expectations. The reviews were uniformly ecstatic with all aspects of the production receiving praise including the risky decision to convert the Old Vic auditorium into the round. The critical notices and word of mouth meant the Old Vic soon had a huge success on its hands. The Times later named the production as one of the theatrical events of the decade.
Almost immediately after the run ended, there were rumours The Norman Conquests would transfer to New York; although extended negotiations to transfer the original cast and to keep it in the round meant the trilogy did not reach New York until April 2009 for a limited run. The producer Sonia Friedman was responsible for the transfer to the Circle In The Square, where the trilogy was again performed in the round. Critical notices were again excellent but the trilogy proved a harder sell in America and despite doing strong business it would not recoup the initial investment (although there were negotiations to extend the run as audiences continued to build throughout the trilogy’s time on Broadway). Where The Norman Conquests did succeed, above and beyond any expectation, was in recognition of the production and the company. It received a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and awards for Best Revivals from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk. The cast, both singularly and as a company also received a number of awards. The crowning moment came on 7 June when the trilogy received a prestigious Tony award for Best Revival. This was the first time an Ayckbourn play had won a Tony and it seems apt that his writing should be recognised on Broadway with a Tony for his most famous work in the 50th anniversary year of his playwriting career.
Another major revival will take place during September / October 2017, when the Chichester Festival Theatre will produce the trilogy directed by Blanche McIntyre.
Alan Ayckbourn never truly believed when he wrote The Norman Conquests that it would have a long shelf-life as, at the time, he couldn't see either professional or amateur companies producing a trilogy of plays with all the demands this entailed. Time has proved him very wrong and The Norman Conquests continues to be popular and regularly staged by both professional and amateurs around the world and has become one of the most popular and well-loved of all Alan Ayckbourn's plays.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.