What brings a person to Scarborough? The sea? The beach? The scenery? The castle? The spa? The gardens? The shows, the joke shops and the amusements? The rock, the ice cream, the fish and chips? None of these appealed to Alan Yentob. He was there not for donkey rides but for Alan Ayckbourn, Britain's most successful playwright (BBC One, Imagine: Alan Ayckbourn - Greetings from Scarborough, Tuesday 15 November, 10.35pm). Naturally, his first question was what on earth Mr Ayckbourn was doing perched by the North Sea.
Sensing his interviewer's struggle to grasp the concept of civilisation beyond London, Mr Ayckbourn broke his answer down into easily understandable parts. He came because he needed a job. He stayed because it was by the sea and because a round stage meant that as an assistant stage manager, he didn't have to move so much scenery. But Mr Yentob was not satisfied. Mr Ayckbourn sighed and tried again. He was attracted by the work of Stephen Joseph, a pioneer of theatre in the round, and who was committed to producing contemporary plays. A smile crossed Mr Yentob's face. He understood culture.
Apart from Scarborough, which contains "all human life", the biggest influence on Mr Ayckbourn was his mother Irene Worley, more familiarly known as "Lolly", who published short stories under the name Mary James. It wasn't until the 1970s that he discovered that she wasn't actually married to his father but to a rather small man in a beret. If comedy is partly about mistaken identities, then Mr Ayckbourn had a head start.
His father, Horace, was a lead violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra and had an eye for the ladies. They used to ring Lolly, wailing about how much they loved him, to which she would reply, "you should try living with him". Eventually she got tired of answering the phone to weeping women and left Horace to cope with the calls himself. If sexual waywardness is intrinsic to comedy, then here was another way in which Mr Ayckbourn was advantaged.
His mother bought him a typewriter when he was six, but it was Stephen Joseph who got him writing. His first plays were of an experimental nature, but that did not deter the Scarborough audience, although, as Mr Ayckbourn admitted, the wet weather was sometimes more responsible for filling the theatre than the promise of seeing dramatic conventions overturned. Not that holidaymakers were unappreciative of his efforts to enlighten them. As the curtain went up on one show, one man turned to his wife and said: "Eh, it's in colour." There's Northern satire for you.
"Why don't you try writing a well-made play?" asked Mr Joseph. What? This was the time of Samuel Beckett, of John Osborne, of Shelagh Delaney and Edward Bond. Who wanted light comedies when they could have angst, anger, nihilism and brutality? All the same, Mr Ayckbourn gave it a go and it would be hard to say who was the more pleased with the success of Relatively Speaking (1965), the author or his bank manager, a species that has since become extinct.
Absurd Person Singular (1972) shows the fine line between tragedy and comedy that runs through all his work. In the second act, a woman's various attempts to commit suicide at a party are all hilariously misinterpreted. As she tries to gas herself, a guest pops in and asks why she's cleaning the oven. It gets a guffaw, even on the page. But it turns into a roar when the guest reveals she doesn't feel very comfortable with people either and starts to clean the oven herself, leaving the hostess the problem of finding an alternative means of ending it all.
What makes Mr Ayckbourn disturbing is his ability to see the funny side of despair. Or perhaps it makes him reassuring. I don't know. Beckett needed symbolic landscapes to convey the desolation of human existence; Mr Ayckbourn can do it by having a man trying to assemble a wardrobe from a flatpack. He pushes open the door of a semi and you peer into the swirling vortex within. And you laugh. And carry on laughing. And it's frightening because it seems like you can't stop.
Since he has the approbation of French auteurs like Alain Resnais, who has adapted a number of his plays, Mr Ayckbourn can probably live without the esteem of British critics who seem to regard his popularity as an affront to their sensibilities. The only thing they can possibly have against him is that it is easy to misspell his name. They apparently had to lie down in a dark room when Peter Hall invited him to direct a season of plays at the National Theatre. A trip to Scarborough might have been more therapeutic. It certainly did wonders for Mr Yentob. He was actually spotted smiling on the seafront.