New Writing: The 1970s

As part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations, the Scarborough In The Round blog ran a series of articles looking at the history of new writing at the theatre decade-by-decade.
Click on the decade links above to read the articles specific to each decade.

Stephen Joseph's Legacy: New Writing - The 1970s

The 1960s had been a period of great change for the Library Theatre with its founder and creative inspiration, Stephen Joseph, dying in 1967.
In 1972, the theatre appointed his long-term replacement - following several years of annual appointments - which saw Stephen's protégé Alan Ayckbourn take over the reins of the theatre.
Alan has always spoken highly of Stephen Joseph, his legacy and his influence and it is no surprise that Alan dedicated himself to furthering that legacy - particularly with a renewed commitment to new playwriting.
But into this was a dimension of a certain financial stability. As last week's article noted, the Library Theatre was always taking a huge risk with its commitment to promoting new writing by largely unfamiliar writers.
By the time Alan Ayckbourn accepted the position as full-time Artistic Director, he was essentially a household name in British theatre. His plays were already all but guaranteed West End transfers and an Ayckbourn world premiere was also the closest thing to a surefire financial success the Library Theatre had.
Alan's new writing became the lynchpin of the theatre during this period. His new play(s) each summer would - it was hoped - provide an element of financial security allowing the theatre to produce new work with the knowledge that if a play did not perform as well as hoped, it need not necessarily plunge the theatre into financial crisis.
It was a fortunate position for the Library Theatre to be in, but also for Alan Ayckbourn. He was essentially commissioning himself and also taking at times very big risks himself; although the vast majority of these paid off. The final years at the Library Theatre produced some extraordinary success for the playwright, most of which could easily fight for a place in the significant plays of that decade -
Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Absent Friends, Confusions, Just Between Ourselves and Bedroom Farce - all produced in five years and all still popular today. The 1970s was an exceptional period for Alan Ayckbourn.
And this fed into the Library Theatre where Alan was championing new work, frequently by northern writers. This was, there can be little doubt, influenced by Alan's work as a BBC Radio Drama Producer between 1965 and 1970. Working at the BBC with the renowned producer Alfred Bradley, known for his championing of northern writers, Alan was responsible for assessing and producing swathes of new work (he estimates in his first year at the BBC alone, he produced more than 50 radio dramas).
The skills he learnt at the BBC - and Alfred's insistence all submitted work be assessed and responded to - carried over to the theatre; as well as some of the writers Alan had worked with at the BBC.
During the first half of the decade, new work was produced by Leonard Barras, David Campton, Peter King, Peter Blythe, Bob Eaton and Stephen Lowe. All of whom would continue writing for stage - and often screen - following Scarborough with success to various degrees.
The great find of the late Library years though was from within the company with a actor named Stephen Mallatratt. Encouraged to write by Alan, as Stephen Joseph had encouraged Alan, he produced some memorable work for the company.
His first play,
An Englishman's Home, was described by Alan as a "practically perfect first play" and was part of a UK tour with Ayckbourn's Just Between Ourselves. Stephen would go on to write a number of other plays for the theatre, not least the extraordinary adaptation The Woman In Black in 1987, which went on to become a global success. Stephen also had notable success working on the Coronation Street scriptwriting team during the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1976, the company moved from the Library Theatre to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round where (slightly) better facilities and a small studio space allowed the theatre to become an all year round venue and much more ambitious.
The studio between 1977 and 1994 became a test-bed for short new works, often providing a platform for writers to progress to the main house with full-length plays. The one act lunchtime plays, launched in 1977, became an essential aspect of the theatre over the next four decades and would see new work by the likes of Tim Firth, Torben Betts, Nick Warburton, Sarah Phelps, Vanessa Brooks and Robert Shearman among others.
Meanwhile in the main house, Brian Thompson was seen as an emergent talent with two well-received plays in 1978 and 1979,
Patriotic Bunting and Tishoo, the latter also transferring to the West End within three months of its Scarborough premiere.
By the end of the 1970s, the company was secure in its new home (having accepted a short term solution to moving away from the Library Theatre had become a long term solution), it was running throughout the year and was once again producing a substantial proportion of new work each year; in 1978 and 1979, the theatre premiered a phenomenal 18 new works in total.
With a new space to promote new writers and the theatre also committed to staging new full-length work in-the-round, its position as one of the country's most significant new writing producers would be cemented during the 1980s as well as seeing one of its most exceptional and enduring hits.

Click here to go New Writing: The 1980s

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the author.

All opinions and views expressed within this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Alan Ayckbourn.