Advocates: Sir Michael Gambon

Sir Michael Gambon CBE is an Irish award-winning actor on both stage and screen. Well known for screen roles such as The Singing Detective and the Harry Potter movies, he is also regarded as a quintessential Ayckbourn actor. He has appeared in more West End productions of Alan's plays than any other actor and all three of his Olivier Awards have been achieved under Alan Ayckbourn's direction.


"Somehow in Ayckbourn I feel more at home: the language looks very easy and ordinary but actually it's tremendously precise and once you've got it right you can sort of lean on the dialogue for support and it sees you safely through to the end."

"Alan never leaves you out on a limb. He's so practised in this craft. You always know things are going to work, whether it's a laugh or a more serious impact."

"Alan understands actors totally."

"Alan can view the play as a whole, driving it along at terrific speed. But if you run into individual problems he's as helpful as anybody else. I don't want to paint him like a God but he is a perfect director."

"He's such fun, so reassuring, calming."

"He’s a very practical, down to earth proper theatre director. When you’re in an Ayckbourn play he’s directed, you know you’re safe, lines are drawn quite clearly, not to say they’re not inventive or imaginative, they’re just good to do."

"I fell in love with Alan Ayckbourn the day I met him and, starting with The Norman Conquests, went on to do eight plays with him. He tells you just what you want to know and has a brilliant way of solving problems."

Just Between Ourselves

by Philip Oakes

On 10 February 1990, the Daily Telegraph published an interview with Alan Ayckbourn and Michael Gambon and their work together. This is reprinted below.

With 35 plays up and running, Alan Ayckbourn deserves some sort of medal as the Actor's Friend. No other living playwright provides the profession with so much work, so often and so successfully. Somewhere in the world, it has been estimated, the curtain is always rising on an Ayckbourn play. One year he had five running simultaneously in the West End. The problem, he complains now, is that there are not enough actors to meet the demand.

'As a director, I know that comedy's difficult to do, especially the sort that I write. A lot of actors think they can do it. But the fact is very few of them can. At the very most I know about 50 actors in Britain who can play comedy and that's both men and women. There are some you take a chance on and some that fade away. I tend to stick with those I regard as ace interpreters.'

Michael Gambon heads the list of Ayckbourn's chosen few. It is highly complimentary, he thinks, but a bit baffling. 'When I started I thought of myself as a posh classical actor.' But he has now played the lead in five Ayckbourn comedies - beginning with
The Norman Conquests in 1974 - and on February 14 at the Globe Theatre he opens in his sixth [1] and Ayckbourn's 35th. In Man of the Moment he plays Douglas, a chinless bank clerk who once, quite untypically, foiled a raid on a Purley bank by tackling a raider with a shotgun, which, sad to say, blew the ear off a girl hostage. The girl has become Douglas's wife. The robber (played by Peter Bowles) has become an obnoxious chat show host and 17 years later he and Douglas are reunited by an ambitious television producer preparing a programme called Their Paths Crossed. She tries to get Douglas to express rage, envy, revenge - any televisual emotion - but the wimp will not rise to the occasion. Is there anything he feels strongly about? 'Evil,' he says, after due reflection. 'It's often hard to recognise. But there's a lot of it about.'

The comedy is decidedly black, Ayckbourn agrees. 'But, you know, I've always written in that vein. People simply didn't recognise it. Perhaps they didn't want to.' He rubs his hands at the prospect of Gambon delivering his lines. 'People forget that he started out playing meek, inept people. Then he did the big parts - Galileo and Lear. There's a whole generation that doesn't remember Michael doing this sort of thing. They are in for a surprise.'

It is not a word that either of them greatly cares for. 'A surprising performance,' says Ayckbourn, 'can be a bad one.' What they both admire is the calculated effect - one that can stun or excite or exhilarate a theatre audience. How they achieve it is their art and their business. 'I feel entirely safe with him,' says Gambon of Ayckbourn. 'What he does, he does brilliantly,' says Ayckbourn of Gambon. What togetherness, you think. But perfect partnerships are not always made in heaven. This one is alive and well in Shaftesbury Avenue.

All the same, it has some unlikely aspects. Ayckbourn, 50, is the son of a woman journalist and the deputy leader of the LSO, and was educated at Haileybury. He attributes his phenomenal poise to his public school training. 'They teach you two main things. Never look as though anything takes any effort and if you happen to be ignorant about anything, have the arrogance to think it doesn't matter.' He worked for the
BBC for six years, carried a spear at the Edinburgh International Festival and then toured provincial reps. He wound up as ASM at Scarborough, where he now directs the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, testing ground for all his plays.

Gambon, 49, came from Dublin to London - where his father was a reserve policeman - in 1945 and attended a secondary modern school. He still glooms occasionally about the poverty of his education. He won a Vickers apprenticeship and qualified as a precision engineer but - passing the open doors of the Palace Theatre one day - conceived an irresistible desire to become an actor. He did amateur dramatics at the Unity Theatre then toured Europe with Michael MacLiammoir's Gate Theatre before he joined the National Theatre as an extra. Olivier dispatched him to the provinces for experience and he also played the juvenile lead in a BBC period adventure serial,
The Borderers. 'I wore a long, blond wig and rode a big grey horse,' he recalls. He was plucked from the saddle by Eric Thompson, director of The Norman Conquests and met Ayckbourn for the first time.

'The play had a dream cast,' says Ayckbourn. 'There was Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal and Tom Courtenay, but only Tom was a star in those days.' Fittingly; the biggest laugh - and one which established his reputation - went to the relatively unknown Gambon. Joining his fellow guests at dinner, he sank into an absurdly low seat, so low that only his head appeared over the cutlery. 'It had the inescapable effect of making him the most visible figure on stage,' noted The Times. 'From that lowly seat began the rise to stardom,' wrote Eric Shorter in The Daily Telegraph. 'It was one of those moments in the theatre which stay in the mind for ever.'

It is the laughter that Gambon remembers. 'It came in waves and I thought it would never stop. We simply had to freeze while it went on. It was almost frightening.' Since then, he says, he has become more confident.

'My voice has deepened and I'm prepared to take more chances.' But his reliance on Ayckbourn is considerable. 'To call him a father figure is a lot to put on anybody, but acting is such a terrifying experience that I really do look on the director as a father. He's two people. When we're not rehearsing I regard him as a friend - although we may not see each other from one year to the next. But on stage I see him as someone who looks after me. A good director watches your back. If you're playing Lear you don't want to be told on the second night that the fool is juggling with ping-pong balls.'

Gambon is right about his willingness to take chances, says Ayckbourn. 'He's one of the most daring actors I know. If you are asking an actor to play a role, then as much of that actor as possible should get through to the part. A director can easily get in the way. I try to trot beside Michael like a sheep-dog, pointing out a few gates he may like to inspect. The more astute the actor, the more astute his choices will be. You can make suggestions and the best actors will give you the benefit of the doubt. You may think they've forgotten what you said, but then suddenly they'll re-invent the idea for themselves. Michael does this superbly. He can adapt and improve and make something entirely his own.'

In 1987 Gambon headed Ayckbourn's company at the
National Theatre. They performed the vintage farce Tons of Money, Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business (which Gambon agreed to do without even reading the script), John Ford's Jacobean tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore [2] and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which earned Ayckbourn a pat on the back from the author ('the best production I have seen') and a notice by Mel Gussow in The New York Times that described Gambon as 'arguably the best actor in the English theatre'. Obviously, the collaboration works. A warm amiability hangs in the air. But both men shrink from the idea of any off-stage intimacy.

Ayckbourn believes it can harm a production. 'Too much socialising spoils a play. There is a sacred trust when you are directing someone. They want you to keep a certain distance from them, so you can maintain a fair, objective judgment. I've seen directors who like to drink with the lads and at half past one in the morning they start to say things they felt but never should have said. And it does frightful damage. Six months into the run you can say pretty well what you want to. But timing is essential.'

Besides sharing a professional discretion, both men are habitual loners. Their only intimates are fellow actors. 'We talk the same language,' Ayckbourn explains. 'We find things funny that other people find macabre. For instance: you could be on stage dropping dead every night, so you discuss how blood spurts from a main artery. Other people might find that upsetting.'

Ayckbourn's off-stage passion is for creating sound effects in his own studio at Scarborough. Some of them are being used in
Man of the Moment. Gambon lists his hobbies as playing the guitar, restoring antique firearms and flying light aircraft. 'All solitary pursuits,' he admits.

Both men maintain intensely private lives, Gambon in Forest Hill and Ayckbourn in Wapping and Scarborough. Both have wives tucked securely into the background. Ayckbourn married at 19 and has two sons, but for more than 20 years he has lived with actress Heather Stoney and sees no reason to complicate matters by engineering a divorce. Gambon agrees that he too has been married and has a son. 'But it's something I never discuss.'

His courtesy is unbending, his security absolute. At the same time he has a reputation as a practical joker. During the filming of
The Singing Detective, in which Gambon played the psoriatic hero, the actress Joanne Whalley loosened his pyjamas - in order to smother him with ointment - only to find that he had painted the outline of suspenders and fishnet tights around his vital parts. He has a fondness for corpsing fellow actors by tricks of enunciation. In one play in which he perished on stage he declaimed his dying line, 'Oh, I am slain', in the accent of a different theatrical grandee each night. Running out of grandees, he announced, 'Oh, I am Bill Sleigh' - the name of a junior member of the company. Not surprisingly, he is much admired by his fellow troopers, and much loved too.

Ayckbourn pays Gambon the highest compliment by describing him as 'a good company man' - meaning that he will play small parts as well as large, involving himself in every aspect of a production. The same could be said of Ayckbourn. 'If you work with people and like working with them, you can assume you'll work with them again. It really is like a family.'

'But when we're not working together,' says Gambon, 'it's most unlikely that we'll meet. Neither of us makes any effort to keep in touch. I can't write letters. And I'm terrible on the phone. I suppose you could say I have a communication problem.'

There's little doubt that
Man of the Moment will have a successful run. When it's over Gambon thinks he may head for northern Italy. 'I've heard of a place where they run a course on engraving,' he says vaguely.

Ayckbourn, meanwhile, will be back in Scarborough. 'I'll walk on the beach and I shall be all alone. Somewhere in the distance there may be a woman with a dog and I'll be wondering indignantly what the hell she's doing there.' He will also, of course, be writing another play. When he needs a good company man, he knows who to call.

Website Notes:
[1] Strictly speaking,
Man Of The Moment was the ninth Ayckbourn play Gambon had worked on following The Norman Conquests trilogy (1974), Just Between Ourselves (1977), Sisterly Feelings (1980), A Chorus Of Disapproval (1985), A Small Family Business (1987) and Taking Steps (1990). Alan also directed him in Tons Of Money (1986), A View From The Bridge (1987) and Othello (1990).
[2] Gambon actually did not appear in
'Tis Pity She's A Whore due to A View Front The Bridge transferring from the National into the West End,
Note: This article originally made several references to Alan starting his acting career at the National Theatre; Alan has never acted for the National Theatre and his first major acting role was at the Edinburgh International Festival. The article has been corrected to reflect this.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
Copyright: Michael Gambon. All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd, please credit this website if reproduced.