Jeeves / By Jeeves: Interviews

This section contains interviews with Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber about the musicals Jeeves & By Jeeves. Click on the links above or in the box below for more interviews.

This page features an interview between Alan Ayckbourn and Ian Watson which was intended for Watson's book Conversations With Ayckbourn, but which was unused.

Conversations With Ayckbourn

Ian Watson: How did Jeeves come about in the first place?
Alan Ayckbourn: Well, it was strange, really. Peggy Ramsay [his agent] brought me into it. She phoned up and she said: "You know these boys who've written Jesus Christ Superstar, dear?" And I said: "Oh yes." And she said: "Do you know about them?" I said: "Well, I know of them, obviously, Peggy. " She said: "Well, they would rather like to meet you." She said: "Well, of course, they can't put a book together. They're very good on lyrics and music, and they're wanting to do their first original musical" - in the sense that Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat,both of them had reasonable plots already. The works of P G Wodehouse, and Jeeves, were open, and they were very interested in doing it. So I met first Andrew over a lunch, with Peggy, and she was absolutely right: he was a man I got on with very well, and we hit it off. I liked him. And then, later, we had a private meal between Tim Rice and myself and Andrew at something like the Bark & Bite, a place on the canals, a boat. And we sat there and we chatted, and again we got on quite well. We got very drunk and we talked about what a great idea it would be. Tim would write the lyrics and I'd do the book, which would merely be structuring them a storyline. And I said: "Well, I think I can hack one out for you." And Andrew had already got some music sketches. So we went our different ways, and then...

Was P G Wodehouse one of your favourites?
Oh, I loved Wodehouse, yes. I'd read a lot of him and I liked his writing. I still read a lot of it now. So it was quite fun: I liked the idea. But the first thing that happened was that Tim then disappeared entirely from the whole action, and I next met Andrew, expecting to meet Tim, and we talked on a bit and then I said: "Well, where's Tim?" And he said: "Well, he's feeling he doesn't really want to do this after all." So I said: "Well, who's going to write the lyrics?" And he said: "Well, it would be quite nice if the lyrics were also part of the book." And I said: "You want me to write the lyrics?" I said: "Well, I must tell you I've never written any lyrics before, except on a couple of occasions when I was at the Beeb." So he played me through the tunes - and they were lovely - that he'd thought of; and we started off. Now, I suppose the problems then began to multiply, because we together had an enormous pedigree; he was golden boy of music, and I'd just had the The Norman Conquests open. And I think we daunted the producers rather, because Robert Stigwood was nominally producing the show, but, as Stigwood always is, he was somewhere where Eric Clapton was, or something. He was busy: I think, at that time, he was doing Tommy, which was in America, so he was there most of the time. So we were left with a sort of caretaker, Bob Swash, who was sort of Executive Producer, who really hadn't got the final authority on the show, but had a great deal of enthusiasm. But we began to assemble swiftly a cast of people who also had done no musicals: a director who'd not done any musicals in Eric Thompson; a choreographer who, although he'd been with the Ballet Rambert, Christopher Bruce, had not done musicals - he'd done other sorts of ballet, and as a dance man was unbeatable; Anthony Bowles, who was musical director, had musical experience but as an MD followed the band and didn't actually lead it, except on the night. Then we began to look round for a Bertie Wooster, who was really the central character, and eventually, after interviewing and interviewing and interviewing - and musical auditions are like nothing you've ever been to: in the theatre, they're just on a different scale of nervousness. Everybody wants to be in a musical, and we were auditioning Alan Bates and really extraordinary people you'd never get in a play - anyway, we settled for David Hemmings, who'd never been in a musical.

Though he had some musical training, hadn't he?
AA: Yes, he'd sung in the choir: he'd sung O for the Wings of a Dove, and all that business. But he was vocally quite rusty, rusty to the extent that he was going to need a radio mic before we started. And then we began to work in our respective ways, neither of us really knowing the other; and I did my usual trick, which is delivering the script four days before it started, which you can do with most shows but you can't do with a musical, because nobody else can start 'til the script's there. And the script was heavily over-length, because the other thing, of course, that I wasn't used to was incorporating the songs; and as I'd written the lyrics I'd been pacing myself on a play, so we had something about one-and-a-half times too long. And we found that a lot of things were meshed in already. Once you launch a musical in rehearsal, you're on a course which it's very difficult to deviate from. With a play, supposing the last act doesn't work, you can actually go home to the writer, get him to re-write it, come back and get the cast to learn it; and you can get it right. With a musical, you've got a musical director, a choreographer, the composer, the leader of the orchestra - they've all got to be consulted before you can make this decision. I changed something once and it went down right through the whole thing until the costume designer was crying, because forty costumes had been cut - because I'd done one tiny thing. So you can see that the change was unbelievable, and you just couldn't make these decisions or do these tiny turns which I'm used to. And as I said to Andrew, the only way we could have launched that show - and we should have launched it - is here.

At Scarborough?
In a microcosm. Certainly it would have been undercast possibly, or have a smaller orchestra, but we'd have got a working project going: a thing that got from A to B in the right time-span, and made sense dramatically and musically. But we didn't do that, and, of course, once you make a small mistake like that, it just becomes magnified.

Would it have made any difference if you'd delivered the script six months beforehand?
It would have made a lot of difference, really; although I think one of the major factors in its failure I haven't mentioned was the designer. The designer was a man who was in part a director - Voytek. Some directors are stronger-willed than others: this man actually was very used to being in on a directing level as well. He had a concept. Now the fact is that he was in Holland, Eric was in Holland, Andrew and I were in Berkshire, finishing off the play. And I remember the first time the real warning bells went. We were reading it through and I said: "Andrew, I think we've got a device here that isn't going to work, and that's the Drones. I think I'm going to pull them out and just do it without them. They sounded lovely, bouncing out of cupboards and singing and coming in again; but in fact they're becoming tedious." So I said: "Well, we'd better ring Eric." But Eric, by this time, had been working on a blueprint I'd given him, and then they'd added a lot more. They'd decided, as I'd developed into naturalism, they'd developed into stylised, and they'd decided the Drones was the most exciting part of the whole project, and Voytek had decided that he wanted it to be a completely surreal backcloth, painted on silk, to be dropped in, becoming - a nice idea on paper, but - slowly becoming more and more real as the play went on, so that by the end, there's this huge staircase. Jeeves stage-managed the whole thing, rigged it. Now, I had got images of the whole house on stage, with four rooms and action happening, and the whole thing; and I think, the way I work, it would have worked, because I'd planned it that way; and I'd planned that whatever happened there would reflect there, would happen there, and the rooms went bonk, bonk, bonk, bonk. And the action would be quick. Now, as soon as you start to reduce it down to one area, the action got spread, so it got even longer, and longer and longer and longer, the play. And the book began to creak, to the extent that we had to start cutting. And the comic climaxes didn't work, because things just compounded themselves: like the man I wanted on the chandelier was frightened of heights and couldn't get up there.

When would you have stopped it?
Bristol. We should have stopped there. We should have said: "Look, this could work, it really could; but it's not going to work."

ICould anyone have afforded to stop it then?
Well, he must have lost more by going on with it. And people said: "Oh well, if you stop it, word'll get round it's no good. Then it'll never work." And I said: "Well, not if it's good, it won't. If it isn't good, it'll always be bad." I think we could have actually made it work. And I've still got half a mind to do it one day in a very, very simple form. I'd have to totally re-write it to get it to use a piano score. But in fact, somewhere in there - and I don't say that there's not quite a lot of flaws in the book - but somewhere in there is quite a nice little musical. What happened was it became a rather nasty big musical; and it became over-designed and over-everythinged. And I've been, ever since, exorcising to a certain extent that musical, working musically here (in Scarborough). And I've got much nearer to what I wanted with, say, Suburban Strains, and in fact, this time round, I know what I want from a musical: you don't want a choreographer, not in my musicals you don't, because they're a bloody nuisance and they get everybody hopping around.

You met Wodehouse: at what stage was that? Was that after you'd written the book?
Yes. There was a sort of mooted plot afoot that it would be nice to have his approval of the show.

A plot afoot to get his approval for the show.
Not a plot by Andrew and I, I hasten to add, but a plot by some managerial whizz-kids, probably up in the Stigwood Organisation somewhere. Wodehouse lived at that time out on Long Island. I was over in America for Absurd Person Singular. Andrew flew over too. I remember him playing me through the score, which he'd now been working on, and it sounded very nice; and he sang it over. And the idea was we'd go out to Long Island. Wodehouse didn't have a piano, but there was a convenient young millionaire composer within a stone's throw who did. So the idea was we'd go over to Plum's house, pick him and his wife, Ethel, up in a sort of cortege of cars and then go on to this composer's house. And then we'd play him - at least, I said: "I'm not singing; so you're singing, you're playing, Andrew!" So we arrived, and we drove through Long Island, which is very like Surrey or something - it gets more and more like Surrey the further you go: the American Surrey - and the first sign that you're in Wodehouse-land was we passed a sign saying: "The Bide-A-Wee Cats and Dogs Home", which indeed was run by Ethel, his wife. And Ethel was, as we arrived, finishing boiling fifteen chickens for the stray dogs and cats.

Ethel was his age, was she?
Yes, a little bit younger. She was quite young, actually. I think she was probably about 70, he was about 90; so she was quite a stripling. He was very, very deaf, but he wore a deaf aid; but one suspected immediately that, like some of his characters, he wore it as a defence. And in fact, he seemed to be able to hear everyone except Ethel quite well. Ethel would scream at him and he wouldn't take any notice; but you could say: "It's a lovely morning." "Yes," he'd say. That's funny. So anyway, he came shuffling out, and he was working on his new novel. And he smiled and nodded and shook hands with us. And we got into the car and we started to drive. And Ethel said: "Be careful over the bumps: he doesn't like bumps." So we drove quite slowly, and this house turned out to be quite a long way away. Plum was muttering away in the front there about it was lovely to be out in the open air, and: "Jolly good, this, jolly nice. I'd like to meet the chap who wrote the words in this, because that would have been very nice." "HE'S SITTING BEHIND YOU, PLUM! YOU'VE JUST MET HIM; HE'S SITTING BEHIND YOU!" He said: "Oh, he's sitting behind me? Oh, that's nice. Didn't know you'd written the words. " Anyway, we got there and we had our photographs taken outside. And we went in, and Andrew sat down to play the score. And we sat him by the piano, and I sat next to him to hand him the sheets of lyrics, because it was quite apparent he wasn't going to hear very much. And Andrew - I remember very clearly - put the music up, and he turned round, and he went: "Aaaah!" And I looked at him, and he looked sort of desperate. And I turned round; and there were about sixty people in this room. They'd all filtered in - sort of casuals from the composer's relations and odd, very bearded, woolly Americans with Afro haircuts had arrived and were all sitting cross-legged; and: "We're gonna hear the noo English score." Suddenly, Andrew was playing a concert performance and P G Wodehouse was the last of the people to play to. The whole of the newer wave, modern American composers were there. And this man turned out, who owned the place, to be the foremost electronic composer. So Andrew played through the score and sang it quite well, even if he kept missing my words because he was trying to play it right. And Plum was nodding and saying: "Jolly nice, jolly nice!" Then at the end of the music, our hostess had absolutely excelled herself, and she'd laid on the full English tea: cucumber sandwiches, tomato sandwiches, pots of tea, scones, a full table. And Plum said: "Ah, tea!" and absolutely beamed. And Ethel then seized him by the arm and said: "No! Time for home, Plum!" and whisked him away; and that's the last we ever saw of him. So we said: "Well, we'd better go, too, then." And she said: "What about my tea? What about my tea?" And Andrew and I just said: "Well…" So we all left. And that was our meeting with him. But he was a funny old boy.

Didn't have a lot to say, in fact.
Not a lot. You know, he was in his own world, really. And I got a feeling a bit we were a circus. We were actually using him for photographs. And there was the great thing about if he came to England he might get a knighthood, and it would be great to have him. But to bring him to England, get him to say: "What a smashing show!" And it was all part of that. And it's not something I cared for too much, I must say.

Copyright: Ian Watson.