It’s sometimes said that people who create comedy are as sour as old milk when you meet them face to face. That is most certainly not the case with Alan Ayckbourn. A stroke three years ago has left him walking with a stick, but his sense of humour is entirely unimpaired. We met at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, where he had just arrived to direct a revival of his play Man of the Moment.

“At the time I wrote the play, 20 years ago, I was scratching the surface of reality television,” Ayckbourn explained. “But looking at it today, it’s all gone mad, it’s got much worse: everybody’s scrambling for two or three minutes of fame. The television camera is a compulsive liar. It makes the most plausible rogues into attractive TV personalities. It can make honest, true, good men look completely boring.

“In the play, Vic is an out and out villain, having been sent down for a bank robbery where a woman got badly injured. With good behaviour, he’s out in nine years, and finds a ready affinity with microphones and cameras. The amusing thing about crooks — and I’ve used this in a couple of plays — is that when a good man arrives in town, the crooks start trying to figure his angle.

“I found that myself in Scarborough, when I wanted to own a space that did plays I liked. One of the leading local fruit machine operators kept watching me, and saying, what’s he up to?’. He caught me one day, and asked, ‘what’s the twist with all these plays? You make a lot of money off it, don’t you? How does that work then?’.

“I replied, ‘well, I write them, and fortunately a lot of other theatres decide to do them, and people pay at the box office to see them.”

A percentage of the income is sent to me’. So he said, ‘you don’t have to actually be at all these theatres? That’s brilliant. Even I have to empty the machines every evening’.

“It was like I’d invented a new scam — I was now a Mr Big.”

Nearly all of Ayckbourn’s 72 plays (so far) have been premiered in his adopted home town of Scarborough. But before he took up residence there full-time, he had a spell at the Oxford Playhouse.

“The directors Frank Hauser and Minos Volanakis had seen me in a show up in Scarborough, and they asked me to come and join their company. The first production I was in was Under Milk Wood, playing Willy Nilly, the postman.

“It was wonderful — I was in a big, proper theatre, with a good company: being there in my late teens, the Playhouse seemed as big as Drury Lane.

“I was only assistant stage manager, but I was put on the book. So I’d sit in rehearsal with Frank, marking down the movements and prompting, and all that. If you’re going to learn your job as a director, you want to sit behind someone good like Frank. I was able to add little side observations. I became, to all intents and purposes, a very humble assistant director. I also had a little love scene with the Swedish legend Mai Zetterling.”

Later Ayckbourn returned to Oxford — as Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre. I wondered if the callow youth of 50 years ago ever expected to gain such an august position?

“My goodness, no — at senior common room level, too! It was a wonderful job because you were equally at home in the senior and junior common rooms. With the profs, I have to say there was material there for about 50 plays. I don’t know if they just practise eccentricity, but it was quite extraordinary. I was agog. It was a fun time.”

Definitely not a fun time, however, was Ayckbourn’s stroke, or its immediate aftermath.

“The first thing I remember when I became compus mentis again was that I hadn’t an idea in my head. It was the first time that I was bereft of a play idea since my early teens. It was like waking up after being pregnant for the whole of your life, and suddenly finding nothing there. So I thought, ‘you’d better stick to directing’. But then a little tiny germ of an idea arrived.”

In his book The Crafty Art of Playmaking, Ayckbourn advises young directors not to fret too much if a first night is a disaster. He writes: “The consolation is that the greater the disaster, the better the anecdotes will be later.”

What, I wondered, was his own greatest disaster?

“Perhaps the first production of Jeeves with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Until then we were the golden children of the West End.

“When we opened in Bristol, the show ran for nearly five hours. I went through it with a machete, chopping things off — including some of Andrew’s music, which he didn’t like very much. He said, ‘we can cut your talking bit’.”

  • Man of the Moment opens at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, on Monday, July 27, and continues till Saturday, August 15. Tickets are available from 01604 624811 or online at