Harriet Devine: So … you sort of shot to fame because of East is East – but where did it all begin?
Ayub Khan Din: Well, it began with acting – because up until East is East I was an actor, and writing was something I did when I wasn't working as an actor. It was a hobby. It was not something I ever thought people might take seriously. So it started with me going to Salford Tech, doing a two-year foundation course in drama, then coming down to London to go to drama school, going to Mountview Theatre School. And then leaving Mountview and discovering I was never going to be seen as a white actor. It was early 1984 when I came out, and reps very rarely took black actors, or Asian actors – there was nothing. So my ideas of ever doing Shakespeare, or Chekhov or anything like that went right out of the window.
HD: How absolutely horrible!
AKD: It was – it was a huge shock. You came out of drama school with this invisible stamp on your head – ‘black actor’. In those days it was black i.e. whether you were Afro Caribbean or Asian, we used to call ourselves black actors. Now it’s become very divisive, so there’s Afro-Asian and Asian… So it was then, when I was made to kind of do something with the writing. And some friends of mine and I got together, and the idea was that we would do something to get our equity cards, because in those days it was a closed shop. So we thought we’d put our own shows on, to try to get contracts – you had to have so many contracts to get a card. So we put our own show together, called Slightly Schizophrenic – it was like a sketch show. And that was when I actually wrote something that an audience saw. And we ended up just doing that one show. Before that I’d done little bits of writing at Salford Tech and at drama school, mainly monologues, for exercises. But I never really thought…
HD: So you’re from Salford…
AKD: Yes. Down by the docks.
HD: So can you remember the first time you ever saw theatre?
AKD: Yes – it was a show – a school show. In the form of six actors coming along and singing about the Spinning Jenny – they wore clogs and black caps. It was Theatre in Education – which we all hated. Every year you were dragged down to see these actors, singing about the Spinning Jenny, and Lancashire, and Arkwright. It was coals to Newcastle for us. Do a different kind of show and we’ll watch it! That was the first theatre I saw. My dad ran a fish and chip shop, my mum worked in there, like in East is East, that was our life. I suppose the next show I saw that I found entertaining was a show at the Library Theatre – the Brickhouse, Contact Theatre. There was one boy in my year at school who was really into youth theatre, and he dragged me and another boy along. It was the Contact Theatre Club, and again it was a TIE (Theatre in Education) show, but it was based on Henry V, a precised version of Henry V, and it was really exciting. It made Shakespeare look really exciting – I was so enamoured by it I stole the prologue for my audition speech for drama school later, and did it in exactly the same way. So that was when I discovered that theatre could be really exciting as well as the other side of it, the boring TIE that we got at school. But it wasn’t till much later that I started writing bits and pieces, monologues and exercises.
HD: Did you like writing at school? Were you good at English?
AKD: It was the one subject I was good at. I came out of school with three CSEs, English was one of them, art was next, and human and social biology – I don’t know why. But I was in the main stream for English, but I never thought about writing – you don’t, do you? It was a very working class secondary modern school, and very few people who went on to university. My brother was one of the only ones from his year who went on to further education, and went on to university. I was always under his shadow, because he was a really good artist at school. And most of my other brothers and sisters ended up as hairdressers – when I left school I had to go and work as a hairdresser because my mum said I wasn’t allowed to go on the dole straight from school. And from there I suddenly decided I wanted to go and try being an actor, and acting opened up this whole other world of writing, and writing became a hobby when I wasn't working as an actor. I started East is East when I was at drama school.
HD: Did you?
AKD: I did the first draft in about 1982. But it was just for me, something that a few friends read.
HD: To entertain people? This was my life, kind of thing?
AKD: Well, not working as an actor, rather than just sit at home I thought I’d just get all of these things down on paper. And then much later on, I was working at the Albany Empire, as an actor – they’d had a play reading festival, a competition, and I was one of the actors in the two winning plays. And I was talking to one of the directors who’d organised it, and I mentioned that I had this play I’d written, and I showed it to him and he said, It’s really good, we’ll do a reading. So that’s when it had its first reading. That was … 1986 … I suddenly found I dropped it because I got my first film. I had the play reading done, and there was this guy who ran the Albany Empire who said, perhaps we should take this further – he wanted to drop all the seriousness of East is East and just keep it as a comedy. But then I got my first film, which was Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Hanif [Kureishi]’s second film. So I just forgot about writing and got enamoured of doing TV and film. But one of the girls who was in the reading of East is East – who was a friend of mine from acting days when we used to work at Tara Arts – she and another actress set up their own company, called Tamasha, and then in 1995 or 1996 they said, Look, we’re doing these workshops with the Royal Court – have you still got that play that we read? And I said 'yes'. So they said, 'We’re looking for new Asian writers, because eventually we want to do a production, and the Royal Court are helping to fund these two weeks of workshops, to kind of encourage new Asian writers'. So I brought East is East along to that and I was kind of really a bit wary about coming along to the Royal Court – it always seemed a bit highbrow for me, as a writer. I thought all writers had degrees, English degrees, and they’d all done this and that – and then I just came along to the workshops, and worked with the people here, and I just kind of thrived. I hadn’t felt like that since first leaving drama school. The excitement I used to have as an actor when I first went to Salford Tech and then on to Mountview Theatre School – I had it again, and it was really exciting. I thrived in those two weeks here.
HD: So the play you brought along here in the 1990s was essentially the same as the one you’d written in 1982?
AKD: It had gone from a very rough stage play to a more polished stage play, and I think I wrote it as a TV script for fun, and then changed it back from a TV script to a stage play. So it went through all these different phases, and each phase helped it.
HD: So when it came to the workshop, you …
AKD: We were all given writers to work with. I worked with David Lan. He was great. He just pointed me in the right directions. He said, 'you know which way to go this, but you just won’t do it'. Because so many things in it were so personal, it was hard to get a distance from it. He was really able to give me that.
HD: So did the play change very much?
AKD: Not drastically. But it was … I think that whole two-week process, just being focussed on it, rather than doing a little bit here and there and then saying, 'oh, I’m going off to film in the morning' – just being able to focus purely as a writer, changed things completely, changed my way of thinking.
HD: And then the Court picked it up from there.
AKD: Yes. Tamasha said they were going to do it as a production, and then Birmingham Rep were on board, and then the Royal Court said they’d be involved as well. So it was a three-way co-production. So it started at Birmingham Rep, and instantly did really well there – then, the Court was closed down for refurbishment, so we were in the Ambassadors, and it did incredibly well there, and the Court said we want to bring it back in the New Year, to the Duke of Yorks. But in between, Stratford East took it as well.
HD: What a year you had!
AKD: It was really hard, as well, because I was holding down two TV jobs. For the last three years I’d been doing this soap in London, called London Bridge, and another programme called Staying Alive where I played a surgeon – so I had these two hats on, and that’s when I thought, well, I’m going to stick with the writing. The impetus was that those two programmes just stopped that year, so that helped. But I’ve never said, 'never again' – but as an actor, luckily both my wife and I did really well, so we were living in Chelsea, with a big mortgage. So that’s been the only problem – that I had to do more and more film work and not enough theatre work. I’d actually like to be doing more theatre. And now we have children, it puts your whole life into perspective. As an actor I always used to chase film and TV work when what I really want to do is theatre. And now it’s happening again and I don’t want that to happen. So we’re going to sell the house, get rid of the mortgage, and go and live in Spain. Then I can write what I want to write.
HD: So how quickly after this theatre success was it picked up for the film?
AKD: Within a year. I remember people telling me this was the quickest turnaround ever—to go within a year from theatre play to writing the screenplay to going into production. And they said, 'it will never happen again – you will be really lucky if it happens again'. But now five years later I’ve adapted two books, and written three of my own pieces, and still kind of struggling along trying to get these things done. It’s certainly – it’s a different world.
HD: But you’ve had other plays done here.
AKD: Yes – straight after East is East there was Last Dance at Dum Dum, and then a year ago there was Notes on Falling Leaves. Last Dance at Dum Dum was kind of mixed – some people liked it, some people hated it, the reviews were mixed. Notes on Falling Leaves, which was only on for a week, was really well received, just like East is East. It’s just been done in Athens, and it’s gone really well there, apparently. So it’s been great that it’s had a second life, really.
HD: Yes. You know, everybody says that the hardest thing is to write the second play – it seems to be the hurdle to get over, especially if the first one has been hugely successful.
AKD: Yes. It was such a particular piece, as well. I think everyone expected that I was going to write something similar to East is East, but I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to show that I could write a West End play, which is what Dum Dum was, really. I mean it did alright – it did very well on tour – but I think a lot of people thought I fell at the second hurdle. But that’s other people, putting those kind of pressures on you – it’s like in film. I’ve written five screenplays since East is East, and it doesn’t matter that those films haven’t been made. Because the standard is just as good as East is East, that’s how I get my next project, because people read those scripts.
HD: Is your wife an actress?
AKD: She was – but now we’ve formed our own production company. She’s always script edited for me ever since the later drafts of East is East – she’s very good. So if anything goes into production, we’ll produce it. We work quite well – she’s very clever, she knows when something’s not working, how to put her finger on how to make it work. And she’s not nice just because we’re married. We have massive arguments about things.
HD: And do you find it easy to write, hard to write?
AKD: I find it hard. I really enjoy it, but I find it hard.
HD: What’s hard about it? You have the idea and it’s hard getting it into the form?
AKD: I have the characters, and the dialogue, and the idea – it’s hard finding the form that I want to do it in. Like with Notes on Falling Leaves, I started to write an ordinary play, a two-act play, with a beginning, a middle and an end. I’d written something like 25 pages and it didn’t ring true to me. So I blanked it out on the computer, and I was just left with one speech – half of a speech. And it looked good on its own. So it just turned into two monologues. And from that, it was the idea of – because it was about Alzheimer’s, I didn’t just want to write a play about someone with Alzheimer’s. I wanted the woman to have Alzheimer’s but I wanted to find a voice for her, so that audience could see what she was going through, as well as what she was putting a member of her family through – I wanted to find a voice for her as well. So it was merely by blanking those 25 pages that I suddenly realised that was what I wanted to do. That was the area to go for. And it was really exciting.
HD: And did it go well after that?
AKD: Yes – but it took a year to write. It was a really personal piece, because my mother had Alzheimer’s. So it was very hard to write. And no matter how hard I tried, it was never going to get any bigger than what it was – I think it played for just under an hour. And also it was really exciting because having to find this voice, I had to find a way of writing that voice. I don’t know if you’ve read the play, but it’s very kind of particular, the words, and the sounds the character makes. At moments it’s almost like a poem. And I thought while I was writing it – this is mad – I don’t know if it’s going to work – I don’t know if people are going to take me writing in this way. But they did.
HD: It just felt right to you to do it that way. So that’s all you can do – and hope that other people will cotton on.
AKD: Yes – but that was what was exciting about writing it. That suddenly I just found myself in a whole different area. And I think that’s what you do when you write – if you keep on pushing to make your writing different, not just for the sake of it, but to try and broaden your writing – that’s what keeps the excitement going – and writing for the theatre you can do that. And once the actors get hold of it – I mean, as an actor I used to hate rehearsing, but as a writer I love to be in rehearsals, watching actors rehearse, because I love watching them put the puzzle together, and putting in those little moments of their own.
HD: Yes – obviously if you write a play, handing it over [etc] – most people, it’s encouraging to see, say that’s part of the excitement … [etc]
AKD: I didn’t think it would be as powerful as it was. I was really interested to see it on a big stage. It never felt like a studio piece, even though it was just two actors and two monologues, because the subject was so big. And I didn’t want any set at all, apart from the stage, just full of dead leaves and a bench, and just the bare wall at the back – just that Court stage. Because we came on a tour here, a lot of the writers, when it was still in refurbishment, and the stage was completely bare except for that brick wall, and I thought, 'God! This is fantastic, it’s such a great space'. I kind of kept that in the back of my head. And it just fitted perfectly for the play.
HD: So you were inspired by the stage … I wish I’d seen it. It sounds wonderful.
AKD: Yes. Less than a week it was on
HD: Why was it on for less than a week?
AKD: I don’t know. I think because it had taken me a year or more to get it done – and then I’d sent it in, and it had got lost in the post. So I thought, 'oh, the Court don’t like it' – and I was at a party, Lisa Makin’s party, and I just started talking to Graham, and I said, 'what do you think of the script, then?' And he went, 'we never got it'. So we got it in, they got a couple of actors to do a reading of it, I did some more work on it, and they said, look, we want to do this. We’ve got this break at the beginning of February, let’s do it. And it did really well. It’s supposed to be done in Ireland soon – it took a year for the production in Athens to happen. They’ve just taken an option in Turkey to do it, and there’s one amateur production here – because they’re doing it in schools they asked if they could take the bad language out, and I said OK, because it’s for schools I can understand why, and that’s fine – and I think Rose Bruford are going to do a production of it.
HD: So it’s been a huge success in spite of only being on for a week.
AKD: Yes, absolutely.
HD: But Last Dance at Dum Dum was less successful? From your point of view as well as it’s reception?
AKD: No – I was very pleased with it. But I think people thought it was very old-fashioned. I mean the subject I was dealing with wasn’t old-fashioned. It was about racism in India today. There was a production in New Zealand, I saw on the internet – which won lots of awards in amateur festivals, so somebody must have liked it.
HD: But in form they thought it was old-fashioned?
AKD: In form, yes.
HD: So – issues to do with race and racism are of interest to you because of your particular background?
AKD: Not really, no – I’ve always fought against being typecast as an Asian writer, or a black writer. I see myself as a writer first and foremost, and my colour or my ethnicity doesn’t enter into it. If I was to write something that’s got an Asian theme to it, fine, but I’m not going to be restricted to doing only that, and I don’t want to be seen that way either. That’s one of the reasons why in Notes on Falling Leaves the characters didn’t even have names, they were just called Man and Woman – just because I wanted people to look at the work without going, ‘oh, Ayub Khan Din, he’s a Pakistani writer’. And that’s what’s more important to me. Yes, I will write more pieces about Asians, if the idea comes into my mind.
HD: Do you have any idea where your ideas come from? The first and third plays sound like they come directly from your own experience.
AKD: Yes – and the fourth one, which I’ve started, is also from experience. But someone mentioned that a running theme through my three plays is communication, or lack of communication. It’s not that I’ve actually gone out there and said, 'oh, I’m going to write a play about lack of communication', but other people have seen it as a theme that runs all through. In fact a drama teacher said that. And looking at the idea for the next play, it’s also about communication. But if you came to me and said, 'I’m going to commission you to write a play about communication', I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to do that. But I think the idea comes through unconsciously in the work.
HD: So you’re writing something now …
AKD: Yes – again, it’s taken me a year to get started on it. I knew what I wanted to write about – it’s a play set in Salford – the old Salford, that’s kind of gone, been killed off. Even the Salford I grew up in has been demolished, physically demolished – all the terraced houses, near where the Copthorne Hotel is. I mean Salford Quays to me will always be Number Seven Docks, no matter how they tart it up. My eldest brother died a year ago, and I didn’t realise until I started to think about this play that is was going to be about the death, not only of someone in the area, but of someone in a family, a big old family. And then kind of going through that process, the things that happened during my brother’s illness and his death, and all this year thinking, 'do I dare do it? What are my family going to say?' But in the end, I’m just going to do it anyway, because they are things that affected me. It doesn’t necessarily have to be directly about him, but just about the process of illness and dying – I’m just going to play around and see what happens.
HD: Interesting to be writing all the time so near the knuckle – it must be painful, I would have thought, at times – writing about your mother and Alzheimer’s, and now your brother …
AKD: Yes. But it kind of clears …
HD: Almost like writing as therapy of a kind.
HD: And what do your family think of them? Did they like East is East?
AKD: They all liked the play – some of them didn’t like the film so much, they preferred the play. They said there was more of an argument in the play.
HD: Was it imposed on you to change it when you wrote the screenplay?
AKD: I think somehow in films they underestimate their audience, thinking they can only understand just one argument in the film. So they tend to break it down to just a couple of protagonists. So rather than all the brothers in the play taking part in the arguments as their own characters, they made it focussed on one brother and everyone else went along with that.
HD: So did you mind that?
AKD: There was nothing I could do about it.
HD: But how did you feel?
AKD: I felt like there was no reason why I couldn’t have the same arguments in the play that I had in the film. You could have the same arguments and everyone could take part in them. But I don’t think it affected the piece – that there was only one main argument in the film – that’s just the way it is. As a writer, I feel I got 95% of what I wanted in that screenplay, which is more than most writers get, even if they end up still on their own screenplay. I think a lot of that was because I had a very protective producer, who believed in the piece. I got a ‘special endeavours’ clause put in the contract to have Linda Bassett, because no one else could have played that part – and at that point all the usual suspects were pushed forward for that part. So I had a very protective team behind me, helping me with that. Because it’s not just me as a writer when I’m writing the screenplay, there’s a producer, an executive producer, a director – the director didn’t want to direct a film version of a play, he wanted to find his own way through it. But I was very pleased with the film. I’d like it to have been a little darker, as well.
HD: But it was extremely successful.
AKD: Yes, it was the first Asian breakthrough film, to break into commercial cinemas. I think it took something like 76 million pounds worldwide. Then Bend it Like Beckham did even better, a different type of film. But I think everyone was really pleased with it. I can’t complain – it gave me a different kind of career. But I find it so frustrating writing screenplays – I love the process of writing them, and working with a good team of producers who know what they’re talking about, that’s really important. But I’ve been working with people who are ‘in development’ – that’s what they do, they do development -- and half the time they don’t know what they’re talking about. You just know what book they’ve read, just by the way they talk – character art, all this kind of thing. I just find it incredibly frustrating.
HD: Yes, presumably you’re much more under other people’s thumbs when you’re doing that than when you’re writing for theatre.
AKD: Not so much with East is East because that was a tried and tested product.
HD: Yes. So the play you’re writing now – is that a commission?
AKD: Yes – for the Court.
HD: And do you have a deadline?
AKD: No – because this commission was for the play after Last Dance at Dum Dum – which was Notes on Falling Leaves. But I don’t know what the thinking behind it was, but they didn’t take it as my commission.