Alan Bennett at 80: more there than meets the eye

9th May 2014

Alan Bennett at 80: more than meets the eye
First published in the Daily Telegraph, 9 May, 2014. A shape is now emerging from the diverse mass of Bennett’s writing…  

In a diary entry for February 1997, published in his memoir collection Untold Stories, Alan Bennett describes an 80th birthday party for the stage designer Jocelyn Herbert at the Royal College of Art. The place is packed.

“I sit on a sofa with Alan Bates and Maggie Smith,” he writes, “thinking that no one would ever arrange such a do for me or get so many people to come. I turn to Maggie and she says: ‘Don’t say it. I know. I don’t think I could even fill the kitchen.’ ”

Even though Bennett’s bashfulness hasn’t left him, his droll and doleful envisaging of a minimal fuss being made in his honour would be harder to maintain now the hour approaches. He turns 80 any day now, on May 9. If a party is thrown – and one imagines his long-term partner, the magazine editor Rupert Thomas would be the man to throw it – there would surely be a heaving crowd of well-wishers in attendance.

Bennett these days is regarded as a national institution. He may be older than the majority of lonely unfortunates who populate his work – notably in his acclaimed TV series of monologues Talking Heads – but unlike those ordinary souls facing adversity and infirmity, he can’t be short of potential company.

Fame found him early when he, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore took the Edinburgh Festival by storm in 1960 with Beyond the Fringe, ushering in a boom age of satire. But by 1997, maybe he had grounds to be wryly downbeat. A tart earlier entry in January mused upon a Waterstone’s literary diary bearing the birthdays of eminent figures from the world of letters: “Here is Dennis Potter on 17 May, Michael Frayn on 8 September, Edna O’Brien on 15 December, and so naturally I turn to my own birthday. May 9 is blank except for the note: The first British self-service launderette is opened on Queensway, London 1949.”

Self-deprecation is integral to Bennett’s charm, yet you can understand how he might have felt insecure about his reputation and legacy, if he was that way inclined. The Nineties proved a challenging decade for him. His mother, increasingly lost to dementia, died aged 91. He discovered he had cancer of the colon in 1997 and at first wasn’t expected to last two years. There was a lull in dramatic output between The Madness of George III (1991) and The Lady in the Van (1999) his page-to-stage evocation of the years (1974-1989) in which his Camden front garden was occupied by the colourful vagrant Miss Shepherd.

And it also looked as if the theatre world was moving away from him, suddenly smitten with more explicit, liberated and tormented voices. I remember passing him in the street in 1994, when I was living round the corner from him in a bedsit. With his sweetly old-fashioned attire, putting me in mind of some otherworldly Oxbridge don from the Fifties, it seemed hardly conceivable the best was yet to come.

“Brought up in the provinces in the Forties and Fifties one learned early the valuable lesson that life is generally something that happens elsewhere,” the butcher’s son had written in his foreword to Talking Heads. Theatre looked to be losing its appetite for the provincial, the humdrum, the prosaically marginalised.

Since the turn of the century, however, his creative powers and position in our theatrical life have experienced a resurgence that must be the envy of many of his still-going contemporaries, let alone younger writers. The virtues of the Bennett of yesteryear have remained intact – the ear for a choice phrase, the relish of nuance and judicious balance between wit and wistfulness. Yet there has been a marked upswing of spiritedness, frankness and warmth.
The History Boys (2004) won every major award going, became synonymous with the rejuvenation of the National Theatre under Nicholas Hytner and launched a classload of fresh stellar acting talent upon the stage, a feat cemented by the film adaptation.

He has remained productive. Taken individually, The Habit of Art (2009) and People (2012) may not warrant as much critical approval as they generated at the time or stand equal to The History Boys. But taken together, they give us a clearer idea of Bennett’s preoccupations than at any time since the 1980s.

A shape is emerging through the mass of writing. While it’s something shy of a mission, or a message, or a unified theory, it’s a tendency, a way of looking at the world – bound up very much with the way Bennett looks at himself, with a quality of amused detachment – that feels valuable for the here and now while somehow tying up threads and making connections with his past work.

“Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I wanted you to learn,” says Hector at the end of The History Boys, his parting shot – as if from beyond the grave – to the sixth-form boys he has tutored in ways unconventional to lay siege to the Oxbridge citadel. The parcel he’s talking about? A curiosity, a poetic sensibility, an aptitude for sharing – and caring – that runs counter to the superficial, success-driven tactics advanced by Irwin, the history teacher brought in by the head of this Northern state school to “pull us up the table”.

The closing stages of Bennett’s recent plays tend to contain these sorts of benevolent urgings – a reiterated insistence that we shouldn’t go with the flow but cleave to something intrinsic to ourselves that’s in danger of being lost or buried.

“I long for the decay of England,” says Dorothy, near the end of People, as she resists the impetus to conserve, commodify and travesty the tumbledown stately pile she and her sister are mouldering away in. “England at a standstill and this just another stately home – not evaluated, not made special. Ordinary.”

In The Habit of Art, a farewell tableau of WH Auden and Benjamin Britten is accompanied by the sound of Show Me the Way to Go Home – which picks up on a salient, earlier remark of Britten’s: “I’ve never wanted to shock. I just want an audience to think that this is music that they’ve heard before and that it’s a kind of coming home.”

Bennett links that sense of belonging to the National Theatre – by framing what we see in The Habit of Art as being conducted in rehearsal – and imagines the building at its best in the kind of rundown condition that has seized Dorothy’s manor: not trying too hard, leaving things be, letting art flourish. It’s at once a radical and conservative gesture – a disallowed contradiction.

Bennett has been continually interested in the idea of home in his writing: the home he left behind in Leeds, the homes he has made for himself in the south, the way we nest in places that may not house us long – university, offices where redundancy looms, rows of terraces destined for the bulldozer, the stage itself.

It’s going to be fascinating revisiting Enjoy, the centrepiece of a Bennett retrospective at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in his home city from mid-May onwards, which will see the playwright return to his roots to take part in a Q&A. Although the festival features a regional premiere of Untold Stories, the stirring double bill recently seen in London, and the chance to see three of his best Talking Heads monologues, the icing on the cake is this underrated 1980 play.

It’s set in a back-to-back in Leeds of the sort that was mercilessly pulled down during the urban planning revolution of the Sixties and Seventies – a process poignantly captured in passing in his Stephen Frears-directed BBC Play for Today of 1975, Sunset Across the Bay. We’re led to believe that the building and its residents – the frail, ordinary, working-class pensioners Mam and Dad – will be relocated to a heritage park, becoming inhabitants of a living museum: “There will be a cotton mill, steam engines and genuine hardship.”

There are foreshadowings of the grisly commercial propositions shown in People, but the satire is harder-edged, the ideas more complex, the weaving of the personal and political tauter.

This is not to suggest that with Bennett there has been a tailing-off – more that if we refuse to take him at avuncular face value, there is so much more than meets the eye, themes and concerns that span a lifetime. As this still oddly boyish master hits 80, it’s high time for a stock-take; the more you look, the more you’ll find.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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