I’ve always admired Alan Bennett’s biting humour, and hearing him talk with Nicholas Hytner (the Director of the National Theatre) in the Olivier Theatre last night confirmed him to be one of my favourite writers. “When a critic praises the outstanding performance of an actor and doesn’t think much of the play, it’s as if they assume a character’s written their own lines”, Bennett remarked. He spoke “from a playwright’s point of view”, and didn’t hold back – but isn’t honesty what’s so likeable about him and his work?
In the TLS of July 29, 1965, George Melly, reminiscing about youth theatre, singled out Bennett’s qualities just before he appeared with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe:
“In 1960, in a restaurant in the Euston Road, four young men, eyeing each other mistrustfully, were talked into putting on a late-night review at that year’s Edinburgh Festival . . . . of the cast, however, only Alan Bennett was a convinced satirist. At the preliminary sessions before Edinburgh he had constantly pushed the phrase ‘tough and accurate’ as what to aim at . . . . He was also the only member of the cast with strong political feelings. If The Fringe was satirical, Bennett was really responsible”.
Compared to the others in Beyond the Fringe, Bennett said last night, he always felt costive at writing. But he then explained how in The Habit of Art (2009), a play about a fictional meeting between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden, he'd channelled the memory of this feeling into Britten's character.
The first play he attempted to write was set in a school in Leeds – sounds familiar. “It was terrible, but in a sense I was trying to write about school all my life.” Later in his career came The History Boys (2004): Hector and Irwin, apparently, were originally one character, and each classroom scene was the result of one of his three-minute bursts of writing. Talking Heads, written during the 1990s, was an easier, more liberating process. “They came to me almost intact, all at once, like poems”, though having said that, “I can’t do them now. I wish I could”.
We were treated – how could he have denied us? – to a mellifluous reading by Bennett from his memoir Writing Home (1994). Here he describes the appearance of Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van parked in his driveway and was the inspiration for his play The Lady in the Van:
“Hats were always a feature . . . . She also went in for green eyeshades. Her skirts had a telescopic appearance, as they had often been lengthened many times over by the simple expedient of sewing a strip of extra cloth around the hem, though with no attempt at matching . . . . When she fell foul of authority she put it down to her clothes. Once, late at night, the police rang me from Tunbridge Wells. They had picked her up on the station, thinking her dress was a nightie. She was indignant. ‘Does it look like a nightie? You see lots of people wearing dresses like this. I don’t think this style can have got to Tunbridge Wells yet.’”
Alongside unforgettable voices, he creates strong imagery. The idea for People (2012), Bennett said, sprang from a vision he had of a dishevelled woman in a fur coat and slippers (which is now the opening of the play). Like Miss Shepherd, George III in The Madness of George III (1991) and the serial killer in The Outside Dog (from Talking Heads, 1998), she is one of many “derelict, extreme characters”, Hytner suggested, “that Bennett insists to us are human, even though we wouldn’t want to spend time with them”.
And what does Bennett think of his own writing? Having been asked by a member of the audience which of his works he likes the most, his favourites were his first play, Forty Years On (1968), Sunset Across the Bay (1975), and “I have a sneaking regard for things that haven’t gone so well, such as Marks (1982)”. But then: “I tend not to go back" he added, "it’s indulgent. I just get on”.
Throwing both hands in the air in appreciation of the audience’s whoops and claps, you wouldn’t believe that he turns eighty tomorrow. On Saturday, BBC Four kicks off a season of celebration with a similar interview between the writer and Hytner, as well as re-broadcasting some of his television and film work. He shows no signs of slowing down (in fact, his memory for dates and actors’ names was sharper than Hytner’s). There’s talk of The Lady in the Van becoming a film, and both Bennett and Hytner hinted that another play at the National is on the cards in the next couple of years. It must be habit, I suppose.