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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Alan Bennett: an introduction (part one)

Alan Bennett

A Geordie friend of mine advised me that when judging Southerners we must always remember that they have not had the benefit of our disadvantages.

Harry Pearson

If you were to ask a non-Brit to name an English playwright after Shakespeare my guess is that top of the list would be Harold Pinter. Were you to ask for a living playwright I wonder how many would come up with the name Alan Bennett? Maybe not so many. I think there are a number of reasons for this but the main one is that he is a quintessentially English playwright. Not only that but a quintessentially Northern playwright and there’s definitely a sense of the parochial about his work. To others, however, he is now regarded as perhaps the premier English dramatist of his generation. He is to theatre, and in particular television drama, what Larkin, another Northerner, was to poetry; both draw attention to the plight of ordinariness. I was not surprised to find out that Bennett is an admirer of Larkin’s work. I’ve rarely seen a photo of either man where they aren’t wearing a hound dog expressions and each of them has a voice to match; lugubrious, world-weary.

Neither are jokey writers. Their humour is dry, deadpan. In one of Larkin’s best-known works, ‘Church Going’, a man enters an empty church:

                                         Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

The opening line of Bennett’s television play, Bed Among the Lentils, a vicar’s wife, played by Maggie Smith, opens with this line:

Geoffrey’s bad enough, but I’m glad I’m not married to Jesus.

Neither line is played for laughs, simply stated, almost in passing.

Trying to define ‘Northern’ humour is a difficult thing. There are Northern comics who stand on stages and tell victoriawood gags (Bernard Manning) or present long observational monologues (Victoria Wood) but they’re doing a job of work. I’m talking about the humour of the man and woman in the street. A lot of the time they’ll say things that are funny and don’t react and the people around them don’t react and you’re left wondering if they meant to be funny. An example:

Lil went into the restaurant an' asked for a coffee. The waiter asked if she wanted black or white. Her response? “I'll have black wi' milk in."

Was she being funny? Probably not intentionally.

The North is a cultural region rather than a government administrative region; it’s an amalgamation of counties stretching from the River Trent in the south up to the border with Scotland. It’s where those “dark Satanic Mills” Blake wrote about are. The North is where the working class, the salt of the earth and the unwashed masses all North-South live. So it’s a bit crowded. The thing is they’ve been looked down or (or felt they were looked down on) for so long, that they’ve come to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders when it comes to anything that remotely tries to be above itself; they want to cut it down to size, even something as seemingly innocuous as a white coffee. A white coffee’s just a posh name for a black coffee with milk in it.

Northerners are down to earth people. They call a spade a spade and they shovel shit with it. In her book, The Wit and Wisdom of the North, author Rosemarie Jarski has this to say about Northern humour:

Northern humour is above all the humour of recognition. Northern comedians don't try to be cleverer or smarter than us. Southern comics tell us how they got one over on someone; Northern comics tell us what a prat they made of themselves.

There are no airs and graces and any attempts at one-upmanship invariably come to nothing. They are one of us.

Northern humour elicits empathy. When Ernie Wise tells Eric Morecambe to bugger off and we watch Eric cross the back of the stage, with his suitcase and dressed in that raincoat and flat cap he’s very, very funny . . . but our les1 hearts also go out to him. And the same goes for the downtrodden comic persona of Les Dawson:

Remember, no matter how bad things get, there's always someone worse off than yourself – me.

For a long time British theatre and literature ignored the North but in the late fifties and sixties with the advent of the kitchen sink drama suddenly Britons found themselves exposed to ultra-realistic dramas set, not in country homes, but in two up, two downs and working men’s pubs, with plays like John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, books like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and films like A Taste of Honey grabbing the public’s consciousness by the lapels and shaking it.

While all this was shaking was going on a quiet, bright boy from Leeds was working his way through a degree in history at Oxford University; he’d applied for a scholarship because his parents didn’t have the money to pay his tuition fees. While there he somehow managed to get involved with the unlikely trio of Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook who, along with Bennett, were to gain international success writing and performing in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. Afterwards his cohorts moved off into what became very successful careers in entertainment leaving Bennett to settle down to teach Medieval History before realising he wasn’t cut out to be an academic either whereupon he following the other three into television.

Beyond the Fringe - The English Way of Death (1960)

His first success as a TV writer has to be the short series, On the Margin a hotchpotch of cutting-edge comedy, leavened with serious interludes of original music and, of all things, poetry by John Betjeman and Philip Larkin. Again, Bennett, now writing alone for the most part, was in a satirical frame of mind and yet he managed, and always has managed, to tread that surprisingly fine line between cringeworthy patriotism and flat out treason. Both subjects interested him, in fact in later years, two of his best-known plays, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution each dealt with traitors, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt respectively. Both of these are complex men, the former who insists on projecting the outward appearance of an English gentleman whilst living in exile in a shabby flat in Moscow (played to perfection by a wintery Dundee) and the latter, who has managed to win “immunity from MI5 but, a Cambridge man through and through, won’t stoop to betray any of his comrades”[1] and is finally let loose to be ravaged by the British press.

Possibly the highlight of these two particular plays would be the razor-sharp conversation between Blunt and a droll Queen Elizabeth II (simply H.M.Q. as the credits refer to her), played by Prunella Scales. Pure Noël Coward. With a dash of Pinter for good measure. Hard to imagine the son of a butcher from Leeds wrote this.

A Question of Attribution (1991)

One of the most abiding themes in Bennett’s work was to be one of nostalgia, a mourning for an England which if it ever truly existed has now certainly gone forever. While Bennett was flirting with the television world he was also having a fling with theatreland. His first West End play was called Forty Years On, set in a British public school called Albion House, which is putting on an end of term play in front of the parents, i.e. the audience, in which the boys demonstrate the ways in which the country has declined since the end of the First World War. "Mark my words," says the headmaster, "when a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall." The headmaster was played by John Gielgud, one of the greatest stage actors of the twentieth century, and only the first of a long line of highly accomplished actors who have given life to his characters. These have included Alec Guinness, Alan Bates and Daniel Day-Lewis but it is in his portrayal of women that he excels.

The changing face of England is something Bennett also explores in his first proper TV play, A Day Out, filmed in black and white in 1972, just after colour TV became widely available. It is the most understated piece of writing. It shows a day in the life of the members of a Halifax cycling club in 1911, following them from the town to the ruins of Fountains Abbey and eavesdropping on their conversations. They ride there, they ride back. There is a brief, almost wordless, coda where the action jumps ahead to after the war and we witness the survivors of this group standing before the newly erected war memorial. It is the only one of his plays specifically written in a West Yorkshire dialect despite the fact that most of his TV plays are set there.

A Day Out (1972)

A Day Out sets the tone for much of his work for the seventies although he started to concentrate on contemporary issues rather than the historical typified by his next TV play, Sunset Across the Bay, which centres on an elderly couple (similar to, but not based on, Bennett’s own parents) who leave their native Leeds to spend their retirement in Morecambe, only to find that it fails to measure up to their expectations – or their memories.

But they know that returning to Leeds is impossible. Their world has vanished literally as well as metaphorically, their last sight of the street they inhabited for decades being that of the houses starting to be demolished. They don't want to move forward but they can't move back, so they remain in a limbo that's only interrupted by Dad's unexpected but banal death in a gentleman's lavatory that Mam, properly, refuses to enter even when it's clear that something's badly wrong.[2]

The irony here is that Bennett’s own father died just before filming began which left him with a feeling of “involuntary prediction ... having written my father’s death I had helped to occasion it;”[3] life following art for once.

There is a tendency to skip over this period in Bennett’s career which I’m also going to do, mainly because probably the last time I saw any of these plays was thirty-odd years ago besides there is so much else to cover. This is a shame because this period of writing for TV is often referred to as a “golden age”. One of my earliest blogs talked about strands like commercial television’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84) and the fact that (cue Northern accent) they don’t write plays like what they used t’do. Why is this stuff not being repeated or even remade?

Both A Day Out and Sunset Across the Bay have one thing in common, the fact that their characters fail to articulate their feelings even when they do talk. This is a common thread in Bennett’s writing even in Talking Heads where his actors barely have a moment to catch their breath (I exaggerate) before plunging into another eleven or twelve minute take. Bennett’s people talk a lot but only say what they mean in between the lines or we realise, from a look in the actor’s eye or from their tone, that when they’re saying one thing they mean something else entirely.

It’s over this time period that the ‘Alan Bennett character’ begins to take form. When, in 1985, five of his TV plays were published, they came out under the title, The Writer in Disguise, alluding to the fact that in so many of his plays you can identify one particular male character with him. Occasionally he casts himself:

I can ... see that the central figure in a lot of my television plays is the same. He's a vague, rather melancholy, rather troubled figure, not having much fun, and he's not actually much fun to write, as distinct from the characters surrounding him, who one has a great deal of fun with.[4]

Intensive Care (1982)

Despite beginning his career writing comedy sketches none of Bennett’s plays or film scripts are really what you’d think of as comedies, with the possible exception of A Private Function and even there the humour is subdued. It’s a film full of gentle wit, eccentric characters and a complete lack of glamour and romance and as such was never destined to be a blockbuster especially since it lacks the requisite happy ending. A diarrhoeic pig probably never helped. Again the core of the film is nostalgia:

In a small Northern English town in 1947 the citizens endure continuing food rationing in the United Kingdom. Some local businessmen want to hold a party to celebrate the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip and illegally decide to raise a pig for that occasion. However the pig is stolen by Gilbert Chilvers who was encouraged to do so by his wife Joyce. Meanwhile a food inspector is determined to stop activities circumventing the food rationing. – Wikipedia

In this film, the Michael Palin character clearly is “the writer in disguise.”

Everyone has a time they look back to with affection. With me it’s the 1970s and yet the simple fact is that wasn’t a particularly happy period in the UK’s history either. Surprisingly Bennett has railed against being nostalgic for the England of his childhood. In Writing Home he maintains:

I do not long for the world as it was when I was a child. I do not long for the person I was in that world. I do not want to be the person I am now in that world then. None of the forms nostalgia can take fits. I found childhood boring. I was glad it was over.

The film, ostensibly a star vehicle for Michael Palin, featured an embarrassment of British acting talent. Palin’s co-star was the actress Maggie Smith, now Dame Maggie. She, among others, like Dame Thora Hird and Patricia Routledge (only a CBE there I’m afraid) have been drawn Talking Heads back to Bennett’s work time and again. It’s Maggie Smith who plays Susan, the vicar’s wife, and the only character in the play I mention at the beginning of this article. Only it’s not really a play, it’s a dramatic monologue, the third of Bennett’s first Talking Heads series; there were two, one in 1987, the second in 1999. The pieces have since been broadcast on BBC Radio, performed in live theatre, and included on the A-level and GCSE English Literature syllabus. A few episodes also found their way onto PBS in the United States as part of its Masterpiece Theatre programme. They are arguably his best-known and most popular work.

I’ve seen both series of Talking Heads twice, some episodes, like the famous Thora Hird vehicle, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, several times. Of the twelve only two feature men, one in series one, played by Bennett himself, the second, in series two, played by David Haig. Bennett’s character is Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, a repressed homosexual with a history of mild mental health problems who lives with his aged and controlling mother (yet another of his “writer in disguise” guises); Haig takes on the difficult job of bringing humanity to a reformed paedophile living under a false identity and working as a much-praised maintenance man in a public park.

What is surprising is that Bennett manages to take characters like the aforementioned traitors or, as in his recent film, The History Boys (an adaptation of his stage play), the obese teacher Hector whose crushes on the sixth year boys he teaches are only tolerated by the rest of the school staff only as long as he can keep his hands more of less to himself. These are not necessarily likeable  characters but they are three-dimensional characters. Hector is a zealous teacher, less interested in preparing the boys in his charge to pass exams, than he is in igniting a passion for learning in HistoryBoys_Poster290them. His sexual predilections are just one aspect of who he is. Bennett is not condoning the school’s inattentiveness; he is telling it as he’s seen it. The wayward professor features regularly in Hollywood films. Usually they’re chasing girls or drinking themselves into the ground and often a blind eye is turned to their weaknesses as long as there’s no bad press. When Hector oversteps the mark, he’s let go. "A grope's a grope," as teacher Mrs. Lintott says when this revelation comes out. If the play has one major fault it’s the fact that he sets it in the eighties when attitudes were beginning to change; it would have worked better in the sixties perhaps since clearly a lot of Bennett’s own history is incorporated into this satire; in this play the “writer in disguise” is actually one of the schoolboys, Posner.

For the record Bennett is gay but he’s not a gay playwright in the way Orton was. Far from it. In fact for many years he refused to be drawn on the subject. When Sir Ian McKellen once pressed him publicly on the subject all Bennett would say in response was: “That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water.” He finally did come out, quietly and hoping, I expect, for the minimum of fuss. He’s not big on fuss. He’s also a man, not unlike Woody Allen who I’ll come back to later, who managed, at least for a great many years, to exercise a considerable level of control over his public image. They’ve both tackled this the same way by hiding in plain view. Bennett, always a wonderful performer, created, in his own image, the eternal provincial scholarship boy, face pressed against the window of metropolitan life, and passed it off as himself in exactly the same way as Woody Allen convinced us that the stammering neurotic he so often played onscreen was really him. Even with his parents Bennett played a part.

'Our Alan's like us,' Mam would say, 'Shy.' And it is both boast and excuse, but with the pride uppermost, because though shyness is an elusive virtue there is no doubt in my mother’s mind that it is a virtue, or at least has merit attaching to it.[5]

Bennett went along with this, in part because it was a description that allowed him and his parents to circumnavigate his homosexuality. It was easier to be thought of as shy than gay. He’s probably less of a shy man than he is a private man and he insists he’s not a nice man[6] but no one’s buying that.

Bennett on Bennett – Shy (2009)

Many of Bennett’s characters are a poor fit. They’re not necessarily outsiders but they’re not comfortable in their own skins and are people we wouldn’t automatically feel comfortable around. It’s not surprising to discover that he would be attracted to one particular “nonbelonger” – Franz Kafka, a “German-speaking Czech who was neither Christian nor Jew.”[7] He writes about him in two plays, The Insurance Man and Kafka’s Dick. The latter is an unusual one in Bennett’s canon in that it abandons realism and resurrects Kafka and his friend Max Brod in the present day where the two of them pay a visit on Sydney, a Yorkshire-dwelling Kafka aficionado. Since Kafka died before Brod he has no idea that his friend disobeyed his instructions to destroy all his works and that he is now world famous because of this. Later on Kafka’s overbearing father also appears.

In his introduction to the two plays Bennett calls Hermann Kafka one of the many “Parents of Art”[8] and quotes from Larkin’s poem ‘This Be the Verse’:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

explaining that if they “bring up a child and he turns out a writer, posterity never forgives them – though without that unfortunate upbringing the writer might never have written a word. They bring up a child well and he never does write a word. Do it right and posterity never hears about the parents; do it wrong and posterity never hears about anything else.”[9]

Being Alan Bennett (2009)

The “dick” in the title is Kafka’s penis. “Whereas Hermann’s penis was large, Franz’s was small, and he was self-conscious about it.”[10] It is a complex play but what ties all four characters together is guilt.

Bennett didn’t have a domineering father. His dad was also deemed to be a shy man. If his parents are to be accused of anything it’s probably coddling and the biggest guilty party there would be his mother.

The Insurance Man is “[a] black comedy about corporate bad faith”[11] and focuses on exploring what the term “Kafakaesque” really means, “the psychological and spiritual burdens of surviving in a bureaucracy whose one survival depends on acts of cruelty and absurdity.”[12] In this play Kafka is not the main character; Franz, a young employee in a dye works is. There is no mention even that Kafka is a writer; we only see his everyday life working as an employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. Of course, ‘Franz’ and ‘Kafka’ are doppelgängers, different sides to the writer. They spend much of the play apart. Bennett is here stating plainly that a writer often is a person who has to function in the world just like everyone else. I get that completely. In no job I’ve ever had have people thought of me as ‘Jimmy the writer’. ‘Franz’ represents the writer’s private world.

The Insurance Man (1986)

When The South Bank Show did a show on Kafka in 1988, Bennett made this note in his diary:

Watch the The South Bank Show on Kafka [Bennett has a tendency to drop the personal pronoun], which fails in the customary mistakes, Tim Roth playing Joseph K, in the usual style – blank-faced, anonymous, cosmic. There are long, featureless corridors and lofty rooms, distorted camera angles and all that, and, though the actual trial is set in an attic, as it should be, it’s an attic so vast it could be a tithe barn.

The mistake in dramatising Kafka is always the same (and we didn’t manage wholly to sidestep it in The Insurance Man): actors and directors don’t play the text, they play the implications of the text. So Joseph K., instead of just being a bank clerk, wrongly accused, becomes emblematic of everyone who has been accused. What Kafka writes is a naturalistic account of ordinary behaviour, and that is what actors should play and let the implications take care of themselves. Directors similarly. Or, as Arthur Miller says somewhere, ‘Just play the text, not what it reminds you of.’[13]

In a later diary entry (5th April 2002) he adds:

Kafka dealt with the world as he found it and didn’t dress it up (or down) to suit him.[14]

You can say that too about Bennett particularly in the Talking Heads which I’ll discuss more in Part Two.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Bennett’s characters are often people we would not want to spend much (or indeed any) time with. He has also taken note of the number of “maimed and stigmatised characters who have turned up in [his] plays over the years.”[15]

The prevalence of the damaged and disabled says something about me. It’s not, as I might like to pretend, a plea for sympathy and understanding for the handicapped; this doesn’t really come into it. However irritating and unfair it may seem to the actually disabled, these characters turn up out of a sense of identification because I do not think it is fanciful to suppose writing itself a form of disablement; it’s certainly a handicap when it comes to getting on with things, writing in some sense a substitute for doing.

Roaring, which you occasionally do in the ordinary world with laughter, in Leeds means also to cry, ‘Don’t start roaring’ a warning to a child to fetch it back from the brink of tears. I roared a lot when I was a child – out of shame, rage or simply because I couldn’t see any other way out. Now, I suppose, the writing has replaced the roaring but the reasons are much the same.[16]

Part Two



[1] Steve Vineberg, ‘Duets and Solos: The Pleasures of Alan Bennett’, Threepenny Review, p. 24

[2] Michael Brooke, Sunset Across the Bay (1975), Screenonline

[3] Alan Bennett, Me, I'mAfraid of Virginia Wolff, p. 55

[4] Interview with Martyn Auty at the National Film Theatre on 19 Sept 1984 reproduced in The Guardian

[5] Alan Bennett, Untold Stories, p. 147

[6] William Langley, ‘Alan Bennett: A writer who endures an embarrassment of talents’, Daily Telegraph, 21 Feb 2010

[7] Peter Wolfe, Understanding Alan Bennett, p. 85

[8] Alan Bennett, Two Kafka Plays: "Kafka's Dick" and "The Insurance Man", p. xiii

[9] Ibid

[10] Peter Wolfe, Understanding Alan Bennett, p. 90

[11] Ibid, p. 103

[12] Ibid, p. 105

[13] Alan Bennett, Writing Home, pp. 226, 227

[14] Alan Bennett, Untold Stories, p. 308

[15] Ibid, p. 551

[16] Ibid, p. 552


mand said...

I know Bennett better than i know his work. (I don't mean i know him, i mean i know of him more than i know of his writing... ykwim.) Love his work, though.

Recently had feedback from a writer friend who was reminded of Alan Bennett by one of my stories – i took that as a huge compliment! (Time i submitted that story somewhere, methinx.)

I haven't forgotten about coming back to your other post, but haven't been well this couple of weeks - doing my best to catch up with everyone/everything. You know how it is.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I don't think I would have come up with him. I've never heard of him but you do a wonderful biography about him. I should look into his work because it's obvious he's important in his field. Thanks for the always, so enlightening.


Hannah Stoneham said...

I would definately have said him because he is one of my favourite writers. I am interested that you introduced him as a northern voice - I suppose he is but not in so self conscious a way as the others you mention. I think that he is at his most funny and touching when talking about his parents.

Great post as usual.

Thanks for sharing


Jim Murdoch said...

If you’re writing like Alan Bennett, Mand, you must be doing something right. And no rush on the other post. There’s always something demanding our attention even if that something’s just being poorly.

This article was for you then, Ann. It’s sad really the number of people in the world who have slogged away for years and years and we know nothing about them. Bennett really deserves to be better known than what he is. Seriously, I was thinking about this while I was writing the articles, how many writers would people tune in to watch just sitting in a chair talking to a camera? And yet with him we feel like he’s popped in for a cup of tea of something.

And, Hannah, I guess I’m remembering him from his early days and the semi-documentary things he used to do. He certainly has a very broad appeal, it’s not as if only Northerners are going to get him, but I just wanted to acknowledge where his particular brand of observational humour stems from.

mand said...

Did you see Hugo Blick's Last Word Monologues on BBC1 last year? Brilliant. I didn't see them all, but loved Rhys Ifans especially (though Bob Hoskins was pretty good too).

Kass said...

This review of Alan Bennett is an excellent portrayal of discomfort in one's skin. Academia or writing for the masses? Gay or shy? Roaring from shame or rage? World weary or stimulated by the humor of it all?

I'm having a hard time getting to what the major theme in Alan's life is, but I think he expresses Everyman's confusion over identity quite nicely.

Jim Murdoch said...

I did, Mand, and on the whole I enjoyed them. I thought Rhys Ifans performance was excellent and I also enjoyed the Hoskins too. Probably like a lot of people I sat down to them looking for another Talking Heads but they were their own thing. I much preferred his work on Sensitive Skin, especially the first series with Joanna Lumley and her imaginary friends.

And, Kass, all of that’s to be found in his work but for me it’s the fact that most of his characters are uncomfortable in their own skins. Some are fully aware that they’re being hypocritical or at the very least putting on a good front but there are one or two – the Julie Walters character in Talking Heads for example – who seem to have managed to do a good job of deluding themselves but they’re the exception rather than the rule. I think that’s why the traitors fascinated him because they were so English on the outside but utterly conflicted on the inside.

In the second part of this article I provide links to complete plays. Watching one or two of those might help him come into focus for you.

Elisabeth said...

Roaring fro shame and rage here, right up my alley, Jim as you would know.

I know little of Bennett's work but more of his reputation. I find again his reputation in a narrowly defined arena. You've altered my perception of Bennett from a lighthearted entertaining type to a serious and thoughtful playwright.

It's a poignant overview you offer here, Jim and I find myself thinking about the end of the British empire. I grew up in a world where England was always a place of grandeur and superiority, filled with people who were a cut above us, not the Scots, the welsh or the Irish, but the Brits.

Small wonder that it gave me pleasure to see the mickey taken out of her, mother England, that is. I've tended to despise the stiff upper lip, even as it evokes powerful empathy from me.

Thanks for broadening my understanding here, Jim . Your reviews open up whole new worlds. They are so beautifully written and produced.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s the thing, Lis, Great Britain is a divided country. And yet certain things do cross national and cultural divides. One is the stiff upper lip. There are welders on the Clyde who keep their emotions reigned in and do so with pride. It’s not just an English thing. I’ve stressed Bennett’s northern roots because despite the fact he now lives in London he’s never lost the mindset and the north is an important touchstone for him.

I think you’ll enjoy the second part because, after much trawling through Google, I’m managed to find links to several complete plays.

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