Alan Bennett is one of our best-loved playwrights. Chris Bond went to see the Leeds-born writer in London to talk about his latest play, the National Trust and his fondness for Yorkshire.
When Alan Bennett walks into a meeting room at the National Theatre overlooking the murky yet majestic River Thames, he looks as you imagine he always does. There’s the tweed jacket, shirt, green tie and jumper combo and accompanying brogues. This image of a man Francis Wheen once described as “the nation’s favourite teddy bear” has become so ingrained in our minds it’s hard to imagine him ever being any different.
He, and I, have just sat through a performance of his latest play, People, in front of a packed and appreciative house. It’s his sixth play for the National Theatre, a list that includes The Madness of George III and Cocktail Sticks, and shows that at the age of 79 he has lost none of his literary prowess.
But even now, with the applause still ringing in his ears, there is a sense of relief that the audience enjoyed it. “I can remember seeing Olivier in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I think he changed a light bulb at one point but he wasn’t actually changing it he was trembling with stage fright and I’ve never forgotten that, because however celebrated you are you never get over it really,” he says, in that unmistakeable northern lilt.
People is a biting comedy set in a South Yorkshire country house that is home to two ageing spinsters. One of them is Dorothy, whose archdeacon sister wants to hand the estate over to the National Trust. She, though, has other ideas for the stately pile and events take an eye-opening turn when a porn producer turns up out of the blue.
The play goes on tour this autumn, arriving at Leeds Grand in November, and once again highlights Bennett’s ability to seamlessly blend satire and pathos. He’s said previously that his plays stem from an itch, or a problem he can’t solve. So which one was it with People? “It was an itch and I still have it when I go round country houses and exhibitions,” he says. “I look at other people and think ‘what have they come for?’ and then I think ‘what have I come for?’ The fact that you can very rarely explain why you’ve gone there or what it is you hope to come away with, depresses me really. I think that’s what it came out of.”
But he doesn’t believe the play is a lament for an England that has slipped away. “It started off with an image of a woman in a shabby fur coat with gym shoes. I saw that and then began thinking ‘what is she doing here and where does she belong?’” The play also taps into his childhood memories growing up in Armley. “On the outskirts of Leeds there’s a place called Temple Newsam. It’s a 17th-century house I knew very well because it was the only museum that was open during the war and I thought it was a wonderful place.
“After the war during the coal crisis the whole of the grounds there were rooted up for open cast mining. The coalfield started literally on the steps of the terrace of the house which was isolated in the middle of this wasteland. I was only about 10, or 11 but I remember thinking how terrible it was that it had been spoilt for ever. I was quite wrong, of course, and if you go there now you’d never know that anything had happened. But that must have gone in quite deep because that image stayed with me.”
People has been seen by some as an attack on the National Trust, a suggestion that bristles with Bennett. “When it first came out Simon Jenkins wrote a full page article in the Guardian condemning it, but I think he rather regretted that. Someone who was sitting behind him in the performance said he was in fits of laughter all the time.
“What slightly galled me momentarily was he and other people who criticised the play assume that the main character is the voice of the author. But you can’t pin down the message of a play by finding out what the main character thinks.”
The National Trust isn’t the only venerable institution that comes in for a bit of stick, there are a few digs, too, at the expense of the Church of England. Bennett, though, feels nothing but benevolence towards it. “When I was young I thought I would end up in the church,” he says. “There’s nothing I like more than going round old churches, my partner’s the same except my partner’s much more atheistical than I am and he only likes churches that show no sign of religion.”
It’s more than 50 years since Bennett joined a trio of Oxbridge undergraduates – Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook – to present Beyond the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival. They all became famous yet it’s Bennett who is regarded as a national institution. There is, however, much more to him than his cosy image suggests. Who else would have the temerity, and skill, to assume the Queen’s voice (The Uncommon Reader) or make Hector, a teacher who habitually gropes his male teenage pupils, the hero of The History Boys?
His love of the theatre was forged when he was a youngster living in Leeds after the war.
“When I was a boy all the London plays would either come on a pre-London tour or a post-London tour to Leeds Grand often with the original casts. I saw Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer, I saw the original production of Waiting For Godot and I saw John Osborne’s only musical The World of Paul Slickey.”
Although Bennett spends a lot of time in London these days he still has a house in the Dales where he’s a frequent visitor and his fondness for Yorkshire runs deep. “It’s partly sentimental I’m sure, but it’s also partly the way of talking. I’ve always thought this, the Yorkshire and Lancashire way of talking is inherently dramatic. I think it’s a Germanic thing but the the point of a sentence is often kept till the end which is ideal for comedy writing,” he says.
“I talk about it in Cocktail Sticks when I’m speaking to a coal merchant in Ingleton. I said ‘hello, it’s Alan Bennett, I’d like some coal,’ and he said ‘Ooh, I am conversing with a higher being’. Then he said ‘and I don’t care how celebrated you are, you’ll never be a patch on your dad’. I reminded him of this later and he said ‘yes, well I reiterate that’. And what’s Yorkshire is the use of the word ‘reiterate’, which is quite literary it’s not ‘eh bah gum’ stuff.”
Over the years he’s garnered numerous accolades and awards but he still finds writing a challenge. “It doesn’t get easier and it’s the same things that are difficult. I’ve always found plots difficult, whereas I like writing dialogue. But actually getting characters on and off the stage I find quite difficult.
“When I was younger I used to drink when I was trying to think of a plot, when I say ‘drink’ I mean a tiny, quarter, bottle of whisky or vodka which was quite enough to make me tipsy. But I thought it wasn’t a good idea so I gave that up.”
It’s nine years since The History Boys premièred at the National Theatre and as well as being one of the biggest successes of his long career, it also prompted a re-appraisal of his work.
However, even though he continues to surprise and delight readers and audiences, Bennett still questions himself. “I often wish I could be more like Ken Loach, whose life is like an arrow. He knew exactly what he wanted to say right from the start, but my life hasn’t been like that. But you write about things that interest you and when I get an idea I want to find the right way to do it. The Uncommon Reader is not at all the kind of thing I would normally write but I had the notion and thought somebody ought to write that and then I thought ‘why don’t I?’”
Bennett once said that he considers himself over appreciated but underestimated, which seems a strange thing to say.
“I’m over appreciated in the sense that people like what I do but I don’t always think they know what I’ve done,” he explains. “They don’t always read all the stuff I’ve written, or they don’t read the prefaces. I often feel the prefaces are better than the plays. But it’s a minor complaint. Better to be appreciated than not.”
With appreciation and success comes expectation, so is this a burden? “It is a bit, except that you’re getting older and people are just quite surprised you’re still going,” he jokes. “The History Boys was very hard to follow because it was such a big success and we had such a good time doing it. So I was relieved when The Habit of Art did well and it’s the same again with People.”
Last year Philip Roth, one of the titans of American literature, called time on his literary career at the age of 79, but Bennett has no plans to follow suit just yet. “When I came for the first day of rehearsals somebody at the stage door said ‘Oh hello, still hanging on then?’ and I think there is a bit of that,” he says, chuckling at the recollection.
I think most people would agree he’s doing a lot more than just hanging on.
People is on at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, from November 5 to 9. For tickets call the box office on 0844 848 2700 or visit: www.leedsgrandtheatre.com
ALAN BENNETT FACTS
Alan Bennett was born in Armley, Leeds, in 1934. He is now aged 79. He is the son of a butcher and attended Christ Church School in Upper Armley, and then Leeds Modern (now Lawnswood School).
He was treated for cancer in 1997. His chances were given as less than 50 per cent, but his illness went into remission.
He now lives in London with partner Rupert Thomas. He is to give his entire archive of work to the Bodleian Library as a gesture of thanks to the welfare state.