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Alan Bennett at 90

From the small screen to the stage, Alan Bennett has been the poet of awkwardness and isolation

On Alan Bennett’s recent 90th birthday, the cellist Steven Isserlis quoted Hector from The History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else… And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Already in his first TV dramas in the 1970s, Alan Bennett found a distinctive voice as a writer, a voice which resonated with countless readers and viewers. Various themes ran through his work for half a century and made him a national treasure.

Foremost among them is a fascination with the shy and the inhibited. As Ian Parker wrote in The Observer in 1998, reviewing the second series of Talking Heads, “At the outset, Alan Bennett apparently set himself a task: How to make reticence speak?” He once described his father as “nervous and tongue-tied,” and this seemed to be the model for other northern working-class characters in his work, perhaps especially the couple in his BBC drama, Sunset Across the Bay (1975), the central figure in Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1979), Kafka in The Insurance Man (1986) and Mole in The Wind in the Willows (1990). Think of the characters in the first series of his TV monologues, Talking Heads (1988): Graham, “a mild middle-aged man”, living with his 72 year old mother and dreaming of “new experiences”, talks about disabled toilets, piles and bifocals, “two-tone cardigans”, vicars in anoraks and running shoes; Susan, a “thin and nervous” vicar’s wife, lonely and  alcoholic; Miss Ruddock, “an ordinary middle-aged woman”. It’s as if Bennett found a new subject, the modest and the inhibited, people with very ordinary ailments. But perhaps what is so striking is how Bennett also created so many memorable extroverts, including the manic George III, cheeky chappies like Guy Burgess and Toad and Hector in The History Boys (2004). 

But perhaps Bennett was most at home with characters who live in disguise, behind masks

Then there are the other lonely characters who feature in so much of his work: Burgess in Moscow, George III (extroversion can be no shield against isolation), the characters in Talking Heads, Miss Ruddock, a lonely, middle-aged spinster, Muriel a widow living on her own, recently bereaved, Doris an old widow in her 70s, also living alone, and a cast of vicars, doctors, social workers, community health workers and police dealing with people’s loneliness. Through these characters he was able to explore what he called, “the edges of emotion rather than their extremes, irritation rather than anger, melancholy rather than grief.” 

But perhaps Bennett was most at home with characters who live in disguise, behind masks, especially spies and homosexuals. His Guy Burgess says at one point, “I never pretended. If I wore a mask it was to be exactly as I seemed.” This is what fascinated him about Burgess and Blunt. Maybe this is what also drew him to Larkin, “Because his poems spoke in an ordinary voice and boasted his quiescence and self-deprecation one felt that here was someone to like, to take to and whose voice echoed one’s inner thoughts…” His review of Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin begins, of course, with Larkin’s elderly mother who “went into a home in 1971.” Contrast this with Tom Paulin’s famous attack on Larkin’s racism, also in response to Motion’s biography. 

This explains what is so fascinating about the differences between Bennett’s northerners and figures like Burgess who orders his shoes and suits from Jermyn Street. It’s more a psychological difference than a difference of class. The northern working-class TV dramas he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s are about gentility and timidity, set against an archipelago of institutions like old people’s homes, hospitals and mental hospitals. It’s as if Bennett, more than any other British writer, discovered the place of these kinds of institutions in British post-war working-class life. 

It’s a world away from the world of southern public schools (Forty Years On), spies (Single Spies, The Old Country, An Englishman Abroad), classic children’s literature (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh), and his own world at Oxford, the BBC, the National Theatre and the Royal Court, his house in Primrose Hill, with neighbours like Jonathan Miller and Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of The London Review of Books

Introducing a South Bank Show on Bennett, Melvyn Bragg described him as “not only one of our funniest playwrights but also a uniquely acute and compassionate observer of England and the English.” It’s both an insider’s view, his TV documentaries about Westminster Abbey and posh country hotels, but also his love for modern English poets from AE Housman and Auden to Larkin. Perhaps above all, he’s so good on the melancholy of Englishness, the loss of the past. Coming back from the dress rehearsal for Forty Years On, he wrote in The London Review of Books in 1993, “I call in at the cathedral [in Newcastle] … A grand medley of church and state, the army and the professions … I wanted 40 Years On to be like this cathedral, studded with relics and effigies, reminders and memorials, half-forgotten verses and half-remembered hymns.” 

There is not just the lost past of public schools in Forty Years On, but also of northern industrial England. He once wrote of “two occasions demolition crews working in the next street to where we were shooting. This at least was contemporary, the wrecking of England’s provincial cities and the break-up of their social structure the background to many of these plays [TV dramas written in the 1970s].”

Not just melancholy but failure too. All his feelings about his parents’ failure and shyness are turned into jokes about their social aspirations, their attempts at leisurewear. It’s as if “Living” is something that happens in London, whereas the north is a place of repression, inhibition and silence. “I was reluctant to be away from London even for a night because I was having a nice time and what was more, I knew it. I was ‘living’ as one of the characters in another play [Intensive Care] describes it.”

And this is what those Southern outsiders do. Burgess and Toad are great at “living,” though they are very different from the other outsiders who fascinated him all his life: Proust, Auden and Kafka. And perhaps this is what drew him to spies, “the idea of being outside a society and at the same time within it,” as Richard Eyre once wrote about Bennett, back in 1999. 

But then there are all those unforgettable northern working-class and lower middle-class women he created, so brilliantly played by actresses like Thora Hird and Patricia Routledge. What did they allow him to write about? First, dirt and cleaning, what he once called, “the tortuous boundary between the clean and the dirty…” “The lavatory,” he wrote, “(always central to Mam’s scheme of things)…” “My mother had fought a war against dirt all her life,” with her “elaborate hierarchy of cloths.” Then there’s the body and all its embarrassments and, of course, the reproductive system. “I heard myself asking my father if he touched my mother enough,” he once wrote.  And, above all, the great distinction between the refined and the common, “Mam’s painfully collected gentilities.” 

Bennett had such a complicated and rich literary voice. But who was speaking for whom? It is Bennett, who has the education and the words. “‘No,’ I say confidently [sic], and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.” “‘No,’ I say and without doubt or hesitation [sic]. After all, I’m the educated one in the family. I’ve been to Oxford.” “She would perch in the passage, dumb with misery and apprehension…” There’s the image of his father “nervous and tongue-tied.” “‘Well, you can do that,’” Dad would say, ‘you’ve been educated,’ adding how often he felt he had nothing to contribute. ‘I’m boring, I think.’” 

Throughout his writings about the north, it’s hard to find families in which everyone talks together. Either the parents are silent, inarticulate and uneducated and Bennett, or the educated son in Sunset Across the Bay, speaks. He has the words. 

Few have created such a world of reticence and inhibition. People who  don’t or can’t touch each other (how his father “gently touches” his son’s knee: “This is a man who never touches, seldom kisses…”), can’t even find the right words to speak to each other (“How he put up with it all I never asked…”). 

Now that Bennett has turned ninety, the last survivor from Beyond the Fringe, there is so much to celebrate in his long and productive career. But we shouldn’t reduce his often sad and sober work to warm nostalgic cosiness. It’s not just Steven Isserlis who recognises so much of himself in Bennett’s work. We all do. 

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