Anthony Clavane: Alan Bennett was the product of a golden age of social mobility

Alan Bennett's wry sense of humour never dims. (JPress).
Alan Bennett's wry sense of humour never dims. (JPress).
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And so to London, to see Alan Bennett’s new play, Allelujah! It turns out to be a disappointing evening. Despite boasting a fine ensemble cast and the obligatory, crowd-pleasing one-liners – my favourite being the pompous hospital manager’s soundbite “Yesterday is the new tomorrow”– it misfires on a number of levels.

It doesn’t bode well when the programme is more entertaining than the play. I enjoyed Fintan O’Toole’s profile of the reluctant national treasure, which memorably argued he was “doomed to amiability”. Bennett hates being portrayed as cosy. In his own, drily witty, way his extraordinary body of work has challenged the snobbery, bigotry and psychological cruelty of late-20th century and early-21st century Britain. The highpoint, for me, was the groundbreaking 1988 TV series Talking Heads, a raw – but still drily witty – depiction of the bleak lives of Thatcherism’s outcasts.

Allelujah! is set in an ailing Yorkshire hospital, which is clearly meant to be a microcosm of modern society. It has some far-from-warm-and-cuddly points to make about rapacious capitalism, Brexit and the growing fault lines between London and the north. Sadly, they are delivered in an unsubtle, often preachy, manner by two-dimensional, cliched characters who only come alive during the quirky song-and-dance numbers.

Bennett’s observational humour remains as wry as ever, but it tends to be drowned out by the play’s myriad strands. The most affecting one is the father-son dynamic, which the Armley butcher’s son uses to explore the problems of social mobility. This is a familiar strand to anyone who has closely followed his career. Or, indeed, that of his contemporaries.

For it is often overlooked that he was the product of a golden age of social mobility, part of a crack battalion of Yorkshire writers who transcended their humble origins to make their mark back in the 1960s.

These upwardly-mobile cultural pathfinders – the likes of David Storey, Keith Waterhouse and Tony Harrison – moved away from their settled communities, became uprooted from their class and suffered a sense of dislocation. Still, they were proud of their roots.

Bennett might have escaped a life of provincial mediocrity but, as his Talking Heads monologues made clear, he pined for his lost childhood, an Atkinson Grimshaw world of corner shops, grubby back-to-back terraced houses and cobbled streets. At every turn, he wrote, there was a reminder that you were a son or daughter of Leeds. When going up to Oxford, he felt himself to be an ambassador of the city.

Contrast this pride with the contempt shown by the play’s ambitious, young, working-class escapee towards his birthplace. Like the escapees of the 60s, the sneering Colin, a management consultant at the Department of Health, is alienated from his father, a former miner living out his final days in the hospital.

Unlike them, though, he is not guilt-ridden by his escape. In fact, he hates his Yorkshire hometown so much he can’t wait to shut down its local hospital. This is a fascinating theme, but it would have been given more dramatic resonance, and topical clout, if Bennett had not been lazy about research. As he cheerfully admits in the programme, fact finding is not one of his strengths. Which explains the play’s glaring error: the patients who inhabit the geriatric ward should really have been in a care home.

It also explains why, despite promoting itself as a state-of-the-nation play, it has missed the most important point about the current state of social mobility. As any survey will confirm, this has gone into reverse since the Thatcher era, income inequality trapping low-income families at the bottom of the earnings ladder. This is particularly true of the arts. As Idris Elba recently put it: “Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t.” There are far fewer openings for talented working-class actors than there were in Bennett’s heyday. The same holds true for talented working-class writers. Back in the golden age, their predecessors were the beneficiaries not only of a cradle-to-grave health system but also a post-war settlement which allowed them to barge through the privileged ranks of the Oxbridge elite and storm the citadels of literature. Allelujah indeed.