Alan Bennett: Razor-sharp edge of a national treasure

Alan Bennett, and below with Jonathan MIller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
Alan Bennett, and below with Jonathan MIller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
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In Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday year, West Yorkshire Playhouse is celebrating with a season of his work. In an exclusive interview, he tells Nick Ahad why he prefers not to look back.

A couple of days before I interview Alan Bennett, the “nation’s favourite playwright” made a surprising guest appearance on my TV screen.

Jonathan MIller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore

Jonathan MIller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore

Bennett, colossus of British theatre, unexpectedly appeared in an episode of American animated series Family Guy. It was fair to assume the animated version of Bennett was voiced by the talented creator of Family Guy, Seth Macfarlane. It is he after all, who provides most of the voices on the show.

It was a very good vocal likeness, I tell him of his animated avatar. Did he see it? Was he impressed?

“It’s not surprising the voice seemed like a good impression,” he says, “as it was mine. I did the voiceover myself. The other playwrights, David Mamet, Yasmina Reza didn’t imitate themselves, possibly because they’re too grand, but I enjoyed it.”

Yes, Bennett, the man whose plays sell out the National Theatre, one of the world’s most famous playwrights, still has a twinkle in his eye and is happy to appear on what some might dismiss as a facile “cartoon”. One can’t imagine a huge crossover in the Venn diagram of fans of Family Guy and fans of Alan Bennett.

“I was immensely flattered to be on Family Guy, although I wish it wasn’t produced by a Rupert Murdoch company.”

There is the steel blade inside the “teddy bear” Bennett has come to be regarded as. He is being heartily celebrated on a national scale in this, his 80th year. But nowhere is Bennett more heartily appreciated than his home county.

West Yorkshire Playhouse last year announced that it would be staging a whole season of his work. At the time it seemed a little obvious, but now that it is upon us it seems entirely appropriate.

“I’m naturally pleased the Playhouse is doing a season of my stuff,” says Bennett. “Though I don’t expect to be given an uncritical reception. I’m mindful of coming to the Playhouse once to do a reading and as I went in, I encountered two sabre-toothed pensioners. ‘It’d better be good’ said one ‘We’re both big fans of yours’.”

The wit remains razor-sharp and the voice absolutely indelible. The Playhouse opens the Alan Bennett season with a new production of Enjoy, beginning on Monday and there are a number of other productions to follow.

“I tend not to look back at what I’ve written and I seldom see new productions of my plays. I’m very involved in the original production, casting, rehearsals, previews and so on, but once a play is in the public domain, I don’t follow it round or keep tabs on future production. I’m slow enough as it is and I’d rather get on trying to do something new. I just feel I have to get on. There is also a bit of me that feels to keep turning up to watch one’s plays is showing off. People know my face so that doesn’t make it easier.”

While you won’t spot him in the audience for Enjoy, then, you will see him at an Audience With style event on June 8 (tickets have all but sold out).

Although he seems reluctant to do so, you’d forgive Bennett the opportunity to show off a little. He has, after all, achieved so very much. From the beginnings of growing up the son of an Armley butcher, to conquer the world stage is no mean feat.

When I have interviewed him previously, it has always been a surprise to hear that Bennett feels less valued than he might be were he a more “serious” playwright. I remind him of this – he remembers slightly differently.

“What I think I said was that I felt I was over-appreciated but under-estimated,” says Bennett.

“Meaning that I’ve received a good deal of recognition for my plays and books and I get lots of feedback – people writing to me, stopping me in the street and so on. So how could I not be grateful for that? But I think I’ve written stuff – often in the introduction to plays as much as in the plays themselves, that gets passed over and forgotten and one day I hope that will be rediscovered.”

While he has written his work and his diaries from his home in Camden, as we know from their annual outing in the London Review of Books, Bennett’s writing remains firmly rooted in Yorkshire, his Northern roots as evident in his writing as they ever were.

Despite that, it wasn’t a given that he would give permission to the Playhouse to stage the Bennett season.

“I had to think about it, although I didn’t make (artistic director) James Brining spell out exactly what he was planning or what he was going to do. I thought some of it – the site specific stuff for instance – sounded a bit scary, but if I wasn’t around James would have had a free hand anyway, so why not now. I don’t want to be Samuel Beckett, overseeing every comma.

“I love Yorkshire but I’m not one to bang the drum. I’ve been asked to participate in some of the various high jinks that are happening this year but I’ve managed to dip out of them – something I’m quite good at.

“A lot of it is what my dad would call ‘splother’ and our family were never very good at that.

“Still, I always think of the few occasions I run across someone who’s rude or unhelpful, ‘Well, I’m a freeman of Leeds and you’re not’.”

The voice, as well as being one of the sharpest and funniest Britain has produced, is entirely unmistakable, even when written down.

So, even though he refuses to be some spectre at the feast, Bennett was happy to give his blessing to the Leeds theatre to stage a season of his work. It seems Brining’s bold choice of play helped.

Enjoy, the centrepiece of the Alan Bennett season, is a dark and difficult play. Bennett once quipped it was the least accurate title he could have dreamt up – Endure would have been more apt. Set in one of the last back-to-backs in Armley, it is a troubling and oppressive piece of work.

“At its first production in 1980, Enjoy was and remains the most resounding flop I have ever had,” he says.

“So I’m pleased that nowadays it is getting revived more and more and I hope audiences in Leeds in its home setting will see what it is about more clearly than London audiences did 30 odd years ago.

“All the stuff about embalming the past (a heavy theme of the play) is still relevant and cropped up again in a different context in my last play People, which I was happy to see at the Grand, the theatre where I saw my first plays in the late 40s and 50s.”

He might now be an octogenarian, but Bennett remains passionate about young people discovering his work.

Were he in charge of programming a season of his own work, what would he choose?

“I don’t know…The History Boys, obviously, as it was such sheer joy to do, but I’d quite like to see more of the TV plays adapted for the stage. A Day Out, for instance, Sunset Across the Bay, not to mention the Talking Heads. I particularly like it when young people like my plays.

“This often happens in supermarkets where they’re working part-time in the holidays. I get the feeling they can’t believe I’m still around, but they always claim to enjoy having to do my plays for O or A-Levels and that gives me a kick.”

The really wonderful news is that, while we are ready to look back at his career, Bennett continues to look forward. He remembers speaking at Thora Hird’s funeral and the pride that her last piece of work was a radio play he had written.

“I finished off the address with the epitaph on Winifred Holtby’s grave: “God give me work till my life shall end and life till my work is done.”

“That will do for me too.”