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An Uncommon Writer. By A N Wilson

History | By A N Wilson

Alan Bennett, 1967

At 90, Alan Bennett has soared above National Treasure status

There was a legendary Oxford don called Bruce McFarlane, who supervised Alan Bennett’s thesis on Richard II’s retinue from 1388 to 1389.

McFarlane used to say Bennett was the best pupil he ever had – ‘before he went off and joined the circus’. This was the donnish way of describing Bennett, then engaged in his medieval research, who was lured into joining Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe.

Those who watched the TV adaptation of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time will have been struck by how brilliantly Bennett portrayed Sillery, the manipulative old don. He could, of course, have been a don. But that was only one of the roles he has played so successfully – none more so than his own mysterious self.

Beyond the Fringe fans will remember Bennett’s superb sermon: he plays a vicar likening the quest for meaning in life to the opening of a sardine tin with a broken key. Bennett made a completely convincing vicar. Indeed, when he was my neighbour for over 20 years in north London, and I saw him pedalling his bike up Gloucester Crescent, he often seemed like a parish priest on his rounds.

The agnostic Bennett once observed that being a fervent Anglican would be a contradiction in terms.

As it happens, he and his partner Rupert Thomas, who is a friend and colleague of my wife, Ruth, did occasionally come and have supper in our kitchen, but Bennett always – I am sure everyone who knows him would agree – keeps his distance.

Treasure. His ‘act’, for want of a better word, is only one of his theatrical masterpieces. When one looks at the work of his contemporary playwrights in Britain, he towers above them.

No one has produced a body of work to compare to it: Talking Heads, The Lady in the Van, The Madness of George III, The History Boys.

Bennett’s range of characters is enormous; he writes best about outsiders. They seem like victims but, since they insist on living life on their own terms, this perception turns out to be false. Miss Shepherd in her van – nursing the secret that she was once a concert pianist – is at one, in some mysterious way, with poor King George III, held in a straitjacket in his lunacy.

Pat Routledge (A Lady of Letters) sends poison-pen letters so vile that she ends up where she wants to be – in prison, for the first time with friends.

No hint of condemnation is offered of Hector, the pervy schoolmaster who fingers his pupils.

These outsiders exist in a Nietzschean territory ‘beyond Good and Evil’, never more so than in the two highly disturbing plays about spies. In A Question of Attribution, Anthony Blunt realises, while discussing her pictures with Queen Elizabeth II, that he has been rumbled as a Soviet agent. In An Englishman Abroad, Bennett pulls off the feat of making Guy Burgess a sympathetic traitor (well, almost).

Like the spies for whom he has a soft spot, and perhaps like all great writers, Bennett is a subversive.

Just occasionally, he takes self-parody to a level where the mask is obviously a mask – I am thinking of his depiction of Mole in Wind in the Willows.

By crudely overdoing Mole’s timorousness, he reminds us how very far he is from being a mild little mole.

The paradox of Bennett is that his mild voice and manner conceal fervour – often fury. He once described going to some military parade, perhaps Remembrance Sunday – ‘all the things I love and hate’. His hatred of England and of Englishness is – well, very English. He was an agreeable neighbour.

Indeed, I’d say he honed the art of being a neighbour – and probably the art of being a human being – to a perfect T. He was the soul of friendliness, but there was never the feeling on either side that this might involve ‘social life’.

The role of being Alan Bennett is perfectly played. He is the opposite of his character Guy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad: ‘No point in having a secret if you make a secret of it.’

He does a good road show, in which he chats to audiences, and has them eating out of his hand. One of the favourite gags is when he tells them that his partner Rupert once compared him to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Rupert said they are both ‘difficult, northern, and a c**t’.

Another famous Bennett line, which he put into the mouth of Kafka, in his play about the Czech genius, applies just as well to himself: ‘If he did understand me, he’d understand that I don’t want to be understood.’

Like any good writer, Bennett does not extend this courtesy to his characters. He forges them all ruthlessly into the Bennett mould. When you see his two depictions of the late Queen, in her lonely discovery of the library van in

An Uncommon Reader, and in her conversations with Anthony Blunt, you realise Her Majesty has been enlisted into the Bennett world of those who both intensely love and intensely hate the England he has described so unforgettably, ever since Forty Years On.

On 9th May, he turned 90. He has soared beyond the status of National

This story was from June 2024 issue. Subscribe Now