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Alan Bennett

A style that mixes pathos and bathos

Tim de Lisle | May/June 2014

Alan Bennett, who is 80 in May, is several writers in one. A founding father of modern British satire in “Beyond the Fringe”, a master of the television play with “Talking Heads”, a pillar of the National Theatre with “The History Boys”, an affable memoirist with “Untold Stories” and a sardonic diarist on the London Review of Books.

He was a bright boy—a butcher’s son from near Leeds who went to Oxford, got a first and taught history—but a shy one. He was 26 when he took up comedy (via cod sermons) and 34 when he wrote his first play, “Forty Years On”. The history never melted away: he has turned George III, Auden, Britten, Burgess and Blunt into drama, and led the way in putting words in the Queen’s mouth. He has survived cancer, recorded “Winnie the Pooh”, given his papers to the Bodleian (“in gratitude to the nanny state”) and campaigned for less famous libraries. He is an old leftie beloved of conservatives, a cosy uncle whose pen is a double-edged sword.

KEY DECISIONS  1) To remain a Yorkshireman, despite living in Camden, London, for decades. He sees the Yorkshire vernacular as “inherently dramatic”, often holding the point back to the end of the sentence. “It’s certainly not all ee-bah-gum stuff. My dad used to say ‘I will ascertain’.” 2) To mix pathos and bathos. He can move the stars to pity without losing the rhythm of stand-up. 3) To make embarrassment his playground, converting self-consciousness into laughter. “My first play was a lament for an England that has gone. My last play [“People”, 2012] was still waving the same handkerchief.”

STRONG POINTS  1) Sound: he speaks the lines as he writes, imprinting them with his doleful cadence. 2) Flow: he avoids colons, preferring commas and an Anglicised ablative absolute. “I hadn’t realised at Richard Griffiths’ funeral in Stratford that Shakespeare’s father had been buried in the churchyard, the whereabouts of the grave now unknown.” 3) Aphorisms. “History,” says Mrs Lintott in “The History Boys”, “is women following behind with the bucket.” 4) Sudden earthiness. The funeral tale goes on: “So, when...I went out for a pee under one of the yews in a sheltered corner of the cemetery, I may well have been pissing on Shakespeare’s dad’s grave.” 5) Receiving notes. “Less of this, more of that, the director is in the first instance an editor.”

GOLDEN RULE If in doubt, dream up a teacher. “We don’t set much store by cleverness at Albion House,” the head declares in “Forty Years On”, “so we don’t run away with all the prizes.”

FAVOURITE TRICKS  1) Pinpointing a paradox. “Whenever I meet anybody,” the Queen says in “A Question of Attribution”, “they’re always on their best behaviour. And when one is on one’s best behaviour, one isn’t always at one’s best.” 2) Using an unreliable narrator, most tellingly in “Talking Heads”a series of unreliable soliloquies. 3) Dismantling a cliché. “Nothing saves anyone’s life, sir,” says Posner in “The History Boys”. “It just postpones their death.”

ROLE MODELS  Hard to spot a playwright he echoes. But he does quote Larkin with reverence.

TYPICAL SENTENCES  As a playwright: “I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m fooked.” (Posner again.) As himself, on being asked by Ian McKellen if he was gay: “That’s like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water.” On his voice: “Feeling I’d scarcely arrived at a style, I now find I’m near the end of it.” 

Alan Bennett season, West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 19th. "The History Boys", Oxford Playhouse, April 30th to May 3rd

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