Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 19. Alan Bennett, Playwright

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ALAN BENNETT mends a puncture on his bike. "I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs - replacing a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting a car - because they are not generally associated with a temperament like mine," he writes. "I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too."

This entry from Bennett's diaries provides a clue to what the author is all about. Most of his plays, notably the Talking Heads television series, feature characters who are not very good at sexual intercourse - not very good at life, in fact - like Graham, a single man living with his widowed mother in A Chip in the Sugar, whose life is thrown into turmoil when an old flame of his mother's reappears.

The temptation is to confuse these Graham characters with Bennett himself. They tend to wear V-necked sweaters, as their author invariably does, and live their lives of quiet desperation in some suburb of Leeds, where Bennett was born in 1934 and spent his youth. But the playwright is not nearly as meek and mild as he sometimes appears.

Ever since the late Fifties, when the donnish Bennett was an unlikely member of the Beyond the Fringe team, he has nurtured - or at least done nothing to discourage - the public view of him as a kind of lonely (probably homosexual) librarian who became famous when he woke up one morning to find himself playing bass guitar in The Beatles.

That view of Bennett took something of a knock when he revealed to The New Yorker that he had been having an affair with a neighbour, leading to his becoming briefly, in his own words: "London's most famous heterosexual."

Bennett was thus unmasked as a man who could not only mend a puncture, but woo a woman too. He also reveals himself in his diaries as a grade A curmudgeon, far from shy when it comes to turning his biting wit on colleagues, public figures, and especially critics.

A newspaper rings Bennett up to see whether he has any comment on the occasion of Harold Pinter's 50th birthday. "I don't," writes Bennett. "Later I realise I could have suggested two minutes' silence."

When he attends a performance of Richard III by the Georgian State Theatre Company, a picket hands him a leaflet, which says: "This will tell you what life in Russia is really like."

"Actually," writes Bennett, "I should have thought Richard III was a pretty fair picture."

Bennett's diaries are full of rather good jokes like this. On reading Winnie-the-Pooh to an audience of children: "I battle against the crying of babies and the shouts of toddlers, and end up shouting myself hoarse," he writes. "It is Winnie-the-Pooh as read by Dr Goebbels."

What infuriates Bennett about critics is their reluctance to give him credit for the extraordinary strike rate of his jokes. When his play Kafka's Dick receives mixed reviews - to Bennett this is anything less than total eulogy - he notes that the reviewers neglected to mention "that it was a funny evening". For someone who professes to hate writing - when Vaclav Havel becomes the Czech President, Bennett says how fine it must feel "just to run the state and not have to write any plays" - there is a kind of heroism in the way Bennett writes and writes: theatre, television, movies, magazine articles, diaries. His output is prodigious and invariably funny. Bennett accuses himself of merely adding to the number of words in the world.

"That's why poetry is supreme," he writes, "It makes less mess."

There is some worth in Bennett's typically melancholy view. On the other hand, there can never be too many jokes in the world, and Bennett's are some of the best.