Profile: Alan Bennett; An Englishman abroad

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The Independent Culture
In Writing Home, his best-selling volume of diary extracts, prefaces and occasional pieces, Alan Bennett records that in September 1982 his friend, the television presenter Russell Harty, invented a new parlour game. It involved tackling the momentous question: "Whose underpants would you least like to be gagged by?"

Bennett does not, alas, reveal the celebrity names who streaked ahead on the "why-oh-Y-front". The thought occurs that a similar game might take the form of asking: "If you had to live for 15 years parked (quite literally) in a van in the garden of a leading British dramatist, which figure would you choose?"

The mind floods with candidates for this accolade. But the fate of one Miss Shepherd, who did wind up in just such a bizarre situation, suggests that you and your embattled vehicle could do a great deal worse than be stalled in the front drive of Alan Bennett's North London residence. A homeless elderly tramp with a history of mental instability (abortive attempts to become a nun, followed by a change of name after absconding from the scene of a road accident), Miss Shepherd can little have imagined that one day she would be immortalised in Bennett's prose account of her (The Lady in the Van) and then be impersonated on the West End stage by Dame Maggie Smith in his play of the same name which opens next Tuesday.

Not that fame would have fazed Miss S. One of the various hopes she nursed was that Bennett, himself launched into celebrity with the 1961 revue hit Beyond the Fringe, would get her on to the radio in a regular phone- in programme where she could dispense wisdom as "The Woman Behind the Curtain".

The tone and moral stance of Bennett's diary-collage about their relationship are characteristic of the man. This is the rueful comedy of a rather reluctant Good Samaritan, careful not to claim any false credit ("one seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation") and always wryly alert to the uncertain frontier between kindness and hapless liberal guilt. It's the work of a writer who is an expert at dramatising that characteristically English predicament of being in two minds about everything - including the value of being in two minds - but it's also the record of a man who can find unexpected reserves of shy, stubborn conviction when protecting the weak.

I should love to know whether Bennett's late mother ever peeked into the dauntingly filthy interior of Miss Shepherd's van. Herself the prototype of the women in his plays who are obsessed with keeping the lavatory like a little palace, she would surely have felt that she was looking into the heart of darkness. Perhaps one day we shall find out whether an encounter ever took place, for Bennett is currently working on a series of autobiographical pieces to be called Untold Stories. The first appeared last September in the London Review of Books. A superbly modulated piece, it relates how Bennett came to discover features of his family history (such as the suicide of his maternal grandfather) that pre-date his own birth in Leeds in 1934 and connect with the acute depression from which his mother suffered in later life.

It had never occurred to Bennett to wonder, as a child, why there were no photographs of his parents' wedding. The craving "to go unnoticed"of his mother, coupled with the even more crippling shyness of his father (then a young butcher at the Co-op) induced such joint dread of a public ceremony that the engagement was nearly broken off.

It was largely thanks to the enlightened thoughtfulness of the vicar of St Bartholomew's that they managed to get hitched at all. He agreed to marry them in a private service at 8am, early enough for Bennett pere (who couldn't get the day off) to clock on at the Co-op 15 minutes later. It's a poignant scene: two shy creatures, who were to be handicapped by timidity all their lives, sidling into church to form a union that would lead to Alan Bennett. As much as the event itself, though, it's the perfect pitch of their son's prose - level, lovingly exact, a total absence of violins - that moves us to tears.

Reviewing Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin, Bennett argued that it was ungrateful of the poet to describe his childhood as "a forgotten boredom" given that, looming at the centre of it, was the City Treasurer father who attended Nuremberg rallies and had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece. By comparison, the dramatist complains, his own childhood was "sparsely accoutred with characters". But if rabid Fascists were thin on the ground in the Bennett clan, there was clearly no shortage of conversational matter on which he could refine his extraordinary ear for the bizarreries of small-talk and the accents of doomed social aspiration.

Consider the aunt who worked in a Leeds shoe shop in the days when there were still grand stars touring the country. It was listening to her relating her encounters with various posh customers that alerted the young Alan Bennett to the funny-sad way in which people who would love to be at the centre of things, mis-hear and mis-report the tone of what has been said to them.

His gift for re-creating this phenomenon was richly demonstrated in the two much-loved series of television monologues, Talking Heads. When, in A Woman of No Importance, the recently hospitalised (and dying) heroine proudly informs us that a nurse has said "I don't know how we managed before you came, Miss Schofield, I honestly don't", you laugh and wince at the same time because her deafness to the real tone of the remark so painfully exposes this marginal busybody's need to be thought of as a lynchpin, as well as demonstrating her admirable ability to persist in fooling herself when she slides into terminal territory, where the world of Bennett overlaps with that of Beckett.

"Straight out of Alan Bennett," has become a convenient shorthand for particular socially censorious, curtain- twitching way of speaking (much copied by less talented Northern writers). Unlike his fellow-writer and almost exact contemporary, the poet and dramatist Tony Harrison, (a product of the august Leeds Grammar School) Bennett began his education in the humble environs of Leeds Modern. Here, his studies led to an open scholarship in history to Exeter College, Oxford. In between he did his National Service on the Russian course at Cambridge, an oblique sort of spy school where one of his friends was the future writer Michael Frayn. A first-class degree led to research on the knightly retinue of Richard II and a junior lectureship at Magdalen College. But his half- hearted academic ambitions were put on permanent hold when Beyond the Fringe (the ground-breaking revue with Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) transferred, from success in Edinburgh and London, to New York.

It is easy to see how such a CV might have cut him off from his lowly, uneducated roots. But it's a strength of Bennett's writing that he has remained with a foot in each cultural camp, with some of his work accessible to those who would always put Howard's Way above Howards End.

It took him some time to trust in the Northernness of his authorial voice. For example, Forty Years On (1968), his first solo work, is a skittish elegy for a fading idea of England symbolised by a public school, Albion House. It's a grammar-school boy's love-hate take on this world. His stage work tended to be set in the South: his TV plays in the Seventies (one revealingly entitled Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf) move from a realm of telegrams and anger to net curtains and social workers.

In one important sense, though, he can be said never to have left home, because he isn't sure where home is. The title of his best-seller is most probably an allusion to the Larkin poem "Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel": "The headed paper, made for writing home/ (If home existed) letters of exile". And letters of exile (albeit the funniest ever written) are exactly what his works are. This is most directly the case in his spy plays The Old Country (1977) and An Englishman Abroad (1983), in which he projects his own divided feelings about England on to, respectively, an amalgam of Kim Philby and WH Auden, and Guy Burgess, encountered in the open prison of his Moscow days.

The hero of the former discusses the mixed blessing of being English in terms of irony. "Irony is inescapable. We're conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb: Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious." So the double life of the spy is the game of irony in action; betraying England is just an extreme way of betraying the fact that you're English. Disgust at the Falklands war produced the darkest passage in the diaries. After watching a filmed report of the "unbearable" funeral service for the commandos killed at Goose Green, he wrote: "Not English I feel now. This is just where I happen to have been put down. No country. No party. No Church. No voice."

Passages like that bring home how badly people misjudge him in regarding him as a replacement Betjeman, or literature's answer to the Queen Mother. To describe him as (dread words) a National Treasure, we should have to widen the meaning of the term so that it could include, say, Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall.

Unlike Sir Tom Stoppard, Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Sir David Hare, Bennett has not accepted an honour from a source close to Downing Street. It's one of the most honourable things about him. Offered a D Litt by his Oxford college, he declined it because the university had taken tainted money to set up a Rupert Murdoch chair of communication (the equivalent, he remarked, of a Saddam Hussein chair of peace studies).

As for his sexuality, the work is littered with ambiguous hints. Asked outright by Ian McKellen whether he was gay, he answered that this was a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether his tastes inclined more to Perrier or Malvern water. A couple of years back, the tabloid newspapers broke the shock news (well, a shock to people who know nothing about friendship, love or sexuality) that there is a lady (not in a van, this time) up in the small Yorkshire village where Bennett has a house. So instead of being a closed book, his emotional life could perhaps best be viewed as a parallel text, slightly foxed.

In a volume that paid tribute to Larkin at 60, Bennett fantasised about the presents that might be acceptable to such a diffident poet and came up with some endearingly acute suggestions. What could you offer as a present to a dramatist of Bennett's distinctive gifts at 65? Perhaps an invitation as guest of honour to the kind of camp cocktail party up in heaven which he invented in the delirious final scene of Kafka's Dick - a function where, with characteristic high-spirited silliness, High Table meets low cheek. Among the hobnobbers at our version of this party, there would be Virginia Woolf exchanging notes on how to pack up smoking with Freddie Ayer; and CS and Lennox Lewis disagreeing violently over what Forster meant by: "Only connect". The Berlins (Isaiah and Irving) would be trying out some new-cross-patter on a blushing Valerie Eliot.

Bennett is, of course, seated at a side table, watching. Then a rumour goes round that God is to come in and award him the "greatest living English writer" gong. Only Bertrand Russell nobbles Him and explains that there's a quibble over the validity of the word "living" in the afterlife. So the ceremony never happens.

But that's a relief to Bennett who, like his parents, doesn't enjoy a fuss and isn't too sure what "English" means, either. And besides, this will give him something to write home about.

Life Story

Born: 9 May 1934 in Leeds.

Family: Father, Walter, a butcher. Mother, Lillian Mary (Peel).

Education: Leeds Modern School, 1946-52; Exeter College, Oxford, 1954- 57 (BA, First Class Hons, 7); Junior Lecturer in history, Magdalen College, Oxford, 1960-62.

National Service: Joint Services School for Linguists, Cambridge. Performing Career: in the theatre: Beyond the Fringe (Edinburgh, 1960; London, 1961; New York, 1962); Forty Years On (1968); Habeas Corpus (1973); Anthony Blunt in Single Spies (1989).

Plays: Forty Years On (1968), Getting On (1971), Habeas Corpus (1973), The Old Country (1977), Enjoy (1980), Kafka's Dick (1986), Single Spies (1988), The Wind in the Willows (adapted), Talking Heads (1992 and 1996).

TV screenplays: 20 including A Day Out; Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf; A Little Outing; A Woman of No Importance; An Englishman Abroad; A Question of Attribution.

Films: A Private Function (1984), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), The Madness of King George (1995).

He says: "When we play language games, we do so rather in order to find out what game it is we are playing."

On people: "To be silly is not to be foolish."

Others on him: "I think he always felt during Beyond the Fringe that he was the neglected one, the one whose name everyone forgot. He was fantastically upset by the success of Peter and Dudley later on. I think he was more competitive than he cared to admit. But he admits it now." (Jonathan Miller)