This week, `The Madness of King George' opens here after rave reviews in America. Its author is even up for an Oscar. But at the moment of Alan Bennett's triumph are we also discovering his limits?
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ALAN BENNETT's poised sadness has made him Prose Laureate of Britain. But I have a higher proposal yet - let us crown him King Alan. After all, he's doing more for the sentimental appeal of royalty than the Windsors. The new film The Madness of King George, an effective but rather sly adaptation of his own stage play, has entertained many Americans and left them wistful for the still mysterious monarch in whose reign the United States came into being. Bennett has been nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. He has been celebrated in a Time magazine profile. And America awaits his book, Writing Home, which has astonished the British publishing scene by selling over 200,000 copies. Shall we see Bennett in a tuxedo later this month on Oscars night - a few days after the film opens in Britain - walking up to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, unable to suppress his dry incredulity at being next to . . . Demi Moore?

No, I suspect he'll stay as stubbornly tied to Camden Town as Woody Allen is to New York on that night of the year. If Alan were king, that famous house in Camden would become the new royal headquarters. Then Buck House and its inmates could be shipped off brick and brow to Nevada where the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste site is about to be abandoned on safety grounds. Only a hundred or so miles north of Las Vegas, it begs to be a theme park.

Meanwhile, in Camden, King Alan would be a bicycling ruler, grimly tender towards bag- and van-ladies, still determined to address his people through the London Review of Books, and resolutely unaffected by it all. He seems safe from consorts or heirs (his dynasty and the institution can be quietly wound up at his demise). He would honour the crown (though we know he'd never wear it), for he is decent, kindly, unobtrusively brave and wise. His salty cleverness is offset by modesty, grumpiness and his extensive dismay. He has an absolutely natural rapport with the genteel womanly citizen for whom things have not worked out perfectly (this description sometimes covers most of the population). And he is a devout member of the Church of Embarrassment, for his comedy and tragedy are married in the very English mist of hushed ghastliness. He would be King Alan the Gentle and Helpless - which is as good a way as any to inaugurate the Republic.

I FEEL a little guilty for saying this, because I admire Bennett hugely. Still I think this may be a moment to say that the remarkable Mr Bennett - a writer with an alert, aching ear for the forlorn, and a good man - has some limits.

Bennett has always been a little disguised. Though he deals in intimate feelings, we are never quite sure about his own. He is constitutionally shy. In October 1988, he spoke at the memorial service for Russell Harty, a friend since Oxford. They were a pair: Harty was Blackburn, Bennett Leeds (not just the North, but solid Division Two towns in those days). They were the same age (born in 1934), and they had both found themselves in television. But Harty was on camera and Bennett mostly off. In the extract below from the memorial address, Bennett recalls Harty's cheek. Bennett, I suspect, has given up the ghost of having cheek of his own. But he recognises and admires it (for he was once the quiet one in the Beyond the Fringe quartet), and the yearning for cheek, or outrage, is often there in his gentle, chatty prose:

"While cheek is not quite a virtue, still it belongs in the other ranks of courage, so that even when he [Harty] embarrassed you, you had to admire him for it - and, of course, laugh. It came out in the silliest things. He was one of the first people I knew who drove. It was the family car - opulent, vulgar, the emblem of successful greengrocery - and driving through Leeds or Manchester and seeing an old lady waiting at a bus stop he would pip his horn and wave. She would instinctively wave back and, as we drove on, one would see her gazing after us, wondering who among her scant acquaintance had a large cream-coloured Jaguar. `Brought a bit of interest into her life,' he would say, and that was as far as he got towards a philosophy: he understood that most people are prisoners in their lives and want releasing, even if it's only for a wave at a bus stop."

So much of Bennett is in that passage: like any great miniaturist, he is marked not just by fineness of scale and an eye for dust-spots of detail; he also reveals his whole being in fragments. So you know Bennett's life and outlook from "pip his horn" and the assumption about the old lady's "scant acquaintance", as much as from the sense of prison being less a fate in life than a necessity. All along, he was touched by and observant of melancholy; he was also quite unimpressed by the vulgarity of plans for alleviating the sadness - apart from cheek, fun and words.

He was beyond Beyond the Fringe. He remembers hearing some impresario say, "The fair-haired one will have to go". And he sees that point. He wasn't like the others: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. He couldn't be a clown; he was and is still a nervous actor; he wasn't handsome, and he was far too hidden or shy to let himself seem brilliant. The things he wrote and did for the show were always leaning away towards provincial doldrums and character study, filled with his respect for what looked like boring, shabby lives and which kept desperation indoors. He didn't wish to be "satirical". So for Bennett, the show was a providential start, whereas for the others (I suspect) it was a shaping experience. It's true, the other three have had busy rsums: Miller did a bit of everything, and could explain so much so clearly that he at last became tedious; Cook did his TV shows with Moore; and Dudley escaped to Hollywood for 10 and Arthur, as well as marriages to Suzy Kendall and Tuesday Weld. But those careers have a curve inspired by Beyond the Fringe, whereas Bennett's began again. He wasn't simply the quiet, fair-haired one who did the duller sketches, but a writer waiting more or less patiently.

He hadn't found himself, but I suspect the process began around 1960. In one of his Fringe sketches, "Let's Face It", he wrote and played the non-thinking man's thoughts. The voice was platitudinous and Yorkshire, of course; in the show as a whole, it seemed comic and mocking. But the laughs weren't explosive, for you could almost hear Bennett's sympathy for the plain fool. That notion of a well-meaning, un-metropolitan Englishness that had been left bewildered by the Sixties and all that followed became vital to Bennett's development.

It was there in his first stage-play, Forty Years On, which opened in 1968, and was a bitter-sweet tracing of lost values, lost youth and eternal age. (There are pictures of Bennett the boy in Writing Home, but he looks as young, or as un-young, in pictures taken now. Which is a way of saying that youth has never been his strength or his passion. Like Philip Larkin's, Bennett's soul has been waiting to be 63.)

Better than Forty Years On are plays written for television since the late Sixties: A Day Out (1969), an account of a Halifax cycling club's excursion in 1911, directed for the BBC by Stephen Frears; and a trilogy of plays for London Weekend, 10 years later, directed by Giles Foster, Frears and Lindsay Anderson - All Day On the Sands, One Fine Day and The Old Crowd.

The latter was controversial in its day, largely because Lindsay Anderson wanted to pep up Bennett's text with conflict, a sense of the epic and "alienation effects". Bennett's diary (his warmest work) is deadpan delicious on their talks.

Bennett wrote of Anderson: "He looks at me enquiringly, then puts a straight line through half a page. `Boring, don't you think? Too tentative.' He invariably crosses out all my `possiblys' and `perhapses'. To be epic is, if nothing else, to be positive. He agreed to do the The Old Crowd in the first place because he detected the `epic' qualities in it. I think this is to do with the house being completely bare and with George and Betty, the middle-class couple, not letting anything interfere with their intention to have a party. Lindsay wants the script to be more epic, but I am still not sure what epic means."

It's typical of Bennett that the last line sounds hapless at first - but then the sour, deflating, cheeky edge bites. Bennett is one of our outstanding men of letters - diarist, reviewer of books, playwright, scenarist, and always contriving to seem like an occasional writer (as if worrying was his real thing). He is very well read. Yet he retains a dour ear for pretension and loftiness such as his mam taught him. And you can hear Bennett's raised inflection, his lyrical doubtfulness, in "Epic?", "Satirical?" or "Her name is Tuesday, Dudley?"

But Anderson was on to something. For Bennett is not, by nature, drawn to drama or conflict. It's as if he regarded those rather phony pitched battles as deluded evasions of the attrition of sadness and situation. What inspires Bennett most is the anecdotal germ, the ironic set-up - for example, the King has gone mad, or Coral Browne meets Guy Burgess in Moscow for An Englishman Abroad, or Anthony Blunt being caught unawares by the Queen in A Question of Attribution.

Those two beguiling plays (both shorter than "real" plays or films) do not really depend on drama. Blunt is exposed, but that's less interesting than his battle of wits and words with the Queen. Equally, Burgess is already at a dead end in Moscow, and Ms Browne provides no more than a chance to witness it. I'm not complaining: these are masterly works. But they are also portraits of static embarrassment and early mourning, heartfelt tributes to loneliness (Burgess, Blunt and even the Queen are seen as people who live in hallowed but bleak solitude).

Bennett's Queen may be the most generous artistic tribute to royalty since . . . well, since Sickert's painting of an edgy Edward VIII. I don't believe in her for a minute: a woman anywhere near as discerning as Prunella Scales's HRH (she's like Sybil Fawlty doing a young and obliquely sexy Lady Bracknell) would have found some way of getting to Monte Carlo, or Bournemouth. People claimed that they were shocked, or unsettled, when the play was first done at having a living monarch depicted - but there was only cause for royal rejoicing, for this Queen was cherished by Bennett.

HE HAS always adored brave, ageing ladies who live alone, or in a state of emotional solitude. That almost defines the work that seems to me both Bennett's pinnacle, and the point at which he was almost obliged to decline. I mean Talking Heads, the series of six monologues written as television plays (no, recitals) in 1988. These are among the most poignant comic works I know, yet they are on the brink of cringing stagnation.

Five of them are the voices of women - I say voices for they work very well as radio, too. But on screen they were confided to the camera by actresses trapped in single sets: Maggie Smith as a neglected vicar's wife who finds Karma in the back of an Indian grocery; Stephanie Cole as a woman once of means, whose widowhood is gradually stripped of assets and illusion; Patricia Routledge as a "nice" lady who has turned into a crank who writes anonymous letters; Thora Hird as a woman alone who has a crippling fall; and Julie Walters as a terrible actress who has to do worse things.

The broadest of these, the one with Walters, is the least absorbing. I'm not sure that Bennett really knows, or wants to know the world of showbiz - he wouldn't quite believe that a Demi Moore, say, was real and alone. The other four are heartbreaking and exquisite, and in one - Bed Among the Lentils - Maggie Smith was brought to the only thing that has ever seemed beyond her: emotional grace and simplicity.

There is a sixth Talking Head, in which Bennett himself plays the only son of a silly mother who finds a beau late in life, much to the son's dismay. Bennett is acting here, and the pain is inescapable, for the son proves to be close to dysfunctional. The voice that moans about having to look after his mother is actually much more in need of care. There is an intriguing affinity between that situation and Bennett's own real 15-year ordeal, described in "The Lady in the Van", when an elderly woman, a Miss Shepherd, took over his front garden with her yellow van. Very few of us would have tolerated her. Nor is Bennett's virtue quite enough of an explanation. Perhaps he savoured the embarrassment, and exercised his funereal curiosity. Perhaps he was coaxed into the bravery of being supportive because he lacked the nerve, the cheek, to evict her. And perhaps he could not resist the distressed gentlewoman and saw deeply enough into her condition to be patient.

The Talking Heads are more musical than dramatic, though in all of them, off camera, in the breaks between speeches, a great deal happens. Lives are irrevocably altered. Yet the texture is placid. That's very telling, for Bennett does not much like to show dramatic events or violent conflict. In his screenplay for the Joe Orton story, Prick Up Your Ears (one of his least successful works, I think), he cannot bear to show the killings of the climax, just as he flinches a little from the aggressive outrageousness of Orton. Bennett believes in politeness, in smothering the blasts of self - Orton was not quite his kind of man. You don't feel much sympathy there for Orton's plays, whereas Bennett's London Review of Books essay on Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin (nearly 10,000 words) may be as searching and as valuable as Motion, or Larkin.

FOR BENNETT, life is Larkin-like in that people find themselves "fucked up", and that is a steady state with only illness and death as exits. Hanging about. A month or so ago in the London Review of Books, Bennett himself used that term as a way of describing the frustration in writing for movies. Always self-effacing, he was talking about the frequency with which researched detail for The Madness of King George had to be abandoned:

He wrote: " `No time' is, of course, always the problem. Film is drama at its most impatient, `What happens next', the perpetual nag. One can never hang about, thinks the writer, petulantly. There's a bit more leeway on stage, depending on the kind of story one's telling, and more still on television where the viewers are close enough to the characters not to mind whether they dawdle a bit. With film, meandering is out of the question: it has to be brisk, so very little of my atmospheric backstairs stuff made it to the final script . . ."

Well. no, there's a good deal from both the play and history that isn't in the movie. Yet the uncertainties remain. When I saw the play at the National Theatre it was already well into its run in a summer when one or other half-royal was also half-naked in the tabloids. But I couldn't decide what the play was about. The situation and the "relevance" were certainly provocative, and I felt that many in the audience were itching for a more brutal, "contemporary" treatment of royalty. The settings were sumptuous and Nigel Hawthorne was vigorous and eccentric. But what was the point, or the drama? Does it matter whether George III had porphyria or not? Isn't there a subtler and more damaging madness in believing in kings?

That dilemma spoils the film, too, which is far tidier, always brisk, jollier at the close, very sumptuous and real thanks to Arundel, Syon and sundry other palaces where it was shot. It is also, more clearly than the play, a rather crude libel on Pitt, Fox and Prince of Wales. But that's inevitable as George III becomes the noblest and most vivid character Bennett has ever given us (as well as the most hollow). This film may make Bennett significantly famous - despite his gritty resistance - but it is poor work by his own standards, and he has admitted how far the forming sentiment is that of a Yorkshire monarchist.

There's the rub. Bennett's art has often steered close to self-pity and a cult of helplessness. He can slip into a prickly but rather maudlin over-estimate of little, passive people. George III here is redeemed, he is even healed, by being just a bloke. But there is a danger of too much caution and gentility, of rhapsodies on the pathetic, and of endorsing a Britain all too ready to think of itself as a nation of little old ladies living alone. To read and follow Bennett has great rewards, yet it leaves one finally desperate for some roaring demon of the ego - for King Lear, say, or King Kong.

! `The Madness of King George' (PG) opens on Friday.