The gentle Englishman

Almost forty years on, Alan Bennett is still firing barbs at an elite from which he has always felt excluded. In his new play, he'll be doing it again
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Alan Bennett's illustrious career as a stage dramatist began in 1968 with Forty Years On, a comedy set in a minor public school symbolically named Albion House. Now, close to 40 years on, his new play The History Boys returns to a school location - this time a top grammar school in Yorkshire at the start of the 1980s.

The earlier work had presented its ambivalent - nostalgic, flighty, unfooled - take on 20th-century English history in the form of a play-within-a-play: a revue-style end-of-term pageant packed with outrageous jokes about, and parodies of, everyone from TE Lawrence to Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. John Gielgud and the young, not-yet-famous Paul Eddington assumed the roles of (respectively) the lofty, soon-to-be-retired headmaster, vainly struggling to preserve the old traditions while keeping up a steady stream-of-unconscious humour ("Mark my words, when a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall"), and the more progressive housemaster who is his impatient successor-designate and the mastermind of the revue that attempts to "shed the burden of the past".

In this barbed elegy for an almost-vanished England, it is possible to sympathise with both antagonists, who take on an oddly similar Lady Bracknell-ish note when laying down the law about education. Charged with being behind the times, the headmaster ripostes that "standards always are out of date. That is what makes them standards". Accused of advocating an element of mockery in the school play, the housemaster declares that "one generation treading on the toes of its predecessors... is what tradition means". The incumbent head characteristically prefers the word "schooling" to "education", the latter noun trailing all those unfortunate connotations of putting ideas into boys' heads. That, though, is the avowed aim of the head-in-waiting.

The new play (previewing at the National from tomorrow) is being kept under wraps - the text will not even be published until after the press night. But from the pre-publicity material, from some hints and educated guesses, and from keeping one's ear to the ground, it can be speculated that the The History Boys, though cast in less skittish mode in a state school in a different period, is likely to dramatise a comparable, if more complex, clash of values. Richard Griffiths (such a delight as the gently porcine surreptitious friend of the clandestine pig in Bennett's film A Private Function) will play a maverick, inspired English master who finds himself at painful variance with a young and cunning supply teacher. A head teacher obsessed with results will come into conflict with a history master who thinks he's a fool. Positioned towards the start of the Thatcher regime, the piece looks set to trace the early stirring of the culture that is obsessed with testing at the expense of educating. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was not thinking of the glories of SATs and AS-levels.

The play, one hears, focuses on a set of very gifted and articulate sixth-formers in their seventh term, each hoping to take the route Bennett himself did - to Oxbridge on the wings of a scholarship in history. It's a hothouse, and one can expect not just crushes, but also a perceptive study of the role our sexual natures play in the formation of our intellectual lives and, duly sublimated, in some of the most creative of teacher-pupil transactions.

Alan Bennett was trained as a historian (his specialist subject was Richard II's knights) and he taught as a junior lecturer at Magdalen College, Oxford until Beyond the Fringe made history history for him - a joke he cracks in a slighter form in the introduction to his history play, The Madness of George III. Accordingly, what we mean by "history" and what we hope to transmit when we teach it as an academic subject are questions bound to be thrown up, given the nature and context of the piece.

The Irish dramatist Brian Friel once wrote a play that contrasted the equivocal Elizabethan Ulster figure of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and the myth of him as the embodiment of nationhood created by later historiography. The pun in the play's title, Making History, encapsulated its theme: historians don't just make history in the sense of converting past events into books; their books can consciously aim to shape current events. Bennett's imagination is drawn to such dubieties of phrase and deed, and I shall be very surprised if his new play does no more than touch on these issues.

The great English historian FW Maitland urged us always to remember that events now far in the past were once in the future, and that there is no such thing as historical predestination. This principle applies to the careers of dramatists. The Alan Bennett who wrote Forty Years On in 1968 was not always going to evolve into the Alan Bennett whose next school play, The History Boys, is premiered in 2004. For a start, back then, it looked as though Bennett might have the least rewarding career of the quartet from the ground-breaking 1961 revue, Beyond the Fringe. It is said, not least by himself, that he went through a period of disabling jealousy at the apparently more successful careers of his Fringe colleagues (a condition he had not entirely grown out of in 1980 when the poor critical reception of Enjoy, in my view his best stage play, somehow managed to cause a rift between him and his friend and neighbour, Jonathan Miller).

How ironic all this now seems, given the immense popularity he went on to secure in the late 1980s with the Talking Heads series on television, and in the 1990s with the Wind in the Willows adaptation and The Madness of George III (both directed, like the new work, by Nick Hytner) and the publication of his best-selling diaries, Writing Home.

In their book, Changing Stages, Richard Eyre (who brought Bennett's Kafka plays to stage and screen) and Nicholas Wright argue that Forty Years On was ahead of its time, a precursor of the "last orders on the Titanic" mode favoured by the jaundiced and overtly left-wing playwrights of the 1970s. It's an astute perception, necessarily dependent on hindsight. Another tactic, though, would be to look sideways. In 1968, * * the year that saw the premiere of Bennett's first play, Lindsay Anderson, who later became a friend and collaborator, was filming If..., a fantastical look at the repressive facts about an English public school that might drive romantic youths to revolution (and a work that chimed with the student revolts in Paris).

Anderson had the confidence that comes of being public-school himself (Cheltenham College) and a son of Empire (father a Major-General in India). By comparison, Bennett, the son of a butcher in a suburb of Leeds, had to find more feline forms for his love-hate relationship with English culture and traditions. My own first conscious sighting of him was on a television programme in the late Sixties. He was in Leeds Art Gallery talking about his favourite paintings, which included those by Spencer Gore and the Camden group (Camden being his new home). He explained that, for him, the distinction was academic between "I like it" and "I'd like it". The criterion was whether a painting made you want to stick it under your coat and sneak out with it.

The next phrase struck my 14-year-old self as so funny that I jotted it down: "It's a theory of art that has more to do with Pentonville than with Sir Kenneth Clark." And there we have one of the essential Bennett manoeuvres: finesse, by inspired silliness, what you are slightly afraid of on class grounds.

I suspect that it's a highly formative feature of his education that he went not to the mighty (and excellent) Leeds Grammar School, like his near contemporary, the poet and dramatist Tony Harrison, but to the less prestigious Leeds Modern. The former gave the working-class Harrison the scholarly assurance to bewail robustly, in plays such as The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, the snobbish fracturing of the common culture enjoyed (provided you weren't a slave or a woman) in classical Greece.

Where Harrison pictures himself and his father marooned like bookends on opposite sides of the fireplace (with his schoolbooks between them), the equally well-read, lower-middle-class Bennett is temperamentally inclined to see himself and his uneducated parents as somehow still occupying the same boat. "My parents always felt that had they been educated their lives and indeed their characters would have been different," he once wrote in an article about "The Treachery of Books". "They thought that books would make them less shy and (always an ambition) able to mix... they cherished a lifelong longing to 'branch out', with books somehow the key to it. This unsatisfied longing they have bequeathed to me..."

Reviewing Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin, Bennett suggested that it was ungrateful of the Coventry-born Larkin 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, Larkin complained, his own childhood was "sparsely accoutred with characters".

But if rabid Fascists were thin on the ground in Headingley, there was no shortage of female relations with the gift of the gab. Bennett's maternal aunts, Myra and Kathleen - particularly the latter, who worked in Mansfield's shoe shop on Commercial Street in Leeds - alerted him through their rabbitings ("Alan, that is the biggest gasworks in England. And I know the manager") to the funny-sad way in which people who would love to be at the centre of things mis-report the tone of what has been said to them ("I don't know how we managed before you came, Miss Schofield, I honestly don't"). There we have the germ of the hugely successful Talking Heads.

Any shortage of up-front eccentricity in his childhood was more than redressed when, as an adult, he allowed Miss Shepherd - a homeless elderly tramp with a history of mental instability and abortive attempts to become a nun - to live in the drive of his Gloucester Crescent residence in a succession of insalubrious vehicles. Bennett was a reluctant Good Samaritan ("One seldom was able to do her a good turn without thoughts of strangulation"), but Miss S crystallises his sense of being in two minds about everything - including the value of being in two minds.

When he put her on stage in the dramatised version of The Lady in the Van (formidably played by Maggie Smith), he also turned himself into a double act, the Two Alans - one socially responsible, the other the amoral artist who sees, in the plight of Miss S, ripe material. But then, doubleness is Bennett's singular strength - comprehending spies is one of his fortes (The Old Country, A Question of Attribution), sexuality as a parallel text is another (to Ian McKellen's query about whether he was gay, he replied that it was a bit like asking someone crawling across the Sahara whether they would prefer Perrier or Malvern Water; but one hears that he has found happiness - and good luck to them - in recent years with the male editor of World of Interiors).

It was the upper-middle-class Lindsay Anderson who put his finger on the subversive potential in Bennett's appealingly hesitant, Eeyore-ish persona. When they were working on the script of The Old Crowd, the 1979 television play he directed, Anderson told Bennett that it needed to be "harsher". "And we can get away with it," he added, "because the British public adores you." (Interestingly, with perhaps some pertinence to The History Boys, Bennett has on several occasions praised the late Anderson for being "like the best sort of schoolmaster" with "a way of making you think, 'I don't have to do what I always do, I can take risks.'") But, although the adoration came to exceed anything Anderson had anticipated, the director was right about the course his talent should (and did) take. Loveable Eeyore was always a bit of a Trojan horse and has become steadily more so over the years as Bennett has nipped from cover to take ever deadlier pot shots at the political establishment and at the overlords of cultural decline.

For example, when the secret list of people who had declined public honours was published last year, it was no surprise to find that Bennett had refused to accept both a CBE and a knighthood. What was unexpected and exhilarating was his revelation that he had turned down "the big one" - an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, his alma mater. He went public about this not out of vanity, but because he felt so strongly about his reasons. It would be about as honourable to receive the money to set up a Saddam Hussein Chair of Peace Studies, he argued, as for Oxford to procure the funds to found the so-called Rupert Murdoch Professorship of Communications.

Bennett's pointed, devastating remarks about Blair, Bush and the war in Iraq, published under the title "A Shameful Year" in his 2003 diary in the London Review of Books, provoked a storm in the letters column. One reader accused him of displaying "the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl", thus setting off a debate about the precise nature of that insult. Tom Stoppard got it in the neck from Bennett, too, for having lunch in Downing Street with Mrs Bush (during the state visit) while he, Bennett, was trudging nearby on the second anti-war march. One wonders whether Sir Tom regaled the First Lady with his famous line from Jumpers: "It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting" - which is a hoot when you consider the circumstances of her husband's election.

My point is that the man who wrote Forty Years On had only been on one demonstration (involuntarily pulled into a Suez march by a friend in 1956). The man who has written The History Boys went of his own accord on both last year's demos, without forfeiting any of his awkward-squad-of-one individuality.

Characteristically, he couldn't endorse the chant: "We all live in a terrorist regime" (to the tune of "Yellow Submarine") and one likes to think of him sloping off with his friend a third of the way through for lunch at Fenwicks. There is clearly no immediate danger of him turning into Sir David Hare.

Given his cultivatedly wimpy persona, to say that he seems to have undergone an increase in moral conviction feels a bit like accusing him of acquiring brand-new dribbling skills or DIY prowess. But, beyond the reprieve from cancer seven years ago (after being told there was only a 50 per cent chance of survival), something significant must have happened. For, as the best histories stress, there's no such thing as predestined evolution.

'The History Boys', previewing at the National Theatre, London SE1, from tomorrow, booking from 19 May to 2 September (020-7452 3000)