Alan Bennett, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Sepia-tinged memories and humour as dry as a biscuit
Friday 18 June 2004
The concrete catacombs of the South Bank are currently a haven for forlorn intellectual types, with Morrissey's two-week Meltdown Festival coinciding with the run of Alan Bennett's new play, The History Boys, at the National Theatre. For once it seems the bookworms outnumber the skateboarders on the South Bank.
The writing of Morrissey and Bennett shares a northern, working-class and peculiarly feminine sensibility that is alive to the cadences of bus-stop chit-chat and dry as a digestive biscuit. Shortly after shuffling on stage in a charcoal suit and emerald tie, Bennett tells how he noticed a figure skulking near his north London home in the early 1990s, who one day posted a note through his letterbox that read: "I am Morrissey I am a singer. Can I come to tea?'' Whenever he gets the chance, Morrissey will tell you that he can die happy now that he has taken tea with Alan Bennett, to which the natural response is that Bennett must make one hell of a cuppa.
In this special audience with Alan Bennett, the writer expressed amusement that he was on the bill at all. But noting that Nancy Sinatra was also performing, he mused: "Perhaps they thought, 'Well, we've got one ageing Nancy, why not get another?' '' He went on with some delightful sepia-tinged reminiscences about radio comics of the 1940s and 1950s, and read a piece about his eccentric aunties. The essay had already been broadcast, but it was a joy to hear Bennett bring it to life again before a warmly appreciative audience.
The juiciest section of the evening came when Bennett invited questions. Most of the inquiries wanted signs of friction between Bennett and the modern world. What did he think of the internet? Marvellous, he said, though he feared it would be an unwelcome distraction in his house - "I write little enough as it is.'' How did he write? With a fountain pen and manual typewriter. And has he been watching Big Brother? Perhaps you can guess the answer to that one.
Loveliest of all was the fondness of which he remembered friends such as Peter Cook and Thora Hird, the latter he told us, responded to one of his plays by snorting: "If it were anyone but you I wouldn't have read past the first paragraph.''
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