Alan Bennett: Almost forty years on

With a new play, 'The History Boys', the former Beyond the Fringe star returns to the subject of education, 39 years after the National Theatre staged the work that made his name as a dramatist. Approaching 70, the master of minutiae is as acute as ever
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The Independent Online

A flurry of letters followed the publication of Alan Bennett's annual diary in the London Review of Books last December. His output has been irregular of late, so Bennett fans must have been relieved to see him back: a portent, perhaps, of his return to the National Theatre later this month with The History Boys, his first new play since The Lady in the Van. Bennett commented on Bush and Blair's frequent phrase "Our patience is exhausted", and said that Hitler used to say the same thing. Two weeks later, in the LRB, the writer John Lloyd described Bennett, at length, as "shameful". Another letter said, more tersely, that "his diary displays the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl".

A flurry of letters followed the publication of Alan Bennett's annual diary in the London Review of Books last December. His output has been irregular of late, so Bennett fans must have been relieved to see him back: a portent, perhaps, of his return to the National Theatre later this month with The History Boys, his first new play since The Lady in the Van. Bennett commented on Bush and Blair's frequent phrase "Our patience is exhausted", and said that Hitler used to say the same thing. Two weeks later, in the LRB, the writer John Lloyd described Bennett, at length, as "shameful". Another letter said, more tersely, that "his diary displays the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl".

The end-of-year diary by Bennett, who will be 70 next Sunday, draws together many threads. The History Boys should bring together some familiar strands too. The plot involves "an unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-form boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university". The head-teacher, quoted in the publicity, says: "School gives them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it." The parallels are not hard to find. The words "Spontaneous? Then it must be stopped at once" were spoken by the headmaster in Bennett's first stage play, Forty Years On, which opened not quite 40 years ago, in 1968. Both plays are set in a school. Has Bennett come full circle, or did he never, actually, move that far away?

There is some truth to both views. Forty Years On was a marvellous ragbag of smutty schoolboy jokes and nostalgia for an Edwardian England that had all but disappeared. It was also a continuation of the literary flowering that broke out when he escaped - with some relief - from the three other virtuosi of Beyond The Fringe, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore.

Bennett found other voices before he found his own. The quavering sermon was one brilliant impersonation, which he followed with a sackful of TV and stage plays that demonstrated an acute ear for dialogue and an uncanny knack for finding the sublime in the banal. He played the fame game, too. In the account of a day in Oxford in his 2003 diary, he describes having to whip out his Camden bus pass to identify himself to a junior proctor. "Andrew (A N) Wilson sails through unchallenged," he notes. But it is the fact that he draws this to our attention which commands interest, and even admiration. No one undermines Bennett better than Bennett. One benefit of travelling incognito is to hear so many unguarded comments.

Of course, with Bennett as his only official biographer, whatever he says, goes. There is evidence that he entered heartily into college life, though little from the man himself. His great, mostly lost, BBC2 series from 1966 was, characteristically, called On The Margin. If the Fringe quartet were the comic equivalent of the Beatles, this was comparable to George Harrison recording a brilliant solo album.

Bennett's response to the humiliations of the Fringe has been his long list of writing and performing credits, delivered with that Protestant work ethic which forever drives a lapsed teenage believer. And yet, despite becoming one of the most successful writers that Britain - let alone Leeds Modern Grammar School - has ever produced, Bennett is not immune to peer-group rivalry. Compared to playwrights such as Stoppard, Pinter, Edgar and Hare, he sometimes complains, in a bemused way, that his plays have not been accorded quite the same level of literary appreciation. Are his plays, perhaps, too funny to be treated seriously? Bennett acknowledges that he could never resist a good pun. Most people, of course, couldn't create one in the first place.

And yet, when he was finally offered an honorary degree by Oxford, he rejected it on the grounds that his alma mater had accepted a chair in the name of Rupert Murdoch. There's no pleasing some people.

Sometimes described as "woolly", his political views have always reflected the conservatism of an Old Labour voter. Few could disagree that library closures are shameful; ditto the opening of Starbucks in beautiful Primrose Hill, or that the BBC under John Birt was streamlined for efficiency but not fertility. On other matters, though, he appeared less sure. Sexually, for example, being half-in and half-out didn't help him to get a date, and the years of being in the shadow of such sexual athletes as Dudley Moore took their toll.

Which way to jump vexed him for a long time, and the public must have been mildly curious, but in 1993 he told The New Yorker that he had been having a secret affair with his cleaning lady for 14 years. What was remarkable was how few of his close friends had any idea. He now lives his life, divided between homes in Camden and Yorkshire, with a male partner.

Bennett's hostility to the press peaked with his eulogy for his friend Russell Harty, when he railed against the News of the World for hounding a dying man. On a much smaller scale, though, the steady stream of pithy allusions to his own friends in Bennett's diaries reveal a man who knows the value of a news-bite, but much prefers to do his own biting. He resents being treated by anyone as "public property", but he knows how to get his message out to the media when he needs to.

His portrayal of the madness of George III was a valuable contribution to the discussion on the inherited condition of porphyria, and his imagined encounter between the Queen and her art expert (and former Russian spy) Sir Anthony Blunt was a comic tour de force. But any reputation for cosiness needs to be re-examined. When he adapted the screenplay of John Lahr's biography of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, Prick Up Your Ears, it contained cottaging scenes in public toilets that were considered shocking at the time. Eight years earlier, in 1979, he had collaborated with the godfather of left-wing theatre, Lindsay Anderson, in a TV play called The Old Crowd, which self-consciously revealed cameras and crew filming the actors. Middle England rose up to complain: the very people who were so disarmed by the tender, suffocating monologues of Talking Heads (1987) that they clutched Bennett to their hearts and - whether he liked it or not - never let him go.

Bennett's ambivalence seems to match the English psyche, like the southern gentility of John Betjeman or the northern bluntness of J B Priestley. Spanning both worlds (as did Priestley), he is master of both but at home in neither. The setting for his play The Old Country, eventually revealed as Soviet Russia, was not that far from the middle-class comfort zone where an earlier play, Getting On, was set. Bennett is never one to move the scenery too much, even when, as in his humorous short story The Clothes They Stood Up In, the joke concerns a middle-aged couple who come home to find their entire house stripped of every single item.

But this denuding was not the prelude to an ending of high drama: Bennett likes jokes too much. Further letters to the LRB about his 2003 diary refer to Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer, Kettle's Yard art gallery in Cambridge and the sheepfolds on the moor road near Brough. We take from Alan Bennett whatever we need for our own purposes. And there is always, it would seem, enough to go round.

'The History Boys' opens on Saturday

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