National Trust bites back at Alan Bennett

Clash of national treasures as volunteers object to playwright's jibes
  • @PMGallagher1

Two much loved national institutions – one charged with preserving treasured works, the other with creating them – squared up to each other last night: in the red corner, the National Trust, in the blue, author Alan Bennett.

The playwright criticised the charity last week when he revealed that the inspiration for People, his latest play at the National Theatre, emerged from his discomfort as a visitor after going to see one of the trust's historic properties.

In an essay for the London Review of Books, Bennett wrote: "Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can't solve or a feeling one can't locate. With People it was a sense of unease when going round a National Trust house and being required to buy into the role of reverential visitor."

He went on to describe his dislike of being fed information by room guides for whom he feels slightly sorry. "I have learnt not to show too much interest as this invariably fetches the guide over, wanting to share his or her expertise," Bennett added.

The Trust's army of volunteers, backed up by senior management, has hit back. One volunteer, who declined to be named, said: "I love Alan Bennett, but why visit a property and not want to know more about it? How odd."

Sarah Staniforth, director of museum and collections at the National Trust, said their 12,000 room guides were given appropriate training and did a "fantastic job".

She added: "I'd love to have a debate with Alan Bennett on this. He is not saying anything that we don't think about as well. My bread and butter is the way we interpret the houses, and the volunteers are encouraged to present the houses in the way we would like.

"Our most recent survey showed that 98 per cent of people said their visit was 'enjoyable' or 'really enjoyable'. There are some people who want to be left alone, and you have to be able to read the signals as there are many different types of visitor to our properties. We try really hard to get it right."

Initially sold out, further dates for People were announced on Friday as it extends its run into April next year. The play, starring Frances de la Tour, is set in a country house recently donated to the National Trust. The property is hired out as the set for a porn film, a scenario Bennett originally thought was implausible, until he says he read of a video guide at one stately home voiced by Jeffrey Archer.

Bennett wrote: "I imagine the Trust as entirely without inhibition, ready to exploit any aspect of the property's recent history to draw in the public and wholly unembarrassed by the seedy or the disreputable."

A spokesman for the trust said the Archer reference was not entirely correct. The disgraced former Tory chairman was one of four Disraeli fans, including Lady Lucinda Lambton, speaking on an introductory video discussing different aspects of the Victorian prime minister's life.

He added: "Without the goodwill and enthusiasm of our 67,000 volunteers in particular, we would not be able to open our houses to the public. We work hard to find new ways of making visits to our places enjoyable, and we won't always please everyone. But it is always interesting to hear the views of one national institution about another."