The playwright and author Alan Bennett has revealed for the first time the reason for his steadfast refusal to accept an honour from the Queen. He famously turned down the offer of a CBE in 1988 and then rejected a knighthood in 1996. But far from being the result of any republican sentiment, it emerged this weekend that he doesn't think he could carry off being a knight.
Speaking at the Hay Festival, he said: "I felt that, in my case, it just wouldn't suit me, that's all. It would be like wearing a suit every day of your life."
And while he had no interest in a place on the Queen's honours list, he had no desire to dispose of the monarchy either. "I often think of myself as the last person who is a monarchist, really, simply because I can't imagine if we had anything in its place it would be anything but worse," he said.
He admitted to taking a keen interest in who gets honoured each year. "I always like to look at the lists when they come out, and I like to see the people who've succumbed."
His comments were made to a live audience paying £22 a head to hear him speak at the festival, when it also emerged that he had not wanted people even to know that he had been offered a knighthood. "To actually refuse something and then boast about having refused it would be awful behaviour," the 75-year-old said. "But what happened was that I turned it down, as quite a few people have, but the names of the people who had refused were leaked or were ferreted out by, I think, The Sunday Times and were printed – so I felt able to talk about it and to try and dispel some of the mystique about it."
He then paid tribute to the Prince of Wales as someone who "really works his arse off", and added: "He's much more conscientious and attentive to people than he is ever given credit for and so, as I say, I have a great deal of time for him."
Bennett also confessed that he actually enjoyed writing about the Queen, the subject of his affectionately mocking novel The Uncommon Reader, where he imagines what would happen if the Queen became a lover of books. "She is a very good person to write about, in the sense that you know exactly how she speaks. She has been Queen since 1952 – since I was about 14 – and so, you know, you just become accustomed to her. And so her language, as reported anyway, comes very easily to me, so in that sense I enjoy writing about her," he said.
The butcher's son from Leeds was originally destined to become a scholar. He went to Exeter College, Oxford University, where he got a first-class honours degree in history. But the runaway success of a satirical revue called Beyond the Fringe, which he co-wrote and performed in alongside Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960, saw him follow a different path and become one of Britain's most popular playwrights.
Some of his best-known works have been his series of Talking Heads monologues for the BBC in the 1980s, and his plays The Madness of King George III and The History Boys, both of which have been made into films.