Profile: Alan Bennett: A degree of restraint

Robert Butler on the playwright who snubbed Oxford because of its dubious connections

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IF EVER there was a classic Alan Bennett story, this is it. An entry from his 1998 diary in a literary magazine put Britain's most famously retiring playwright in the headlines last week, his picture on the same front page as that of the President of the United States on the first day of the trial for impeachment. Any history of public relations would have to include a footnote on Bennett. He has a gift for backing into the limelight, declining to speak to journalists on this matter with his routinely courteous: "I'm going to put the phone down very nicely. Goodbye."

His behaviour catches the conflict in the writer's life between privacy and self-disclosure. It's a theme that Bennett explores in Kafka's Dick, his 1986 play about the Czech novelist's desire for anonymity, which is currently revived by Sir Peter Hall in the West End. "If he did understand me," says Kafka, rejecting the enthusiasm and interest of a biographer, "he'd understand that I don't want to be understood."

According to his diary, published in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Bennett was at home, on 17 November of last year, looking forward to a "quiet morning's work", when a letter arrives from Oxford University offering him an honorary degree. He spends the morning pondering the letter. He knows that the poet Philip Larkin has described this as "the big one", and when Larkin received the letter he bounded up the stairs to tell his girlfriend Monica Jones. Bennett writes back to Oxford and turns it down. "Ever since the establishment of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Language and Communication," he writes in his diary, "I've felt disaffected with the university."

If anyone at Oxford had read Bennett's best-selling collection of articles and diaries, Writing Home, they wouldn't have been surprised. As a diary entry in August 1990 records, the Vice-Chancellor had written to Bennett inviting him to a fund-raising dinner, which (the Vice-Chancellor explained) would be an opportunity to tell Bennett about the university's current achievements. One of these current achievements, notes Bennett, is the establishment of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Communications. Bennett writes back to the Vice-Chancellor saying that "if the university thinks it's appropriate to take Rupert Murdoch's money perhaps they ought to approach Saddam Hussein to found a chair in Peace Studies."

Bennett has good reason to dislike Murdoch, as his address at the memorial service for the broadcaster Russell Harty made plain. Bennett had been friends with Harty since they were Oxford undergraduates together at Exeter College, with rooms on the same staircase. In the 1980s the tabloid press pursued Harty, trying to "out" him as a gay with Aids. At the memorial service at St James's, Piccadilly, in 1988, Bennett spoke of how the News of the World had set up Harty, how reporters had bribed children in Harty's local village and even tried to bribe the vicar. Harty went into hospital with hepatitis. "Now as he fought for his life in hospital," said Bennett, "one newspaper took a flat opposite and had a camera with a long lens trained on the window of his ward."

A reporter, posing as a junior doctor, went into the ward and demanded to see Harty's medical notes. While the tireless efforts of the medical team showed Bennett the best of which we are capable, the journalist's efforts showed him "the worst". In a telling remark towards the end of the address, Bennett admitted that had Harty recovered, "he would have gone on going to Mr Murdoch and Mr Maxwell's parties and doing his column for a Murdoch newspaper. The world was like that. Or at least England is like that."

Bennett's love-hate relationship with England and English institutions has been a central theme from his first stage play, Forty Years On, which opened in 1968, with John Gielgud as the headmaster and Bennett playing a junior master. An affectionate parody of literary styles between the wars, Forty Years On used the format of an end-of-term school revue to chart the changes in English society. As Bennett's career developed, his tone darkened considerably, with themes of treachery, betrayal and moral corruption emerging in The Old Country (1977), in which Sir Alec Guinness played a British traitor in exile in the Soviet Union.

Bennett continued his exploration of corruption in upper-class English life by dramatising a meeting in Moscow in the 1950s between the actress Coral Browne and the British spy, Guy Burgess, in his television play An Englishman Abroad (1983). This became part of a double bill, Single Spies (1988), when it played with A Question of Attribution, Bennett's play about the art historian, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures and spy, Anthony Blunt. Staged at the National Theatre, Bennett played Blunt and Prunella Scales played the Queen.

The tension in Bennett's work, between a Romantic attachment to a traditional Britain and anger at the venality and vulgarity that destroys it, continues through to his 1990 adaptation of The Wind in the Willows for the Royal National Theatre, where the weasels hand Toad's house over to property developers and speculators. Ironically, Bennett's ambivalence about England makes him very English. As he puts it in the introduction to Single Spies: "An ironic attitude towards one's country and a scepticism about one's heritage is a part of that heritage."

Bennett was born in 1934 and grew up in Leeds. His father was a butcher, and the young Bennett would deliver orders by bike to customers, one of whom, Mrs Fletcher, had a daughter, Valerie, who married T S Eliot. "There was a time," Bennett wrote in Writing Home, "when I thought my only connection with the literary world would be that I had once delivered meat to T S Eliot's mother-in-law". Bennett has always sustained a keen sense of the split between two worlds, using it professionally to his advantage. In her critical study of Bennett, titled In A Manner Of Speaking, Daphne Turner says that "emotionally and geographically he has kept a foot on each side of the divide".

It was in the sixth form at Leeds Modern that Bennett first mugged up on George III, as a question on the monarch was thought likely to turn up in the Cambridge examination. (It did.) Forty years later the homework paid off with his 1991 stage play The Madness of King George. Bennett did two years of National Service, going to Coulsdon and Cambridge to train as a Russian interpreter. He met and became friends with Michael Frayn, who wrote a novel, The Russian Interpreter. Frayn is a near neighbour in NW1, so is Jonathan Miller.

Having seen Cambridge during his National Service, Bennett decided to go to Oxford where he won an open scholarship to read history. He discovered he could make people laugh by writing in the suggestions book in the Junior Common Room. He joined the Oxford Theatre Group and took a revue to Edinburgh in 1959. Bennett was teaching at Oxford, researching medieval history (his subject was Richard II's retinue from 1388 to 1399) when he was invited to join Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller in a revue at the Edinburgh Festival. Beyond the Fringe went to the official festival, not the fringe, in 1960, transferred to the West End in 1961 and went to Broadway in 1962. The rest, as Bennett has written, isn't history. History is what he gave up.

He became a professional writer, his plays dividing between northern ones, such as Getting On (1971) about a middle-aged Labour MP, and Enjoy (1980), which mocks nostalgia for the North, and southern ones; between marginal figures (most notably in the two Talking Heads series) and establishment ones; between (what he has called) "lower case", the world he grew up in, and "upper case", the world of high culture.

If one institution might be supposed to represent for Bennett the values of high culture it is Oxford, with which he has now been associated for nearly 50 years. Bennett concludes his diary item in The London Review of Books saying: "I end up, as so often when I have tried to get it right, feeling I've slightly made a fool of myself."

He concedes in the diary that when you turn something down "it's proper to keep quiet about it". But going public about rejecting honours may start a welcome trend. If the dishing out of honours provides harmless amusement for the nation the public refusal of honours will provide even more. Bennett argues that Murdoch is "a bully and should be stood up to publicly and so, however puny the gesture, it needs to be in the open". Another reason that might have tempted the compulsive (and compelling) diarist is Guy Burgess. In An Englishman Abroad, Bennett has him remark: "No point in having a secret if you make a secret of it."

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