Auntie Alan. The cult of Alan Bennett, the nation's favourite teddy bear, is tiresome, writes Adam Newey. He is provincial, class-obsessed and nostalgic

Backing into the Limelight: the biography of Alan Bennett

Alexander Games <em>Headline, 320pp, £18

The very name Alan Bennett invokes a life lived in the front parlour, slippered feet up on the pouffe in front of a three-bar electric fire, a lightly buttered teacake resting on a doily-lined plate. It is, indeed, the classic caricature of Bennett as - in Francis Wheen's phrase - "the nation's teddy bear". But it's one that this first biography of the playwright, despite its author's stated aim, serves only to reinforce.

A large part of the problem lies in Bennett's flat refusal to play ball, despite Alexander Games's attempts to contact him. He is famously distrustful of the press (which he blames for the untimely death of his close friend and Oxford contemporary, Russell Harty) and, since most of his friends and colleagues refused to be interviewed for this book, Games is left with a very thin collection of source material. You know you're in trouble when the bibli-ography includes the York Notes to Talking Heads.

The book is mostly cobbled together, therefore, from the available journalistic sources, each chapter beginning with a brisk resume of the plot of the latest work, followed by extracts from the (usually adulatory) reviews. Its most entertaining feature is probably the journalistic score-settling in which Games - a critic for the London Evening Standard - indulges, jabbing his quill into those (such as Richard Ingrams and Alan Clark) who have dared to question our hero's pre-eminent position in the literary pantheon. As a result, the book reads like nothing so much as an extended fanzine.

The only new material Games has rooted out are some Bennett juvenilia - contributions to the Leeds Modern Boys' School magazine, scribblings in the undergraduate suggestions book at Exeter College - and he is evidently very proud of his role in preserving this contribution to the canon. That lack wouldn't matter, however, if Games had at least attempted some analysis of Bennett's prolific output over 40 years, from Beyond the Fringe to Telling Tales. Yet there's nothing here to make me want to revise my own opinion of most of his work as the literary equivalent of L S Lowry: provincial, nostalgic, inward-looking; the sort of thing that middlebrow Middle Englanders lap up because it eulogises mediocrity, reflecting back to them a comfortable class-obsession, revealing their own place on the great ladder of life and allowing them a knowing smirk at those on the rungs below. I wonder whether there isn't also an unspoken appeal to an embedded misogynist impulse. Games actually puts it rather well when he writes (in relation to the character of Peggy Schofield in A Woman of No Importance): "The British TV-watching public seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for the failings of small-minded simpletons, busybodies and bores, and Peggy Schofield is all of those. They tend to be female . . ."

Still, one can't help feeling that this book is a missed opportunity, that a more penetrating study could uncover a less cuddly, more variegated figure than merely "a sartorially more subdued version of Victoria Wood", as Games characterises the caricature. Why, for instance, does this most private of men publish his diaries in the London Review of Books each year? Why did he let slip in a rare interview that he was having an affair with his charlady (the woman who "does" for him, I suppose), leading to a ferocious doorstepping by the tabloid press? Games hints at the paradox in his title, but that's as far as he goes. He brings no psychological insight to bear on his subject. And this isn't simply a result of getting no co-operation: it is quite possible to write a successful unauthorised biography, as Deirdre Bair showed 20 years ago with her life of an even more reclusive (and more significant) playwright, Samuel Beckett.

Reading this book is rather like being at a tedious party where, because there's no one to talk to, you start examining the peripherals - the furniture, books on the shelves, any magazines lying around. In this vein, I noted that Bennett has a brother called Gordon, that his mother and mine had the same first name, and that Guy Burgess, homesick for England, used to have the New Statesman delivered to him in Moscow. But as for the host himself, he remained an enigma.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry critic

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?