The Habit of Art

Humour obscures the character of Alan Bennett’s new play

When did theatre's most valued national treasure come out? As far as I remember, Alan Bennett's holding statement in the Eighties to Ian McKellen about his sexuality - that it was like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier to Malvern water - did not become inoperative until an ­interview he gave for a book called That Was Satire That Was, published in 2000, in which he talked about the unrequited gay crushes of his youth and how love had become separated from sex in his mind. The book's author was the late Humphrey Carpenter.

In Bennett's new comedy about an imaginary meeting between the poet W H Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten in Oxford in 1972, Carpenter, as played by Adrian Scarborough, gets rather more than a walk-on part. As a young reporter from Radio Oxford, he ­arrives at Auden's grace-and-favour lodgings at Christ Church and is mistaken for the poet's pre-ordered rent boy. "This is a transaction," says Auden. "I am going to suck you off." "But," says Carpenter, "I am with the BBC."

There are many better, more stretching, jokes than that in this play's always entertaining two and a quarter hours, but it is striking how few
of them are really central to the story, such as it is, of the two homosexuals' attempted reconciliation 30 years after Auden dared criticise Britten's lover Peter Pears. The plot amounts to Auden's asking to write the libretto for Britten's next opera, Death in Venice, and Britten declining the offer. The best serious joke of the evening is the one that addresses the question of whether an artist, and in particular a homosexual artist, must "pay" for being outside society. Auden complains that Britten, in polite Aldeburgh, has not paid. Britten replies that he is dying. "Ben, Ben," says Auden. "Death isn't the payment. Death is just the checkout."

What stops The Habit of Art being the melancholy, Chekhovian one-act play it might have been is all the funny business Bennett places around it. We are watching, throughout, a play within a play or, more accurately, the rehearsal for a play within the play. At the sides of the set, the "playwright", the stage manager (Frances de la Tour in excellent cynical form) and other actors comment and even heckle the action, as do the "actors" playing Auden and Britten. Henry, who is gay and plays Britten, is the more sympathetic to the playwright's insistence on the importance of the artist's sexuality. Fitz, who is Auden, is more critical and believes that the work alone matters. The debate culminates in Fitz reading Auden's poem on the death of Yeats. He believes this is where the play should finish, but instead the evening meanders on for another ten minutes as Bennett circles around his themes - art v life, secrecy v openness, love v friendship, the point of theatre - and finally lands on the slightly fatuous question: who ever writes about the rent boys rather than the famous men they serve?

The Habit of Art's wide margins certainly permit additional biographical information to be inserted, but they also allow room for doubt about the main play. How bad is it meant to be? The dialogue between Auden, Britten, Carpenter and the rent boy who later appears is very fine, yet there are deliberately wince-making passages in which Auden's furniture and Britten's music "speak". The format also detracts from the credibility of the main encounter. Is the enormous (but brilliant) Richard Griffiths deliberately miscast as the actor playing Auden, who was creased but not baggy? (Probably not, as the director, Nicholas Hytner, initially wanted Michael Gambon in the role.) Is the miscasting matched by having the much too young (but also first-rate) Alex Jennings play Britten? And what is Carpenter's role in all this, except as a clef into Bennett's life?

This is so nearly Bennett's coming-out play that one wonders if an opportunity has been missed or a catastrophe avoided. Perhaps he knew that if he really argued what he hints at in The History Boys and now in The Habit of Art - namely that older men having sex with teenage boys is not necessarily wrong - he would be stripped of his listing as part of the national heritage quicker than you could say Daily Mail.

The Habit of Art
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.