“The blond one will have to go,” declared the impresario Donald Albery in 1961, as he considered bringing Beyond the Fringe to the West End. Yet Alan Bennett, looking very much like the clergyman he once intended to be, did not go. In the half-century since, he has proved himself to be the most enduring of the four wits behind the comedy revue. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore died young: the former from alcoholism, the latter from progressive supranuclear palsy. Jonathan Miller, the great polymath, lives on in the revivals of his many theatrical productions but seems to have retreated into retirement.
Now 82 and still somehow boyish, Bennett is easily recognisable from his early photos, as he and his Oxbridge chums found fame in the revue that brought satire to the masses. He is a little slower and stiffer than he was the last time we met, and a touch deaf – Keeping On Keeping On, his new collection of diaries and writings, regales the reader with the inevitable mishearings. He has survived cancer and a stomach aneurysm and has had a couple of joints replaced, but his life seems to proceed largely unimpeded.
“You can’t sort out the symptoms of anything going round from the symptoms of just getting older,” he tells me. “I still go on my bike, because it’s easier to ride than it is to walk, and I try to do half an hour each day. There’s a niggardly bit in Regent’s Park that they allow people to cycle down . . . The canal I always find rather scary, because the rules of the road don’t seem to apply and other cyclists come along at such a rate.”
We are chatting in the lime-washed front room of the Victorian terrace house in Primrose Hill that has been his home for almost a decade, shared with his partner of 24 years, Rupert Thomas, the editor of the World of Interiors. Bennett tells me that the recent Paddington adaptation was filmed in one of the flashier, colourful houses opposite. The walls and shelves bear witness to the couple’s travels and interests – many of the paintings were bought by Thomas – and the effect is low-key and lived-in. Bennett is settled in a Carver chair by the window, beneath a portrait that looks like it’s of Thomas but isn’t. (“He wouldn’t be flattered!”)
This patch of NW1 has long been Bennett’s stamping ground. In the 1980s he lived on the same street as Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Mary-Kay Wilmers (Bennett’s editor at the London Review of Books). It’s a literary cohort captured with comic detail by Nina Stibbe, who was then Wilmers’s nanny, in her collection of letters, Love, Nina. “She’s funny, is Nina,” Bennett concedes, “but the character in the book bears no relation to me as far as I can see, and I didn’t think he was very funny, either. The notion that I could mend a fridge is absurd. I think she just wished that on to me to make me more interesting as a character, which I understand because I’ve done the same thing myself.” He didn’t recognise himself in the TV dramatisation but, he says, “Mary-Kay was happy because she was played by Helena Bonham Carter, so she found that rather flattering.”
Bennett is as active as ever, writing new plays and having older ones transferred to the big screen, most recently last year’s The Lady in the Van – the third film of his work (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) to be directed by Nicholas Hytner, whom he met while adapting The Wind in the Willows for the stage in 1989. He doesn’t regard himself as a particularly speedy writer but: “Gradually, it gets done. Nick Hytner, at the end of the talk we did at the National [Theatre in London] about The Habit of Art, said the plays were normally four years apart. He felt that was a bit long, and if the audience felt that, too, would they applaud? It was like applauding Tinker Bell in Peter Pan!” He did speed up a little: it was only three years before he was able to pop his next script through Hytner’s letter box. The extent of his work is impressive – more than a score of stage plays and a dozen films, not to mention TV, radio and books. He giggles: “It’s appalling, isn’t it!”
Born in Armley, Leeds, to Lilian and Walter, a butcher, Bennett learned Russian during his national service and then read history at Oxford. He began and then aborted a PhD in medieval history, supporting himself with teaching, at which he insists he was “very bad”. He joined the Oxford Revue, out of which Beyond the Fringe grew, and its success in Edinburgh, in the West End and on Broadway (where President Kennedy attended) changed the course of his life. His first stage play, Forty Years On (1968), was followed by acclaimed plays and television dramas and a series of poignant Talking Heads monologues in 1988. Since 1994, three bestselling volumes of memoirs and diaries, often first published in the London Review of Books, have raised the curtain on the Yorkshire boyhood that has shaped so much of his work.
In 2008, Bennett donated his papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford – all the diaries, letters and multifarious drafts of his plays. “I can’t believe that minute changes are of interest to anyone at all . . . They made out I was doing them a favour but it was the other way round, really – they were taking them off my hands.” Bennett doesn’t approve of selling archives unless a writer needs the money. “The British Library trumpets the manuscripts it’s bought for such and such, implying it’s philanthropy on the part of the writers – and it isn’t at all.”
To read Keeping On Keeping On is to be in the company of an old friend, one who defies the maxim that we get more right-wing as we get older. At the core of both the man and his work – whether he is writing about the Queen or Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who lived in a van parked on his driveway – are warmth and humanity. Although there may be something teddy-bearish about Bennett, he is never cosy: almost all of his work is quietly unsettling, raising uncomfortable questions about ourselves and about society.
Bennett is moral in the best sense of the word, preoccupied always with unfairness and injustice and thus perplexed by what Daily Mail readers find in his work. “Papers full of Charles Kennedy being, or having been, an alcoholic,” he wrote in his diaries on 6 January 2006, observing that Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith weren’t exactly teetotal. “Less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whisky than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.” Later that year, the news that the policeman who shot Jean Charles de Menezes was still in his post made him “ashamed to be English”.
An admirer of Gordon Brown, Bennett told me in 2008 that if David Cameron were elected, it would be “government by estate agent”. Things turned out worse than expected, and his discomfiture and anger are palpable throughout the diaries. “I blame it all on Mrs Thatcher,” he tells me several times during our conversation, regretting the end of consensus politics.
That the Liberal Democrats went into coalition was incomprehensible to him from the outset. “The Tories are not to be trusted. You knew they would just take advantage. When it was plain we weren’t going to get proportional representation, which might have saved the day, that was really the end of it . . . You look back and you think Macmillan was a liberal prime minister. He was prime minister of the whole country, despite the fact that he was aristocratic. [Thatcher] bequeathed the fact that they just govern in favour of a class.” While Blair was “hard to forgive”, Cameron was “contemptible”. As for Theresa May: “We’ll see.”
Shopping in Camden Town on the morning after Cameron’s 2015 victory, he felt a sense of “bereavement in the streets”. He wanted a Labour government so he could “stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well intentioned”.
Were he a party member, he wrote last year, he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, “if only out of hope that the better part of salvation lies not in electoral calculation but in the aspirations of the people”. When I ask whether he would have done so this year, however, he equivocates. “I can’t say that, no. Let’s see how things turn out.”
Bennett was surprised by the Brexit vote, “but then so was everybody else. Little England – I hate the notion. The sense of helplessness is new. It seems there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m afraid my reaction is that I shan’t be here much longer.”
Education is the issue about which he is most passionate. That students are “saddled with these enormous debts is just monstrous”, he tells me. “I feel it’s a mockery.” It is, he believes, “the mark of a civilised society that you do not think: who’s going to pay for my education? Mine was paid either by Leeds City Council or by the state, so it didn’t cost my parents a penny from start to finish.”
Leeds Modern School, which Bennett attended from 1945, was “a grammar school, though I always thought of it as just a state school. The grammar was Leeds Grammar School, a really snobbish place, and still is.” He went to Oxford after winning a Senior City scholarship. Had he been required to take out a loan, he would not have gone to university. It is “a standing rebuke” that Scotland still provides free education. When he gained the Freedom of the City of Leeds in May 2006, he said in his acceptance speech, “I feel I was given the freedom of this city more than 50 years ago . . . I was given an education for life and a freedom for life that education gives you.”
“The other thing I’m old-fashioned about is public schools,” says Bennett, who believes that their charitable status should go (“Blair could have done it easily, with the majority he had”) and that public and state schools should be amalgamated at sixth-form level – which would immediately dispense with the “need” for grammar schools. “It wouldn’t be an enormous social upheaval and, once you’ve merged them at one level, the others would gradually follow.”
The iniquities of private education were the subject of “Fair Play”, a sermon that Bennett delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 2014. “I can understand the Etonians saying they refuse to feel guilty about it, but it’s a waste, that’s what’s wrong with it,” he says. “People are wasted. They don’t reach their full capacities. And not to reach your full capacities because your parents are in the wrong position is dreadful.”
In the King’s College sermon, he suggested that if something isn’t fair, “then maybe it’s not Christian, either”. So is it possible to be Conservative and Christian? “If I said no, the shit would really hit the fan!” he answers, giggling. “I don’t know. I’m not competent to say that.”
Devoutly religious as a teenager, Bennett wrote in 1988 that he had “never managed to outgrow” his religious upbringing, and the diaries are full of references to hymns, readings, religious paintings and churches, about which he is knowledgeable “in a slapdash way”. With Thomas, he likes to visit “tiny churches in the middle of nowhere” – buildings that haven’t been “knocked about” by the Victorians.
There is a sense in which Bennett is an Everyman, quietly advocating for the confused, accused and misused and railing against the “nastification” of Britain. Compassion is evident everywhere in his plays and in his life, although typically he denies that offering Mary Shepherd of The Lady in a Van refuge on his driveway was altruism (she was less of a distraction there than when she was parked on the street, under constant attack from unkindly passers-by).
The diaries reflect his quiet fury at various ways in which standards have slipped. Abu Hamza’s opinions, he argues, are “reprehensible . . . But he is a British citizen and he should not be extradited to the United States.” Watching the Trooping the Colour ceremony, he notes that there are “no grieving mothers, of course, and the deaths that have been mentioned are all noble ones and not due to inadequate equipment”. Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms leave him aghast.
He writes of “ideology masquerading as pragmatism”, as shown in the fate of the East Coast Main Line, which was sold back into private ownership despite turning a profit while publicly owned. Bennett is a frequent passenger and, he tells me, “The people on it, who tend not to change and are funny and eccentric, are its saving grace.”
The BBC, which has been the outlet for so much of Bennett’s work, is similarly short-termist in the way it operates. “It’s to do with the way the whole thing is financed,” he says: another black mark against Thatcher for the damage that she did to the corporation’s management and principles. He is irritated by “the form of the programmes now, where someone is sent home at the end and they’re lined up and told which one it is”. He occasionally watches The Great British Bake Off but The Big Allotment Challenge was a particular affront: “Allotments are co-operative enterprises, not competitive, except for marrows. That business of saying someone’s not as good as someone else – I just hate it.” He and Rupert watch the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory “to fill a gap. The rest is . . .” He trails off. “We don’t watch Scandinavian crime. Too gloomy.”
Bennett is wary of becoming a codger and feels that he should shut up. “I hope I’m saved from the worst of it by Rupert, who’s thirty years younger than I am. He pulls me up if I’m too old-gittish.”
“Keeping On Keeping On” by Alan Bennett is published by Profile Books and Faber & Faber
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood