Alan Bennett: ‘After Brexit, if people had voted out, I wouldn’t give them a selfie’

The playwright discusses referendum gloom, turning down I’m a Celebrity, and why his third volume of diaries may be his last. Read an extract here

Having been a Spitting Image puppet, voiced a biographical caricature on Family Guy and characterised himself in a film and several plays, Alan Bennett has an unusual level of recognition for a writer. A consequence of this is requests for selfies, even, as Bennett notes, “when you’re plainly running for a train”.

Shyness may be a fault, but politeness a virtue, so he always accepts, except for a brief recent spell of novel political protest. “I went through a rather prissy period immediately after Brexit. I’d ask people if they voted in or out. And, if they’d voted out, I wouldn’t give them a selfie. But it started to seem rather mean, so I stopped doing it.”

Bennett has still not adjusted to the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, however: “For me – I think it was probably the same for a lot of people – there was a few weeks of gloom, really. I couldn’t throw it off. It was like a general election result, but worse. I still find it very difficult to understand. Just on a personal level, my stuff does very well in Italy and Germany, and to a lesser extent in France, and I feel very embarrassed … Because you just feel it’s a slap in the face for them. I also feel we had a duty to stay to counter, for example, Hungary, which is very fascist at the moment.”

The visual familiarity that leads to Bennett being asked to pose for mobiles more than say David Hare or Caryl Churchill comes partly from his tendency to wear almost a uniform of button-down shirt and tie under a sweater. On an early autumn morning in the basement kitchen of his house in north London, he is the very model of this look, which has recently been further popularised by Alex Jennings playing two versions of the writer (the public and the private man) in The Lady in the Van, a film version of Bennett’s play and memoir about a malodorous evangelist who lived on his drive for many years. Jennings did another Bennett double in Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, a pair of autobiographical plays about his childhood in Leeds.

Alan Bennett in June 1965.
Alan Bennett in June 1965. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Feature

Bennett’s recognisability is increased by having been a performer longer than a playwright, distracted from a would-be academic career in 1960 by appearing in the post-Oxbridge revue Beyond the Fringe. But one of the entries in his latest volume of diaries marks the death of his long-time theatrical agent, Ros Chatto. Does he still get acting offers?

“Very few,” he says, in that voice that manages to be jauntily mournful. “I get offered those career-reviving options, like the one where you’re in a jungle.” As he would seem most temperamentally suited to a TV series called Get Me Out of Here, I’m Not a Celebrity!, I have to check that he really was tapped up for the Ant & Dec ITV franchise: “You were invited to appear on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here?”

“That’s right. When they first asked, I tried to find out who were the other people, but they wouldn’t tell me. It’s rather chastening when you realise you’ve been singled out because they think: ‘Oh, he could do with a bit of a shot in the arm.’”

Although not encyclopedic on the history of reality TV, Bennett thinks that the run he ducked was won by a boy-band member. Has he never been offered Strictly Come Dancing? “Oh, no. It’s one of Rupert’s jokes that I must never be allowed to do any type of dancing because it’s so embarrassing.”

Rupert is Bennett’s civil partner (they saw no need to take the Cameron upgrade of gay marriage), Rupert Thomas, editor of World of Interiors magazine. Across the three volumes of diaries and occasional writings that Bennett has published – Writing Home (1994), Untold Stories (2005), and now Keeping On Keeping On – the development of the writer’s private life has been a key theme.

The first anthology, mentioning Bennett’s relationship with Anne Davies, a neighbour in the Yorkshire village where he has a cottage, resulted in his becoming a rare example of a celebrity outed by the tabloids for having secretly been a heterosexual. In the second book, he came out as living with Rupert and having been treated for colon cancer. Bennett retrospectively attributed the new level of self-exposure in Untold Stories to the belief that he would be dead by the time the volume was out in paperback (his oncologist later admitted that the survival odds had been lower than 50-50).

Although Bennett lugubriously jokes about the appearance of a sequel 11 years on, at the age of 82, that “I will be dead after this one comes out. I can’t have much longer”, the new book is, in every sense, a more benign work, focusing on domestic and romantic life with Rupert, and restricting a seven-hour operation for a stomach aneurysm in 2008 to a single entry. This medical reticence, he says, was not due to privacy but theatrical judgment: “It wasn’t that it dramatically burst. They just found two, one of them was in a peculiar place, so they couldn’t just do a stent, they had to transplant a vein and it took seven hours. I knew nothing about it but I think Rupert had just about written me off, I was in there so long.”

Bennett writes his diaries in longhand, giving them for transcription to a secretary, Sue Powell, who has been typing up his life for more than 20 years. This text – from which the London Review of Books takes a “diary of the year”, published each December – goes to the Faber archive, while the manuscript diaries are sent to the Bodleian library in Oxford, Bennett’s alma mater, to which he has donated his papers.

“I think there are people who thought that the only way I was going to get into the Bodleian was by giving them the stuff,” says Bennett. “But I don’t care.”

Bennett sometimes has to decipher his handwriting for Powell, but, while the political diarist Alan Clark used to employ a particularly “crabbed hand” when recording sexual details, Bennett uses no such subterfuge. “No, no. There aren’t many dirty bits, but I always think Sue knows more about me than anyone because she gets the unexpurgated version. So she sees all the dirty bits, such as they are. I always think when she comes round to collect it, and takes it away in her handbag, that if she’s mugged and they go to the Daily Mail, that’ll be the end of me.”

Unsparing as a diarist towards himself, Bennett is sensitive about exposing others. His elder brother Gordon prefers to be mentioned only minimally in plays and diaries, an absence that the writer explains in The Alan Bennett Diaries, an Adam Low documentary released next month. Has Gordon ever questioned any of his brother’s family accounts? “He has a different view of some things. And he wouldn’t come to see Cocktail Sticks. Not in a hostile way. He just thought it might be upsetting.”

Rupert Everett, left, and Julian Rhind-Tutt in Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 film, The Mdness of King George,
Rupert Everett, left, and Julian Rhind-Tutt in Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 film, The Mdness of King George, Photograph: Allstar/Channel 4

The poet Philip Larkin, about whom Bennett made a TV programme, ordered his journals to be burned after his death. But Bennett’s diaries are stocked for posterity in Oxford, so would he be content for the complete versions to be published posthumously? “Yes. I’m OK with that. The person who would mind might be Rupert but, as he’ll be my executor, he can decide.”

In the case of Larkin, every piece of writing he didn’t destroy has subsequently been published. Such judgments may arise with the Bennett archive, which includes unmade film scripts and TV plays, including Gay Night at Bangs, written in the 1980s, before he came out publicly. “At the time, it would have been quite … well, not daring really, but quite on the edge. But not now,” Bennett says. Would he leave instructions to prevent the play being staged by a fringe theatre in the future? “Oh, no no. It’s in the public domain. Or, anyway, the Bodleian library. It wouldn’t bother me. People do unexpected things with writing.”

He points out that writers may not be the best judges of their literary afterlife: TS Eliot would never have imagined Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats becoming the Andrew Lloyd Webber dance musical Cats, and Franz Kafka – about whom Bennett wrote a stage play, Kafka’s Dick, and a TV script, The Insurance Man – would not be known as an author at all if his friend and executor, Max Brod, had not ignored an instruction to destroy the unpublished works now regarded as classics.

“I think Kafka did and didn’t want his work destroyed. Larkin the same. He wanted to be famous, but was always drawing back from it somehow.”

But you have a bit of that yourself?

“Yes.” A kindly laugh. “Precisely. But it all bothers me much less than it used to. I mean, if the new book does badly, it’s sad. But it doesn’t break your heart like it did when I was younger.”

One of the revelations of the latest diary entries, covering 2005-15, is that Bennett seems to be a keen and eclectic viewer of TV. “Well, we tend to eat about nine o’clock. So we watch whatever’s on when we’re having supper … And sometimes, when I’m having my lunch, I watch a terrible programme: er, Bargain Hunt. The thing we don’t watch is all those gloomy Scandinavian detective things.”

Readers may note that the celebrated playwright seems almost never to go to the theatre. “No, I don’t,” he admits. “Rupert doesn’t get home until 8pm, which makes theatre difficult. But it’s no loss. I don’t mind.”

Bennett feels spoiled by the comfort of his years at the National, knowing where the best seats and nearest loos were, during a period when he worked with director Nicholas Hytner on an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, followed by a string of Bennett originals, including The Madness of George III and The History Boys, which lifted him to international theatrical and cinematic recognition.

In a quarter of a century of collaborations, Bennett says that he has never had a creative disagreement with Hytner. “No. We probably should have done: it might have been beneficial for the plays. It’s probably the way Nick works. He doesn’t like rows and problems outside the play. There was some bother about money or rights with one of my plays and he didn’t want to know. And I felt a bit bereft at that point. But I realised he doesn’t like any kind of upset. That’s the only criticism I’d ever have of him.”

His throat tiring from talking, Bennett stands up to fetch a glass of water, and stumbles slightly. “Ooops. That’s another thing that happens as you get older – you flop about more.”

Ageing is inevitably a theme of the new book, the diary entries pitted with the melancholy appointments of decline: colonoscopies, ultrasounds, funerals, memorial services.

Bennett went to Victoria Wood’s send-off in St James’s, Piccadilly. “You didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t sorry. She was a nice woman and very funny off-stage as well. Although Alan Titchmarsh, who had been on programmes with her once or twice, said she very much knew what she wanted and could be quite stern with people about work, which is good.”

The best memorial service Bennett attended was in Westminster Abbey for Thora Hird, who played various of his northern matriarchs, including Doris in the Talking Heads monologue A Cream Cracker Under the Settee. He acknowledges, though, that, for older attendees, there is an inevitable shadow over any obituary event: “You do start to see yourself there. Or not there. It wouldn’t bother me, having a memorial service, in the sense that it’s the best sort of party, where you can be at the party without being there.”

Maggie Smith in Talking Heads, Chichester, 2005.
Maggie Smith in Talking Heads, Chichester, 2005. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

He describes himself as a “parenthical Anglican”, meaning the type of C of E member who brackets an undevout life with the rituals of baptism and burial. “I’d quite like a service,” he confirms. “But the problem with religion in this house is that Rupert is so atheistical, although hymns make him cry from his childhood. So I don’t know what he will do.”

A chilling anecdote in the new book concerns a passenger on the London-Leeds train explaining that he finds it strange to be sitting opposite Bennett because he picked the writer in an office sweepstake to predict the next celebrity to die. “He’s stopped being on the train. So perhaps he’s the one that’s gone. What struck me was that he wasn’t at all embarrassed about telling me. It was as if I should be flattered.”

Such an encounter would have finished off Larkin, who fretted away much of his life thinking about death. “I do think about it a lot. But it doesn’t paralyse me in the way that it did Larkin.”

Mention of the poet who lived and died in Hull tempts the Leeds-born Bennett into comments that may spark a civil war with Humberside: “I know it sounds awful, but I find it quite difficult to take the notion of Hull as a European City of Culture. When we went – I think it was something to do with Larkin – we could only find one restaurant. It was a Pizza Hut, and it was locked. And they opened the door for us, and then locked it after us. That was a few years ago, though. It’s probably changed a lot since then.”

As long as mental agility remains, there is no retirement age for writers. He still tries to work every weekday, though now in the afternoons (he used to be a mornings author) after a half-hour bike ride in Regent’s Park: “I find riding on the bike easier than walking now really.”

He has various folders holding scraps of writing, but doesn’t currently have a single idea that ignites. Surely the sweepstake guy on the train might be a promising subject? “Yes, you could write a story about that … I’ll open a folder for it.” He also knows that his audience would most like more Talking Heads: “I’ve got two that I could work on, but they’re both so gloomy. I can’t make them funny. I’m quite happy if I leave them behind. Someone else can do them.”

What he has, he feels, is less writer’s block than author’s caution. “You do it and you feel it’s not up to what you’ve done before. What you’ve done before is in some ways a comfort, but it’s also an examination board that you’re failing to pass with the stuff that you’re doing now. But maybe one had always felt that. You just have to keep going and see if it turns into anything.”

Hytner, having retired as artistic director of the National, is opening a new 900-seater venue, the London Theatre Company, beside the Thames next year, and there has been a widespread assumption that a Bennett play will be part of the schedules.

“Well, he’s not asked me,” Bennett says. “And I feel, after 25 years, he probably deserves a break from me. I’m sure that, if I wrote something, he’d look at it and consider it. But his priority is getting the theatre up and running.”

The playwright, though, is still back at his desk every afternoon. “There’s always something going on. I write scenes, and then can’t quite see what to do with them. I wish I understood the actual writing process better than I do. There’s a story about Harold Pinter ringing [director] Peter Hall, and saying ‘I’m pregnant.’ Meaning there was a play on the way. The notion of knowing that you’re pregnant! I wouldn’t know until I’d actually had it. To know that there was something there - I’ve never had that!”

And according to the rhythm he has established since Writing Home, there should be fourth volume of diaries and pieces in around 2026-27? One of the most distinctive voices in English literature is at its most beautifully, musically lugubrious as he replies: “Yes, that’s right. But I would think it would be very unlikely.”

The documentary Alan Bennett’s Diaries will be shown in UK cinemas on 16 November and on BBC2 in December.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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