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Alan Bennett: The Guardian Interview (1984)

On art, literature, culture and life

Main image of Alan Bennett: The Guardian Interview (1984)

Alan Bennett was interviewed by Martyn Auty at the National Film Theatre on 19 September 1984.

1. Meeting T.S. Eliot

AB: I was born and brought up in Leeds, where my father was a butcher, and as a boy, I sometimes used to go out with the orders, delivering the meat. One of our customers was a nice woman called Mrs Fletcher, and I used to go to her house and she had a daughter called Valerie. Valerie went to London and became a secretary and she got a job with a publishing firm and did well in the firm, and became secretary to the chairman, whom she eventually married. Now the publishing firm was Faber and Faber, and the chairman was T.S. Eliot. So there was a time early in life when I thought my only connection with literature would be that I once delivered meat to T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law. [Laughter]

Some time after that, when we'd left the shop but were still living in Leeds, my mother came in one day and said, 'I ran into Mrs Fletcher down the road. Nice woman. She was with a tall fella, elderly, very refined. She introduced me and he passed the time of day,' and it was only some time afterwards that I realized that without it being the most seminal encounter in Western literature, my mother had met T.S. Eliot. [Laughter].

Now, the slender point of this story is that when, as I suppose on an occasion like this, one has to, in some sense, make sense of what one's written, such as it is, then that serves as a useful parable because if we take T.S. Eliot to represent Art and Literature and Culture and everything in the upper case, my mother indefatigably in the lower case [Laughter] to represent life, then it seems to me that what I've written teeters rather indecisively between the two. Because what I've written for the stage, I suppose, aspires more towards culture. What I've written for television is really much more to do with life with a capital 'L'.

On the other hand, of course, that kind of analysis may not be what's required on an occasion like this. I was rather daunted by the title and I asked Richard Eyre what was necessary and he said, 'Oh, it's nothing really. All they really want to know is who you sleep with,' in which case I probably shan't detain you long. [Laughter]

2. The writer in disguise

AB: I can also see that the central figure in a lot of my television plays is the same. He's a vague, rather melancholy, rather troubled figure, not having much fun, and he's not actually much fun to write, as distinct from the characters surrounding him, who one has a great deal of fun with. Hopkins in Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf is like that, there's a character, Phillips, at the center of One Fine Day who's an estate agent, who, in a crisis in his life, camps out in an empty office block - he's the same sort. In Intensive Care, the character who I actually played myself, who is hanging around his father's deathbed, waiting for his father to die, he's very much the same. And also, in Afternoon Off a Chinese waiter who scarcely speaks a word of English - he's very much the same. They're all our old friend 'the writer in disguise', and the spiritual condition of them all is really what the Chinese waiter ends up doing, which is lying on his bed in his underpants, staring at the ceiling.

3. A Northern writer

AB: Finally a word about what I always consider rather a dubious role, namely 'a Northern writer'. Northern writers like to have it both ways; they set their achievements against the squalor or the imagined squalor of their origins, and gain points for transcendence, while at the same time asserting that somehow Northern life is truer, and in some undefined way, more honest than a life of Southern comfort. 'Look, we have come through,' is the message, but I can't quite see why a childhood in the industrial north is less conducive to writing or whatever, than a childhood in Petersfield or Wimbledon or wherever. I mean it's quite true if you're born in Barnsley and you set your sights on becoming Virginia Woolf, it's not going to be roses all the way. [Laughter]

AB: And I once did a sketch about Ivy Compton-Burnett living in Pontefract for a year or two [Laughter], and toiling up the slag heaps with a reticule between her teeth, in order to write her one mining novel, A Pit and Its Pitfalls [Laughter]. But don't let anybody imagine that because Northern dialogue is natural, that it's not extremely artificial. It seems to me more mannered and peculiar and odd than restoration comedy.

To finish, I was once with my mum and dad in the hospital where we filmed Intensive Care, in Airdale hospital near Keithley and my mother was being treated for depression. There's a long central corridor in this hospital, and in the dead hour of the afternoon we were walking down this corridor, which was empty, except for a woman who was coming very slowly towards us. As we drew nearer, my mum said, 'You see this woman walking down here?' She's tried to commit suicide three times.' [presumably to woman] 'Hello!' [Laughter]

4. Working with Lindsay Anderson

MA: You were talking about Piers Haggard's direction. When you did the Old Crowd for London Weekend, Lindsay Anderson was the director. Was the extreme sort of experimentation of that, with the wall taken away and the camera crew in vision, was that partly your idea or Lindsay's or what?

AB: Lindsay was attracted to the script because it was very theatrical - it wasn't a naturalistic script. It was very- I mean there were this couple in this totally bare flat, bare house, giving a dinner party, and he liked that idea so in a sense that script was written much more like a film script where you collaborate with the director. I mean like on Private Function. So that - again it was slightly like doing one's homework; I'd go up with three or four scenes, and sit with Lindsay at the kitchen table, and Lindsay would say, 'Oh, we don't want that, do we?' and then a pencil would go though the whole page [Laughter], see a whole day's work would go. But I mean I find it a very enjoyable experience and I've watched that on video.

The things that annoyed people then seem to me to be of no consequence now, really. I probably find knowing Lindsay, knowing the kind of provocative, quirky person that he is, you understand him. And even if you don't like them you forgive him for them 'cause of the other things that come in with it. I mean he's marvelous to work with and he's marvelous for the actors to work with. He treats them like a wonderful, eccentric schoolmaster, and they both fear him and like him, and they become like children in a sense and that's what he, he can get much more out of them because they forget their real selves in some peculiar way.

5. Naturalism and audiences

AB: I wasn't a very good historian so my judgment as an historian wouldn't really be worth very much. I mean I was a medieval historian. I was told, When John Gielgud was in it, he went to tea with the Queen Mother and she said she was very sorry she had not been to see him in the play, but she's been such a friend of Mr Chamberlain, she couldn't bear to come. [Laughter]

Audience question: Can you talk with detachment yet about the failure of Enjoy you enjoy, and has it deterred you from writing for the stage recently?

AB: It's not deterred me. It may have kind of damaged me so that I - that may be why I find it very difficult to get beyond the first twenty minutes. I mean - I'm detached about it in the sense that if we made mistakes with it, we all of us made them, it wasn't - I mean for instance I'm much less detached about my second play, Getting On, where I had a terrific rumpus with Kenneth More. But, Getting On, if we made mistakes, we made them in good faith.

But again I think it was disliked because people want you to write the play that you've just written, the last play, they want you to re-write that. They didn't - I mean I tell myself this - they didn't like a play which began seemingly as a naturalistic play, then turned into a much more, as it were, realistic one with naturalism thrown out of the window. But I find it ironic some of the things that have happened since. I should explain; Enjoy is a play about a couple in the north and the son - and again the identification is a fairly easy one, but not exactly right - the son comes back in drag, disguised as a social worker [Laughter].

It has, I think, one of the funniest scenes I've ever written in it, but it was generally disliked. In the end, the couple and - the house is transferred lock, stock and barrel to a museum, and the mother goes to live in the house in the museum as part of the exhibit[Laughter]. Now, you laugh, but I - I was taken to task for this by all sorts of people - but I've seen two instances since. One I remember specifically, where a couple who lived in a prefab, and the prefab was transferred lock, stock and barrel to the museum, and I think they went to be on duty in the prefab twice a week in the museum. [Laughter] And I was told this was expressionism and I don't know what else, that it was absurd.

I'd like to - as always the things that fail are the ones that you have a lot of affection for. In the same way I've got a lot of affection for the The Old Crowd which very few people like.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
1. Meeting T.S. Eliot (3:26)
2. The writer in disguise (1:22)
3. A Northern writer (2:32)
4. Working with Lindsay Anderson (2:15)
5. Naturalism and audiences (3:30)
Private Function, A (1984)
Afternoon Off (1979)
Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978)
Old Crowd, The (1979)
One Fine Day (1979)
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)