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Dinner at Noon (1988)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Dinner at Noon (1988)
Production CompanyBBC Bristol
ProducerJonathan Stedall

Cast: Alan Bennett

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Alan Bennett observes the activities of staff and guests at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate while reminiscing about his Yorkshire childhood.

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One of the most unusual (yet entirely characteristic) pieces in Alan Bennett's television output, Dinner at Noon (BBC, tx. 8/8/1988) is a cross between a serious sociological study and an irresistible blend of observations and reminiscences by and often about Bennett himself. It was originally planned as a straightforward fly-on-the-wall documentary that would portray the staff and guests at the Crown Hotel in Harrogate without imposing an authorial voice, except via the editing and structuring of the programme.

But its final form was devised after it became clear that nothing like enough usable material would be generated over the planned ten-day schedule (it was shot in late April 1988) - so Bennett himself ended up on camera, wandering through the hotel, though more often just sitting in an armchair, quietly eavesdropping. He then wrote a commentary linking all this disparate material together.

Anyone familiar with his inimitable diaries will recognise the tone immediately, though these were not generally known at the time (extracts had been published in the small-circulation London Review of Books and even more occasionally in the national press, but it wasn't until the surprise success of the 1994 anthology Writing Home that they gained wide circulation).

What's most striking about the finished programme is that it's easy to believe that Bennett scripted it in its entirety, including all the snatches of overheard conversation. Who else, after all, would describe the onset of puberty in terms of self-consciousness over performing Scottish dances? Or stage a fashion parade on behalf of Dr.Barnardo's charity shops? Or have a man describe Harrogate Borough Council in terms that suggest he regards it as the centre of the known universe? But these and many similar examples do indeed seem to have been caught on the wing, and they provide a perfect counterpoint to Bennett's own rather more structured anecdotes.

There are a few sociological points (for instance, the way hotels seem to be trying to preserve an already outmoded way of life, or the way contemporary business culture is eliminating the notion of social class), and occasional flights of fancy (musings on how road hauliers meet their wives) but much of the commentary is autobiographical, with particularly touching anecdotes about his parents and their perceived (though largely imaginary) inadequacies. It was Bennett's most personal television piece up to then, and alongside the much later Telling Tales (BBC, 2000), it arguably remains so.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A grand couple (4:20)
2. Plaited accessories (1:09)
3. Zimmer charms (3:09)
4. Embarrassment (1:41)
5. Dinner at noon (1:48)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)