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Alan Bennett, telling tales at The National, The FT Magazine

‘The pocketed hand twitches about as he emphasises phrases and words, like the frantic feet of a gliding swan.’

The Olivier Theatre is packed to the concrete rafters, its 1,150 plush pink seats sold out before Alan Bennett’s reading even made it into the theatre brochure. Northern and Hampstead voices mix in a celebratory babble.

It is a tidy, middle-aged crowd. Ever since the Yorkshire scholarship boy left Oxford for 1960s satire and the Beyond The Fringe review, Bennett’s stage and screenplays have largely concerned ‘ordinary people’: housewives, spinsters and underlings, the lonely and unfulfilled.

Even the public figures in his work (The Madness of George III; Guy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad) deal in private failings. He is a genius of comic half-logic (“Mr Craven has always been on the side of progress: he had false teeth when he was 27”), and of the mundane intruding on the disturbing: in one of his famous Talking Heads monologues, a woman discovers her neighbour’s murdered body but can’t help wondering how the blood will wash out of the rug.

Bennett’s humour, and compassion for the drama in small lives, has created a public affection unique among dramatists. And when he potters, head down, onto the Olivier stage, the applause is huge.

He stands behind the lectern throughout, looking like the Magdalen lecturer he once was, in grey flannels, linen jacket and V-neck sweater. At 71, his still-blond hair is youthfully floppy. He holds Untold Stories, his second volume of memoir, diaries and observations, the cover removed, Post-it notes poking out.

Looking through big tortoise-shell glasses, he says, like a teacher, that there will be no questions and answers “as I’m reading from a new book very few of you will have read”. The two Northern aunties next to me have, and chuckle, one of them whispering “Oh, this one” as Bennett begins with the personalities of his kitchen implements. “Some wooden spoons for example, I think of as friendly, others as impersonal.” He worries about a thick blue-and-white plate “taking offence if I discriminate against it by using it less. Set down this seems close to insanity.” Read out, in his gentle, half-puzzled Leeds accent, it has the audience falling about.

He stands relaxed, book held casually in one hand, the other in his trouser pocket. But the pocketed hand twitches about as he emphasises phrases and words, like the frantic feet of a gliding swan. His readings jump too, from church visits to anecdotes to music, shifting us from volcanic laughter to contemplation and once, when this famously private man mentions his partner, Rupert, to penetrating silence.

On the writer’s life, he is self-deflating. “January 1997. I am sent a complimentary copy of Waterstone’s literary diary.” The birthdays of authors are marked. He finds Dennis Potter, Michael Frayn, then turns to his own. “May 9th is blank, except for the note, ‘The first British self-service laundrette is opened in Queensway, London, 1949’.” Calling the coal merchant from his Yorkshire home he is told, for no reason: “I don’t care how celebrated you are, you’ll never be a patch on your Dad.”

He searches slightly anxiously for the next extract, his uncertainty part of the Bennett charm that makes him seem normal, one of us. When he reads we remember he isn’t, if only because of his friends. At Alec Guinness’s funeral he wonders how such a fastidious but religiously devout man coped with sign of peace handshakes. He recalls John Gielgud saying of David Storey: “Ideal author, never said a word.”

The quavering imitation is exactly Gielgud, and Bennett treats us to more. A gay New Yorker turning down the portly director John Schlesinger in a bathhouse witters, “Oh please, I couldn’t. You’ve got to be joking”. An upper-class country lady mentions her church’s trouble with “the myrrh”. Bennett says, “The incense?”. She replies, “No, no! The myrrh for the grass.”

He keeps returning to the ecclesiastical (“Here’s another church visit I’m afraid, ha!”) and historical, telling us of the yews at Fountain’s Abbey, older than the 12th-century monastery, of Kathleen Ferrier’s legendary contralto floating from a Leeds slum chapel in 1947, out over grimy snow.

Bennett’s acid, after this, burns deep. On whether gay partners of the dead should march in the Remembrance Day parade, he imagines “a shout from somewhere in the ranks of the massed graves: ‘What the fuck does it matter now, anyway?’” He has had enough of “those mammoth charity performances which always turn out to be overlong, slyly competitive and never the least bit heart-warming”.

At the end, Bennett puts his book aside to thank the National, first home of many of his plays. “It’s a pleasure to come in here on a morning.” Then he smiles, broadly, as if about to laugh, and potters off, head down, book under his arm, to long, ear-ringing applause that hopes for an encore that doesn’t come.

25 November 2005

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