I feel torn about Alan Bennett. On the plus side, he is of course part-responsible for the rebirth of British comedy in Beyond the Fringe.
His diaries are truly wonderful; always something to look forward to in
the London Review of Books in the beginning of the year and when
published together are a pleasure to relish. His plays have always been
somehow subversive; he manages to talk about middle-aged women, about
women with dementia, about homosexuality and more in a way that
audiences adore, but without patronising them. He has even managed to
present sympathetic portraits of paedophiles - not, of course,
recommending pederasty, but showing sympathy to them as people, as human
beings - in a couple of shows, including, of course, the huge hit The History Boys.
His drift leftwards is very reassuring and, given his National Treasure
status, coming out was quite brave. And I genuinely love some of his
writing: I had the Patricia Routledge performance of A Woman of No Importance
on tape and listened to it over and over as a teenager. I even followed
Alan Bennett out of a train and down the street so I could tell him so.
His jokes are often as funny as anything written in post-war theatre.
More wholeheartedly funny than anything in Stoppard. Better at gags than
On the negative side, there’s an
awkwardness in the middle of the writing that I find unappetizing. The
determination to make his work ‘serious’ and ‘meaningful’ sometimes
leads him to plonk characters on chairs chatting about serious and
meaningful things leaving their characters at the door. He is drawn to
somewhat academic subjects - not philosophical discussion but ‘subjects’
(art, poetry, etc.) - and there is a High Table quality to some of the
discussions. Alas, I’m afraid that in The Habit of Art,
it was that quality that led me to quit the habit at the interval.
Also, though this can’t really be laid at his door, but he has spawned a
huge number of imitators (well, they’re imitating him and/or Victoria
Wood), for whom it is sufficient to say ‘Cheadle Hulme’ or ‘Freeman
Hardy and Willis’ for comedy to ensue. The BBC did a terrible series
called Single Voices which displayed this
vice lavishly. The imitators also somehow patronise their subjects. I
recently saw a student monologue about an elderly woman which basically
just screamed out the student’s lack of interest or understanding of an
older woman, just contempt and derision.
I think about this because of Single
Spies which I saw at the Watermill in Newbury. A decent production,
which a terrific performance by David Yelland as Anthony Blunt and an
enjoyable HMQ from Melanie Jessop. The first play, An Englishman Abroad, is very thin; basically Guy Burgess camping it up and a rather sketchy notion of the persistence of Englishness. The second, A Question of Attribution,
is much better, looking at Blunt’s time as curator of the Royal
Collection and paralleling questions about authenticity and forgery in
art and in life. The discovery in a painting by the Titian School of a
shadowy third figure - and then a fourth, fifth and sixth - behind the
paint is an elegant counterpoint to the position in the 60s and 70s when
Blunt had been ‘outed’ as a spy to the secret services but not to the
world. Yelland played the thing with great dignity and wit, wholly in
I had some doubts in the writing. An
early joke was about Blunt’s failure to put some early Poussins in
correct chronological order. ‘Which came first?’ muses Blunt. The joke -
poussin being French for chicken, so the sentence suggesting ‘which
came first, the chicken or the egg’ - is very abstruse and rather
self-congratulatory. I suppose Blunt might have had that High Table
manner though I’m not convinced it was a joke that placed him right in
the situation he was in. The secret service interrogator conveniently is
self-educating about the history of art, which allows him to fence
verbally with Blunt about various matters of attribution and painterly
signature, in a way that was frankly quite unbelievable. It felt like it
wore its ideas too flashily on the surface and had no interest in
embedding the ideas in relations between people.
That is said, the scene between Blunt and HMQ is just wonderful. Of paintings of the Annunciation, she remarks on having seen quite a few in Florence ‘I won’t say they were exactly two a penny, but they were certainly rather thick on the ground’. It’s a fiercely witty and rather steely scene, not what you expect when it starts.