In an introduction to the published script of his latest play, People, Alan Bennett describes how, when he arrived for rehearsals at the National Theatre, a staff member at the entrance remarked: “Still hanging on, then?” This seems, I suggest, a very Bennett moment. It’s hard to imagine a Tom Stoppard or David Hare being greeted in this way. “Well, it’s because they dare say it to me, I suppose,” laughs Bennett, now 78. “They know I won’t be offended. But it did slightly take me aback.”
Bennett can afford to be relaxed about the anecdote, though, because he’s telling it in the stalls of the Duchess Theatre in London as the stage is prepared for a transfer of Untold Stories, which comprises Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, two childhood memoirs. Simultaneously, People is sold out at the National Theatre and about to go on a UK tour, while Denmark Hill, a new radio drama that adapts the plot of Hamlet to the present day, is soon to be recorded by the BBC.
Yet, despite this festival of work, the writer’s prefaces, diaries and interviews remain self-deprecating and questioning, suggesting a lack of self-confidence. Surely, though, with these two new productions joining a line of hit plays that includes The Lady in the Van and The History Boys, Bennett must feel he’s arrived now?
“ I’ve arrived,” he concedes in familiar lugubrious tones. “But it doesn’t give you any more confidence in doing the next one. They don’t get any easier as you get older, which is a good thing. If you could just rattle them off, it would be time to worry. I think I signify, without quite knowing what. But I’ve made a mark.”
Hymn, a memoir of Bennett’s father’s attempt to teach him music, was premiered at the Harrogate Festival in 2001 and then done again at the Buxton festival, with Bennett reading the part of himself. But the role of “AB” in that play and Cocktail Sticks is now played by Alex Jennings (left), because the original does not expect to perform on stage again: “I have such stage fright that even having the script in front of me didn’t give me enough confidence and so I’ve never done it again.”
Few people have the experience of seeing their parents portrayed on stage, so I was interested in his reaction to seeing his family re-enacted? “The person I was moved to see represented was my father, partly because Jeff Rawle, who plays him, certainly has something of him in the way he talks. I’ve written a lot of characters based on my mother and so that was not exactly routine, but less surprising.”
Jeff Rawle and Gabrielle Lloyd, who plays the dramatist’s mother, badgered their characters’ son for advice on what Walter and Lillian Bennett were really like and, during one rehearsal, he told the cast a story that he hadn’t used in his prose or stage memoirs because it seemed so cruel. “We had an Aunt Florence, who was fairly dire, really, as a relative. She had a tremor – not Parkinson’s, just a tremor – but she was also very boring. And she came to see us one day and my mam went to make some tea and left her with my dad. And eventually my dad took refuge in the kitchen and said: ‘Have we got any eggs we need whisking?’ And it was such a cruel joke, in a way, but he had seen the joke there and couldn’t resist making it and that says a lot about the way they were.”
In Cocktail Sticks, his parents have a posthumous conversation with Alan about the fact that he is gay and has settled down with a man: the journalist Rupert Thomas, editor of World of Interiors. Bennett describes the scene as an “inventive lie”, not only because his parents were dead by this time but because he never discussed his sexuality with them. He never had a “coming out” scene? “No. Because it would have made them so miserable. I never saw the point of inflicting it on them. And, anyway, it was such an amorphous area. My experience was so limited at that time that even to say ‘I’m gay' wouldn’t itself have been true.” Did they know? “I think my father probably knew. I think mothers both know and don’t know at the same time. I think my father would have been more upset.”
A remarkable social shift in Bennett’s lifetime has been the possibility of first, civil partnerships – as Bennett and Rupert Thomas have done – and now, gay marriage. But Bennett says he won’t be rushing to get the upgrade. “No. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about over gay marriage. I haven’t met anyone who cared one way or the other. Civil partnership mattered but I really couldn’t understand why the far right-wing Conservatives were making so much fuss [about gay marriage]. It doesn't threaten marriage. The whole thing seemed to me a storm in a teacup.” But supporters of the reform argued that it brought total equality? “I felt that I had total equality, anyway.”
As with much in his life, Bennett’s own civil partnership provoked a comic anecdote. “I’d written about how my parents got married at eight in the morning and then my dad went to work and my mam went home. And I think they went to see The Desert Song in the evening.” Eight decades later, although Alan and Rupert were among the couples making social history, family history weirdly repeated itself - minus a screening of the movie. “There were just one or two people there, relatives of Rupert. And we couldn’t think of what to do afterwards so we were going to have some coffee and we couldn’t find anywhere. Eventually, we did get some coffee, but that was it. So it was a replay of my parents’ marriage. But it wasn’t a landmark because sometimes we can’t even remember the date of it. At Camden Register Office at that time they were trying to jazz things up a bit. They said, ‘Do you want flowers?’ and we said not really. ‘Do you want music?’ Not really. Disappointment on every score.”
Class is a big theme in Cocktail Sticks and social judgement runs as a subject throughout Bennett’s work. So does his class radar still ping? “Not so much. I don’t really care now. But you see it fading away in the sense that Rupert [in his mid-40s], for example, is from approximately the same social background that I was. But you couldn’t tell from his voice – he’s Welsh but doesn’t sound Welsh – that he’s working-class and he’s obviously completely unfazed by class. But I think people are much less worried about it now.”
Cocktail Sticks also contains a confession that, as a boy in a Leeds cinema, Bennett was “interfered with” by an adult male customer. “In a mild way,” Bennett insists. Even so, in these times of proper sensitivity about sexual abuse of children, some might consider Bennett a candidate for counselling or even a public inquiry? “When I was young, ten or 12, one often found one’s legs were touched up by old gentlemen, in a mild sort of way. It never got beyond that. I remember thinking: ‘Oh God, here we go again.’ But it didn’t bother me. I knew it was wrong, but I knew I shouldn’t say anything about it because I knew they would get into trouble. But the notion that one would be scarred for life…”
At a recent public appearance at the National Theatre, a member of the public asked Bennett whether, after the Jimmy Savile revelations, he felt minded to rewrite The History Boys (above), in which Hector, a teacher who fondles students on his motorbike, is sympathetically represented. “I just said no. It never occurred to me. It’s a ridiculous idea that I might rewrite it and I said so, kindly. It was never on the cards.”
Cocktail Sticks ends with the Alan Bennett character undergoing chemotherapy, as Bennett did in 1997 after surgery for colon cancer. But the final lines have Alex Jennings turning to the audience and saying: “But all that was 15 years ago. So take heart!” I wondered if Bennett regards the last decade and a half as bonus time and feels an urgency to get work done.
“I used to do. But that tends to fade. From diagnosis to being given the all-clear after five years, I did work much harder than I tended to do. But that fades. You can’t always carry on as if you’re on the edge of pegging out. I put that final line in the play because I didn’t want to be inundated with letters from people sympathising with my situation. I wanted to make it clear that it happened in the past. But that ‘Take heart!’ is from the heart. I wanted people to be reassured and to have hope.”
Bennett’s bonus time has included one of his most popular books – the memoir Untold Stories (2005) – and four plays for the National Theatre: The Habit of Art, People, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks and he admits to gratitude at having been able to extend the shelf of his work: “They are things that I couldn’t reasonably have expected to write, when I was diagnosed. My oncologist came to see Cocktail Sticks and was very gratified to see chemotherapy on stage. I still see quite a lot of the doctors who treated me and I always say: ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do half the stuff I’ve done if you hadn’t done well with me.’”
Despite his reluctance to be publicly visible, Bennett has been a prominent campaigner against cuts in university funding for cultural subjects and the replacement of student grants with loans. As a butcher’s son who went to Oxford, Bennett represents a sort of pupil who might be dissuaded from university by financial burdens. “I would never have been able to go to university with the conditions that pertain today. My parents wouldn’t have been able to afford it and wouldn’t have felt able to borrow money to that extent.
“One of the few things I’m really passionate about is that state education and private education should be amalgamated – certainly at sixth-form level. I do believe that if private education was abolished, and we only had one system of education, the whole atmosphere of this country would alter. A lot of the class divisions and silly stuff about old Etonians in the cabinet, all that would go. I just feel that we would be much more a nation. It’s just wrong that with two children of equivalent ability, one should be better educated than the other because their parents are better off. It’s just wrong.”
My own sonar for class and wealth suggests that a large proportion of audiences for Alan Bennett plays at the National would be on the other side of that argument from him. Watching People and reading Smut: Two Unseemly Stories, Bennett’s recent venture into erotic fiction, I did wonder if he was trying to lose some of his natural fan club: the sort of supporters who call him a “national treasure”.
“Yes,” he nods. “I think it is a case of out-flanking your public. It’s very nice to be appreciated but, at the same time you don’t want to be boxed in [by admirers] and made to write in a certain way. To that extent, you’re quite right. When we we're doing People, Nick Hytner [National Theatre director] did say: you do realise that the National Trust membership list and the National Theatre subscription list are virtually the same? Smut was certainly an attempt to out-flank the public. You saw my eyes narrow slightly when you said the words ‘national treasure’. It’s true that you just want to get away from your reputation. But maybe that makes you as much a prisoner of it as indulging it..? I don’t know.”
So, after his little book of sex stories, did he receive any letters from admirers resigning from the fan club? “Only about two. I wasn’t deluged with mail. I was pleased I didn’t but I also thought: it doesn’t matter what I do now. But, at this moment in one’s life, all one is interested in is keeping going. I’m very lucky that, at this stage, I still have a public.”
Alan Bennett talks to Mark Lawson on Front Row - Wednesday at 7:15pm on Radio 4
Untold Stories: Hymn and Cocktail Sticks starts at the Duchess Theatre in London on 22 March