If you didn’t know which house was Alan Bennett’s, you might well guess: painted green and brown, with a scruffier air than those nearby, it has a bicycle chained to its railings. All appears timeless and calm in this part of north London.
Bennett, now 82, opens the front door and is exactly as you’d hope: friendly but diffident, no entourage, just him. He leads the way down narrow stairs to the kitchen: “We’re down here, I think,” he says. Down here, there’s a tick-tock clock, neat cooking area and a wooden table covered with an open newspaper (The Guardian) and sheaves of writing, Bennett’s fountain-penned scrawl scampering across A4 pages. He writes every day, even if it’s just to answer his many fan letters.
Bennett offers me the armchair, while he takes a seat at the table. Dressed in shirt and tie, with comfortable jumper, he’s like a benevolent professor. Not young, but not elderly, either. His mind’s too sparky, and, though he admits to having gripes, he tends to keep them to the private pages of his diary. “Too much complaint and grumbling is no good,” he says. “You have to be careful about becoming an old git.”
Old git! To most of us, Alan Bennett is a contender for National Hero, Over-80s Class. (Only David Attenborough stands in the way of his crown.) And his loveliness is confirmed in warm BBC documentary Alan Bennett’s Diaries, in which we follow Bennett as he cycles to the shops, chats to locals, gives talks in churches and libraries, and unpacks his Christmas decorations – including a fairy in a little dress that his mother made from lampshade fringing – from a baked bean box.
Alan Bennett writes every day, if only to reply to his fan mail
This Christmas Day he and his partner Rupert, a magazine editor, will visit Rupert’s parents, who live in West Hampstead. When they first started dating (they’ve been partners for 24 years and more than 30 years separates them in age), Rupert warned Bennett that Christmas with his parents would involve games. “I think he was embarrassed, but there was nothing as bad as charades,” says Bennett. “I would draw the line at charades.” But no, it’s just games with paper and pencil, such as listing all the countries you can think of beginning with C.
Later in the day, he and Rupert will drive to their weekend home in Clapham, Yorkshire. He’s not sure if they’ll give each other presents. “There’s nothing either of us want, particularly.” What about the Queen’s speech? I wonder, half-seriously. It’s not a priority in the current Bennett household, although when he was young, his Aunt Kathleen used to insist on watching, and standing for the National Anthem, which his dad thought was ridiculous.
Mr Bennett Sr, a butcher, used to find much of Christmas Day annoying. As a family, after midday Christmas lunch, they’d walk two miles to see their granny and the aunts… and then, when they got there, “we had to wait for high tea until seven o’clock!” He made his sons beautiful fretwork presents, Bennett says: forts, farms, complicated bagatelles with trapdoors for the marbles. As Bennett gets older, he thinks he’s becoming more like his dad. “I used to think I was like my mum,” he says. “She was more readily affectionate, and kissed you a lot, whereas my dad was embarrassed, slightly. But now I think I’m more like him. He was so good-natured and looked it in his face, that I don’t mind.”
Now his parents have passed on, as has Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van who famously lived in the driveway of his previous London house. Bennett has always emphasised that his letting Miss Shepherd stay on his drive was to stop him worrying about her being bothered on the street. Meaning, it was a selfish move, not an altruistic one. Still: a lovely thing to do. Does he think of himself as good? “No. Timid. But not good, in a moral sense.”
Bennett’s relationship with Miss Shepherd became a film, The Lady in the Van
So do people have him wrong? Is he very different from his image? “People are always shocked that I’m left-wing, I find,” he says. “And I’ve got more left-wing as I’ve got older. I’m not sorry about getting more left-wing, I’m sorry that there are more things to be getting left-wing about. Recently, it’s gone back to what it was under Mrs Thatcher, people sleeping in doorways. Conservatives have this notion that it’s somehow self-imposed, that if you’re poor it’s your own fault.”
He is anti-Brexit and despairing about Donald Trump. “I feel fear and unease. At the kindest, he’s unreliable. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do or say next. When it’s just him, that’s fine, but it’s the world…I must say that the picture of him with Nigel Farage was utterly nauseating. In a real sense. You felt sick with it.” Bennett has a lot of fans in Italy and Germany. “With Brexit, it felt as though we were spitting in their faces. “I also loathe Boris Johnson,” he says. “So cavalier. It was almost on the toss of a coin really, which side he went. I’ve spoken to his father, because he was at the same college as I was. I felt like saying, ‘Why didn’t you bring your son up to tell the truth?’”
All this is undoubtedly angry stuff, but it’s delivered in a gentle tone. Does he ever really get cross? “Well, I do lose my temper, but it’s very seldom. Rupert is rather triumphant when I do,” he says with a chuckle. Anyway, why get agitated? Bennett feels very lucky – he had cancer in the 90s, about which he says, “People say, ‘Why me?’ But I had the feeling, ‘Why not me?’” He is immensely grateful for surviving, and would like, he says, to still be religious, as he was when he was young, “just because you want to say thank you to something sometimes”. Now, he’s agnostic, rather than atheist, as Rupert is. “I’m leaving it open.”
This is the time of year for new resolutions. Does he have anything major on his list of Things to Do? “Not really,” says Bennett. “I mean, I would like to write better things, and if you don’t have the feeling that you want to write something better, there’s no point in writing, really. But that’s all.”
Our time is done. Up the stairs, past the Welsh dresser and the gilt-framed pictures, the higgledy table by the door. A handshake, some warm words. And out I go, suddenly returned to a world that seems commercialised and daftly over-busy, compared to the clear-eyed, funny and steadfastly honest one of not-old-not-git Alan Bennett.
Alan Bennett’s Diaries airs on Christmas Eve on BBC2 at 8pm (9pm in Wales)