The world according to Alan Bennett

In a rare interview to mark his 80th birthday, Britain’s favourite playwright talks to National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner

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Looking back on your life, the things you remember are the things that you didn’t do. A lot of that will be to do with sex, I suppose. It’s in my nature to feel somehow that one has missed out. It’s my view of my own life except that I’ve been very, very lucky. I met my partner [Bennett is in a civil partnership with journalist Rupert Thomas] quite late in life and so the last part of my life is much happier than the first part.

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On cancer

I put a spurt on. When I was diagnosed in 1997 [with cancer of the colon], they said I had a 50/50 chance of surviving. The truth was I actually had a one in five chance. So I was very, very lucky and the doctors who treated me were very, very good. By the time we got to The History Boys in 2004 the shadow was receding. I think some of that renewed life and vigour – not a word I normally associate with myself! – fed into The History Boys.

On reading

I’m very ill-read. I know that sounds overmodest but it’s quite true. I like American literature more than I do contemporary English literature. I like Philip Roth, for instance. I don’t feel any of the people writing in England can tell me very much. That may be unfair.

On his parents

A line that my mother said is quoted in Cocktail Sticks: “By, I’ve given you some script.” Meaning that she would see my eyes light up if she said something daft or quotable. In those days I used to keep notebooks and I would run away and write it down in my notebook. I stopped keeping notebooks later on because I had so many. She was quite right: she did give me some script. And so did my dad, but in a much quieter way.

My parents didn’t have any expectations but they felt that they wanted to break out somehow – but temperamentally they weren’t suited for breaking out. I can see all that in myself as well. All these things are mixed up. People say: “Why do you write?” That’s why I write – because there are all these unanswered questions.

On talking heads

They came like poems. People write to me and say: “Would you like to come and talk to us? Perhaps you could write a Talking Head.” As if I could just run it off! There’s nothing I would like more but they came from deep down. It’s not there any more. I can’t write them.

On the Queen

I’ve written about the Queen three times, I suppose. But that’s because she’s such a wonderful character. She also carries her own plot with her – which in a way George III does. The audience knows what she’s like so you don’t have to do a great deal. They know who she is. It also helps me because one thing I’m not good at is plot and to be given a plot is wonderful.
 With George III, 
it appealed partly
because it was
 dramatic and it was also sad and funny. But I also knew what was going to happen.

On the Cambridge spies

I liked the notion of the Cambridge spies betraying their class; I liked them two-timing it. It’s something I can’t resolve in my mind; I resolve it by writing about it. It’s an ambiguity about England, too: about being, in many ways, very conservative with a small “c” about England, yet knowing there’s so much wrong with it.

Spying is excusable because they thought that they were doing something to improve things, that they were morally on the right side. None of the spies spied for money. They all did it out of conviction, it was not to do with material gain. The treason they’re supposed to have committed doesn’t nowadays seem to me to be a particularly important crime. The Edward Snowden stuff – I’m wholly on his side.

On being gay

[Nowadays] I don’t care what people think about me. My objection to people knowing more about one’s private life was that I didn’t want to be put in a pigeonhole. I didn’t want to be labelled as gay and that was it. I wanted to be my own man.

On public schools

I believe very strongly – one of the few things I am passionate about – that private education is wrong. We’ll only get somewhere in England, we’ll only pull together, when private education is abolished and we’re all educated under the same system. There are wonderful things in private schools and there are wonderful things in state schools; they should be brought together. It ought not to be difficult to do. I can’t see it ever happening but I do believe it very strongly.

On his muse: Thora Hird

What was wonderful about Thora was that she was a consummate professional. She did a lot of rubbish, but whatever she did was with her whole heart. Even when she’d done a scene like [Waiting for the Telegram] she ended up, wiped away her genuine tears and then said: “Did I do it right?” When she’d finished that scene [the whole studio] were all in tears and nobody spoke for ages. It was wonderful.

And she trusted you. She had an enormous respect – rather like my parents – for the written word. I remember she said: “Alan Bennett is the only person I’d say a swear word for.” I thought, “But there are no swear words in it,” and then I realised: the swear word she meant was “penis”. Which was a swear word in Thora’s book.

On John Gielgud

We’d had a really rocky ride because John G was very, very slow to get his words [for Forty Years On in 1968]. He’d been through a bad period in his career and he had no confidence at all. We went to Manchester to open it and he was so far from remembering his words, he sometimes didn’t remember the names of the other characters. I was embarrassed but at the same time I knew so little about the theatre, I thought: “Well, maybe this is what happens.” He wasn’t in the least bit embarrassed that the audience saw him forgetting his words: they were Manchester, they didn’t matter. By the time we got to London two weeks later, he was just about on top of it. And then Noël Coward came to see him the night before it opened, wagged his famous finger at him and told him that it was a very good play and he was very good in it, and gave him a real boost. And it was fine then.

On being 80

I find it harder and harder to write but then I always have found it hard to write. I never really believe in writer’s block; all writing is writer’s block. People say: “Oh you’ve done so much.” It doesn’t seem to me I’ve done so much. The stuff you’ve written isn’t like upholstery; it’s not something you can settle back in and think, “I’ve done so many plays” and so on.

It’s not a comfort: it’s a rebuke as much as anything else. You think, “Well, I can’t do it now.” And writing is about now. It’s about what you’re doing this morning; what you’re sitting at the table, staring out of the window trying to do. That’s still the situation, whatever age I am.

Alan Bennett at 80 from Saturday at 9:00pm on BBC4

Extracted from Alan Bennett’s interview with Nicholas Hytner (9pm Sat BBC4). Hytner is Bennett’s longtime collaborator, directing the play and film versions of The History Boys and The Madness of King George


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