At lunchtime on a bright spring day in comfy north-west London, one of the country’s greatest living dramatists is in a summer house round the back of what looks like another bijou, half-million-pound garden flat, but is actually a radio studio. He’s almost disappearing into a low sofa, enjoying some triangular sandwiches. Crumbs on the V-neck.
Alan Bennett looks supremely relaxed, as well he might. An unusual chain of events meant his new Radio 4 play required virtually no effort on his part.
“Two or three years ago I gave all my old stuff to the Bodleian Library,” he explains. “I just wanted it out of the house.” Not long after that, director Tristram Powell asked Bennett whether he had anything in the proverbial bottom drawer of abandoned projects that could be dusted off for Radio 4. He was advised to go to Oxford and try his luck sifting through what was mostly, according to Bennett, “the incidental material to do with plays I’d written, because I don’t have a computer so it’s all written down or typed out. There’s a lot of, you know, waste paper.”
Pretty good waste paper. In the pile was Denmark Hill, a screenplay Bennett had completely forgotten. “I think I wrote it for John Schlesinger in about 1990,” he says, airily unconcerned with the details. “Directors have some notion of the film they want to make and it’s very often not the script that you write. He probably just didn’t get back to me about it.”
He’s only eight years out: a check of Powell’s notes from his Bodleian visit places the script in 1982, just before Schlesinger did agree to helm Bennett’s drama about the Cambridge spy ring, An Englishman Abroad. But whenever it was, surely in the 80s and 90s people were desperate for any Alan Bennett script going? “Ha, no! It’s partly that I don’t work to commission, I just do it on spec. Then if people don’t want it, it’s too bad. I’m sure any writer’s the same. There’s stuff you can’t place.”
After some adaptation work by Powell and his collaborator Honor Borwick, Denmark Hill was ready to record, with a cast including Robert Glenister, Geoffrey Palmer and Samuel Barnett. Bennett, who narrates, had the pleasure of coming to it cold. “I knew it was vaguely the plot of Hamlet. I began to remember it as I went through. I’d forgotten all the jokes. Was I tempted to rewrite bits? No. I’m lazy! And it seemed to work.”
Denmark Hill concerns a 15-year-old London schoolgirl (Bryony Hannah) who, as she struggles with an essay on Shakespeare, suffers a bereavement and then sees her family’s life mirroring Hamlet. Bennett is reluctant to spoil a conceit that’s gradually revealed to the listener. “It’s not a farce, no. Not a spoof really. It’s Hamlet sort of reworked, a bit. Things will click as you’re listening.”
Does Shakespeare loom over every dramatist? “You can’t get away from it, but some of them… I mean, I always think with Othello: ten minutes, if everybody sits round having a talk about it, that whole thing could be settled. Instead of ‘How about this handkerchief’ and all that.”
Imagine a Venn diagram with “Radio 4 listeners” in one circle and “Alan Bennett admirers” in another, and you’d expect considerable overlap. “The… senior section of Radio 4 listeners, now,” Bennett jokes. “I’ve got an ageing fanbase.” Every published work is a shoo-in for Book of the Week. Yet Bennett hasn’t felt moved to write radio drama.
“It’s partly because I haven’t been asked to,” he says, somewhat unbelievably. “It’s a world of its own, is radio. You’re either in it or you’re not.”
He’s not written for TV in a while either. Does that mean Bennett and his partner Rupert Thomas don’t watch it? “No, we do, but probably more rubbish than we should. I tend not to watch drama, and I don’t like stand-up, so that cuts out an enormous amount. Apart from Stewart Lee, I like him because he’s offensive. And Jeremy Hardy, but he’s only on radio. The others just seem to be showing off.”
What sort of rubbish? “We watch Midsomer Murders. It’s not all rubbish. Andrew Graham-Dixon, that’s not rubbish.”
Any reality shows? “Very few. Maybe the first Big Brother but I thought, God, they’re all repellent. I tend not to watch anything where one person is eliminated each week. There was even a programme about allotments: I thought, this’ll be all right. Then they introduced that format there! Allotments isn’t a competitive activity.”
Bennett’s most surprising peccadillo is broad American comedy – he keenly watches Family Guy, the animated sitcom in which he guest-starred last year. He’s also a fan of The Big Bang Theory. It transpires that the episode I’d watched the night before our interview, in which Sheldon (Jim Parsons) is forced to boast about sexual exploits he has not in fact conducted, is one Bennett hasn’t seen. I remark that there was a line in it that could almost have been one of his.
Now I realise I have to act a line of comic dialogue for Alan Bennett’s approval. Gulp. Ah well, here goes: “I gave her sexual organs a proper jostling.”
“Ha ha!” (Phew.) “He’s very good, that character, he’s out of the same box as Niles in Frasier.”
The reason for Bennett just watching TV instead of writing it is tragically simple. His regular producer Innes Lloyd passed away in 1991 and took Bennett’s yen for TV with him. “Since he died, television has changed so much. When I worked with him, it was so straightforward. I’d show him a script, he’d set it up and it was all very quickly done. Now it’s a much more tortuous process.”
There must be a producer out there who could overcome all that? “Not that I’ve met.”
Bennett, who turned 80 this year, is happy sticking with National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, mostly on stage but with a film of The Lady in the Van shooting in October. So it seems the writer’s accidental foray into radio is a one-off. Unless… “I have stuff I think would go on radio, probably, but I tend to write and not bother about anything being done with it. I put it in a drawer.” Pretty good drawer.
Denmark Hill airs this Saturday on Radio 4