I can’t tell whether Alan Bennett is displaying quiet pride or diffidence about his remarkable TV monologues, but he acknowledges they were a success. “I called them Talking Heads [below] because at the time that was shorthand from TV producers for ‘boring’. ‘It’s just talking heads,’ they’d say. Yet I’ve always thought that a person talking directly to the audience is one of the most interesting things you could do.”
Bennett’s is a name that makes people smile; he’s considered a friend, as well as a national treasure, a label that makes him squirm. Yet, at 81, his wit is more caustic than cosy. He’s none too keen on suggestions about how he came to write Talking Heads. “People always go on about ‘people watching’, ” he says, with a pinch of mockery, “but it’s not a phrase I like. It’s not something I do, either.” He puts their creation down to something far simpler.
“Being able to write dialogue, which I can do, comes from being exposed to a lot of female dialogue in my childhood.” Is that why most of his Talking Heads are women? “Well, they talk more. That’s why. That sounds awful, but in our family, they certainly talked more. My dad was lovely, but he didn’t say much.” Is it also to do with the Yorkshire tradition of women running society? (Bennett grew up in Leeds.)
“I wish they ran it a bit more,” he says wryly. “There is a tradition, or there used to be, of women ruling the roost a bit longer than they do down here. My auntie worked in Mountfields, the shoe shop in Leeds, when she was in her 50s. Nowadays, a woman in her 50s wouldn’t be working in a shoe shop; it’s girls out of school. And you miss that age range now. It’s a shame really. That sounds as if I want to keep women in shops! I don’t, but older women abroad have responsibility, in the way they don’t here.”
Even though he recoils from the national treasure mantle, there’s still something inescapably British about the Bennett canon. It’s as if he’s drawn to writing pieces that examine the state of the nation. “Well, you write about things which irritate you, which you can’t resolve in your head. Or which you can’t really see an answer to. So you make a play about it.”
He agrees he’s not gone on what he’s called the “dreary safari” from left- to right-wing, as many of his peers have done. He’s become more, not less, radical with age. “I would hope so. Goodness me. Maybe I’ve just got more cantankerous.” He’s no fan of David Cameron. “I think this government is deplorable. I thought the last one was deplorable. I thought Tony Blair was deplorable. But it’s boring if you go on about it, and I’m not like David Hare. I don’t want to write about politics.”
Not overtly, at least. We briefly discuss the Labour leadership race. “I think Jeremy Corbyn has given things a good kick in the pants and the fact that he has done so well shows that people are concerned about these issues. The Government would have you think that nobody is concerned about these things, but they are.” He’s deeply critical of the way the Government and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale are approaching the BBC.
“The BBC is one of the few things we do better than anybody else. Any attempt to meddle with it or cut the licence fee is scandalous. Any other nation must think we’re crazy to even think of diminishing it. It does things in sound and on TV that you get nowhere else. If anything radical was done, or attempted, people would… well perhaps they wouldn’t take to the streets, but there would be a backlash.”
The single political issue burning within him is the continuing existence of private education, which he considers innately unfair and immoral, as he said in a recent lecture at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. “I was terrified, giving that lecture there. It was almost because of the architecture – the actual setting terrified me. People say that my view is such because I haven’t got any children of my own.” He raises an eyebrow.
“I hope I will continue to criticise private schools. You could change the system, you know. You don’t need a revolution to do so. But it would require a group of schools to announce that when they get to the sixth form, they would meld private and state together. Then you could take it lower down the schooling system. I don’t think you can just abolish private schools over night. But you could do it gradually, and you could certainly remove their charitable status. Private schools are meant to show a community spirit, but they don’t really. They get away with so much.” He brightens up a bit. “The other thing which might happen is that people will realise they can’t afford to pay the fees.”
Alan Bennett is also riled by reality TV. “I hate programmes such as Bake Off, where someone is sent home at the end of each episode. I loathe that. Because it’s so competitive and brings out the worst in people. Everybody elbowing everybody else out of the way.”
Yet the host is a mature woman in charge, just the thing he admires. “Yes, well there you are. Mary Berry. She does well to do it at her age!” He shudders. “When they did it with allotments, that was absolutely terrible because the whole spirit of allotments is about co-operation.”
What do he and his partner Rupert Thomas (a magazine editor) watch? “Dad’s Army. It’s wonderful. although I know it by heart now. And Midsomer Murders.” He watched Gogglebox, with a certain amount of vitriol.
“I want to shake those people, almost kick the set in. I don’t like the posh pair. And I don’t like that gay couple, their tattoos put me off. I don’t care for the women from Brixton. No, I like the couple where the man is more radical than the woman; he’s bald and old.” We establish that he’s probably talking about Leon and June, the retired teachers from Liverpool.
He says there will be no more Talking Heads. But what about another radical play? “I don’t know. At my age, if you can get on a bus, that’s a good thing. The thing about age, is that you can see the things you could do, but you haven’t got the energy to carry it through. That’s the trouble. And that is quite depressing. Listen, I’m going to go. All right?” He smiles courteously, gets up, and leaves. Twenty minutes shorter than our allotted time, but with Bennett, in conversation as in script, every word counts.
Alan Bennet takes part in The Reunion on Sunday 6th September at 9.00am on Radio 4