A way with words
After more than five decades of success as an author, playwright and actor, Alan Bennett is now regarded as a national treasure. His latest play, People, attracted controversy for its apparent attack on another much-loved British institution, the National Trust. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, as he told Kathryn Tye.
Before gaining fame with comedy revue Beyond the Fringe in 1960, Alan Bennett was working as a university lecturer in history.
And as he shuffles into the room, wearing a tweed blazer over a blue shirt and black tie, his hair scruffy, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that was still his profession.
The 79-year-old quietly slips into his seat, displaying no visible sign of being one of the country’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers and performers.
Yet despite his unassuming image, the underlying themes of Alan’s work are usually anything but comfortable, and his latest play, People, is no different.
The provocative comedy stars Sian Phillips as impoverished aristocrat Lady Dorothy Stacpoole, living in a decaying stately home.
She has to decide what to do with her property: should she hand it over to the National Trust, as her overbearing sister wishes, or find a more creative way of making it pay?
It enjoyed a sell-out debut run at the National Theatre in November last year, and is now on a tour of the UK.
The play was seen by some as a criticism of the National Trust, pointing to Alan’s introduction which included the statement: “Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can’t solve or a feeling one can’t locate. With People it was a sense of unease when going round a National Trust house and being required to buy into the role of reverential visitor.”
Yet the outrage People provoked is something something Alan says he did not intend or expect.
The quietly spoken Yorkshireman says: “It depresses me really. When I go around country houses, sometimes I look at other people and think what have they come for? Then I think to myself, what have you come for?
"This play is about the complicated issues to do with conservation, and how you handle it. If it’s a wonderful house we have got to preserve it, but at the same time I can sympathise with Dorothy wanting to live in it just as she has always lived in it.
"That’s why you write, because you do not quite feel you have got the answer.”
Although chatting after a matinee performance of the play, Alan admits that People definitely has provocative elements. “I was surprised how funny the audience found it this afternoon. I thought they would be shocked.
"I would say the most shocking line is said by the National Trust man at the end, that ‘there is nowhere now that’s not visitable, as the Holocaust has taught us’.”
Brigit Forsyth and Sian Phillips in People
As indicated by his careful monitoring of the audience’s reaction, despite his illustrious career Alan still worries about how his work will be received. “It doesn’t get easier. I always find plots difficult. Dialogue I enjoy, and getting characters on and off the stage comes easier.
“When I was younger I used to drink when I was thinking of a plot. A tiny bottle was quite enough to make me tipsy. Then I gave that up.”
One thing has remained constant in Alan’s writing process, however - his use of a traditional pen and paper.
“I haven’t got a computer. We had one once but it was stolen and we haven’t bothered replacing it. I’ve got what I think is an iPhone, though all I use it as is a phone. I write with a pen – it used to be a fountain pen, but jelly pens are a godsend as they are very free flowing.
“I used to transfer my writing to a typewriter, but they are harder to find and harder to get mended when they break down. Plus I get arthritic hands.”
Brigit Forsyth, Sian Phillips and Simon Bubb
Yet despite his old-fashioned approach to technology, Alan has some unexpectedly modern tastes, confessing that one of his favourite TV programmes is American comedy show the Big Bang Theory. “If I want to laugh I watch that show. I do not like to be upset by television. It’s not what it’s there for in my opinion.”
And he is also a fan of the new trend of screening West End shows at cinemas around the county, his hit play the History Boys among them.
“It is great for people who have no chance of seeing it in London, because they live in some tiny place in the middle of Wales. I think it is a fantastic idea.”
But despite embracing aspects of contemporary culture, the self-deprecating writer is also very aware of his age, laughing as he recalls: “When I came for the first day of rehearsal of People, somebody at the stage door said to me, ‘Oh, hello, still hanging on then?’”
Although even at this stage of his career, and with the title of ‘national treasure’ bestowed upon him, Alan feels that his work still hasn’t yet been fully appreciated.
He says: “People like what I do but I do not think they always know what I have done.
“I think when I have gone and my work is gone through, there may be a more thoughtful side than I’m currently given credit for. I often feel the prefaces are better than the plays. But it’s a minor complaint. It is better to be appreciated than not.”
People is at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre from Tuesday, October 22 to Saturday, October 26. Tickets from £15. Call 01227 787787.
Canterbury Festival runs from Saturday, October 19 to Saturday, November 2. Visit www.canterburyfestival.co.uk for details.