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Meeting Alan Bennett

Razia Iqbal | 13:36 UK time, Thursday, 29 January 2009

bennett226.jpgIt has been said about Alan Bennett that he gives interviews about as often as Osama bin Laden. He has been known to grace the airwaves of my wireless from time to time, but a television interview is a rarity. So, when Bennett said yes to an interview for the Ten O'Clock news, I spent a lot of time feeling queasy with nerves.

Television book clubs may have boosted the great reading public's relationship with writing and writers, but there are few living authors who are held in more affection than Bennett. I wonder why that is, given that he keeps himself to himself, doesn't court publicity, and writes about his shyness in a way that makes you utterly live in his head, but with your gaze turned away.

Is it because he is so deliciously funny, or because he is a supremely clever chronicler of a lost and disappearing world? Or perhaps it's because he is a writer who is difficult to fault for consistently engaging in British cultural life.

We talked about a play he wrote nearly 30 years ago, in 1980, called Enjoy, which lasted only seven weeks in the West End - a surprisingly short time for a Bennett play at that time - and resulted in a low period for the writer. The play is about how the last back-to-back house in a part of Leeds is dismantled and placed in a museum by sociologists, one of whom turns out to be the long-lost son of the couple who live in the house. It is unlike Bennett's other naturalistic plays and has a surreal, expressionistic quality.

Enjoy has been revived in the West End, with a stellar cast led by Alison Steadman and David Troughton, and has, remarkably for a serious play, already taken £1m in advance ticket sales. Bennett is naturally surprised and pleased about this, but mostly, I think, feels vindicated by the fact that the play's central thesis - about the way the heritage industry sometimes attempts to preserve and remember the past - has come to pass, and when he wrote the play, even he didn't think he was being prophetic

Watching the play, I found myself thinking about how successfully Bennett has mined his past and his upbringing, and how lovingly he has given voice to working class life and communities, without being either nostalgic or sentimental.

The play is as much about writing as it is about the past, about the purpose of treating one's background as material. Inasmuch as Bennett is interested in talking at all, he is interested in what comes next, rather than looking back, and what comes next is a new play at the National Theatre called The Habit of Art. When I asked him what motivated him to continue to write, he simply replied: "It's just what I do".


  • Comment number 1.

    i hope that you had an informative time with alan bennett....

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 2.

    I like Bennett's plays and the 'talking heads' skits, but as a London Review of Books subscriber, I wish he'd be more shy. Once a year he writes a self-indulgent diary which combines mannered bits of homeliness with name-dropping and general skiting about his successful lifestyle and cultured tastes. The overall effect could be summed up by "would you like some signed pictures of me being humble"

  • Comment number 3.

    Have loved Alan Bennett's writing since Beyond the Fringe days...

    I'm from Merseyside. not Yorkshire...(now living in Toronto) and respect him so much for choosing NOT to renounce his northern heritage but celebrate it.

    Just one thing to mention: writing about the King James version of the Bible...and all the updating and modernising of same. He summed up my feelings with the glorious line:
    "Only one THOU - and the fools had to change it."

    great stuff.
    Thank you, Mr. Bennett.

  • Comment number 4.

    I couldn't disagree more with judgefloyd. Sometimes Alan Bennett's diary is the only thing worth reading in the LRB! It reveals the essence of the man and his diaries will be important historical documents when we're all gone. Do hope he continues to entertain us for many years to come.

  • Comment number 5.

    i have been a huge fan of Mr Bennet since i 1st sat mesmerised watching talking heads.
    last year i visited Harrogate and whilst waiting at the railway station for my friend i saw Mr Bennet leaving the station, all alone, looking very good for a man the wrong side of 60.
    I was completely starstruck.
    If there was 1 place fitting to spot Alan Bennet it was Harrogate the jewel of Yorkshire.
    Everything was as it should be that day and i was over the moon.

  • Comment number 6.


    I understand this may be off-topic, and I apologise for doing so, but I have attempted to find a way of contacting you (Ms.Razia Iqbal) but unfortunately I have not yet come across any means to do so except via posting a comment, which is why I am now doing just that.

    I have a important question which I would like to address to you and was hoping that I could do so via email. I understand that you are a busy person and that you have to make time for your family and friends, but I can assure you that my question will definitely not be a waste of your time. I would class my question as being quite urgent so if you help me with this then I would sincerely appreciate it.

    Once again I apologise for this being off-topic.

    Thank you,


  • Comment number 7.

    raziaiqbal1 here to groovybananaskin. you can contact me by calling the general BBC switchboard number: 020 87438000 and ask for me and you will be put through to my direct line or voicemail. please leave email or phone number and i will get back to you.

  • Comment number 8.

    The thing about Alan Bennett is that he is authentic and he connects with people. It is why we queue up to see his plays and buy his books by the shed load.

    I wrote a couple of songs for the band Lincoln City ( based on lines that jumped out of the Bennett page -one from Writing Home and one from Untold Stories and Mr Bennett was so sweet and encouraging about the whole thing.

    When I asked Mme Sarkozy if she would record a French language version of the Bennett inspired number I've Been Happier Almost Any Time Than Now, her expected but wholly gracious reply of 'Non' was issued at Director of Cabinet level, which I put down to the Bennett effect, as well as the wonderful French taking their culture very seriously indeed. Mr Bennett is much much more than just a great British treasure.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think all those who are in thrall to Alan Bennett should see that wonderful Hale & Pace "Yorkshire Airlines" sketch. Where I live (Sydney) he would be described as slightly up himself.


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