Where to begin with Alan Bennett

From Talking Heads to The History Boys, we plot a path through the film and TV output of one of Britain’s most distinctive writers.

3 April 2023

By David Parkinson

Michael Palin and Maggie Smith in A Private Function (1984)

Why this might not seem so easy

Seriously, where do you begin with Alan Bennett? He’s done so much and done it all so well – right down to creating a character called Alan Bennett, a perpetual provincial whose self-deprecating aura of owlish bemusement has allowed him to take refuge from those seeking the man behind all those plays, scripts, monologues, memoirs, diaries, essays, articles and stories. 

Alan Bennett
ITV Studios Global Entertainment

We could start with Beyond the Fringe, the 1960 Edinburgh Festival revue that took London and Broadway by storm and launched the satire boom as well as the careers of Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. But this proved something of a dead end, like his shortlived stint as an Oxford don.

As an actor, Bennett has been better than he let himself believe, whether playing Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982), Lord Pinkrose in Fortunes of War (1987), historian Hugh Trevor Roper in Selling Hitler (1991) or Sillery in A Dance to the Music of Time (1997). However, his forte is small animals, notably the Mouse in Miller’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1966), the Mock Turtle in Dreamchild (1985) and Mole in The Wind in the Willows (1995) and The Willows in Winter (1996).

Bennett is also a born storyteller, hence his recordings of five Winnie-the-Pooh yarns and 19 appearances on Jackanory (1968 to 1996), which surely helped draw him towards monologuery.

He is just as adept telling tales on the radio, the stage and the cinema screen, but television is his métier. The intimacy of the small screen suits the bittersweet wistfulness of those eavesdropped incidents from the everyday lives of outwardly unremarkable people that came to be Bennett’s speciality.

The best place to start – Talking Heads

Broadcast in two series in 1988 and 1998, Talking Heads struck such a chord with the nation that it wound up on the A-level syllabus. Comprising monologues from a succession of ordinary people, its roots lay in A Woman of No Importance (1982), a one-woman TV play written for Patricia Routledge, who features twice across the piece, as a busybody who is jailed for meddlesome correspondence and the snooty beneficiary of a chiropodist’s fetish.

Talking Heads: ’The Outside Dog’ (1998)

Occupying sets deftly décored to facilitate the sharing of intimate confidences, speakers who have waited a lifetime for someone to listen look the viewer in the eye and hold forth. As Bennett noted: “They don’t quite know what they are saying and are telling a story to the meaning of which they are not entirely privy.” But we get the message, as they are talking about our own flaws and fears in a language we can all understand.

The tone shifted across the decade from Marcel Proust meets Joyce Grenfell to Samuel Beckett crossed with Franz Kafka, as Bennett endured the loss of a mother who had battled depression and dementia, a 50/50 brush with cancer, and a crisis of sexual identity. 

Routledge’s characters are the only two permitted happy(ish) endings, as chuckles come at a cost in these sombre studies of alienation, loneliness, disappointment, mental fragility, physical decline and dread. Maggie Smith’s alcoholic vicar’s wife and Stephanie Cole’s disabused widow live to fight another day, as do Bennett’s possessive son and Julie Walters’s exploited actress. But resigned dignity condemns Thora Hird’s house-proud pensioner in ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’. 

As a bedridden nonagenarian, Hird suffered further, along with her AIDS-stricken carer, in ‘Waiting for the Telegram’, which typified the raw bleakness of a second series that had little time for the cosy whimsicality or the curtain-twitching tittle-tattle associated with Bennettland. Yet, amid the tales of murder and paedophilia, there was still room for a shaggy dog story about a chiselling antique dealer. 

What to watch next

No one is immune to pangs of nostalgia in Bennett’s oeuvre. Even those who betray their country pine for their rose-tinted memory of home. Respectively inspired by Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, The Old Country (1977), An Englishman Abroad (1983) and A Question of Attribution (1991) consider the twisted patriotism of the Cambridge spies. Directed for the BBC by John Schlesinger, the latter pair exhibit an unusual degree of tolerance towards the traitors, as Burgess (Alan Bates) banters with actress Coral Browne (playing herself) in 1950s Moscow and Blunt (Edward Fox) is given a sly civics lesson by Elizabeth II (Prunella Scales).

The Lady in the Van (2015)

Bennett is equally forgiving of Hector (Richard Griffiths), the teacher who can’t resist touching up his students in The History Boys (2006). Inspired by Bennett’s own Oxbridge candidacy, this study of classroom power dynamics was set in the 1980s rather than the postwar period of the spy dramas or 1984’s A Private Function, the latter witnessing a small-town chiropidist (Michael Palin) and his socially ambitious wife (Maggie Smith) steal a pig in order to finagle their way into a Royal Wedding banquet. But this places it into the same time bracket as another Maggie Smith vehicle, The Lady in the Van (2015), which chronicles Bennett’s 15-year relationship with Miss Shepherd, who resided in a Bedford camper on his Gloucester Crescent drive.

Focusing on social embarrassment and psychological coping strategies, this idiosyncratic autobiographical fragment has much in common with The Madness of King George (1996), which reveals how porphyria allowed the buttoned-up monarch (Oscar nominee Nigel Hawthorne) to shed the inhibitions imposed by his role in life. Bennett has expressed an empathy with George III and he evidently feels the pain that drove Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina) to bludgeon 1960s playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman) with a hammer in Prick Up Your Ears (1987). 

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

This was one of many collaborations between Bennett and Stephen Frears, who had directed his first teleplay, A Day Out (1972), which accompanied a cycling club on a 1911 expedition to Fountains Abbey. They also teamed on Sunset Across the Bay (1975) and One Fine Day (1979).

Where not to start

Frears also directed Afternoon Off, an exploration of racism, snobbery and misogyny that says too much about the time in which it was made to make for comfortable viewing nowadays. The same goes for Lindsay Anderson’s take on the cumbersome Buñuelian satire, The Old Crowd (both 1979).

Then there’s the 2020 reboot of Talking Heads. Made during Covid lockdown, this was a laudable enterprise, with new episodes about a mother fighting incestuous urges and a widow discovering her late husband’s infidelity confirming the ability of these excruciatingly exquisite monologues to engross, provoke and dismay. Ever eager to confide and be understood, the characters are impeccably played, while the words retain their power and poignancy. But echoes of the original silent screams keep intruding. That’s the trouble with perfection. You can’t improve upon it.

Alan Bennett will be in conversation at BFI Southbank on 17 April as part of our Northern Voices season.

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