TALKING HEADS AND TALES
An Audience with Alan Bennett
University of Warwick Arts Centre 26.05.04
ReviewsGate reviewer John Alcock reports on a visit to Warwick Arts Centre by Alan Bennett
This week’s guest in the Warwick Writers’ series was Alan Bennett, not so much following the usual practice of reading from his work as talking about it a monumental task in itself as he dipped in and out of three decades of writing for theatre, television and film.
He did, in fact, commence with a short reading, from the preface of Me! I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf (Faber 2003), which created a way into his career and set the tone with its peppering of wit and anecdote. What followed was an apparently relaxed question and answer session between him and his audience.
Relaxed’ because his easy, conversational manner led the way to information, opinion and reminiscence. Apparently’, because, I suspect, this was not as spontaneous as it might appear. Bennett, despite his claims of reticence, is a performer, and he employs this art to reveal or conceal as he chooses that he has remained a successfully private man for so long demonstrates his skill at the latter.
Among the questions, some created the openings he was looking for. Do you have a particular medium in mind when you write?’ The answer depends on the circumstances. With a commission the medium is obvious. Other works took their time whether to turn into theatre script or screenplay: The Madness of George lll was a stage play that became a successful film, though Bennett would appear still to prefer the former. The Talking Heads plays were written for television and he is less happy about some of their adaptations for the stage.
Perhaps here in middle England he knew he was on safe ground. The questions were more likely to be about Thora Hird than Rupert Thomas. Inevitably, his questioners pursued two themes: Dame Thora and the Lady in the Van. Of the former he spoke with much affection. Sometimes, when he writes, he hears the dialogue before he even knows what character is going to speak it. With Dame Thora, it was her voice he heard as soon as he put pen to paper. Why so many parts written for women?’ He answered that, in his younger days at home, the women did most of the talking; it was their cadences he grew up with. Nothing given away there.
And the Lady in the Van?’ She had haunted him daily for fifteen years, her caravan parked in his front garden; a difficult, even downright unpleasant individual, who considered herself at least the equal of Margaret Thatcher. Did he allow her to reside there as a source of character exploitation as has been suggested? Bennett vehemently denies this. True, he turned her into a play but that was after her death and by a more osmotic process. She also gave him one of his best lines of the evening. Noted for her lack of humour, when asked by Bennett if he could make her a cup of tea she replied: No, that would be far too much trouble. Half a cup will do.’
Bennett paid tribute to others in his career, notably Innes Lloyd who introduced him to television and, more recently, Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre and of his latest play The History Boys. He surprised many by claiming that he did not think he had a distinctive voice as a playwright; was he being serious in wishing he could write like Joe Orton? His recent public anti-Iraq war stance has surprised many. Could it be that, at 70, he is at last showing a harder edge? The anecdotes and the trawl through the theatrical Who’s Who should not lull us into a false sense of cosy security for, as he concluded: A writer is not a nice person; unseemly in Philip Roth’s phrase; never wholehearted except about writing.’ Perhaps we had been gently warned. We were there for our recreation. Bennett was still at work.