Writers

Add to researchAlan Bennett

Alan Bennett

Nigel Parry

Born
Leeds, Yorkshire
Genre
Short Stories, Fiction, Drama
 
 
Biography
Alan Bennett was born in 1934 in Leeds.

He studied at Exeter College, Oxford, then after a period of National Service, became a lecturer for a short time at Oxford University. He co-wrote and starred in Beyond the Fringe (1963), a satirical review, along with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. Later the show travelled to the West End and to New York. After this, he started writing for the stage, and later, plays for television. To date he has been actor, director, broadcaster, and written for stage, television, radio and film. His work focuses on the everyday and the mundane; on people with typically British characteristics and obsessions.

His first stage play was Forty Years On (1969). Other well-known stage plays include Kafka's Dick (1987), The Wind In The Willows (1991), and The Madness of George III (1992).

His first work for television was a sketch show, On the Margin, and he also wrote the television series Fortunes of War. His first television play was A Day Out, followed by several more television plays, five for the BBC, published as Objects of Affection and Other Plays for TV (1982), and five for London Weekend Television, published as The Writer in Disguise (1985).  His two series of monologues for television, Talking Heads I (1988) and Talking Heads 2 (1998), proved Bennett to be the master of television monologue, a genre he had first anticipated in A Woman Of No Importance (1982) - his first play starring a single actress.

Alan Bennett has also written for radio, including The Lady In The Van (1990), an autobiographical memoir of a deranged woman who parked her car in his garden and stayed for 15 years; and films, including A Private Function (1984), Parson's Pleasure, Prick Up Your Ears (1987), and The Madness of King George (1994), for which he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation.

Alan Bennett has won many prestigious awards for his writing. His prose collection Writing Home (1994), was followed by a sequel, Untold Stories, in 2005. His recent play, The History Boys (2004), won the 2004 Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year and The Uncommon Reader (2007), is a novella in which the Queen develops a taste for reading.

His most recent play is The Habit of Art (2009).

Critical Perspective

Alan Bennett’s diffident, often shy public persona has arguably been crucial to his sustained and ever growing success, but any perceived aura of cosiness belies a sharpness of intellect and wit that has proved adept at dissecting the mores of the English and their institutions across a variety of genres.

A rare and regular literary candidate for canonisation in the mainstream press, Bennett’s status as an English national institution himself can perhaps be gauged from the near universal approval voiced in October 2008 to the news that he was donating his entire collection of manuscripts, notes, drafts and scripts from a 50-year literary career to the Bodleian Library at his alma mater, the University of Oxford. In an interview to mark the donation, Bennett said that he saw it as the repayment of a debt accrued during years of free education as a boy at grammar school and then at the university itself:

'Giving the manuscripts to Bodley - it sounds rather pious - is a kind of small recompense for what I was given. And not merely by Oxford, I also feel I was given it by the state, and the state isn't something that people would normally thank or think well of - and hence the phrase "the nanny state"'

(The Guardian, 24 October 2008).

Bennett’s attitude to England and its institutions lies somewhere in this space between fidelity and detached scepticism: his refusal to accept an honorary degree from the university in 1998, after Oxford had allowed right wing media baron Rupert Murdoch to endow a Chair of Communications eight years earlier, is indicative of a prickly and political side to Bennett that is often submerged in the literary work. Diaries published annually in the London Review of Books and later collected in Writing Home (1994) and Untold Stories (2005) contain, amongst the literary and theatrical anecdotes and accounts of visits to country churches, frequent acerbic commentary on the political classes in Britain, their predilection for bureaucratic interference, and the conduct of the war in Iraq.

 

Bennett’s career began in the epoch-making 1960s satirical revue, Beyond the Fringe, the experience of which perhaps trained him in the careful crafting of comic wordplay and semi satirical asides so evident in later dramatic works. His first play, Forty Years On (1969), followed the revue model, containing within the play a collection of sketches, pastiches and parodies charting cultural and social changes in the country during the first half of the twentieth century, ostensibly an end of term production at a minor public school somewhere in southern England. The comic works of Bennett’s early career built his reputation as a playwright concerned with Englishness under strain: Habeas Corpus (1973) is a highly self conscious farce in which a collection of suburban grotesques are forced to come to terms with the terrible consequences of their sexual appetites and morbid obsessions, whilst Enjoy (1980) depicts an elderly couple awaiting the demolition of their back-to-back terraced house in Leeds, before being faced with the prospect of their home being turned into a museum with themselves as living exhibits.

Kafka’s Dick (1987) exhibited a more surreal side to Bennett than had hitherto been apparent, involving the eponymous writer, initially in the form of a tortoise (a neat inversion of the premise of Kafka’s Metamorphosis) turning up with his friend and executor Max Brod at the late 20th-century English suburban home of Sydney, a Kafka scholar and, like the object of his fascination, an insurance salesman. The Czech writer’s despairing outlook on life is also inverted in the development of a finely crafted farce which interrogates the nature of fame, the growing importance of the literary biographer and the tendency to reduce the lives of great men to a series of anecdotes and trivial episodes: the play’s vulgar and ironic title refers to its subject’s alleged physical shortcoming.

The Single Spies (1989) double bill of plays for the National Theatre examines, through the stories of two members of the Cambridge Soviet spy ring, double identities and English lives lived in exile and in secret. An Englishman Abroad takes as its subject one such spy, Guy Burgess, exiled in Moscow and pining for Savile Row suits, whilst A Question of Attribution shows his comrade Sir Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures during the 1960s, at this time, by contrast, at the heart of the British Establishment in Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth II appears as a character on stage in the latter play: in The Madness of George III (1992) Bennett turns to an earlier occupant of the throne for a play which deals not only with the titular monarch’s madness and the various misguided medical attempts to cure him, but also with the changing relationship between crown, parliament and the people towards the end of the eighteenth century.

Bennett was a prolific writer for television during the 1970s and 80s, but the Talking Heads (1987, 1998) series of monologues has arguably made the greatest impact on the medium. Whereas his stage work has frequently dramatised those at the centre of public life, real and famed historical and contemporary characters, these are studies of those on the margins of society, and include a repressed middle aged homosexual living with his elderly mother, a vicar’s wife, and a lonely clerk in a provincial department store. The Lady in the Van, first published as an extended prose piece in 1990 and adapted for the stage in 2000 is a portrait of a real person however: an itinerant and elderly woman, Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van in the driveway of Bennett’s own North London home during the 1970s and 80s. Here, perhaps, the parallel worlds of the marginalised and the metropolitan, each crucial to Bennett’s work, touch for the first time, as he describes how the eccentric behaviour and singular hygiene of Miss Shepherd test the tolerance and liberalism of his North London neighbours. In recent years Bennett has chosen to reveal more personal stories: in Untold Stories he writes for the first time about his cancer and homosexuality, describing in vivid detail an homophobic attack he and his partner suffered whilst on holiday in Italy.

Bennett’s phenomenally successful play The History Boys (2004), about a group of boys from a northern grammar school attempting the Oxford entrance exam during the 1980s, combines criticism of revisionist historians and neo-Gradgrindian educational practices with the statement of a fundamental if unfashionable belief in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Here, as in Forty Years On 35 years earlier, school can be read as a metaphor for nation: differences between the cultural references in the two plays chart further shifts in British cultural and social life.

Bennett’s novella, The Uncommon Reader (2007), returns to the monarchy for subject matter, in a fantasy in which Elizabeth II discovers literature through a chance encounter with a mobile library, much to the dismay of her courtiers and the disquiet of members of the government. The subversive potential inherent in reading and writing is heavily acknowledged, but as in The History Boys the enduring impression is of Bennett’s belief in the value of the consumption and enjoyment of literature as a good in itself.

Guy Woodward, 2009


 

Bibliography

2012
People, Faber & Faber
2012
Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, (Play), Faber & Faber
2011
Smut: two unseemly stories , Profile Books
2009
The Habit of Art, Faber and Faber
2009
A Life Like Other People's, first published in 'Untold Stories', 2005, Faber and Faber
2007
The Uncommon Reader, novella, Profile Books
2006
The History Boys, screenplay, Faber and Faber
2006
Four Stories, contentc: 'Father! Father! Burning Bright'; 'The Clothes They Stood Up In'; 'The Lady in the Van'; 'The Laying on of Hands', Profile Books
2005
Untold Stories, Faber and Faber
2004
The History Boys, Faber and Faber
2004
Loose Cannon: A Portrait of Brian Brindley, with Ned Sherring and Damian Thompson, Continuum International
2003
Three Stories, Contents: 'Father! Father! Burning Bright', originally published as 'The Clothes They Stood Up In', 200; 'The Laying On Of Hands' (originally published 2001), Profile Books
2003
Rolling Home, Contents: 'Our Winnie'; 'All Day On The Sands'; 'One Fine Day'; 'Marks'; 'Say Something Happened'; 'Rolling Home'; 'Intensive Care, Faber and Faber
2003
Me, I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, contents: 'A Day Out'; 'Sunset Across The Bay'; 'Visit From Miss Prothero'; 'Me, I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf'; 'Green Forms'; 'The Old Crowd'; 'Afternoon Off', Faber and Faber
2001
The Laying On Of Hands, London Review of Books
2001
An Englishman Abroad
2000
Telling Tales, BBC
2000
Father! Father! Burning Bright, Profile Books
1998
The Complete Talking Heads (12 monologues and A Woman of No Importance), BBC
1998
The Clothes They Stood Up In, Profile Books
1998
Talking Heads 2, Contents: 'Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet'; 'The Hand Of God'; 'Playing Sandwiches'; 'The Outside Dog'; 'Nights In The Gardens Of Spain'; 'Waiting For The Telegram', BBC Books
1998
Plays 2, Contents: 'Kafka's Dick'; 'The Insurance Man'; 'The Old Country'; 'An Englishman Abroad'; 'A Question Of Attribution', Faber and Faber
1994
Writing Home, Contents: 'Past And Present'; 'The Lady In The Van'; Diaries 1980-1990'; 'Prefaces To Plays'; 'Filming And Rehearsing'; 'Books And Writers'; 'Stocking Fillers', Faber and Faber
1994
The Madness Of King George, screenplay based on stage play, Faber and Faber
1992
The Madness Of George III, Faber and Faber
1992
Poetry In Motion 2, Channel 4 TV
1991
The Wind In The Willows, adaptation for stage, Faber and Faber
1990
The Lady In The Van, London Review of Books
1990
Poetry In Motion, Channel 4 TV
1989
Single Spies, Contents: 'An Englishman Abroad'; 'A Question Of Attribution', Faber and Faber
1989
Intensive Care and other plays, edited by Michael Church; includes 'Intensive Care' by Alan Bennett, Longman
1988
Visit From Miss Prothero, from 'Office Suite', French
1988
Talking Heads, Contents: 'A Chip In The Sugar'; 'Bed Among The Lentils'; 'A Lady Of Letters'; 'Her Big Chance'; 'Soldiering On'; 'A Cream Cracker Under The Settee', BBC Books
1988
Soldiering On: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1988
Her Big Chance: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1988
Green Forms (from Office Suite), French
1988
Bed Among The Lentils: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1988
A Lady of Letters: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1988
A Cream Cracker Under The Settee: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1988
A Chip In The Sugar: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1987
Two Kafka Plays, Contents: 'Kafka's Dick'; 'The Insurance Man', Faber and Faber
1987
Prick Up Your Ears, screenplay by Alan Bennett adapted from John Lahr's biography of Joe Orton, Faber and Faber
1987
Kafka's Dick, Faber and Faber
1985
The Writer In Disguise, contents: 'Me, I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf'; 'All Day On The Sands'; 'One Fine Day'; 'The Old Crowd'; 'Afternoon Off'; 'The Writer In Disguise', Faber and Faber
1985
Forty Years On: Getting On: Habeas Corpus, re-issued as Plays 1 with 'Enjoy'; 1996, Faber and Faber
1984
A Private Function, screenplay from the story by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray, Faber and Faber
1982
Say Something Happened, French
1982
Objects Of Affection and other plays for television, Contents: 'Our Winnie'; 'A Woman Of No Importance'; 'Rolling Home'; 'Marks'; 'Say Something Happened'; 'A Day Out'; 'Intensive Care'; 'An Englishman Abroad', BBC
1982
A Woman Of No Importance: a monologue from Talking Heads, French
1981
Office Suite: two one-act plays, Contents: 'Green Forms'; 'Visit From Miss Prothero', Faber and Faber
1980
Enjoy, Faber and Faber
1978
The Old Country, Faber and Faber
1973
Habeas Corpus, Faber and Faber
1972
Getting On, Faber and Faber
1969
Forty Years On, Faber and Faber
1963
Beyond the Fringe, French

Awards

2008
Booksellers Association Independent Booksellers' Book Prize, The Uncommon Reader, shortlist
2008
Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, The Uncommon Reader, shortlist
2006
Tony Award for Best Play (US), The History Boys
2006
Samuel Johnson Prize, Untold Stories, shortlist
2006
New York Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, The History Boys
2006
New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Play, The History Boys
2006
J. R. Ackerley Prize, Untold Stories
2006
British Book Awards Author of the Year, Untold Stories
2005
South Bank Show Award for Theatre, The History Boys
2005
Society of London Theatres Special Award for Contribution to Theatre, The History Boys
2005
Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, The History Boys
2004
Whatsonstage.com Award for Best New Comedy, The History Boys
2004
Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year, The History Boys
2004
Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play, The History Boys
2003
British Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award
2000
Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, The Lady In The Van, shortlist
1999
BAFTA (Best Single Drama), Talking Heads 2, nomination
1996
LCCFA Best Screenwriter of the Year, The Madness of King George
1996
BAFTA (Best Adapted Screenplay), The Maness of King George, nomination
1995
Writers' Guild Award (Best Adapted Screenplay), The Madness of King George
1995
Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Madness of King George, nomination
1991
BAFTA (Best Single Drama), A Question of Attribution
1990
Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, Single Spies
1989
Hawthornden Prize, Talking Heads
1988
LCCCFA Best Screenwriter of the Year Award, Prick Up Your Ears
1988
BAFTA (Best Adapted Screenplay), Prick Up Your Ears, nomination
1986
Royal Television Society Award, The Insurance Man
1986
LCCFA Best Screenwriter of the Year Award, A Private Function
1985
BAFTA (Best Original Screenplay), A Private Function, nomination
1985
BAFTA (Best Film Award), A Private Function
1984
Royal Television Society Award, An Englishman Abroad
1984
Broadcasting Press Guild Award, An Englishman Abroad
1977
Critics' Circle Award, The Old Country
1971
Evening Standard Award, Getting On
1968
Evening Standard Award, Forty Years On
1967
BAFTA Comdey Award, On The Margin TV series
1963
Tony Special Award, Beyond The Fringe
1962
New York Drama Critics Award (Special Citation), Beyond The Fringe
1961
Evening Standard Award for Best Play, Beyond The Fringe