In 2009 Teddy Jamieson interviewed Alan Bennett for The Herald Magazine ahead of his appearance at Aye Write.


SOME time back in the mid-nineties I spent some time at Vogue House, home of grand, glammy, resolutely upper-bracket magazine publishing house Conde Nast. I was there on three weeks' work experience.

You can imagine the kind of thing – making tea and coffee for GQ editors, typing up 75-word film reviews as phoned in by some freelance and arranging to meet my mate Gerry for lunch (he was upstairs doing his work experience at Vogue). In short, I was there to be an office dogsbody. Still, there was the odd highlight. I got to review Bjork's second album (in 75 words, of course), I was allowed to raid the magazine's book cupboard, and I was even presented with a handsome Dunhill tie at the end of my stint (a bit garish for my tastes, to be honest).

Best of all, though, every few days I would leave the GQ office, walk downstairs and get quietly excited because, sitting outside the office of World of Interiors magazine, where his partner worked, there would be Alan Bennett. The Alan Bennett. Sitting quietly, mousily, bothering no-one. Frankly, not even Adam Ant doing a signing session in HMV in Piccadilly excited me quite as much as seeing the playwright and television dramatist just a few feet away. Of course, I never spoke to him.

That would have been far too forward for me (and possibly for him). But still, eh? Alan Bennett. That's something, right?

" I wish I gave myself the same thrill," he laughs when I tell him of our not particularly close encounter 15 years later. This time around I'm speaking to him, but not seeing him. He's not a great one for interviews these days, he already told me on the phone a few days earlier, and certainly not at his home. It gets in the way of his work. So, this afternoon I'm sitting at my desk talking to him as he sits at his, imagining some tasteful World of Interiors-approved backdrop. (His, not mine).

Yet even though we're just talking on the phone, I am still a little bit excited. Well, it's Alan Bennett isn't it? The Alan Bennett. The man behind Talking Heads, A Question of Attribution and a dozen other things that bring out the fan in me. The pre-pop Morrissey. (wasn't it Julie Burchill who described Moz as" an Alan Bennett fan who got lucky"?) A postwar Jarvis Cocker. Bennett has always shared with our most interesting popsters the same concerns - class, sex (or lack of same), a very British tongue-tied politesse constantly grappling with thwarted hopes and dreams and desires – and he makes you laugh while doing it. Talking of his play Habeas Corpus, director Sam Mendes( Kate Winslet's beau) summed up Bennett's work tellingly when he said it explored “both propriety and randiness - two warring forces". English – and by extension British – life, in other words.

For doing so, Bennett is much loved. Which is a slight problem, it seems. He tends to think the public have the wrong image of him. No matter that he publishes his diaries and reveals his low opinions of various and sundry people (usually Tory politicians and royalty), he still gets called a national treasure. That rather bugs him, because he doesn't recognise the Alan Bennett that goes with that label.

"When people say, 'Oh, how nice you are,' and all that stuff you know it's not true,” Bennett says, “because there is always this person who is noting it down. Philip Roth says writing's an unseemly profession and the word is absolutely right. It is unseemly. People don't understand that.

“They think you're nice and you just sit there and write, but there's the worm in the bud."

Hmm. I wonder about this notion. I wonder if the reason he's so loved is that everyone can see in Bennett's work both niceness – decency, if you will – and impropriety and, more importantly, how closely they are woven together. That he's loved because people recognise the talent. No- one who's watched or read anything he's written could suggest it's comfort telly (or theatre, or reading), even if in Bennett's world the consolations of tea and biscuit dunking are always recognised.

Anyway, Bennett's been working today, but on nothing specific." I tend to keep notes on stuff and if I'm not doing anything particular, which I'm not at the moment, I turn them over in case anything catches my eye. That's what I've been doing."

And when he's not doing that, he's off doing the shopping because his partner since the early nineties, Rupert (who is some three decades younger than Bennett and is now the editor of World of Interiors), doesn't get home till six or seven at night, “so I have to run the house, as it were. In some sense I'm a house- husband."

That conjures visions of him going down the grocer's with one of those holdalls on wheels. But then he's always been in tune with domesticity and bus-stop gossip. Alan Bennett will, by my maths, be 75 in May. Recently he underwent a serious operation to deal with an aneurysm. Twelve years ago, he had treatment for colon cancer.

He can't, if he ever did, kid himself about immortality. As he gets older, I wonder, does writing take on a greater sense of urgency?

“You mean as time runs out," he replies. Umm, well maybe as time runs on, I say, trying to back- pedal. “Not really, because ... Unless one had a programme and knew exactly what you wanted to do, you take each day as it comes. It isn't as if I've got various projects. I'm doing a new play at the National Theatre in November, but for the moment that's written, so there's no urgency really."

Don't be expecting some big three-quarters of-a-century celebration come May, by the way." We never made much of birthdays in our family. I was brought up in the war so there wasn't much going in the way of presents.

But, also, it happens that my own birthday and my brother's birthday – he's three years older than I am – are on the same day. In some families I think it would have doubled the festivities. In ours it halved them, really. Our birthdays cancelled each other out."

He has spoken, and written, at length and lovingly about his Yorkshire parents, so shy that they married at eight in the morning to avoid undue attention (and so Bennett's father could make the start of his shift at the Co- op at 8.15am). That shyness was something of a family trait.

“I was unduly self- conscious as a child," Bennett says now," and we lived for a lot of my childhood over the butcher's shop that my father had and this meant that it wasn't really a whole house. You came straight away into the kitchen sitting room, as it were. There was no hallway and it was a fairly small place, and I know I was quite conscious of this because most of the people at school with me would live in semi-detached houses on housing estates and we were slightly lower- rung. That is one of the reasons I didn't bring people home."

Yet he has said that he was something of a show- off, too. "I am the kind of child who, always attention- seeking, would quite happily betray them [his parents] to the Gestapo if it meant getting centre stage," he writes in Untold Stories, his book of autobiographical essays.

What form did that showing off take?" I was clever at school and I showed off about that, I think. But that went, really, in early teens. When I was at elementary school being top of the class, I just assumed that was my rightful place. The big shock when I got to a grammar school or secondary school was that there were other people who were cleverer than I was, and I had to adjust to that."

There's no sense, then, that the show- off was a lead-in to the performer he would become as a member of the ground-breaking sixties satirical quartet Beyond the Fringe, along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller?

"I don't think so. I mean, I discovered I could make people laugh, but not until I was in the army, I suppose. And there, I think it was what it often is -– a defence. I did my national service and went into an infantry regiment to begin with, the York and Lancashire regiment, where most of the other people were young steelworkers from Sheffield. And I was expecting to have a really bad time and I'd never been away from home before. But I found I could take the piss and make them laugh a bit and that sort of preserved me, whereas there were people who were just as hopeless as I was as soldiers and they got it in the neck more than I did. So, it was a form of defence, humour."

Humour took him even further than the post- war escape of education (he had left Yorkshire to go to Cambridge and then Oxford). He conquered Broadway as one of the cast of Beyond the Fringe as the 1960s kicked off, although he has said before that he always felt something of a second-class passenger in the quartet. It's an idea he reiterates today.

" With Peter Cook you couldn't help but feel your comic invention was less than his because he was so prolific and so prodigious," says Bennett. “He was quick at extemporising enormous amounts of wonderful material and I knew I couldn't do that. But if I felt that, Dudley Moore felt exactly the same way."

Still, Beyond the Fringe established an image of Bennett in the public mind: a slightly tweedy, professorial, vicarish Yorkshireman with an Eeyeorish accent( a David Hockney in sensible glasses, perhaps). The Bennett sketch that's always repeated when Beyond the Fringe is recalled on TV is his vicar's sermon ("Esau was an hairy man"). John Sergeant later said his father- a vicar - blamed Bennett in part for the decline of the Church of England.

Actually, Bennett had thought about training to be a vicar as a teenager because, he has written, he thought he had the face for it. It's a good line. Is there any truth in it?

“There was some truth in that and it's also true that people generally have a picture of themselves and they make their lives conform to the picture, and it can be very sad. I think it wasn't sad in my case because I woke up to the fact. I was genuinely religious as a boy and I've never been sorry for it. As I say in the book [ Untold Stories], the only poetry I know by heart are hymns and the prayer book, and for that alone I'm grateful I went through that period. But I am also glad I grew out of it, but grew out of it in the conventional time as people generally do in their late teens."

Beyond the Fringe was a huge success and not just in the UK. In 1960 it made a successful transition to Broadway( Bennett wouldn't see such success on the Great White Way again until The History Boys more than 40 years later). Which should have put him in the perfect place to make the most of the sixties youthquake. But that wouldn't have been very Bennettian, would it?

"The sixties were always said to be this licentious period. That certainly passed me by.

“The seventies from that point of view were more interesting than the sixties, I thought. Although we were – how old were we? – about 26, 27, when Beyond the Fringe was on, we were too young for the success we had and we didn't have to work for it. It was overnight, and at that age you think, 'Oh, this is what it's going to be like. ' You think it's always going to be like this."

Well, it wasn't as if success was elusive. The traditional rewards of success, however, were a different thing. Those particularly sixties rewards of sex, drugs and rock and roll, he says, passed him by. You only ever seemed interested in the first anyway, I suggest.

He hums and haws for a moment." Well, I don't know... there's nothing worth recounting." He had known he was gay since he was a teenager, “but at the same time it's an academic thing because there wasn't much going on anyway. But I think everybody thinks that about their life really; they always feel they've been behind the door when sex was handed out."

Quite possibly. What was it John Betjeman said when asked if he had any regrets? Didn't he say he wished he'd had more sex? "More sex. More drugs as well."

Bennett tells me of the time he was interviewed on stage in Drury Lane by Ian McKellen during the Clause 28 controversy, and, asked directly if he was straight or gay." I said, ' Hmm. Well, to ask me that is like asking somebody who has just crawled across the Sahara desert whether they want Perrier water or Malvern water.' It seemed to me that sex was in very short supply of any sort and so you just took what was going."

It's a well- polished anecdote. And a familiar one. One that perhaps doesn't tell the whole story. After all, he has also revealed he had a long- term relationship with a woman 15 years his junior, Anne Davies( formerly a cleaner in his London house)." He was always gay, but he thought men didn't like him," she told one journalist." It's like not being picked for the team at school."

That could be a Bennett line itself, couldn't it? What is certain is that he never defined his sexuality in political terms: he was never a gay rights campaigner. "No, absolutely not," he says. “But I'm just not that sort of person."

And yet it's tempting to read into his interest in spies and spying ( An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution), for example, a pre-Wolfenden Report furtiveness that could speak to a sexuality that was still illegal until 1967. It's not an interpretation he's keen to encourage, though.

"It's often put to me, but it's never seemed to me to be like that. I like the notion that both Burgess and Blunt really were making a fool of the establishment, of having an edge on something which I would probably dislike myself. And so, it's that side of it, I think, that drew me to them. Neither of them were ever secretive at all, for that time especially, they were quite open about it. So, no, I think it's more the sense of somebody outside which they were really, and they put themselves outside society by being spies, and I find that's quite attractive."

Doesn't he think his sexuality ever put him outside society, then?" No, not at all."

National treasures don't live outwith society, of course, and Bennett's success as a writer for theatre and television has been something of a constant over the past 40 years. The success of The History Boys five years ago ( first on stage in London, then in NewYork, and finally on the big screen) is just the latest incarnation.

Before that there were the two hugely successful television monologues in the 1980s and 1990s, Talking Heads. He hasn't written much for television of late. While I assume this is down to some dark conspiracy, he attributes it to the death of his favourite TV producer in the 1990s and a lack of inspiration.

"If I could write more monologues for television I would," he says." It's just that I haven't thought of the characters."

At least indirectly, I suggest, he was responsible for Gavin and Stacey because he encouraged James Corden – who featured in the 2006 film of The History Boys – to write. No, he says, Corden always knew where he was heading.

"Now he's everywhere. You can't switch on without seeing him."

He has written before about one of his great friend Russell Harty's favourite parlour games - whose underwear would you least like to be gagged by? – which is not too far removed from the "cruise, shag, marry" game Gavin and Smithy and Gavin's parents play on the drive to Wales in the sitcom. He talks a little about Harty.

"I'm always finding myself having to defend Russell because a lot of people didn't like him on the box," says Bennett," but he was such a funny man in private life that he was a joy and has never been replaced.

“He made you laugh more than anybody else and was totally fearless and unintimidated by anything."

Could he see in Harty's fearlessness something he coveted himself?" No. I wouldn't want to be like him, absolutely not. There was a bit of him that wanted to be like me, but not really any more than I wanted to be like him. I wish I had his self- confidence. He had a great deal of self- confidence."

Alan Bennett is almost 75, has been successful and valued for nearly all of those years, and yet he wishes he had more s e l f -confidence. What chance for the rest of us?

I think it's time to let him go. He's not quite ready yet, though. He hasn't really had a chance to flex his curmudgeonliness yet." I thought you were going to ask me about Scotland," he says as I draw our conversation to a close.

" The thing I was going to beef about was Alex Salmond and what's his name, umm, the hotel owner ... Donald Trump ... and I thought a shocking decision to develop the golf course.

“I just thought that was awful. And I have mixed feelings about Scotland going on its own, because it makes it much harder for the Labour party in England."

Bennett is fond of Scotland, having made his first public appearance in Edinburgh during the festival as part of the Oxford Theatre Group in 1959 and then a year later with Beyond the Fringe. And next month he will be in Glasgow to appear at Aye Write! in aid of Visibility, the charity for the blind and partially sighted in the west of Scotland, after being contacted by an old army friend, Ronnie Anderson." I've always been very happy in Scotland and they were much more sensible during Mrs Thatcher's time than we were.

“They saw through Mrs Thatcher long before we did, so it's much to your credit."

Alan Bennett spends his time in London( though he returns to Yorkshire every fortnight), living a life he describes as humdrum.

"I've never found I needed a life of action in order to have something to write about," he says. It's a life that's taken in Broadway, theatre, TV and movies, gay sex, straight sex, friendship, good health, bad health and being a house-husband. Humdrum is one way of describing it.

Originally published in The Herald Magazine, Febbruary 28, 2009.