The hugely popular film of The Lady in the Van, in which Alex Jennings played the writer Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith the eponymous lady, introduced Alan Bennett to a far wider audience.
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In England he first became a comedian in the 1960s, starring in cabaret review, Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, then as an actor in his TV series of monologues, Talking Heads, and later as a playwright — author of The History Boys and The Madness of George III.
With his boyish tousled hair, owlish glasses and deadpan quips delivered in a Leeds accent, he is also a popular chat show guest, and at the age of 82 is recognised in England as a “national treasure”.
However, beneath the amiable exterior there is also steel: as the son of a butcher, who prospered thanks to the opening up of higher education to working-class students, he has retained his socialist values, and often speaks up in support of the underdog and those suffering from injustice.
This is the third volume of Alan Bennett’s collected prose. They have appeared at 10-year intervals, built around the diaries that he publishes every January in the London Review of Books.
The diaries are models of their kind, and anyone who has ever tried to keep one will be fascinated by his apparently effortless technique.
They range from observations made in the course of everyday life — visits to the supermarket, moving house, train journeys — to his extensive reading, and even more extensive socialising.
In spite of his claim not to have a social life, part of his curmudgeonly persona, he is very much an A-list guest. By this stage in his life many of his friends are so famous that his anecdotes read like celebrity gossip.
Regulars on his circuit include Stephen Fry, David Walliams, the dowager Duchess of Devonshire, known as Debo, Tom Stoppard, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and someone he refers to as HRH (Her Royal Highness the Queen). While Judi Dench has four mentions in the index, Debo has 15.
The very first page features some superior name dropping: “Trying to hit on a title for this collection I pick up Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings … a presentation copy inscribed to me by Larkin at the request of Judi Dench back in 1969 when she and I did An Evening With… for the BBC.’ Is he gently poking fun at himself, or does he expect the reader to relish this chain of connections?
Far preferable is the “everyday” Alan Bennett, reporting, for example, that a friend’s child is being given extra tuition in English by a retired teacher who also works for Manchester United: “the foreign half of the squad he is teaching to speak English, the English half he is teaching to read and write.”
Or a description of a blind man’s funeral where “the chapel was full of guide dogs, crouched in the pews or lying in the aisle … after the service there is a wake in a local pub where many of the blind get quite drunk, blind drunk in this case not just a phrase.”
As well as the diaries, almost half of this doorstop of a book (721 pages) consists of short plays and occasional pieces, including a sermon given at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. These will probably be read only by diehard fans. They lack the randomness of the diaries — a large part of their pleasure.
It is almost impossible to dislike Alan Bennett, as he is very well aware.
In 2007, a year when he feels has has ‘banged on’ (about politics) rather more than usual, he knows that it will not make a jot of difference: “I shall still be thought kindly, cosy and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeon-hole marked ‘no threat’ and did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.”
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