With his characteristic posture of embarrassed modesty, Alan Bennett has compared himself to sidewalk vendors who ply their wares on the margins of London’s antique districts “selling objects that don’t quite qualifyan old Oxo tin, a scent spray, a crocheted table mat, and some family snaps from the ’50s. That’s what I feel my writing’s like, the contents of a drawer. I wish it wasn’t, but it is.”
Bennett’s self-assessment is not shared by the English public, which regards him as a national treasure. Since his emergence 35 years ago as the still center of the otherwise ebullient Beyond the Fringe satirical comedy troupe, he has evolved into a peerless playwright, screenwriter, actor, director, and essayist. In 1994, his Writing Home, a collection of diary extracts, reviews, lectures, play prefaces, and occasional pieces, sold 200,000 hardcover copies. A cleareyed, sharp-eared chronicler of his era (but not himself, a topic about which he is cagily reticent), Bennett, better than any of his contemporaries, captures his islandic countrymen’s prejudices, paradoxes, self-deceptions, and eccentricities. “I want to get across the fact,” he says, “that one finds life sad and funny by turns.”
Although best-known in the U.S. for his screenplays (A Private Function, Prick Up Your Ears, and the Oscar-nominated The Madness of King George), Bennett has produced his finest work for British television. This month, the National Gallery of Art’s Peggy Parsons has scheduled “Alan Bennett’s England,” four evenings of plays written for that democratic medium (including four programs that have never been broadcast in this country), all guaranteed to clear heads of the rubbish currently cluttering cinemas and the tube.
The series opens on July 6 with four of Bennett’s six celebrated 1988 BBC-TV Talking Heads monologues, aired here by PBS under an inexplicable cloud of secrecy. As the series title indicates, these are chamber pieces written for a single voice, addressed to a still, objective camera. Brilliantly written and performed, these darkly funny, Chekhovian self-portraits of wounded, deluded women and men struggling to retain their dignity in humiliating circumstances have the haunting resonance of musical compositions.
Bennett himself delivers “A Chip in the Sugar,” which begins as the confession of a “progressive” but meek middle-aged man who lives with his aging, widowed mother. The reappearance of one of her old beaus shatters his complacency, triggering revelations about his sexuality and mental stability. “Her Big Chance” stars Educating Rita’s vivacious Julie Walters as an aspiring actress determined to put a sunny spin on her degrading exploitation in a low-budget movie. In “A Cream Cracker Under the Settee,” Thora Hird, one of Bennett’s signature performers, appears as an elderly compulsive housekeeper whose obsession with cleanliness leads to her undoing. Bennett directs Maggie Smith in the series’ masterpiece, “Bed Among the Lentils.” Smith gives the performance of her career as a vicar’s wife whose escapes into alcohol and adultery fail to liberate her from the suffocating gentility of her self-righteous husband and his fawning parishioners. Smith’s restrained, often riotously funny portrait of this defiant but defeated woman is the stuff of theatrical legend.
July 13 brings a brace of superb mini-features about British spies Guy Burgess and Sir Anthony Blunt, both directed by John Schlesinger. An Englishman Abroad (1983) was inspired by an anecdote actress Coral Browne told Bennett at a party. In 1958, while touring Russia playing Gertrude in a Stratford Memorial Theatre production of Hamlet, Browne met the exiled Burgess in Moscow. He invited her to his dingy flat, where he played scratchy English records of old show tunes and served her a Spartan lunch. Subsequently, they corresponded, and Browne sent Burgess some luxuries from London (Saville Row suits and pajamas) that he couldn’t obtain in Moscow stores. Several months after hearing Browne’s story, Bennett mailed her a rough script based on her reminiscence. Excited by what he had written, she supplied him with photocopies of Burgess’ letters and alerted Schlesinger to the project. Alan Bates was ideally cast as the homesick, queeny, down-at-the-heels traitor, and Browne played her younger self nearly three decades after her real-life encounter. The hourlong film was shot in Dundee, Scotland, which does a surprisingly effective imitation of Moscow.
In 1979, when Blunt, the former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was exposed as a Soviet double-agent, Bennett made notes for an imagined conversation between the spy and the monarch. A few years later, while contemplating writing a play with an art history background, he read about Triple Portrait, a canvas acquired by Charles I as an authentic Titian that was later revealed to be a forgery. Blunt had the painting cleaned, which exposed a hitherto unseen third man in the two-character composition, then x-rays uncovered two additional figures. “It dawned on me,” Bennett recalls, “how this obscure picture could be made a metaphor for the spying business. In fact, it seemed such a gift I couldn’t believe no one else had noticed it, and when someone suddenly came up the stairs [of the London Library] I thought it was at least Tom Stoppard or David Hare on the same trail.” The product of this research was A Question of Attribution, which was presented at the National Theatre in 1988, on a double bill with a theatrical adaptation of the An Englishman Abroad film script, under the collective title Single Spies. Schlesinger filmed the BBC television version of the Blunt play in 1991.
Several years ago, when PBS’s Masterpiece Theater aired A Question Of Attribution, host Alistair Cooke was so offended by Bennett’s morally ambivalent depiction of Blunt that he oafishly insisted on appending a personal disclaimer to the broadcast. In a preface to the published scripts of Single Spies, Bennett clarified the divided sympathies expressed in both plays. “I have put some of my own sentiments in Burgess’ mouth. ‘I can say I love London. I can say I love England. I can’t say I love my country, because I don’t know what that means’ is a fair statement of my own, and I imagine many people’s, position. The Falkland War helped me to understand how a fastidious stepping-aside from patriotism could be an element in characters as different as Blunt and Burgess. Certainly in the spy fever that followed the unmasking of Professor Blunt I felt more sympathy with the hunted than the hunters….I think it’s about time we stopped thinking of treachery as the crime of crimes. It suits governments to make it so and the sentences handed down by judges reflect this….Moral indignation seems beside the point. To conceal information is always more respectable than to reveal it, but are governments and prime ministers who hush up evidence of nuclear accidents, as Macmillan is now known to have done in 1957, less culpable than our Cambridge villains? Of course, Blunt, Burgess, and Co. had the advantage of us in that they still had illusions. The trouble with treachery nowadays is that if one does want to betray one’s country there is no one satisfactory to betray it to. If there were, more people would be doing it.”
A richer, darker film than An Englishman Abroad, the 70-minute A Question of Attribution is as provocative as it is compelling, especially its centerpiece: a dazzling scene in which supercilious, effete Blunt (James Fox in the role Bennett originated onstage) and practical-minded, deceptively shrewd Queen Elizabeth (an extraordinary turn by Prunella Scales) discuss the bogus Titian painting while, in fact, encodedly addressing far graver issues. These two pieces have been hailed by English critics as the finest programs ever made for television. It would be difficult to find more deserving nominees for that accolade.
In the July 23 double bill, Bennett pays homage to Franz Kafka with The Insurance Man (1985), a period piece filled with echoes of The Metamorphosis and The Trial. (Bennett has expressed admiration for Kafka’s work in his essay, “Kafka in Las Vegas” and in his 1986 play, Kafka’s Dick, in which the writer’s specter turns up in a suburban English home and discovers how contemporary culture has commoditized his life and art.) Robert Hines plays a factory worker stricken with a mysterious skin disease. Seeking assistance in uncovering the cause and cure of this affliction, he becomes trapped in a maze of a state insurance bureaucracy, helped only when his file reaches the desk of compassionate Mr. Kafka (Daniel Day-Lewis). Without attempting to ape Kafka, Bennett and director Richard Eyre grasp the tragicomic essence of his profound vision. The 1983 co-feature Intensive Care (unavailable for preview) stars Bennett as Midgely, a browbeaten teacher and family man summoned to the hospital bedside of his dying father, only to enjoy a liberating romp with an affectionate night nurse. The National Gallery’s program notes mysteriously indicate that Bennett’s 80-minute teleplay was “suggested by an incident in the life of Gandhi.”
The last, longest, and rarest presentation is scheduled for July 27: premieres of three television plays directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters). Although the programs are not available for preview, the scripts, included in Bennett’s collection The Writer in Disguise, promise an unforgettable evening. Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978) chronicles a pivotal day in the dreary life of Trevor Hopkins, an adult-education literature teacher at a North Wales technical school. The story opens with Trevor nervously encountering a ginger-haired girl in a doctor’s office. (Only in a Bennett play could a conversation open with a character confiding, “They’ve sent my sputum to Newcastle.”) Equally unsatisfying confrontations with his mother, yoga-instructor girlfriend, and assorted philistine pupils culminate in an eye-opening epiphany during Trevor’s visit to an infirmary escorted by a young male student. (Rodgers and Hammerstein would rotate in their coffins to learn how subversively Bennett reprises “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” at the fadeout.)
Afternoon Off (1979), set in an English seaside resort, follows a lonely Chinese waiter’s quest to locate a girl named Iris who reportedly fancies him. As Lee (Henry Man) wanders through the town, Bennett introduces a gallery of small-minded English types: fatuous tourists, dotty pool-playing pensioners, a xenophobic museum attendant, and a vengeful shopkeeper. One Fine Day (1979), which foreshadows David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, is about a real estate agent who, frustrated by his job and marriage, rebelliously camps out on the unfinished top floor of a white elephant property. The National Gallery will project these teleplaysonly half of Bennett’s astonishing output for London Weekend Television’s 1978-79 seasonon video.
In his invaluable A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes, “[B]ennett’s influence is climatic; he is an astringent dampener that seeps in everywherein theatre, prose, and journalism, almost in the way of sniffing the air suspiciously. Bennett is a model for the notion that wintry wariness may be the surest way to memorialize the passage of feelings in this headlong world….Nothing is to be treated lightly; he is a gatherer of his own small things, a genius of the quotidian.” Like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, similarly assembled from the contents of drawers, Bennett’s dramatic miniatures reveal more about ourselves and how we experience the world than the self-important theater/cinema pseudo-masterpieces that win instant applause and just as swiftly become obsolescent. Although this endorsement would no doubt cause him further embarrassment, “Alan Bennett’s England” is, undoubtedly, the artistic event of the season.CP
Screenings are at 6 p.m. each Sunday in July at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium.