An Audience with Alan Bennett
Part of Morrisseys Meltdown 2004
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 17 June, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Alan Bennett – in trademark shabby suit, looking like the old-style History schoolmasters celebrated in his new play for the National Theatre “The History Boys” – graced the Queen Elizabeth Hall as the only literary figure in this year’s “Meltdown”, curated by fellow Northerner (Steven) Morrissey.
Amongst many off-the-cuff anecdotes that frequented both the introduction and the question-and-answer session of this entertaining 90 minutes, Bennett admitted that what he was most worried about in the early 90s was Morrissey appearing for tea at Bennett’s Camden house (Morrissey self-invited by sticking a note through the door) and that he only goes by one name. Somewhat suspicious, Bennett said he’d never actually called Morrissey to his face by any name.
He mentioned Morrissey quite often on this night, even when regaling us with the tale that for “The History Boys” he’d dropped a Smiths’ song in favour of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin” (Morrissey, sitting in the audience, looked somewhat pained). Bennett admitted that he’d read all of Morrissey’s lyrics and quite liked them. He back-tracked slightly on written criticism on Virginia Woolf, and railed against the arrogant right-wing revisionist historians like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, while forgiving David Starkey for simply putting it on for effect!
There was even a musical reference (if one is needed for a music review site such as this!) – arising from a question as to his passable likeness (denied) to David Hockney. One time in Italy he was approached in a café to sign a handsome album which, he realised was full of great opera-associated autographs associated: Pavarotti, Zefferelli et al. Realising at the same moment that the formidable proprietoress had mistaken him for Hockney and that to protest the truth would cause unnecessary offence, he duly signed the album ‘David Hockney’ and even proffered a sketch, which might not be worth as much as she may think!
Bennett was alone on stage with just a central lectern and a chair with a coffee table to one side. From the former, to begin, he delivered two set pieces, the first an affectionate memory of war-time radio-shows, and the second a previously written memory of the women in his family – mainly his aunts. A final, much shorter, reading from a play took us to his grandmother’s house as Bennett regaled us with a minute description of the detritus on the mantelpiece, ending in a bravura flight of fantasy about a fanciful future when each of those pieces of detritus achieved its own fulfilment.
Moving to the chair and coffee table, Bennett seemed to become even more relaxed, but certainly more stammering of speech – as he considered each question, about his book-reading habits, his likes in comedy (from George Formby to “The League of Gentlemen” and “Little Britain”), what he is currently writing, and memories of such collaborators as Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Thora Hird.
Bennett comes over as a throwback, much of his writing determined by his view of the world as a ten-year-old during the war (he is now 70). But woven through the nostalgia is a wonderful sense of character and of universal emotions. His comments in his opening piece about the ‘cheeky chappy’ comedians during the war – none of which Bennett ever found funny, because their acts were based on wise-cracks about others, without ever finding humour, self-deprecatingly, in their own personalities – proved a point about his own astute human observations. The reason he has been so successful is that he can, apparently effortlessly, make us recognise ourselves and, within an overall feeling of aimlessness, shine bright shafts of ‘the ridiculous’.
And perhaps that is where the connection comes in between Morrissey and Bennett There is a world-weary resignation and a certain knowing impotence in both their sideways glances at their respective worlds, although – to my taste – Bennett wins hands down because of his sheer sense of humour.
A very amusing, charming evening – perhaps not the funniest “Meltdown” show (Barry Humphries as both Dame Edna Everidge and Sir Les Patterson during Nick Cave’s “Meltdown” probably takes that crown) – but following in a fine Meltdown tradition (often forgotten) of non-musical contributions, such as Spalding Grey, Ivor Cutler, Billie Whitelaw reminiscing about Samuel Beckett, and even a fully-staged performance of “Waiting for Godot”.