May 9, 1934- Alan Bennett:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is even long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” The History Boys
Bennett is a playwright, professor, screenwriter, and actor. He first became noted for Beyond The Fringe (1960), a rather brilliant satirical revue which he co-wrote and performed with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Jonathan Miller. It played in London’s West End and then on Broadway and then toured for much of the early 1960s. Hugely successful, it is widely regarded as seminal to the rise of satirical comedy in 1960s Britain, a big influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Its original Broadway cast album was a bestseller, and most hip kids, or their parents, seemed to own a copy when I was a youth.
Much of his career has been given to writing about ironically comic emotionally-stunted characters whose chance at happiness is highly unlikely and for whom unrequited love is simply redundant. His work is mostly, but not exclusively, gay-themed. There is An Englishman Abroad (1983), about gay traitor Guy Burgess’s chance encounter with Coral Browne; Prick Up Your Ears (1987) about gay playwright Joe Orton, murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell; The Madness of King George III (1991) and its film version in 1994, about a mentally ill monarch; A Question Of Attribution (1988), a comedy about a Russian spy, Anthony Blunt.
His greatest work is probably his most popular, The History Boys (2004), about a much-loved teacher at a boys’ school accused of fondling a student. It won many awards, including the Laurence Olivier Award and six Tony Awards including Best Play. The London and Broadway production featured Richard Griffiths, James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey. It was adapted to film by Bennett in 2006 directed by gay director Nicholas Hytner featuring the original stage cast. This is an extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening film, available on Netflix.
There is also Bennett’s highly successful series of wry, touching monologues for television, Talking Heads (1987 and 1997). At The National Theatre, Hytner directed Bennett’s play The Habit Of Art (2009), about the affair between gay poet W.H. Auden and gay composer Benjamin Britten.
In 2005, Bennett revealed that, in 1997, he had undergone cancer treatment with his doctors giving him “much less” than a 50% chance of survival. He began a memoir, Untold Stories, with the idea that it would be published posthumously, but his cancer went into remission. In the book, Bennett writes openly for the first time about his gayness, even though he had been with his partner, Rupert Thomas, the editor of World Of Interiors magazine, for more than two decades. Previously, Bennett had referred to questions about his sexuality as “like asking a man who has just crawled across the Sahara desert to choose between Perrier or Malvern mineral water.” Now, he speaks quite candidly about his sexuality, for a Brit.
Bennett also writes charming fiction. The Clothes They Stood Up In (1998) is about a middle-aged married couple who return from the theatre to discover their flat has been robbed of absolutely everything. The Uncommon Reader (2007) is a tale of Queen Elizabeth II’s newfound love of literature thanks to a gay teenager. His wittily titled Smut is a collection of very short gay-themed stories.
One of his most curious works is The Lady In The Van based on his real experiences with an eccentric woman who lived on Bennett’s driveway in a series of dilapidated vans for more than 15 years. It began as a radio play in 2009 with Maggie Smith and Bennett playing himself. Next it was published as a book. Bennett then adapted The Lady In The Van for the stage with Smith starring. In 2015, a film version, directed by Hytner, was released to critical acclaim, once again with Maggie Smith, but with Alex Jennings appearing as two versions of Bennett. Bennett himself appears in a cameo at the very end of the film.
About being gay and partnered, Bennett wrote:
“It’s a thing about being beholden, about not being beholden to anyone. I didn’t want to be in anybody’s pocket, that’s why I didn’t want to be thought to be gay, particularly. Pigeonholed. And then as you get older it just ceases to matter. The times changed. Rupert and I have been together for 25 years, you see, so it’s never been an issue since then.”
There is also a little matter of a decade-long relationship with a woman, his former housekeeper, Anne Davies, who died in 2009:
“It started off just as a fling, really, but we became very fond of each other. She overlapped with Rupert and so it ended, and then she came to Yorkshire and lived next door. To begin with, not surprisingly, she didn’t get on with Rupert, but then she became ill and she became closer to Rupert than she was to me, really. She was very beautiful I think I probably got some satisfaction from thinking, ‘Well, everyone assumes I am gay.'”
Bennett declined a knighthood in 1996. He stated that he would never wish to be knighted, because:
“It would be a bit like having to wear a suit for the rest of one’s life.”
He is a Socialist and a Royalist, and of the current political climate, Bennett said:
“I went through a rather prissy period immediately after Brexit. I’d ask people if they voted in or out. And, if they’d voted out, I wouldn’t give them a selfie. But it started to seem rather mean, so I stopped doing it.”