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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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History of a Yorkshire Boy at the grand old age of 90

The Times recently ran a story which contained these words ‘Alan Bennett, who is from Yorkshire.' That surely falls into the category of things which never need saying, like ‘Suella Braverman is my favourite politician’ or ‘the Daily Drone is the world’s greatest online newspaper.’


On Thursday Bennett turns 90 and, when he was a mere 82, we shared a publisher, Profile Books. I was in the Profile office to discuss my commission to write Floreat Collegium, the official history of my old school (a right rivetin’ read – Daily Star) and Bennett to sign a mountain of his updated Untold Stories. I would like to say that we chatted at length about our efforts but we didn’t. It was a polite and shy hello from him (not that Yorkshire staple ‘Ow Do) and a delighted smiley acknowledgment from me. I did however nearly knock over his trusty bike as I arrived for my meeting.


I’ve been an admirer of Bennett since his Beyond the Fringe days and I particularly like the fact that he doesn’t fall into the obvious professional Yorkshireman category (we all know them: Sir Larry ‘I wouldn’t wash me fookin’ car with this’ Lamb and the miserable grouch Boycott.) Bennett wears his roots subtly, finding a nice teacake or fondant fancy in Betty’s, Harrogate preferable to a pint of Timothy Taylor’s or Old Peculier (Prof Ryle: note correct spelling.) Everything he writes is based on memory, acute  observation and gentle whimsy and is very funny but rarely laugh out loud.


There are exceptions of course. An Englishman Abroad tells the true story of the actress Coral Browne’s encounter in Moscow with Guy Burgess. This sad and homesick traitor asks Browne to measure him for new suits and on her return to London go to his tailor, Gieves and Hawkes in Jermyn Street, (alas no Red Square branch) to have them made up and charged to his account. She asks the rather grand assistant if this purchase, which included an OE tie, could be treated as confidential. ‘Madam, mum’s the word, from Moscow to Maidenhead, mum is always the word.’


Bennett has Browne musing that if Burgess had lived longer (he died of a heart attack in 1963, aged just 52) he might have been allowed back. ‘After all in England if you live to be 90 and can still eat a boiled egg they think you deserve a Nobel prize.’ Now that AB is on the cusp of that milestone he would probably turn down the award as he has every honour offered so far. But he would be terribly polite about it.


Bennett’s other outing on treachery is A Question of Attribution and centres on the relationship between Sir Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and his distinguished client who, we are led to believe, might have had some inclination for a while about his activities on behalf of the Comrades.


In a foreword to the play, Bennett says the bisexual Blunt was seen by a colleague at the Courtauld Institute canoodling on a sofa with a woman. An hour later the same colleague saw him still canoodling but this time with a man. ‘Oh Anthony,’ said the observer, ’you’re so fickle.’ ‘Yes’, said Blunt, ‘but remember, many a fickle makes a fuckle.’


We have seen most of his works on the stage as well as the film versions. At a performance of The Lady in the Van just before the curtain went up Bennett walked on stage to apologise profusely that the actor Nicholas Farrell could not appear because his wife was giving birth. Farrell was due to play one of two Bennetts on stage, one the playwright and the other the landlord who had to deal with the consequences of the awful Miss Shepherd (I know it’s a bit of an artifice but it works.) And for some unexplained reason, there was no understudy so Bennett had to play one of the two Bennetts (still with me?)


The trouble was, as Bennett told us, although he wrote the play he couldn’t remember the lines so appeared throughout on stage reading from the script. It quite made our night.


My favourite is The History Boys, both the play and the film, based loosely on his experience of  cramming for Oxford at his Leeds grammar school. It has all the right ingredients, it’s sad, nostalgic, ultimately tragic and very funny with a cast of understated stars like the late Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and introduced us to a young James Corden and Dominic Cooper as the cocky sixth former Rudge. He has Bennett’s best line: ‘Define history please Rudge.’ ‘May I speak frankly Miss? It’s just one fucking thing after another.’


Happy Birthday Mr B.

*****

The former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, now Lord King of Lothbury, is to be the next chairman of the MCC. This prompted The Times Diary to remember young Mervyn’s regret at not being picked for the Varsity match when he was at King’s College, Cambridge and a decent batsman. ‘I had hoped to score a century in the match at Lord’s so the headline could have been King of King’s is Lord of Lord’s’. As the Diary ruefully pointed out, given the wretched English weather, he might have had to add ‘and he rains for ever and ever’.

*****

Last word from Suella Braverman on Laura Kuenssberg discussing the local election results: ‘Starmer has all the charisma of a peanut overseeing a rabble of hard-left maniacs.’ She’s obviously been spending too much time with those good old boys at the Neasden Omnibus Terminus.


 ALAN FRAME


6 May 2024