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As part of the British Film Institute's Heads Talking Season, there was a showing of A Woman Of No Importance, Bennett's 1982 monologue starring Patricia Routledge, which in part led to the commissioning of the successful Talking Heads series. Alan Bennett then appeared in conversation with Samira Ahmed.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation mostly focused on monologues and his style of writing, so I've summarised here what he said as much as possible from my notes but the BFI did record the event, which should be available from its archive. I must apologise for the quality of the photo - unfortunately I was sitting in exactly the wrong position for the spotlight so none of my pictures came out particularly well.


Bennett said that he wrote monologues partly so that he could take more control of the production and that he'd originally intended to direct them but lost his nerve. He wasn't sure that the monologue form would work on television and wondered if it would be boring but his producer - Innes Lloyd - was very confident. He found it difficult to impress upon the production designer that he wanted a realistic but minimalistic design for the set and very little movement - he basically wanted the camera to go in and out on the actor, which was the approach he took when directing A Bed Among The Lentils, which the audience were shone a clip from:

He said that he was pleased if he could make people laugh and cry within a very small period of time and talked about Maggie Smith's ability to do that within the same line of dialogue.

He worked with most of the actors before so that they knew what they could do but that it isn't always straightforward. Sometimes he clashed with Patricia Routledge and Thora Hird, both of whom had thoughts of their own on the text. With Thora Hird, he said that she had an intrinsic trust in writers so even if she didn't agree with Bennett, she'd still do it - e.g. she wasn't happy to swear in Waiting For The Telegram (although her idea of swearing was the word "penis").

Bennett said that working with an actor is a collaboration but you need to be on the same wavelength. When working with Kenneth More on a stage production in 1970, he found that because More was the star his views prevailed and it made things difficult. However writers are primary in subsidised theatre like the National Theatre.

He said that he can write for women better than he can for men because he grew up with his mother and two voluble aunts so that when he writes dialogue it's their voices that prevail. He doesn't know if he's writing dialogue or dialect sometimes because their voices are so strong. He described his Aunt Kathleen as describing her days at work in "Proustian detail".

When asked about the view that people have of his work as "cosy" he said that he finds it a little irritating but that it's better than having people hate him or dislike him.

He learnt to do monologues in the process of writing them. He started out by thinking that they were unspoken thoughts and stream of consciousness but discovered that it's not that at all - they're full of action and tell quite strong stories. A monologue says what happens in the gap from one section to the next. However he finds that he can't write monologues now - he wrote 13 in total (2 sets of Talking Heads and A Woman Of No Importance). Of those 13, only two were monologues for men - one that he did and one with David Haig playing a paedophile, which Bennett found difficult to write.

The monologue is the oldest form in the world - if you can get the audience's attention at the start then you can hold their attention. You need to close in on the character - that's all you need to do.

There was then a clip from Waiting For The Telegram. Bennett said that Thora was in her late 80s when she filmed it and although she had an autocue for reassurance, she didn't need it. Everyone in the studio saw her as a grandma and she she finished weeping there was a long silence that she broke by asking if she should do the last bit again.

Ahmed asked him about his 1979 One Fine Day and what Ahmed described as a "visual monologue" that Dave Allan performs. Bennett said that he wrote it to try and find poetry in something he hated (modern tower blocks). Stephen Frears cast Dave Allan who Bennett thought was very good and he was surprised that Allan didn't do more on the strength of it.

Ahmed then moved on to Prick Up Your Ears. Bennett admitted that he hadn't really prepared for this In Conversation session beyond going back and re-reading Talking Heads. In general he doesn't go back and think about his past work because he wants to get on. He felt that Prick Up YOur Ears was a dry run for Stephen Frears to go on and do My Beautiful Launderette. He felt that Prick Up Your Ears was too modestly done but liked the silly bits in it - pointing to the line that Julie Walters has - "I bet Dirk Bogarde never distempered his mother's bedspread".

The conversation moved on to homosexuality, rent boys and attitudes in the light of the Jimmy Saville scandal. Talking about The Habit Of Art, he said that it was more or less factual. Auden did have rent boys and apparently they had to be very punctual or he'd not let them in. Bennett referred to the rent boys in the play in order to try and lighten it. In The History Boys he said that he had the boys shrug off Hector's behaviour and regard him as something they have to put up with because Bennett feels that it's as close to young people's views as he can get. He does think that there's a generational difference about Hector's behaviour. Bennett takes a more forgiving attitude but his partner (who is younger than him) is more censorious. When Bennett was younger it was something that just happened but it was never more serious than a trouser grope. He said that maybe it did leave a mark on him but it was also beneficial because he's ended up writing about it.

Bennett said that he hasn't written anything for ITV or BBC since Innes Lloyd died in 1992 because Lloyd made it so easy and it's all so complicated now.

He frequently gets sent monologues by students and other writers and they usually go about it in the wrong way. Bennett said that a writer giving advice isn't helpful because a writer can only say what he does. The form that most people use for the monologue is that of a person speaking their innermost thoughts but that's boring - they should say things that are prompted by their innermost thoughts. If you tell a compelling story then it should draw people in. He mentioned that in Playing Sandwiches you realise within 5 or 10 minutes that something's wrong with the character and that something terrible is going to happen. You have to know it's wrong but at the same time it must enlarge your understanding and your sympathy.

Ahmed asked him what he watched and he said that it was mainly rubbish - Midsummer Murders but not Scandanavian dramas or soaps. He said that he'd liked The League of Gentlemen, watches Dad's Army repeats and likes The Big Bang Theory.

The conversation was then opened up to questions from the audience. The main points I took away from it were the following:

- Asked why he didn't write monologues anymore he said it's because he hasn't been able to think about convincing characters and so he finds himself unable to do it.

- He was asked if he had a computer and said that he did have one and had begun to use it but it got stolen.

- In A Woman Of No Importance, he said the character believed that she was the centre of the world and even when she was dying she thought that everything revolved around her. She was slightly based on Bennett's aunt. He doesn't want to know more than he needs to know about his characters because if he knows too much then he can't do it. All the characters are telling you one story but the audience is gleaning a second story from what they're saying and is always one step ahead of the character.

- Asked who he'd like to write for, he mentioned Paul Schofield (who almost played Blunt in A Question Of Attribution) and Michael Gambon (who was in rehearsals for The Habit Of Art but became ill and had to drop out).

- Bennett's just grateful to be able to go on writing. He feels that he's lucky because playwrights usually have a vogue rather than a long writing life so he's very grateful to the National Theatre because they've taken all of his plays - even the ones that he didn't think they'd want to do.

Afterwards, Alan Bennett agreed to sign books for the audience and he signed this for me:



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 8th, 2013 01:21 am (UTC)
I'm sure you would treasure that. I know I would.

On our last visit Over the Pond, we saw Maggie Smith starring as Miss Shepherd in the stage adaptation of Bennett's Lady in the Van. For all the tourists who swarmed to Cats, or to see Kathleen Turner vamp her way through The Graduate as Mrs. Robinson, there were at least we two who knew where to find capital-T theatre there:)
Mar. 8th, 2013 10:44 pm (UTC)
Oh I'm totally made up about it. It's pride of place in my To Read pile. :)
Mar. 8th, 2013 08:25 am (UTC)
Thank you for such a factual and long report! I so wopuld love to have been there... What about the atmosphere, was it relaxed?
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 8th, 2013 10:46 pm (UTC)
Cheers, Dave!
Mar. 8th, 2013 10:45 pm (UTC)
The atmosphere was very cosy actually - audience was actually more mixed than I'd imagined and everyone was clearly a fan or admirer. It was just a really nice evening.
Mar. 10th, 2013 08:52 am (UTC)
Thank you, Caroline,
Very interesting write up.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline Hooton

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