Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Happy Birthday to 'History Boys' Playwright Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett was born today, May 9, in 1934, making him 84. He is an English playwright, screenwriter, actor, and author. He was born in Leeds and attended Oxford University where he studied history and performed with the Oxford Revue. He stayed to teach and research medieval history at the university for several years. 

His collaboration as writer and performer with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival brought him instant fame. He gave up academia, and turned to writing full-time, his first stage play Forty Years On produced in 1968.

His work includes The Madness of George III and its film adaptation, the series of monologues Talking Heads, the play and subsequent film of The History Boys, and popular audio books, including his readings of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh.
As an actor, Bennett often found himself playing vicars and claims that as an adolescent he assumed he would grow up to be a Church of England clergyman, for no better reason than that he looked like one.

Perhaps his most famous screen work is the 1987 Talking Heads series of monologues for television which were later performed at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1992. This was a sextet of poignantly comic pieces, each depicting several stages in the character's decline from an initial state of denial or ignorance of their predicament, through a slow realization of the hopelessness of their situation, progressing to a bleak or ambiguous conclusion. A second set of six Talking Heads followed a decade later, which was darker and more disturbing.

In his 2005 prose collection, Untold Stories, Bennett wrote candidly and movingly of the mental illness that his mother and other family members suffered. Much of his work draws on his Leeds background and while he is celebrated for his acute observations of a particular type of northern speech.

He wrote The Lady in the Van based on his experiences with an eccentric woman called Miss Shepherd, who lived on Bennett's driveway in a series of dilapidated vans for more than 15 years. It was first published in 1989 as an essay in the London Review of Books. In 1990 he published it in book form. In 1999 he adapted it into a stage play, which starred Maggie Smith and was directed by Nicholas Hytner. 

Bennett adapted his 1991 play The Madness of George III for the cinema. Entitled The Madness of King George (1994), the film received four Academy Award nominations: for Bennett's writing and the performances of Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren. It won the award for best art direction.

Bennett's critically acclaimed The History Boys won three Laurence Olivier Awards in 2005, for Best New Play, Best Actor (Richard Griffiths), and Best Direction (Nicholas Hytner), having previously won Critics' Circle Theatre Awards and Evening Standard Awards for Best Actor and Best Play. Bennett also received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre. The History Boys won six Tony Awards on Broadway, including best play, best performance by a leading actor in a play (Richard Griffiths), best performance by a featured actress in a play (Frances de la Tour), and best direction of a play (Nicholas Hytner). A film version of The History Boys was released in 2006.

Bennett lives in Camden Town in London, with his partner Rupert Thomas (at left with Bennett in the photo to the right), the editor of World of Interiors magazine. Bennett also had a long-term relationship with his former housekeeper, Anne Davies, until her death in 2009.

From a 2015 interview with the Guardian:
He wouldn’t have come out while his parents were alive, anyway. “It would have distressed both of them. People talk about coming out to their parents, and I just didn’t see the point of that. In my case, coming out about what? Nothing was happening – I might be gay but I didn’t have a partner or anything, so there was no point.” There was also, anyway, a decade-long relationship with a woman, 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, he says, “very beautiful”. At the time of the relationship he enjoyed the sense of wrongfooting people: “I think I probably got some satisfaction from thinking, ‘Well, everyone assumes I am gay.’”

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

One who (for a change) fully deserves the over-conferred title of 'National Treasure'.