Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett

Life and work

Bennett was born in Armley in Leeds, Yorkshire. The son of a Co-op butcher, Bennett attended Leeds Modern School (a former state grammar school), learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists during his National Service, and gained a place at Cambridge University. However, having spent time in Cambridge during national service, and partly wishing to follow the object of his unrequited love, he decided to apply for a scholarship at Oxford University. He was accepted by Exeter College, Oxford University and went on to receive a first-class degree in history. While at Oxford he performed comedy with a number of future successful actors in the Oxford Revue. He was to remain at Oxford for several years researching and teaching Medieval History before deciding he was not cut out to be an academic.

He 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.

In August 1960, Bennett, along with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook, achieved instant fame by appearing at the Edinburgh Festival in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. After the Festival, the show continued in London and New York. He also appeared in My Father Knew Lloyd George. Bennett's first stage play, Forty Years On, was produced in 1968. Many television, stage and radio plays followed, along with screenplays, short stories, novellas, a large body of non-fictional prose and broadcasting, and many appearances as an actor. The recordings of Bennett's highly regarded 1966 television comedy sketch series On the Margin are notorious for having been erased.

Bennett's lugubrious yet expressive voice (which still bears a strong and distinctive Leeds accent) and the sharp humour and evident humanity of his writing have made his readings of his own work (especially his autobiographical writing) very popular. His readings of the Winnie the Pooh stories are also widely enjoyed.

Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden, or meek and overlooked. Life has brought them to an impasse, or else passed them by altogether. In many cases they have met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and a failure to connect with others.

Bennett is both unsparing and compassionate in laying bare his characters' frailties. This can be seen in his television plays for LWT in the late 1970s and the BBC in the early 1980s, and in 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 of which depicted 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, and progressing to a bleak or ambiguous conclusion. A second set of six Talking Heads pieces followed a decade later.

In his 2005 prose collection Untold Stories Bennett has written candidly and movingly of the mental illness that afflicted his mother and other family members. 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 ("It'll take more than Dairy Box to banish memories of Pearl Harbor"), the range and daring of his work is often undervalued ? his television play The Old Crowd, for example, includes shots of the director and technical crew, while his stage play The Lady in the Van includes two characters named Alan Bennett. The Lady in the Van was based on his experiences with a tramp called Miss Shepherd who lived on Bennett's driveway in a dilapidated van for fifteen years.

In 1994 Bennett adapted his popular and much-praised 1991 play The Madness of George III for the cinema as The Madness of King George. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including 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 Olivier Awards in February 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 himself received an Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theater.

The History Boys also went on to win 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 the UK on 13 October 2006. Bennett discussed the play and its themes in an interview on STV.

Bennett was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford in 1987. He was also awarded a D.Litt by the University of Leeds in 1990. However in 1998 Bennett refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, in protest at its accepting funding for a named chair in honour of press baron Rupert Murdoch.[4] He also declined a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996.

In September 2005, Bennett revealed that, in 1997, he had undergone treatment for cancer, and described the illness as a "bore". His chances of survival were given as being "much less" than 50%. He began Untold Stories (published 2005) thinking it would be published posthumously. In the event his cancer went into remission. In the autobiographical sketches which form a large part of the book Bennett writes openly for the first time about his homosexuality (Bennett has had relationships with women as well, although this is only touched upon in Untold Stories). Previously Bennett had referred to questions about his sexuality as being like asking a man dying of thirst to choose between Perrier or Malvern mineral water.

Bennett earned Honorary Membership of The Coterie in the 2007 membership list.

Bennett has lived in Camden Town in London for thirty years, and shares his home with Rupert Thomas, his partner for the last fourteen years.

Bibliography and filmography

Television work

My Father Knew Lloyd George (also writer), 1965
Famous Gossips, 1965
Plato?The Drinking Party, 1965
Alice in Wonderland, 1966
On the Margin series (actor & writer), 1966-67
A Day Out (also writer), 1972
Sunset Across the Bay (also writer), 1975
A Little Outing (also writer), 1975
A Visit from Miss Prothero (writer), 1978
Me?I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (writer), 1978
Doris and Doreen (Green Forms) (writer), 1978
The Old Crowd (writer) with Lindsay Anderson (director), LWT 1979
Afternoon Off (writer), 1979
One Fine Day (writer), 1979
All Day On the Sands (writer), 1979
Objects of Affection (Our Winnie, A Woman of No Importance, Rolling Home, Marks, Say Something Happened, Intensive Care) (also writer), 1982
The Merry Wives of Windsor (actor), 1982
An Englishman Abroad (writer), 1983
The Insurance Man (writer), 1986
Breaking Up, 1986
Man and Music (narrator), 1986
Talking Heads (A Chip in the Sugar, Bed Among the Lentils, A Lady of Letters, Her Big Chance, Soldiering On, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) (also writer), 1987
Down Cemetery Road: The Landscape of Philip Larkin (presenter), 1987
Fortunes of War series (actor), 1987
Dinner at Noon (narrator), 1988
Poetry in Motion (presenter), 1990
102 Boulevard Haussmann (writer), 1990
A Question of Attribution (writer), 1991
Selling Hitler, 1991
Poetry in Motion 2 (presenter), 1992
Portrait or Bust (presenter), 1994
The Abbey (presenter), 1995
A Dance to the Music of Time (actor), 1997
Talking Heads 2, 1998
Telling Tales (writer, as himself), 2000


Long Shot, 1980
Dreamchild (voice only), 1985
The Secret Policeman's Ball, 1986
The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, 1982
A Private Function (screenplay), 1986
Pleasure At Her Majesty's, 1987
Prick Up Your Ears (screenplay), 1987
Little Dorrit, 1987
Wind in the Willows animated adaptation, 1994
Parson's Pleasure (writer), 1995
The Madness of King George (screenplay from his play "The Madness of George III"), 1995
The History Boys (screenplay, from his play of the same name), 2006


The Great Jowett, 1980
Dragon, 1982
Uncle Clarence (writer, narrator), 1985
Better Halves (narrator), 1988
The Lady in the Van (writer, narrator), 1990
Winnie-the-Pooh (narrator), 1990


Better Late, 1959
Beyond the Fringe (also co-writer), 1960
The Blood of the Bambergs, 1962
A Cuckoo in the Nest, 1964
Forty Years On (also writer), 1968
Sing a Rude Song (co-writer), 1969
Getting On (writer), 1971
Habeas Corpus (also writer), 1973
The Old Country (writer), 1977
Enjoy (writer), 1980
Kafka's Dick (writer), 1986
A Visit from Miss Prothero (writer), 1987
Single Spies (An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution) (also writer and director), 1988
The Wind in the Willows (adaptation), 1990
The Madness of George III (writer), 1991
Talking Heads (Waiting for the telegram, A Chip in the Sugar, Bed Among the Lentils, A Lady of Letters, Her Big Chance, Soldiering On, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) (also writer), 1992
The History Boys (writer), 2004; Winner of Tony Award for Best Play, 2006.


Beyond the Fringe (with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore). London: Souvenir Press, 1962, and New York: Random House, 1963
Forty Years On. London: Faber, 1969
Getting On. London: Faber, 1972
Habeas Corpus. London: Faber, 1973
The Old Country. London: Faber, 1978
Enjoy. London: Faber, 1980
Office Suite. London: Faber, 1981
Objects of Affection. London: BBC Publications, 1982
A Private Function. London: Faber, 1984
Forty Years On; Getting On; Habeas Corpus. London: Faber, 1985
The Writer in Disguise. London: Faber, 1985
Prick Up Your Ears. London: Faber, 1987
Two Kafka Plays. London: Faber, 1987
Talking Heads. London: BBC Publications, 1988; New York: Summit, 1990
Single Spies. London: Faber, 1989
Winner of Olivier Award: England's best comedy for 1989
Single Spies and Talking Heads. New York: Summit, 1990
The Lady in the Van, 1989
Poetry in Motion (with others). 1990
The Wind in the Willows. London: Faber, 1991
Forty Years On and Other Plays. London: Faber, 1991
The Madness of George III. London: Faber, 1992
Poetry in Motion 2 (with others). 1992
Writing Home (memoir & essays). London: Faber, 1994 (winner of the 1995 British Book of the Year award).
The Madness of King George (screenplay), 1995
Father ! Father ! Burning Bright (prose version of 1982 TV script, Intensive Care), 1999
The Laying on of Hands (novella), 2000
The Clothes They Stood Up In (novella), 2001
Untold Stories (autobiographical and essays), London, Faber/Profile Books, 2005, ISBN 0-571-22830-5
The Uncommon Reader (novella), 2007


Soins intensifs, 2006
Der Rote Baron, Sein letzter Flug, 2001
Vater, Vater, lichterloh, 2002
Così fan tutte, (previously published as Alle Jahre wieder) 2003
Die Lady im Lieferwagen, 2004
Handauflegen, 2005
La pazzia di re Giorgio, 1996
Nudi e crudi, 2001
La cerimonia del massaggio, 2002
La signora nel furgone, 2003
Signore e signori, 2004
Scritto sul corpo, 2006
Il Letto di Lenticchie, ????

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