“Kindly, cosy and essentially harmless”: Alan Bennett in his own words
A review of the audio release of Keeping On Keeping On, the latest anthology of the author and playwright's observations, recollections and reminiscences.
“Robert Hanks, the radio critic of the Independent, remarks that personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel?”
The diary entry from 18 October 2005 typifies this wry, occasionally riotous dip into the world of the self-effacing, politely peevish and (whisper it) deeply popular author, playwright and performer.
Keeping On Keeping On is an abridgement of the bestselling book of the same name, as recorded for BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Bennett narrates amused and affronted observations from his diaries and notebooks, with each year from 2005 and 2014 compressed into an deliciously digestible quarter of an hour.
Bennett first found fame as a satirist, and his singular, expressive voice, easy humour and critical compassion are evident throughout his writing for theatre, radio, TV and film – including various manifestations of Talking Heads, The Madness of King George, The Lady in the Van and The History Boys.
image via BBC
He has also narrated hugely popular audio versions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh. Here his topics range from the intensely personal to the unapologetically political, all delivered with his trademark wit, perceptiveness and targeted anger.
This was a decade in which Tony Blair failed to recover political ground lost in the wake of the Iraq War, and his ‘prudent’ successor Gordon Brown crashed and burned along with the world economy, leaving David Cameron to fall into an accidental coalition with the Lib Dems.
In a packed writing schedule, Bennett wrote and staged four acclaimed plays – The Habit of Art, People, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, and adapted both The History Boys and The Lady in the Van for the screen. He reflects on his working and domestic life, including continuing collaborations with Sir Nicholas Hytner and the National Theatre, past performances and escapades with Beyond the Fringe cohorts Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, the passing of old friends such as Alan Sillitoe, Richard Griffiths and John Fortune, and tying the knot in a civil ceremony with long-term partner Rupert Thomas.
Here’s a clip about the nature of diary-keeping, what he gleaned early on from Joe Orton, lunch with Michael Palin and Barry Cryer, and a Berlusconi-free trip to Rome.
And there are plenty more pithy gems down the years.
Inside Tony Blair’s head in the wake of the London bombings:
“Let’s pretend it’s the Blitz, and bags me be Churchill.”
On the misguided appropriation of W.H. Auden as ‘poet of Cumbria’ on the 100th anniversary of his birth:
“Everything about him was urban. He wanted opera, libraries, restaurants, rent boys – all the appurtenances of civilisation. You don’t find them in Penrith.”
On his own image:
“I seem to have banged on this year rather more than usual. I make no apology for that, nor am I nervous that it will it make a jot of difference. I shall still be thought to be kindly, cosy and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeonhole marked ‘no threat’, and did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork, I should still be a teddy bear.”
A remark by his mother from his notebooks:
“I wouldn’t want to be as bald as that. You’d never know where to stop washing your face.”
On a double-edged mention in the Independent:
“The article is about the decline of Northern drollery, of which I am an example. Though whether of the drollery or its decline, I’m not sure.”
Speaking at the Occupy London camp at St Paul’s:
“Hitler generally gets the blame for the destruction of London, but by comparison with the demolition wrought by the banks and the City corporations, the Führer was a conservationist.”
This is an irresistible compendium of wit, wisdom, insight and razor-sharp social commentary, peppered with gleeful jokes and honed barbs. Perfect in small doses on the daily commute, or at full length on a car journey up north.
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