Lost Jokes

Alan Bennett

In 1969 I had a letter from a producer in BBC Radio saying he’d fished out an old script of mine from the pool and thought it might have possibilities for a radio play. I liked the idea of a producer at Portland Place dredging up drama from a pool of old paperwork but he was six months too late, and I smugly wrote back, pointing out that the play in question, Forty Years On, was already running in the West End.

In fairness, the version of the play put on at the Apollo in 1968 was very different from the one I’d submitted to the BBC two years before. There was no mention of Albion House, the rundown public school which is the setting for the play, nor of the Headmaster, whose retirement is the occasion for the presentation of ‘Speak for England, Arthur’, the play within the play. The memoirs of T.E. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf occur in the original script and the visit to the country house on the eve of the First War, but these are presented as the memories of Hugh and Moggie, the upper-class couple who sit out the Second World War in the basement of Claridge’s. The transitions in time and the representation of memory, which are hard to bring off on the stage, are the stock-in-trade of radio, but I’m thankful now the BBC put this first script on the discard pile, thus forcing me to rewrite it in the version eventually produced on the stage. What the letter did remind me of was the struggle I’d had finding the play a shape.

To begin with, most of the parodies in the play I’d written separately and stockpiled, hoping vaguely to put together a kind of literary revue. When I began to think in more narrative terms these parodies proved a stumbling-block, as I found I had to create characters who could conceivably have had memories of, say, the age of Oscar Wilde, Lawrence of Arabia and of Bloomsbury. Hence the Claridge’s couple, Hugh and Moggie. When I subsequently hit on the (fairly obvious) idea of a school play, with the school itself a loose metaphor for England, it resolved much that had made me uneasy. It had all been too snobbish for a start, but once in the context of the school play, which guyed them just as much as it celebrated them, Hugh and Moggie and Nursie, their Nanny, became more acceptable. They’re still quite snobbish, of course, and certainly not the common man. But to put a play within a play is to add another frame which enables one to introduce more jokes, but also more irony as references within the play find echoes outside it. Jokes like the Headmaster’s ‘Thirty years ago today, Tupper, the Germans marched into Poland and you’re picking your nose’; ironies like Churchill announcing peace in Europe in 1945 just as the boys in the present day fling themselves into a fierce fight.

The play enshrines some terrible jokes. One way of looking at Forty Years On is as an elaborate life-support system for the preservation of bad jokes. ‘Sandy will accompany you, disguised as a waiter. That should at least secure you the entrée.’ One of the boys is called Lord. It’s true that there was such a boy at Giggleswick School from whose prospectus I pinched some of the names, but he’s only so called in order to furnish the Headmaster, wandering about holding his empty coffee cup, with the blasphemous joke ‘Lord, take this cup from me.’ The child does so. ‘Thank you, Lord.’ But I like bad jokes and always have, and when an audience groans at a pun it’s often only because they wish they’d thought of it first, or at any rate seen it coming in time to duck.

Besides, these bad jokes were the survivors; even worse jokes had bit the dust along the way. When the play opened in Manchester it included a piece about the first London visit of the Diaghilev ballet in 1911.

A boy got up as Nijinsky, dressed as the faun in ‘L’Après-Midi’, dances behind a gauze, while downstage the practice pianist reminisces: Ah yes. Nijinsky. I suppose I am the only person now able to recall one of the most exciting of his ballets, the fruit of an unlikely collaboration between Nijinsky on the one hand and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the other. It was the only detective story in ballet and was called The Inspectre de la Rose. The choreography was by Fokine. It wasn’t up to much. The usual Fokine rubbish.

Ordinarily, good taste in the person of the Lord Chamberlain would have put paid to that last joke. But this was 1968, and Forty Years On was one of the plays on his desk when the Lord Chamberlain’s powers expired and stage censorship was abolished.

There were other jokes, equally bad but more ‘satirical’. At one point Field Marshal Earl Haig strode on, in bright red gloves: ‘As you all know, I have just this minute returned from the First World War. Indeed, so recently have I returned I haven’t had time to wash my hands.’ And much more in the same vein. The play was such a ragbag I even considered including a story about Earl Haig at Durham Cathedral. The Field Marshal was being shown round by the dean when they paused at the tomb of the Venerable Bede. Haig regarded it thoughtfully for a moment, then said: ‘Of course. Bede. Now he was a woman, wasn’t he?’ It’s a good example of scrambled memory, but the laborious explanations that I had to go into with the cast decided me against inflicting it on an audience.

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