Diary

Alan Bennett

13 January. Having supper in the National Theatre restaurant are Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert. ‘I suppose you like this place,’ says Lindsay. I do, actually, as the food is now very good. I say so and Lindsay, who judges all restaurants by the standard of the Cosmo in Finchley Road, smiles wearily, pleased to be reassured about one’s moral decline.

Gavin L. is en route for Tangier to see Paul Bowles. I say that Bowles must be quite old now.

‘Yes,’ says Gavin, ‘82.’

‘That’s not so old,’ says Lindsay.

‘Well it’s a funny age, 82,’ says Gavin. ‘I’ve known several people of 82 who haven’t made it to 83.’

I don’t think this is meant as a joke.

15 January. Go into the chemist in Camden High Street to find a down-at-heel young man not quite holding the place to ransom but effectively terrorising the shop. He keeps pulling items off the shelves, and waving them in the face of the blonde assistant saying: ‘This is mine. And this is mine. The whole shop’s mine. It’s bought with my money. So don’t you order me out of the shop, you fucking cow. I allow you to work here.’ The mild, rather donnish Asian pharmacist is a bit nonplussed and as he serves me I offer to go next door to Marks and Spencer for their security man. But the blonde assistant is pluckily standing her ground. The young man has a really mean face and the pharmacist thinks the best thing is to wait until he goes. Which he is doing when he spots a small woman in her sixties at the other end of the counter looking at cosmetics. ‘And that goes for you too,’ he says, shoving his face into hers and taking a handful of eyeliners.

Suddenly the little lady erupts.

‘Right,’ she says, ‘I’m a policewoman,’ and she brandishes her identification in his face as they do in police series. ‘You’re nicked.’ She isn’t exactly an intimidating figure and he’s practically out of the shop now anyway but it seems to decide him – he darts off into the bustle of the High Street. ‘I wasn’t having any truck with that,’ says the unlikely policewoman, putting away what quite plainly was her bus pass, and gets on with buying some face cream.

The moral being, I suppose, that you can get good behaviour off the television as well as bad.

20 January. At Paddington a throng of bewildered travellers gaze up at the Departures Board, where there’s a bland announcement saying that due to building work at Heathrow many services have been re-scheduled earlier than in the timetable – i.e. everybody misses their train. I sit down meaning to have some coffee from my flask only to find it’s broken (an old-fashioned accident, breaking flasks something I associate with the Forties). I wander round the station with the dripping flask looking for a litter bin but because of the risk of bombs there are none. I can’t just put the flask discreetly down lest it be mistaken for a bomb itself and the whole station grind to a halt, so it’s ten minutes before I find a railwayman who will take it off me, by which time my train is in.

25 January. Having spoken at Norwich I trek across England to Birmingham to speak there, never more conscious of Larkin’s strictures about going round the country pretending to be oneself. It’s a beautiful morning, the flat fields made dramatic and Dutch by floods and huge skies, but the whole journey ruined by two schoolboys going off for university interviews. They try and impress one another with their knowledge of current affairs and hone their interview techniques. ‘I like that Michael Howard,’ says one. ‘And Kenneth Clarke’s a good bloke too.’ Neither boy, I suppose, has ever known anything but a Tory government nor by the sound of it ever wants to.

At Birmingham I have a session with David Edgar’s playwrights’ class, then do another ‘Our Alan’ performance for a more general audience.

26 January. Run into Tristram Powell. Andrew Devonshire (sic) has done a diary for the Spectator mentioning the memoir of Julian Jebb (edited by Tristram) as one of the books he was putting in the guest bedrooms at Chatsworth. ‘I wish he’d leave a copy in all the bedrooms,’ drawls Tristram. ‘Then it would be a best-seller.’

Take the second draft of the filmscript of The Madness of George III to be printed. Nick Hytner has the good idea of fetching the King back from Kew to Westminster to prove to the MPs that he has recovered from his madness. Of course, it never happened, and had he suggested this departure from the facts at the outset, I’d probably have demurred on grounds of historical accuracy. But the nearer one gets to production the bolder one gets. I hope it’s boldness anyway.

23 February. Derek Jarman has died. I liked his writing more than I did his films though I wish he had made the film which he once asked me to write, about his father, a Battle of Britain pilot who turned kleptomaniac in his old age. Jarman dies on the eve of the fudged Commons vote which reduces the age of male consent to 18 not 16. Anyone in any doubt should have compared the speech by the civilised and courageous Chris Smith with that of the bigot Tony Marlowe. ‘Predatory’ is a word much in evidence, the frail faltering flame of heterosexuality always in danger of being snuffed out by the hot homosexual wind.

1 March. It seems pretty well accepted now that much of one’s life, including the length of it and the weaknesses to which one will be prone, is decided in the womb. This would please Kafka, or at any rate confirm his worst fears: to be sentenced to death before one is even born would be for him a kind of apotheosis.

25 March, Yorkshire. Drive over into Wensleydale for the view of a sale at Tennant’s. Leyburn turns out to be a High Recognition Area, and as I walk past the church two middle-aged WI-type ladies come out and their faces light up. ‘Oh, do come and have a Lenten Lunch. Very simple. Delicious soup. All home-made!’ Actually I wouldn’t have minded the soup but can’t face the chat, though in the event I can’t settle on anywhere else to eat either. Tennant’s, which was a small country auctioneers twenty years ago, with sales in church halls etc, is now a huge concern with a vast custom-built South-Forks-like pavilion complete with restaurant (where again I don’t eat), changing-room for babies, computer terminals and all the paraphernalia of big business. There are some nice bits of furniture but the atmosphere (well-heeled retired couples, women in sharp little Robin Hood hats, men in Barbours) puts me off, and having driven fifty miles to get there, I spend ten minutes looking round, then beat a quick retreat.

I drive back over upper Wharfedale to Kettlewell on a road that used to be deserted and scarcely signposted, though this was probably twenty years ago too. Now it’s obviously a scenic tour for Sunday afternoons and another outing for retired leisure wear. I stop and look in Hubberholme Church and sitting in a pew see a plaque on a pillar recording that the remains of J.B. Priestley are buried near this spot. I look at the war memorial to the dead of the 1914-18 War (ranks not given) and think of boys going on carts down the dale once the harvest was in. Dennis Potter’s impending death is announced this morning and I wonder where his ashes will lie. Potter’s health, or lack of it, has always been a factor in his fame so that, like Kafka, he visibly conformed to what the public thinks artists ought to be, poor or promiscuous, suffering or starved, and perhaps that’s why Priestley was treated so condescendingly, because he was none of these things.

21 April. A lunch party at the Connaught for John Gielgud’s 90th birthday given by Alec Guinness. John G. in an olive-green corduroy suit, elbows pressed firmly into his sides, hands clasped over his tummy, smiling and giggling and bubbling over with things to say and (except for a small fading of the voice) no different from when I first met him twenty-five years ago. Dame Judi is here and Michael Williams, Dame Wendy, Lindsay A., Ron Pickup and Anna Massey, Keith Baxter, Percy Harris, who’s 90 herself, and Ralph Richardson’s widow, Mu. I am happily seated between Jocelyn Herbert and Merula Guinness, with both of whom one can be happily silly.

‘You see,’ says Jocelyn. ‘I look down this table at all these distinguished people and think: What am I doing here?’ Same here, but as soon as one loses the sense of being in grand places on false pretences it ceases to be fun. Lindsay, who is on Jocelyn’s other side, is amiable but made more combative by the circumstances. ‘Is this very grand? I suppose it is. Jocelyn insisted I put on a tie, didn’t you, Jocelyn? I thought that was very bourgeois. And she told me not to wear my leather jacket.’ Since he’s now a bit deaf one has to shout and I see J.G. giving our end of the table uneasy glances as we seem to be making a lot of noise. ‘Othello’s a silly play, I always think,’ says Lindsay. ‘You designed Olivier’s Othello, didn’t you, Jocelyn? Winter’s Tale is much better. What do you think, John? Is Winter’s Tale better than Othello?’ ‘I see no reason to make the comparison,’ says John G. crisply, then snuffles, as he does when he’s made a joke. Lindsay then provokes some talk about how, before doing David Storey’s Home, John thought Lindsay disliked him. ‘You did dislike me,’ John wails. ‘Take no notice, John,’ calls Mu Richardson. ‘This is your birthday. Shut up, Lindsay.’

Lindsay playing the bad boy only serves to emphasise how jolly the rest of it is with John G. still able to produce stories one has never heard, how during rehearsals for The Good Companions the leading lady had been reluctant to come down the stairs and step on a trap door at the bottom for fear she’d fall through. Whereupon Jack Priestley climbed up the stairs, lumbered down the steps ... and promptly went through. They stood round aghast gazing at the open trap-door, when there came a voice from under the stage: ‘I’eard you laughing.’

Percy Harris talks about the stable behind St Martin’s Lane where the theatrical designers Motley used to function in the Thirties; it was in Garrick Yard and had been Chippendale’s workshop and when Douglas Byng first used the stable for a night-club in the Twenties Chippendale’s lathe was still hanging from a beam. All Motley’s costumes were stored there and when it was blitzed early in the war John G. came down the morning after and found nothing left, just the firemen sweeping up in the Hamlet hats.

Alec G.’s hospitality as always princely, Jocelyn saying she’d never tasted such wine and when I come away there is a line of cars he’s hired waiting to take all the old ladies home.

1 May. ‘He/she died in my arms’ is an odd phrase. M. used it of Tulip, the last of her goats who snuffed it a few weeks back. ‘She was so clever,’ M. said, ‘waiting until we got back from Rome, then dying in my arms at 10.30 the next morning.’ It may be quite a comfortable way for a goat to go but it must, I imagine, be most uncomfortable for a person, particularly if you’re not feeling quite up to it, as presumably you aren’t if you’re on the way out. Or is it a general statement of things that might mean holding the dying one’s hand or just being there at the bedside at the time? Because without actually getting into the bed behind the person in question how can he or she die in one’s arms? It’s as difficult to envisage as that other deathbed posture – ‘He/she turned his face to the wall.’ What if the bed isn’t by a wall? Actually it’s only men who turn their faces to the wall; women face up to things, peeping over the blanket to the last.

8 July, Thame Park, Oxfordshire. First day of shooting George III. Twenty-two years since I first went on location (to Halifax in 1972 for A Day Out). Then I was full of jokes and enthusiasm, watching every shot and fussing over how my precious words were spoken. Today it’s raining and I’m full of aches and pains and can scarcely bother to trail along the track to the pig sty, which is the first set-up of the film – and Nicholas Hytner’s first set-up ever. As always, even on a modest film like ours, the sheer size of the operation depresses: a dozen vans, two or three buses, half-a-dozen caravans, rows of cars and dozens and dozens of people, all of whom have good reason for being there except me, who started it all.

I watch the first shot, Nigel Hawthorne as George III on the brink of madness, talking to a pig, marvelling in between takes at some wonderful run-down 18th-century barns with intricate grey beamed roofs and sagging tiles. Nick H. seems happy enough and has at least got round the obstacle which always stopped me directing films – namely, having to say: ‘Action!’ My instinct would be to say: ‘Er, I think if everybody’s agreeable we might as well sort of start now – that is, if you’re ready.’ Today Mary Soan, the first assistant, says the dread word, Nick simply Making Decisions About The Shot.

26 July. Upset and angered by the extradition of the two British women who’ve been accused of conspiracy to murder ten years (and another life) ago and now sent to face trial in Oregon. Police wait for them outside the court but they are allowed bail in order to make their own way to Heathrow. I would make my own way to Sweden or Denmark, one of the decent countries. The original decision to extradite them was taken by nice, tubby, hail-fellow-well-met Kenneth Clarke.

I stroll round the block later thinking about this. The heat is almost tropical. Certainly it’s like the South of France because somewhere along Regent’s Park Terrace there is a cricket singing, something I don’t remember ever hearing in England before.

28 July, Thame Park. From the outside the house looks pleasantly dilapidated, with a handsome 18th-century front, behind that a Tudor house which in its turn incorporates the quite substantial remains of a medieval priory. It’s a country house out of a novel and in its lost park scattered with ancient oaks an easy metaphor for England.

And maybe it still is because until ten years or so ago it was lived in by the descendants of the original owners, then was bought at the height of the Thatcherite boom by a Japanese consortium to turn into a country club. So step inside and one finds all the period features intact, a magnificent staircase, fine fireplace, the original doors, but all so spick and span and squared off they might have been designed by Quinlan Terry. And (the metaphor still holding) work is at a standstill: having done a radical conversion job, the consortium ran out of money and now the house is empty, just rented out from time to time for films such as ours or as a setting for commercials.

In yesterday’s morning mist, when we started shooting, it must have looked like the park and mansion in Le Grand Meaulnes but Ken Adam, our designer, has had a hard job taking the new look off the interior. The house is standing in for Kew Palace, where George III was briefly confined during his illness. The requirements of the script mean that it should look cold and uncared for, so the air of dereliction the Japanese so ruthlessly banished is being just as ruthlessly re-introduced, our painters still hard at work distressing the walls and pasting on peeling wallpaper. Incurious, careless, mildly destructive, the crew isn’t much concerned about the house; and though Thame Park isn’t Brideshead, film units nowadays are not unlike the units of a different sort that were billeted in such places fifty years ago.

10 August. Do two interviews for Writing Home. In each case I find myself telling stories to the interviewers, and seeing them slightly glaze over, realise I am simply re-telling stories that I have included in the book. Note that this is something to be careful of for the future. It’s the same state of affairs I noticed once when having supper with Stephen Spender, namely that he was telling me lots of stories I knew already. But of course I only knew them because he had already published them in book form. There’s very little in the back of the shop is the message; now that it’s all out on the shelves the best plan is to pipe down.

25 August. Second day shooting a documentary on Westminster Abbey. Henry VII’s Chapel, which the Abbey prefers (and the pious Henry VII would, I’m sure, have preferred) to call the Lady Chapel, is to be closed at the end of the week for cleaning and repairs so we have two days to film all our set-ups there, which we can only do once the last visitors have gone. The set-ups include a piece on Dean Stanley’s quest for the body of James I which began at the grave of his queen, the 6'5" Anne of Denmark, where he ought to have been buried, and which ended in the vault below the tomb of Henry VII, where James finally ended up, the founder of the Stuart dynasty snuggling up as of right to the founder of the Tudors. With the excuse of looking at the shot I go up on the camera crane high above the bronze outer wall of Henry VII’s tomb to look down on Torrigiano’s effigies of Henry and his queen, Elizabeth of York. And wonderful it is, except that there is also something of the top of the wardrobe about it, the ramparts of the tomb quite dusty with a few old planks lying about and odd bits of flex; one half-expects to see a suitcase or two.

Alfie, the grips on the crew, worked on A Day Out. We sit around at dinner-time swapping stories of what the BBC used to be like, deploring in particular the security men who now man the gates and know nobody, remembering the BBC commissionaires of old and one in particular, of famous surliness, who had one arm. He guarded the car-park as if it were sacred ground. Once when told it was full, Sid Lotterby, the director of Porridge, became so infuriated he wound down his window and shouted: ‘Let me in, you old bugger, or I’ll tear your other arm off.’

Alfie has a better story. The same commissionaire was a big fan of Morecambe and Wise, to whom even he deferred. As they drove in one day he stopped their car and asked if there was any chance of a ticket to one of their shows.

‘No,’ said Eric. ‘We don’t want you.’

‘Why?’ said the one-armed commissionaire. ‘I’m your biggest fan.’

‘But you can’t clap.’

26 August. A fire on a cross-Channel ferry. On the World at One this is announced as ‘a fire on a cross-flannel cherry’. The newsreader pauses, then decides the error is irretrievable and passes on, a slight tremor in his voice. Fortunately he is just finishing the News and gives way to the presenter, who talks about some slight fall in the trade figures with a degree of intensity and concentration utterly unwarranted by the importance of the subject. It’s exactly what would happen on the stage.

1 September. Lindsay Anderson dies. Unusually the obituaries are quite fair and catch the essence of him, all of them regretting that he had made so few films but praising him as a critic and a conscience. Had he been born ten or fifteen years earlier, and worked under a studio system that demanded he direct three or four films a year as a matter of routine, he might have made more rubbish but there would have been more first-rate films as well. As it was, he was too fastidious, and enabled to be so, it was said, by a small private income from an aunt with a stake in Bell’s Scotch whisky. The pity was that so much of his time was taken up not with working in the theatre but in futile development deals that never came to anything.

None of the obituaries mentions how consistently and constructively kind he was, shouldering other people’s burdens (albeit with a sigh), housing the homeless, his flat in Swiss Cottage always sheltering someone down on their luck.

He wasn’t a person it was wise to go to the theatre with, as he tended to groan aloud. ‘Oh, honestly,’ he would mutter and turn to look in wonderment at his neighbours who were so lacking in discrimination as to be actually enjoying themselves. If in the interval you said you were quite liking it too, his eyes would close in a fastidious despair reminiscent of Annie Walker in Coronation Street. ‘Well of course, Alan, you would. These are your people.’ Then (the clincher in most arguments) a sad shake of the head and: ‘England!’

He had never, so far as I know, been a schoolmaster but there was a lot of the schoolmaster in him – sceptical, sarcastic, given to provocative exaggeration and able to generate in his associates, as good teachers do, a longing to please. Schoolmasterly, too, in his loves, his loyalty to a few chosen actors setting him apart as a perpetual romantic in what is a pretty hardbitten profession.

Anyone who was his friend will miss those instantly recognisable postcards with their capitals, underlinings and exclamation marks, like the one he sent me from Moscow in 1987: ‘I have been standing for PEACE and MR GORBACHEV with Gregory Peck and Yoko Ono and Gore Vidal and Fay Weldon. Where were you?!’

26 September. And as I am correcting the proofs of this piece comes the death of my next-door neighbour, the publisher Colin Haycraft. He was like Lindsay A. in many ways, standing at the same ironic angle to the universe, though his anarchism was of the right rather than the left. Worn down in his last years by his efforts to retain control of Duckworth’s, he never ceased to be perky and good for a laugh, my best memory of him being at the funeral of Miss Shepherd, who had lived in a van in my drive. As the hearse doors closed on the coffin Colin loudly remarked: ‘Well, it’s a cut above her previous vehicle.’