What I Did in 2004

Alan Bennett

3 January. Alan Bates dies on 27 December and we break the journey from Yorkshire at Derby in order to go to his funeral. It’s at Bradbourne, a tiny village the taxi-driver has never heard of, and he and his Asian colleagues have a map session before we eventually head off into the Derbyshire hills. The cab is old and draughty, it’s beginning to snow and as we drive through this landscape of lost villages and frostbitten fields it gets more and more foggy and like a journey out of Le Grand Meaulnes.

It’s all of an hour before we reach the church and everyone has gone in, the undertakers with a policeman looking on just shouldering out the coffin. Since the bill is £40 I feel I need a receipt but while the driver ransacks his cab for pad and pencil the policeman saunters over: ‘The body is waiting to go in, sir.’

We make an undignified dash for the church where, hearing the door open, the congregation begin to rise thinking we’re the coffin then sink back disappointed as laden down with bags and both with backpacks on we are ushered down the centre aisle to seats in the chancel. It looks like the most upstaging of showbiz entrances, the only consolation being that the deceased would have been the first to laugh.

It’s a rather wandering service with plenty of time to reflect that, as always, it will be the jokes one will most miss and how at the regular suppers we used to have at L’Etoile we always told each other the same stories. They were generally of Alan’s romantic escapades or of other people’s bad behaviour, a favourite being how, after a performance in John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me at Chichester for which he had been much praised, Alan was sitting in his dressing-room when there was a tentative knock on the door. It was Alec Guinness. He shook Alan’s hand, said, ‘You must be very tired,’ and left.

Alan’s languid phone calls were often to do with professional humiliation. In the 1999 production of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford the curtain rose with Antony on his knees pleasuring the Egyptian queen of Frances de la Tour. Even the jaded eyebrows of Stratford went up a bit at this and just before it transferred to the Barbican Alan rang and began without preamble: ‘I’m sure you will be relieved to learn that for our London debut the director has elbowed the offending cunnilingus and replaced it with a walk-down in kingly garb. It’s to be hoped this substitution doesn’t catch on generally or the sexual health of the nation might suffer accordingly. Goodbye.’

15 January. We now have a home secretary who, on being told one of the prisoners in his care has committed suicide, says he feels like pouring himself a drink. This is a statement deplorable on so many levels they’re too wearying to list. But it will delight the Sun and the Daily Mail which is its intention.

27 January. A reading of the new draft of The History Boys at the NT Studio gets off to a bad start when half the cast are found to be reading from a first draft and the rest from the revised version. It’s a scratch round-up of whoever’s available and an exercise we went through both with The Madness of George III and The Lady in the Van partly to find out how long the play is likely to be and also to get some notion of what it’s about. And it is helpful, though painful and embarrassing too as some sections are far from finished, the characters scarcely sketched in and the plot often nowhere. ‘It’ll be better than this,’ I keep wanting to say. ‘And shorter.’

10 February. I go through the play dealing with Nick Hytner’s comments, worrying that some of them are too literal: e.g. sixth formers wouldn’t do PE, even in the 1980s, when the play is set, thus ruling out the gymnasium scene I quite wanted. Nick backs up his judgment by asking the younger people at the National what went on at their schools. Which is fine, though I can’t counter with a constituency of my own, as the only person I know who was at school in the 1980s is R. and he never set foot in the gym anyway. But the imagination can’t be subject to plebiscite. Take a poll of all the playwrights at the National and you wouldn’t find one whose lover had shredded their masterpiece, fed it into the stove and then gone out and shot themselves. But that doesn’t rule out Hedda Gabler. Still I can see Nick is right to this extent, that once the audience start thinking, ‘But school isn’t like that,’ they’re off the hook.

20 February. We’re gradually assembling a class: James Corden, who’s plump and funny and at the audition entirely takes charge; Sacha Dhawan, an Asian boy from Manchester who complains that all he’s ever offered these days are Muslim terrorists or Afghan refugees; Jamie Parker, who is to play Scripps the religious boy, and doesn’t even bother to mention that he plays the piano; Andrew Knott from Wakefield, who comes in like the wind has blown the door open and knows the scene off by heart, as do several of the others.

This is new, as actors would normally expect to read the scene and if they are bad readers, as many actors are, this would have to be discounted when assessing their ability. Nowadays because competition is so fierce actors come knowing the audition scene by heart and so it’s much easier to gauge what they can do. It’s noticeable, though, that many of the boys from RADA and LAMDA and the other drama schools are middle class (two of our applicants Etonians). I imagine this is because, grants being so hard to come by, places go to students whose parents can support them, a situation not different from that prevailing at Oxford and Cambridge. The History Boys has nothing to say about this as I felt it was another play entirely, and also, I suppose, because I have no experience of it.

25 February. With Nick Hytner and the designer of the play, Bob Crowley, to the London Nautical School in Stamford Street just behind the National. It’s a naval school in origin, one of several set up after the sinking of the Titanic to improve standards of seamanship, and the boys still wear naval jerseys and a navy blue uniform.

Coffee with the headmaster first, who talks, as I imagine most heads of institutions do nowadays, about his financial problems. Then we watch the boys at break, the playground situated behind the old gate of Bethlem Hospital. My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk. R. tells me later that this was beginning to happen when he was at school, though backpacks then were thought to be nerdy and he, of course, the odd boy out, had a little attaché case.

We sit in on a history class of 13-year-olds, who are well-behaved, alert and attentive, though not always getting it right. They are doing the changeover from the domestic system to factory working in the Industrial Revolution: ‘If they couldn’t get enough money from work at home,’ asks the teacher, ‘what did they do?’

Up goes a hand. ‘Take in lodgers?’

Next is an English class of 15-year-olds, all of them past puberty and so less submissive, more anarchic and all over the place, though there is one self-contained boy, who is neat, smart and prematurely sophisticated, a boy out of Saki.

Finally the sixth form: half a dozen boys and one girl. Except not boys: one has a full-grown beard and though destined for Cambridge looks less like an undergraduate than a fully-fledged lecturer; another, ignoring us completely as they all do, sits working by himself and could be a young broker in the City. Their history teacher talks about them quietly and the problems she and they have, particularly non-attendance, and it all seems a long way from the sixth form that I’ve written.

1 March. In the accounts I have seen of Sir Andrew Turnbull’s reproving letter to Clare Short for breaching cabinet confidence, nobody has commented on his use of the word ‘disappointed’. The head of the civil service wasn’t dismayed by Ms Short’s revelations nor was he disconcerted; he didn’t say he disapproved (though he did); no, he was disappointed. It’s a headmasterly word implying a falling short (I know) and a failure to live up to standards that shouldn’t have to be spelled out, and thus very much a word of the establishment. This would hardly be worth saying did not Sir Andrew advertise his emancipation from the establishment by, among other things, chairing meetings in his shirt-sleeves. But shirt-sleeves only take you so far (the prime minister is often in them, after all). No, Sir Andrew needs to take the jacket off his language, too. Were I not on Clare Short’s side already, to read that the head of the civil service is disappointed in her would be enough to make up my mind.

6 March. A young man passes wearing a close-fitting leather cap meant to strap under the chin, the strap unfastened and dangling loose. He looks like 1. a racing driver at Brooklands in the 1930s; 2. someone out of Brueghel about to torment Christ. Neither, I would have thought, is the look he is aiming for.

13 March. The last of the History Boys to be cast is Russell Tovey, who is in the NT company and who took part in the first reading of the play. He reads Rudge, the athletic and supposedly stupid boy, effortlessly, but isn’t sure it’s what he really wants to do, having set his sights on playing the more glamorous part of Dakin. This makes me think again about the part and I rewrite it to accommodate some of the actor’s aspirations in the character, which both suits him and improves the play. This is one of the pleasures of writing plays which I can’t see writing novels or poems ever providing.

After the train bombs in Madrid T. Blair commends the Spanish for turning out in their millions to demonstrate against terrorism. These are the same people who thronged the streets in Madrid and in London also in their millions to demonstrate against the war but this is not said by the prime minister. Our fearless leader is a democrat only as and when it suits him.

20 March. Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors (when there are doors), the classrooms of today not unlike the public schools’ doorless lavatories of yore.

31 March. We place a different value on the lives of Iraqi combatants, with the dead not even numbered or named. Our view of the Iraqis is not far off Falstaff’s view of his company: ‘They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.’

22 April. An absurd direction from the ENO management requesting all employees at the Coliseum to cease from calling each other ‘darling’ and indeed from touching one another at all or using other terms of endearment.

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