It starts with an itch

Alan Bennett

I sometimes think that my plays are just an excuse for the introductions with which they are generally accompanied. These preambles, while often gossipy and with sidelights on the rehearsal process, also provide me with a soapbox from which I can address, sometimes more directly than I’ve managed in the play itself, some of the themes that crop up in the text. In The History Boys it was private education; in The Habit of Art biography; in People, though, I’m not sure.

Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can’t solve or a feeling one can’t locate. With People it was a sense of unease when going round a National Trust house and being required to buy into the role of reverential visitor. I knew this irritated me but, like the hapless visitors whom Dorothy Stacpoole, the former owner of the house, confronts as they are leaving, I still found it hard to say what it was I had expected to find and whether I had found it.

National Trust guides more conventional than Dorothy (and for whom I almost invariably feel slightly sorry) assume that one wishes to be informed about the room or its furniture and pictures, which I don’t always. Sometimes I just want to look and occasionally (18th-century porcelain, Chinoiserie and most tapestries) prefer to walk straight through. Sometimes I actively dislike what I’m seeing: yet another table massively laid for a banquet, for instance, or massed ranks of family photos ranged on top of a grand piano, with royal visitors given some prominence. Even when I am interested but want to be left alone with the pictures or whatever, I have learned not to show too much interest as this invariably fetches the guide over, wanting to share his or her expertise. I know this is bad behaviour and it’s another reason I’ll often come away as dissatisfied with myself as I am with the house.

The first stately home I can remember visiting was Temple Newsam, a handsome 17th-century house given to Leeds by the earl of Halifax. We often used to go on outings there when I was a child, taking the tram from outside the City Market up through Halton and past the municipal golf course to the terminus near the house. An adjunct of Leeds Art Gallery, it had a good collection of furniture, a long gallery without which no country house was complete, besides housing some of the city’s collection of Cotman drawings and watercolours. While aged nine or ten I didn’t wholly appreciate its contents, I saw Temple Newsam as a wonderfully ancient and romantic place, which it wasn’t really, having been heavily restored and remodelled in the 19th century. Still, it gave me a lifelong taste for enfiladed rooms and for Leeds pottery (particularly the horses), neither of which life has enabled me to indulge. As a boy, though, for me its most numinous holding was a large felt hat reputed to be that of Oliver Cromwell with a bullet hole in the crown to prove it.

Visiting Temple Newsam was always a treat, as it still is more than half a century later. Back in 1947, though, with the country in the throes of the postwar economic crisis, the push was on for more coal and the whole of the park in front of the house was given over to open-cast mining, the excavations for which came right up to the terrace. From the state rooms you looked out on a landscape as bleak and blasted as a view of the Somme, an idyll, as it seemed to me then, irretrievably lost, and young though I was I knew this.

But of course I was wrong. It wasn’t irretrievable and to look at the grounds today one would have no idea that such a violation had ever occurred. And it had occurred, too, with even greater devastation at other country houses south of Leeds: Nostell Priory was similarly beleaguered, as was Wentworth Woodhouse, both, like the Stacpooles’ house, smack in the middle of coal-bearing country and where the notion as in the play of a country house with a mine in the immediate vicinity is far from far-fetched.

Nostell Priory is full of Adam furniture, and both Nostell and Temple Newsam have Chippendale desks like the one referred to in the play, that at Temple Newsam bought by Leeds Corporation from the Harewoods at Harewood House, another outing from Leeds and a mansion, incidentally, that was once on the National Trust’s wish list but which happily still remains with the family that built it. It is, though, one of those reprobate mansions cited in the play, Harewood having been built from the profits of 18th-century sugar and slaves – from whom is descended one of the National Theatre’s noted actors, David Harewood.

When I first showed People to the director Nicholas Hytner he remarked that it wasn’t like anything else I’d done – or anything else I’d done with him. The play, though, that does have hints of it is Getting On (1971), which, like People, is what has since become known as a ‘play for England’ – sort of, anyway. In those days when I had less compassion for the audience (and for the actors) I went in for much longer speeches than I would venture to do nowadays. But some of the diatribes I put into the mouth of George Oliver, a right-wing Labour MP, are echoes of the complaints more succinctly expressed by Dorothy in People, the complaints generally being about England.

Enjoy (1980) is another play with which People has similarities, in that both, while ostensibly contemporary in setting, have a slightly fanciful notion of the future. At least I thought of it as fanciful, but what I was writing about in Enjoy – the decay and preservation of a working-class quarter in a Northern town and the last back-to-back in Leeds – all came true much quicker than I could have imagined in the decades that followed. The same threatens to be the case with People.

Privacy, or at any rate exclusivity, is increasingly for hire, instances of which make some of the proposals made in the play not even outlandish. I had written the play when I read that Liechtenstein in its entirety could be hired for the relatively modest sum of £40,000 per night. Around the same time I read that Lancaster Castle, which once housed the County Court and the prison that often went with such institutions, was up for sale. That it had also hosted the execution of condemned prisoners probably increased the estimate. At one point in 2011 the Merchant Navy War Memorial at Tower Hill was to have been hired out for some bankers’ junket. That a Methodist church in Bournemouth has been bought and reopened as a Tesco is hardly worth mentioning. So what is? Everywhere nowadays has its price and the more inappropriate the setting the better. I scarcely dare suggest that Pentonville or Wormwood Scrubs be marketed as fun venues lest it has already happened.

When it came to giving offence, there too I kept finding that I had been if not timid, at least over-scrupulous. In the management and presentation of their newly acquired property of Stacpole House I imagine the Trust as entirely without inhibition, ready to exploit any aspect of the property’s recent history to draw in the public and wholly unembarrassed by the seedy or the disreputable. I envisaged a series of events I took to be wildly implausible, but in the light of recent developments they turn out to be almost tame.

I read for instance that the video guide to the National Trust house at Hughenden, once lived in by Disraeli, is voiced by Jeffrey Archer, euphemistically described by the Trust as a ‘provocative figure’. And in the matter of pornography the Trust has recently sponsored an app to accompany a tour round London’s Soho, the highlights of which are not architectural. It is apparently doing very well.

My objections to this level of marketing are not to do with morals but to do with taste. In another connection though – and nothing to do with the Trust – I found life had outstripped my paltry imagination. I have no reference for this other than what the DNB used to call ‘personal knowledge’, but talking to someone about what I still thought of as the outrageousness of a country house being made the venue for a porn film, I was told that there was (and maybe still is) an entrepreneur who does just that, arranging similar (and equally chilly) filming in country houses north of the border. And so, writing the play and imagining I was ahead of my times, I then found I was scarcely even abreast of them.

As is made plain in the play, Dorothy is not shocked by porn being filmed under her (leaking) roof. As she points out, she is a peeress in her own right: ‘The middle classes – they’re the respectable ones.’ Which is a cliché but I’d have thought no less true for all that. But then, what do I know? My experience of high life is limited, but years ago, I think through George Melly, I used to be invited to parties given by Geoffrey Bennison, the fashionable interior decorator. He lived in Golden Square (‘Above Glorex Woollens, dear’) and there one would find Geoffrey in full drag, and very convincing drag it was too, as he made no attempt to seem glamorous, instead coming across as a middle-aged duchess not unlike Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. It would be a very mixed bag of high life and low life – Diana Duff-Cooper dancing with a well-known burglar sticks in the mind – respectability and the middle classes nowhere.

‘Now that I’m eighty there are two things I no longer have to do,’ said another grand lady of my acquaintance. ‘Tell the truth and wear knickers.’ What Dorothy is or is not wearing under her fur coat I don’t like to think.

That said, I have never been entirely confident that the glimpses one is allowed in stately homes of the family’s ‘real life’ always ring true. Years ago I was filming at Penshurst Place, the home of Lord de L’Isle and Dudley, and I wrote in my diary:

The house is everything one imagines an English country house should be, a hotchpotch of different periods: medieval hall, 18th-century courtyards, Gothic front, solid green walls of yew and parterres of box. We film in a gallery adjoining the drawing room, part of the private wing, with photographs of Lord D. at Cambridge, in India as a young man and ADC to Wavell and now standing beside Macmillan as he unveils a plaque to Lord Gort. On a coffee table are back numbers of the Economist, Country Life and the TLS with drinks on the side.

‘Ah,’ one thinks, ‘a glimpse here of the private life.’ But is it? Is this really a private room or just a private room for public consumption? These drinks (and the bottle of vitamin pills beside them), have they been artfully arranged to suggest a private life? Is there somewhere else, another flat which is more private? And so on. The impression is confirmed by the hall table, on which are all the viscount’s hats: his green guards trilbies, his bowler, his lumberjack’s hat that was plainly presented to him on some sort of ceremonial visit. Surely, all this is meant to be seen?

No soiled underwear in the state bedroom at least – but even voicing this thought I can see it coming one day soon.

Plays have buds, points at which something is mentioned in one play though not dwelt on but turns up in a later play. Never sure of the significance of what one writes or the continuity of one’s concerns, I find these recurrences reassuring as pointing if nothing else to consistency. They can, though, be shaming.

In The History Boys Irwin is a dynamic supply teacher who ends up as a TV historian and government special adviser. Televised in the latrine passage below the reredorter at Rievaulx Abbey, he speculates on those scraps of cloth on which the monks wiped their bums, some of which have been recovered and are in the abbey museum. Could it be shown that one of these fragments had actually been used by St Aelred of Rievaulx, would that scrap of cloth, Irwin wonders, then constitute a sacred relic? It’s an unsavoury preoccupation, but unnoticed by me a related concept has smuggled itself into People, where the notion of historical and celebrity urine is a branch grown from Irwin’s bud.

On a different level the discussion of the Holocaust in The History Boys relates to Hector’s dismay that Auschwitz has become just another station on the tourist trail, with Hector concerned about the proportion of reverence to prurience among the visitors. This recurs – and to my mind more harshly – in People, with the comment that there is ‘nowhere that is not visitable. That at least the Holocaust has taught us.’

Dorothy’s comments about the graffiti done by the Canadian troops billeted in the house during the war echo similar speculations in James Lees-Milne’s Ancestral Voices:

Wednesday, 7 January 1942. Brocket. I walked across a stile and down a footpath to the James Paine bridge, which the Canadian troops have disfigured by cutting their names, with addresses in Canada, and personal numbers, all complete and inches deep – the vandals. Yet, I thought, what an interesting memorial this will be in years to come and quite traditional, like the German mercenaries’ names scrawled in 1530 on the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino.

He might have added the Viking inscriptions cut centuries earlier into the lions outside the Arsenale in Venice.

It was in Lees-Milne, too, that I read about the Jungman sisters, who in their youth were Bright Young Things and contemporaries of Evelyn Waugh. In later life they turned reclusive, stockpiled the newspaper (the Telegraph, I suspect), reading one a day still but years behind the times. What are generally called ‘bygones’ make a brief appearance in the play, as they regularly do in the below-stairs rooms of country houses. Fortunate in having had a relatively long life, I have grown used to seeing everyday items from my childhood featuring in folk museums or even as items on the Antiques Roadshow, a brass and pewter gill measure from a milk pail, for instance (wielded at the Bennett family back door by the milkman, Mr Keen, his horse and trap waiting in the street); a posser for the clothes wash and jelly moulds galore.

Even so I was surprised this summer when going round Blickling to see a young man rapt in contemplation of a perfectly ordinary aluminium pan. Still he was doubtless a dab hand at the computer, which I’m not, even though to me aluminium pans are commonplace. Other vintage items which were in common use when I was young would be:

A wicker carpet beater.
A wooden clothes horse.
A tidy betty.
A flat iron.
Pottery eggs.
Spats.
Black lead.
Virol.

The danger of making such a list is that one will in due course figure on it.

Curiously it was only when I’d finished the play that I realised I’d managed to avoid giving the house a name. I suppose it ought to be the family name and so Stacpoole, except that one proof of aristocracy is subtly to distinguish the name of the house from the name of its location. Thus in a minor snobbery Harewood, the home of the Lascelles family and their earldom, is pronounced Harwood, whereas the village of Harewood, its location near Leeds, is pronounced as it’s spelled, Hare-wood. So on a similar principle I’ve called the house Stacpole but it’s pronounced Stacpool.

I have tasted the pleasures of singularity myself, having been lucky enough to be in Westminster Abbey at midnight and virtually alone. As an ex-trustee I am permitted to visit the National Gallery after hours, and filming has meant that I have often been in well-loved places like Fountains Abbey almost on my own. The heady delights of exclusion are these days touted commercially more and more and without apology.

The notion that the 1980s in England marked a turning point keeps recurring, a time when, as Dorothy is told, we ceased to take things for granted and self-interest and self-servingness took over. Some of this alteration in public life can be put down to the pushing back of the boundaries of the state as begun under Mrs Thatcher and pursued even more disastrously thereafter, though in regretting this (and not being able to be more specific about it) Dorothy in her fur coat and gym shoes is thought by her sister the archdeacon to be pitiably naive, as perhaps I am in feeling much the same. The state has never frightened me. Why should it? It gave me my education (and in those days it was a gift); it saved my father’s life as it has on occasion saved mine by services we are now told have to be paid for.

What is harder to put one’s finger on is the growth of surliness in everyday behaviour and the sour taste of public life. There has been a diminution of magnanimity in government both central and local, with the public finding itself rebranded as customers, supposedly to dignify our requirements but in effect to make us available for easier exploitation. The faith – which like most ideologies has only a tangential connection with reason – is that everything must make a profit and that there is nothing that cannot be bought and sold.

These thoughts are so obvious that I hesitate to put them down, still less make them specific in the play. Dorothy is asking what is different about England, saying how she misses things being taken for granted. We were told in the 1980s and pretty constantly since that we can’t afford to take anything for granted, whereas to my mind in a truly civilised state the more that can be taken for granted in terms of health, education, employment and welfare, the better we are for it. Less and less are we a nation and more and more just a captive market to be exploited. ‘I hate it,’ says Dorothy, and she doesn’t just mean showing people round the house.

Apropos the closet with the ancient chamberpots: having finished the play, we went for a short holiday in Norfolk in the course of which we went round Felbrigg Hall, the family home of R.W. Ketton-Cremer who willed it to the National Trust on his death in 1969. Ketton-Cremer was a historian and had a well-stocked Gothic library which, as distinct from other such rooms in country houses, was a place of work where Ketton-Cremer produced many books. Set in the thickness of the wall behind a pivoting bookcase was a closet with, on a table, a chamberpot. It was, alas, empty.