Bad John

Alan Bennett

  • A Better Class of Person by John Osborne
    Faber, 285 pp, £7.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 571 11785 6

One of John Osborne’s Thoughts for 1954: ‘The urge to please above all. I don’t have it and can’t achieve it. A small thing but more or less mine own.’ This book does please and has pleased. It is immensely enjoyable, is written with great gusto and Osborne has had better notices for it than for any of his plays since Inadmissible Evidence.

Books are safer than plays, of course, because (unless one is a monk at lunch) reading is a solitary activity. A play is a public event where, all too often these days, for the middle-class playgoer, embarrassment rules, oh dear. Especially where Osborne is concerned. Nor does reading his book carry with it the occupational hazards of seeing his plays, such as finding the redoubtable Lady Redgrave looming over one ready to box one’s ears, as she did to a vociferous member of the audience of A Sense of Detachment. The book as a form is safe, even cosy, and I suspect that critics, who have given Osborne such a consistently hard time for so long, heaved a sigh of relief at this autobiography, since it was something, to quote another John’s spoof of Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘to be read behind closed doors’. Though without necessarily taking Orton’s other piece of advice – namely, to ‘have a good shit while reading it’.

Osborne, like Orton, had a bleak childhood (or would like us to think so). Both had weak chests and both spent a brief period learning shorthand at Clark’s Colleges. There the resemblance ends. At the outset of his career Orton changed his name from John to Joe, lest the public confuse him with Osborne – and tar him with the same brush. For Joe, unlike John, did very much want to please. But do playgoers mind very much if they’re pleased? I never do. Boredom is my Great Terror. ‘All I hope is that the dog hasn’t been sick in the car’ is the epitaph on too many a wearisome evening in the theatre. I have never been bored by Osborne – well, by Bill Maitland a little, but that was meant. I often disagree with his plays but invariably find his tone of voice, however hectoring, much more sympathetic than the rage or the patronising ‘Oh dear, he’s at it again’ he still manages to provoke in an audience. (At Brighton, the stage carpenter used to greet him in mock-despair: ‘Oh blimey, it’s not you again!’) I actually enjoyed the frozen embarrassment of the glittering house that packed the Lyttelton when his Watch it come down opened the National Theatre, and at A Sense of Detachment was told off for laughing too much (or laughing at all) at the catalogue of pornographic films, recited in nun-like tones by the said Lady Redgrave, her title an important ingredient of the audience’s resentment, their fury fuelled by a touch of class.

Osborne thinks those days are past: ‘Most of my work in the theatre has, at some time, lurched head on into the milling tattoo of clanging seats and often quite beefy booing. The sound of baying from dinner-jacketed patrons in the stalls used to be especially sweet. Nowadays one is merely attacked by a storm cloud of pot and BO.’ Another way of saying that the audience is (Gr-rr-r) young.

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