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.

Hugh and Moggie were suggested by – but not modelled on – Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. In 1968 Nicolson’s diaries had just been published with his passionate account of the fight against Appeasement in the Thirties and how, come the war, appeasers like Chips Channon conveniently forgot to eat their words about Germany and pretended they’d been right all along. The play is stiff with quotations. The readings from the lectern enable actual quotations to be incorporated into the structure of the play, but there are umpteen more, some lying about on the surface in mangled form and others buried in shallow graves. ‘Patience is mine: I will delay saith the Lord.’ ‘They are rolling up the maps all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ Some quotations I have lost track of. I thought I’d invented the phrase ‘snobbery with violence’ to describe the school of Sapper and Buchan (and Ian Fleming, for that matter), but then I was told it had been used before, but where and in what circumstances I have forgotten.

The form of Forty Years On is more complicated than I would dream of attempting now. It is a play within a play in which the time-scale of the first play gradually catches up with the time-scale of the second, one cog the years 1900-1939, the other 1939-1945, and both within the third wheel of the present day. What doesn’t seem to have worried me at the time is what kind of educational institution it is that would mount such a production. This didn’t seem to worry the audience. After all, it is only a play. Or a play within a play. Or a play within that. Plenty of jokes anyway (too many, some people said), and it’s hard to fail with twenty-odd schoolboys on the stage. I’ve a feeling they (and the set) came via a Polish play, The Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord, that I saw in the World Theatre Season at the Aldwych in 1967, in which choirboys sang above a screen that ran across the stage. I saw Zigger Zagger that year, too, with the stage a crowded football terrace, which made me realise how theatrical a spectacle is an audience watching an audience.

Because Forty Years On employs a large cast, and also because it is as much a revue as a play, it seldom gets performed. Schools do it from time to time, and ironically, in view of the Headmaster’s strictures, sometimes find it necessary to cut the Confirmation Class. This raises the dizzy possibility of the pretend headmaster rushing onto the stage to put a stop to ‘this farrago of libel, blasphemy and perversion’ only to find the real headmaster hard on his heels, bent on putting a stop to him putting a stop to it.

Forty Years On had been such a happy experience that when, in 1971, I wrote my second play it was natural that Stoll Theatres, who’d put the first one on, should want to keep the winning team together. Accordingly, we had the same director, Patrick Garland, the same designer, Julia Trevelyan-Oman; the management even contrived that we should begin rehearsing on the same stage, Drury Lane, and on the same day, August Bank Holiday, as three years before. In some cultures they would have slit the throat of a chicken. In view of what was to happen it would have been just as effective.

Getting On is an account of a middle-aged Labour MP, George Oliver, so self-absorbed that he remains blind to the fact that his wife is having an affair with the handyman, his mother-in-law is dying, his son is getting ready to leave home, his best friend thinks him a fool and that to everyone who comes into contact with him he is a self-esteeming joke. In 1984 one would just say,‘Oh, you mean he’s a man,’ and have done with it. But in 1971 the beast was less plain, the part harder to define, and casting the main role proved a problem. The script was turned down by half a dozen leading actors and I had begun to think there was something wrong with the play (there was: too long) when Kenneth More’s name came up. Kenneth More was, to say the least, not an obvious choice. As an actor and a man he had a very conservative image and to many of my generation he was identified with one of his most famous parts, that of Douglas Bader in the film Reach for the sky. It was one of the films we were making fun of in the ‘Aftermyth of War’ sketch in Beyond the Fringe.

I had a pretty quiet war really. I was one of the Few. We were stationed down at Biggin Hill. One Sunday we got word Jerry was coming in, over Broadstairs, I think it was. We got up there quickly as we could and, you know, everything was very calm and peaceful. England lay like a green carpet below me and the war seemed worlds away. I could see Tunbridge Wells and the sun glinting on the river, and I remembered that last weekend I’d spent there with Celia that summer of ’39.

  Suddenly Jerry was coming at me out of a bank of cloud. I let him have it, and I think I must have got him in the wing because he spiralled past me out of control. As he did so ... I’ll always remember this ... I got a glimpse of his face, and you know ... he smiled. Funny thing, war.

Some nights, greatly daring, I would stump stiff-legged around the stage in imitation of Douglas Bader, feelingly priggishly rewarded by the occasional hiss. Douglas Bader, that is, as played by Kenneth More, and here we were casting him as a Labour MP. It seemed folly. But was it? A veteran of many casting sessions since, I have learned how the argument goes. When all the obvious choices have been exhausted, a kind of hysteria sets in as more and more unlikely names are suggested. The process is called Casting Against the Part and it’s almost a parlour game; a winning combination would be, say, Robert Morley as Andrew Aguecheek.

All of which is to do an injustice to Kenneth More, who was a fine naturalistic actor, and although he had never stepped outside his genial public stereotype, Patrick Garland and I both thought that if he could be persuaded to do so, it might remake him as an actor. The example of Olivier and Archie Rice was invoked, with high-sounding phrases like ‘taking his proper place in the modern theatre’. In retrospect, it seems silly, conceited and always futile. Kenneth More had no intention of remaking himself as an actor. Why should he? His public liked him the way he was. It would be much simpler to remake the play, and this is what he did. However, all this was in the future. We had lunch, he was enthusiastic about the play, seeing it as a great opportunity, and so the production went ahead, with Mona Washbourne, Gemma Jones and Brian Cox in the other parts.

I didn’t attend many of the rehearsals. I still wasn’t certain that one should. The question had not arisen in Forty Years On since I was there anyway as a member of the cast. Practices differ. Some playwrights attend the first read-through (and sometimes do the first read-through), then aren’t seen again until the dress rehearsal. Others are at the director’s elbow every day. There is something to be said for both. When one only puts in an occasional appearance the actors tend to think of the author as the Guardian of the Text, an uncomfortable and potentially censorious presence before whom they go to pieces. On the other hand, a playwright who is at every rehearsal soon ceases to be intimidating but has to exercise a corresponding tact. The temptation to put one’s oar in is strong. Actors come to a performance slowly; blind alleys have to be gone down, toes slid gingerly into water. To the playwright (the brute) the cast seem like small boys stood shivering and blowing into their hands on the side of a swimming-bath. Why don’t they just dive in and strike out for the other end with strong and perfect strokes? After all, it’s perfectly obvious to the playwright how to do the play. He could do it himself if only he could act.

It seemed easiest to keep away, which is what I did. When I’m asked these days why I invariably go to rehearsals and on location with films I have some nice answer ready. But if I’m honest it’s because that autumn with Getting On I made a wrong decision. I wrote in my diary:

The saddest thing about this production so far is that it is getting on quite well without me. I go down to the theatre from time to time, sneaking into the auditorium without being seen in case my presence should make the actors nervous. If they do see me they ply me with questions about the text. ‘Would he say this?’ asks Kenneth More, pointing to an inconsistency. ‘No, he wouldn’t’ is what I ought to say, ‘but I would.’ Instead I construct a lame theory to justify the inconsistency. ‘What is she doing upstairs at this time?’ asks Gemma Jones. ‘Why did you send her off?’ Why indeed? Because I’d run out of things for her to say, probably. ‘Maybe she’s putting the children to bed’ is what I say. When a play’s being cast it might be as well to pick someone to play the author too for all the help he can give them.

Even with the final dress rehearsals no alarm bells rang. The play was too long, admittedly, and ought to have been cut in rehearsal or, better still, beforehand, which is another lesson to be learned: if there are to be cuts, get them over with before rehearsals begin. But there was still a fortnight’s tour in Brighton when all this could be done. No panic.

Now Brighton is a dangerous place. It is the home or the haunt of many theatricals, who take an entirely human pleasure in getting in first on plays bound for the West End. They come round, proffer advice, diagnose what is wrong and suggest remedies. That is one section of the audience. The other consists (or did in 1971) of playgoers for whom the theatre has never been the same since John Osborne, and if they don’t like a play they leave it in droves. Indeed, it sometimes seems that their chief pleasure in going to the theatre in Brighton is in leaving it, and leaving it as noisily as possible. In Beyond the Fringe the seats were going up like pistol shots throughout the performance, so that, come the curtain, there were scarcely more in the audience than there were on the stage. On the other hand, Forty Years On had done well. Brighton was where Gielgud had got his second wind and the play came into focus. But that was familiar ground. Audiences at Brighton like what they know and know what they like and one person they did like was Kenneth More.

Until he was actually faced with an audience Kenneth More was scrupulous about playing the part as written (and sometimes overwritten). It’s true, he flatly refused to say ‘fuck’ since it would ruin the matinees, but this didn’t seem to me to be important, so long as he continued to play George Oliver as the kind of man who did say ‘fuck’ (the play maybe just happening to catch him on a day when he didn’t). Kenny himself of course said it quite frequently in life, but that was neither here nor there. The first night in Brighton didn’t go well and I was surprised (it is evidence of my own foolishness) how nervous the audience made him. Nothing in his debonair and easy-going exterior prepared one for the vulnerable actor he became. It was plain he had been expecting the audience to love him and when they didn’t he felt lost.

That first week the Brighton audience lapped up the jokes but yawned at the bits in between. We made some cuts, but found it hard because it was now plain that Kenneth More saw the piece as a comedy while I was trying to keep it a serious play. At the beginning of the second week in Brighton, and without there having been any warning or disagreement, he called a rehearsal to cut the play to his own taste, while instructing the management not to allow me into the theatre until this had been done. The following day I found myself barred from the theatre altogether and in fact never saw the play in its entirety from that day until it closed in the West End eight months later. When it was playing at the Queens I’d sometimes slip in to see how it was going, find he’d introduced more new lines to make his character more acceptable to the audience and come away feeling the piece had nothing to do with me at all. The younger members of the cast were fine, but there seemed to be an alliance between Kenneth More and Mona Washbourne to make it all nice and palatable, and with no ambiguity. I’ve always felt the play is too plotty, but it wasn’t plotty enough for them. George is meant to be so self-absorbed that he has a diminished sense of the existence of others. Finding it unbearable that he should be playing a character who doesn’t care that his mother-in-law may be dying, Kenny had inserted his own line: ‘I’ll go and see her doctor tomorrow.’ I wrote in my diary at the time: ‘It’s as if after Tuzenbach’s death in Three Sisters Irena were to come on and say: “I have three tickets for the 11.30 train to Moscow tomorrow. I have rented us a beautiful apartment and I already have my eye on several possible husbands.” ’ But not really, because, alas, it isn’t Three Sisters. I took it all very seriously. Two more diary entries:

It has been my experience that when directors or management start talking about the importance of the text it is because they are about to cut it. In the same way the people who talk most about the sanctity of human life are the advocates of capital punishment.

Seeing this production of my play without having attended the rehearsals or had anything to do with it until I actually saw it on stage is like going to see a relative who has been confined in an institution. A parent in a home. A son at boarding-school. Their hair is cut differently, they are wearing strange clothes; they have a routine with which one is not familiar, other friends, other jokes. Yet the features are the same. This is still the person I know. But what have these people done? What right have they to dress him up like this, cut off his hair, put her in that shapeless garment. This is my child. My mother.

All I was complaining about was that it had been turned into ‘a lovely evening in the theatre’.

There was a comic side to all this. Getting On is set in George Oliver’s North London home and furnished in a style that was becoming generally fashionable in the early Seventies. I knew the style well, having parodied it as part of a TV series in 1966, Life in NW1. This was a period when stripped pine was in its infancy and the customary objects of such a household – the jelly moulds, the cane carpet-beaters, the Seth Thomas clocks and Asian Pheasant plates – were still unexplored, tallboys unstripped and the nightdress potential of Edwardian shrouds not yet fully exploited. My own house was of course stuffed with such objects. Rather than scour the junk shops of Brighton and Portobello Road, it seemed easier to transfer my own possessions onto the set. But I was barred from the theatre. So while a look-out was kept for the star rehearsing on the stage I smuggled in my precious objets trouvés.

The question will, of course, be asked: what was the director Patrick Garland doing during all this? It was a question that kept occurring to me at the time, when I felt betrayed by him and the management of the play. But in retrospect there was probably little that could be done. A leading actor is like a thoroughbred horse, to be coaxed and gentled into the gate. One false move and his ears are back and he’s up at the other end of the paddock. With a West End opening large amounts of money are involved and where there is money there is always bad behaviour. In films, where more money is at stake, the behaviour is much worse, and the writer traditionally gets the mucky end of the stick. Nor should one ever underestimate the courage required by actors. To go out in front of a first-night audience bearing the main brunt of a new play is a small act of heroism. Actors must always have a sense that they are there to do the author’s dirty work. He may have written it, but he doesn’t have to go out there and say it. They are in the trenches, he is back at base.

In the event, the play won an Evening Standard Award for the Best Comedy of 1971. It had never seemed to me to be a comedy and at the ceremony I said it was like entering a marrow for the show and being given the cucumber prize. Kenneth More is dead, dying courageously and very much in the mould of the parts he liked playing. I still think that he could have been, if not a better actor than he was given credit for, certainly a more interesting one. He wasn’t the simple, straightforward good-natured guy he played: he was more complicated than that. But because he wanted so much to be liked he left a large tract of his character undeveloped. Acting is a painful business and it’s to do with exposure, not concealment. As it is, the play still remains uncut. It’s far too long, too wordy, and probably reads better than it performs: a good part but a bad play.

Habeas Corpus, written in 1973, was an attempt to write a farce without the paraphernalia – hiding places, multiple exits and umpteen doors. Trousers fall, it is true, but in an instantaneous way, as if by divine intervention. I wrote it without any idea of how it could be staged and rehearsals began with just four bentwood chairs. The big revolution occurred after two weeks’ rehearsal when the director, Ronald Eyre, decided we could manage with three. Remembering Getting On, I had worked hard on the text beforehand and together we cut it to the bone before rehearsals started. The bare stage specified in the stage-directions is essential to the bare text. Reintroduce the stock-in-trade of farce (as the Broadway production tried to do) and the play doesn’t work. There is just enough text to carry the performers on and off, provided they don’t dawdle. If they have to negotiate doors or stairs or potted plants or get anywhere except into the wings, then they will be left stranded half-way across the stage, with no line left with which to haul themselves off.

Neither Getting On nor Habeas Corpus is what Geoffrey Grigson called ‘weeded of impermanence’ – a necessary condition, apparently, if a play or a poem is to outlast its time. Topical references are out. Of course, plays don’t become timeless simply by being weeded of timely references, any more than plays become serious by being weeded of jokes. But the jokes in Habeas Corpus about the Permissive Society do date it and some of the other jokes make me wince. Still, Habeas Corpus is a favourite of mine if only because it’s one of the few times I’ve managed not to write a naturalistic play. It’s also the only one of my plays to be done regularly by amateurs. I can see why. It’s cheap to put on, there are plenty of good parts, mostly out of stock – henpecked husband, frustrated wife, lecherous curate, ubiquitous char – and everyone is slightly larger than life, which helps with the acting. But it’s not altogether farce. Death doesn’t quite lay down his book and poor Dennis ends up doomed.