Diary

Alan Bennett

These are some extracts from a diary I kept in 1978 while rehearsing and filming a series of six plays for London Weekend Television. Some of the plays were shot on film, some in the studio. If I prefer working on film to working in the studio it is for reasons which are largely frivolous. Being on location with a unit, like being on tour with a play, concentrates the experience; one is beleaguered, often enjoyably so, and for a short while the film becomes the framework of one’s life. I am more gregarious than I like to think and to be working on a film in congenial company and in an unfamiliar place seems to me the best sort of holiday. In the studio this camaraderie and shared concern is more circumscribed. There are homes to go to, lives to be lived and the recording process is altogether more routine. For the studio staff it may be a play for today, but tomorrow it’s The South Bank Show and the day after Game for a Laugh. It’s work in a way that filming on location, however arduous, never quite is.

Not that it is often arduous. To an onlooker, which for much of the time I am, it’s like war: long periods of boredom punctuated by bouts of frenzied activity. The scene in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade in which Lord Raglan and his party view the charge from a nearby hilltop is (perhaps deliberately) very like watching the making of a film. The terminology of film – ‘cut’, ‘shoot’, ‘action’, ‘reload’ – is the terminology of battle and it is a battle in which the director is the general and the actors are infantry, never told what is happening, left hanging about for hours at a time, then suddenly, because ‘the light is right,’ on standby, ready to go. Troops in the trenches used to stand to when the light was right; actors share their pessimism and the sense that, though seldom consulted, they are the ones who must get up and do it. The director is staff; he is behind the gun. The actors face it. And it isn’t simply a metaphor. There is a lot of playing soldiers about it. Forget film – there would be many directors just as happy conducting a small war.

11 January, London: ‘The Old Crowd’. Lindsay Anderson lives in a flat in one of the redbrick turn-of-the-century blocks behind John Barnes in Swiss Cottage. With its solid turreted houses, backing on gardens, Can-field, Compayne, Aberdare, Broadhurst, it’s the haunt of refugees, and Jewish old ladies, and perhaps (Lindsay would strike out that ‘perhaps’) the most European bit of London. Lindsay comes to the door in a plastic apron in the middle of preparing leeks or parsnips. He makes me some coffee, then we sit at the kitchen table and work on the script. He looks at me inquiringly, then puts a straight line through half a page. ‘Boring, don’t you think? Too tentative.’ He invariably crosses out all my ‘possiblys’ and ‘perhapses’. Sometimes I resent seeing a day’s work crossed out at a stroke (except that I can generally salvage it for something else). It is like having one’s homework marked, and there is a lot of the schoolmaster about him, and some of wanting to please the teacher about me. Every few minutes work stops and gossip takes over. ‘You didn’t like that?’ The eyes close in despair and he shakes his head. ‘And I can’t stand him. So English.’ ‘English’ is invariably a word of abuse, representing smallness of mind, intimacy, charm. All the things Auden fled from. Yet Lindsay is himself very English. Sometimes he routs out his scrapbook to illustrate a point. There is a picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury gingerly touching the bone threaded through the nose of some Zulu warrior. Peter Hall’s Sanderson advert. The flat is airy and comfortable. A corridor lined with photographs, but not, as in my house, picked up at junk shops. His own school. His own life. Pre-war gym displays at Cheltenham College. Lindsay as a child in India astride an enormous gun. Awards for films and for commercials. A pinboard on which is a picture of Brecht, a photo of the cast of What the butler saw. Lindsay directing Ralph Richardson. A group photo of some critics. ‘Look at them, Alan. I mean, is it surprising?’ He has no pretensions to taste and would presumably despise the word. Coffee over, he starts preparing lunch. He is a hospitable man, though the odd thing is he prepared my lunch separately from his and serves it first, though his consists of the same ingredients.

He doesn’t understand jokes. Or why people make them. ‘No, I don’t like jokes,’ he admits: wisecracks, yes, jokes, no. ‘Never mind,’ he says as I go. ‘This will just be thought of as a small hiccup in your career.’

11 February, London. A run-through of The Old Crowd in the Territorial Army Drill Hall in Handel Street, Bloomsbury. The play’s greatest virtue is that it does not seem like mine. Rachel Roberts and Jill Bennett go off to lunch together to compare notes on their various husbands. They are like old-fashioned stars, both in expensive fur coats, and, when together, sly and mischievous and in league against men. Lindsay has no false pride. He will consider suggestions from anybody. ‘Grateful for them. I mean, come on. One has few enough ideas of one’s own.’ He is often accused of cribbing from Buñuel, but has actually seen very few Buñuel films. People have told him about them, though. ‘That gives you a much more vivid picture. I don’t think I want to see them in case I’m disappointed.’ He believes in the creative power of mischief. At one point I suggest that Jill Bennett should say a line in a different way. ‘Oh yes. Tell her that. I’ve just told her to do the opposite. Now she won’t know what to do.’ He turns the rehearsals into school. He is the schoolmaster alternately praising, sarcastic or self-revealing. The actors vie with each other to please him. He makes them children again so they do not mind being childish and showing their uncertainty. Stood in his cap and old windcheater, he listens to them with a long-suffering air, wide mouth set in a slightly mocking smile. ‘Aren’t they stupid? Don’t you just want to shoot them all? I do. I just want to machine-gun them all.’ He suddenly shouts at them. ‘Fucking actors.’

‘Oh, don’t start that,’ Jill Bennett shouts back.

‘Fucking actors!’

15 March, Leeds: ‘Me, I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf’. Thora Hird arrives to film the main scene, in which she meets her son, and questions him about his private life (or lack of it). We are due to film in the Civic Restaurant below the Town Hall, but shooting cannot start until it closes, so we sit in the Queen’s Hotel having a long lunch. Thora keeps up an endless flow of reminiscence: her early days in rep, her screen test at Ealing, her time with the Crazy Gang. She was brought up in More – cambe, the daughter of the manager of the Winter Gardens. She tells of Morecambe’s solitary prostitute, Nelly Hodge. How someone, going down the yard for a bucket of coal, had heard Nelly and a client going at it in the back alley. ‘“Nay, Nelly,” the chap said, “put a bit of heart into it.” And, do you know, she was eating a fish and twopenny-worth at the same time.’ While we chat Don Revie comes in and hangs about the entrance to the kitchen. A waiter appears and gives him a parcel. He uses the Queen’s Hotel as a takeaway.

The Civic Restaurant is in the basement of the Town Hall, which also houses the Crown Court. All through the long evening’s filming the corridors upstairs are thronged with lawyers and policemen, awaiting the verdict in a murder trial. A 20-year-old man is accused of battering a baby to death; there are also cigarette burns on its body. To the police and the lawyers it seems an open and shut case, but the jury has surprised everyone (and ruined all social arrangements) by staying out for seven hours. The police attribute this to the fact that the foreman of the jury is a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform and herself an unmarried mother. The judge had been hoping to go out to dinner and his Bentley waits in Victoria Street. The court caterers have gone home and eventually the judge’s chamberlain lines up at Kennedy’s, the film’s caterers, and gets some dinner there for the judge and the high sheriff. Meanwhile the lawyers and bored policemen drift down into the basement to watch the filming and we chat. One of the good things about being in a group, engaged in what to other people seems a glamorous activity, is that I can chat to these lawyers about their job and to the policemen about theirs, behave in the way in which writers are supposed to behave, but in which I seldom do. I’d normally sidestep policemen and would want to keep out of the way of their prejudices lest I be expected to corroborate them, but established as part of another scene, with a setting and frame of my own, I find I am set free, enfranchised in the way people of a more outgoing temperament are all the time.

Suddenly there is a flurry of activity: the jury is being called back and the lawyers and policemen scurry back upstairs into the court. The judge’s chamberlain takes me and some of the crew and puts us in the well of the court. It is like a theatrical matinee, the cast of one show going to see another. Indeed, when he follows the judge onto the bench the chamberlain gives us a little showbiz wave. The jury now file in, surprisingly informal and at ease, the men in shirtsleeves, one woman with her knitting. The judge is courteous, emphasising that they must feel under no pressure to bring in a verdict. What he wants to know is whether there is any likelihood of them coming to an agreement. The foreman must answer yes or no. She asks when. ‘Ah,’ says the judge, ‘I mustn’t answer that. That would be to put pressure on you. Obviously there will come a time when you are too tired to go on, but the very fact that you have asked that question seems to indicate that that point has not yet been reached.’ It is like Oxford philosophy. The jury files out to deliberate further and out we file to do reverses on shots already filmed. I am in the corridor two hours later when the verdict comes through. A man walks through the policemen shaking his head in disgust, saying: ‘Manslaughter. Seven years.’ The prisoner was a good-looking boy. Naively, I expected to see some depravity in his face.

We finish at 11.30 with the customary call: ‘Right, that’s a wrap.’ The judge could have said the same. ‘Manslaughter. Seven years. And that’s a wrap.’

1 May, Hartlepool: ‘Afternoon Off’. We film in the sluice room of the cottage hospital. Conditions are cramped and I crouch behind the camera tripod in order to see the action. I am kneeling on the floor under the bedpan sluice. If my Mam saw this she would want to throw away trousers, raincoat, every particle of clothing that might have been touched and polluted. Thora Hird plays a patient in the hospital being visited by her husband. ‘I bet the house is upside down,’ she says to him.

‘It never is,’ says her husband. ‘I did the kitchen floor this morning.’

‘Which bucket did you use?’

‘The red one.’

She is outraged. ‘That’s the outside bucket. I shall have it all to do again.’

I am assuming this is common ground and that the tortuous boundary between the clean and the dirty is a frontier most households share. It was very marked in ours. My mother maintained an intricate hierarchy of cloths, buckets and dusters, to the Byzantine differentiations of which she alone was privy. Some cloths were dish cloths but not sink cloths; some were for the sink but not for the floor. There were dirty buckets and clean buckets, brushes for indoors, brushes for the flags. One mop had a universal application while another had a unique and terrible purpose and had to be kept outside, hung on the wall. And however rinsed and clean these utensils were, they remained tainted by their awful function. Left to himself, my Dad would violate these taboos, using the first thing that came to hand to clean the hearth or wash the floor. ‘It’s all nowt,’ he’d mutter, but if Mam was around he knew it saved time and temper to observe her order of things. Latterly, disposable cloths and kitchen rolls tended to blur these ancient distinctions but the basic structure remained, perhaps the firmest part of the framework of her world. When she was ill with depression the order broke down: the house became dirty. Spotless though Dad kept it, she saw it as ‘upside down’, dust an unstemmable tide and the house’s (imagined) squalor a talking point for the neighbours. So that when she came home from the hospital, bright and better, her first comment was always how clean the house looked. It was as if the whole world and her existence in it had been rinsed clean.

2 May, Hartlepool. I take photographs in the old cemetery by the sea on the north side of the headland. The graveyard is flanked by two huge factories, where the pier of Steetley Magnesite runs out into the sea. The graves are of dead mariners, a Norwegian from a shipwreck, a man killed by a shell in the bombardment of Hartlepool in 1914 and many men and children killed ‘in the course of their employment’. Filming gives one an oblique perspective on English life, taking one into places one would not otherwise go, bringing one up against people one would never otherwise meet. This morning busmen in the depot on Church Street, yesterday the chef and waiters in the hotel kitchens. I have very little knowledge of ‘ordinary life’. I imagine it in a script and come up against the reality only when the script gets filmed. So the process can be a bit of an eye-opener, a kind of education. Cameramen in particular are educated like this, men of the world who have odd pockets of understanding gleaned from the films they have worked on. I imagine someone could be educated in the same way by promiscuity.

Sunderland. An old-fashioned shoe shop. High ladders and shelves piled with shoe-boxes. Feeling this is what a genuine writer would do, I make a note of the labels:

Alabaster Softee Leather

Clover Trilobel Fur Bound Bootees

Buffalo Grain Softee Chukkas

Malt Gibsons

Apron Casuals

Concealed Gusset Casuals

Red Derby Nocap

Tan Gibson Bruised Look

Mahogany Lear Peep Toe

3 May, Hartlepool. We are filming an OAP concert at St Hilda’s Church Hall. The old ladies arrive in a coach, smart and warm in fur hats, check coats and little bootees, with one solitary man. I see my father in him, going with my Mam on the WI trip from the village. ‘Well, your Mam and me always do things together. We don’t want splitting up to go with lots of different folks.’ My mother’s description of her clothes:

My other shoes

My warm boots

My tweedy coat

That greeny coat of mine

That fuzzy blue coat I have

My coat with the round buttons

Like the inventory of a Medieval will.

Casual onlookers find it difficult to detect the hierarchy of a film unit. Who is in charge? It seems to be the cameraman. He is making them move all the lights anyway. Or is it one of those two young men who keep changing their minds about where everybody in the audience is meant to sit? Perhaps it’s the man with the long microphone. Certainly, now that he’s shaken his head they’re changing it all again. The proper actors haven’t even appeared yet, you’d think they’d have some say. Suddenly everything settles down and somebody shouts out (quite rudely), ‘Settle, everybody, settle,’ and the boss turns out to be the scruffy young man who has been sat on the windowsill doing the crossword. He scarcely looks old enough. And so it was in the days when Mam and Dad used to come and watch the filming. Dad would think he was talking to a key figure on the film, when in fact he was talking to one of the props boys or the animal handler, members of the unit I’d scarcely come across and whose names I didn’t know. Once when they visited me at Oxford they took my scout for a don, and in the theatre my dresser for John Gielgud. And it’s happened to me. When we were on Broadway with Beyond the Fringe the Kennedys came backstage after the show. Having been introduced, I spent most of my time talking to a distinguished but rather abstracted young man whom, though (and perhaps because) he kept looking over my shoulder, I took to be an important section of the New Frontier. He was a secret serviceman.