‘The Stringalongs’

Alan Bennett

Had Mark Boxer not been the first to acknowledge it I’d hesitate to claim the Stringalongs (I never hyphenated it) as my children but they did have a previous existence before they were adopted by Marc.

In 1966, after eighteen months sketch-writing for Ned Sherrin’s Not So Much a Programme, I put together a television comedy series On the Margin for BBC 2. A regular spot in these programmes was ‘Life and Times in NW1’, a saga of the dilemmas, moral and aesthetic, encountered by a young married couple, the Stringalongs (‘But darling,’ I hear Joanna breathe, ‘aren’t moral and aesthetic really the same thing?’).

Like me, the Stringalongs had taken up residence in Victorian Camden Town, and along with so many other buyers of the still relatively cheap ex-rooming houses, had ‘knocked through’ their basements to make a commodious kitchen-dining room, shoved the nanny in the attic and crammed the house with collectable items from the many junk stalls of the neighbourhood.

Rather sooner in life than they had expected, and not altogether in accordance with their liberal principles, the Stringalongs found themselves property-owners. These days the process is called gentrification and involves no soul-searching (few troubled consciences in Docklands, I imagine), but we were genuinely uneasy about it – or there would have been no need for jokes; and though our unease could be handily recycled into resentment of those who bought into the area later than we had, there was a definite sense that we were shoving the indigenous population out.

A nice instance of this came one evening in 1965 when a dinner party in one of our newly knocked-through kitchens was interrupted by an old man, not quite a tramp, who rang at the door asking for the landlady. The last time he had been in London he had rented a room in this house and was there one available now? It was hard to explain that things had changed and it was again bad conscience that made us put him in a car and tour round Camden Town looking for a rooming house that had retained its integrity and was still a going concern.

Later I wrote a sketch based on the incident which we filmed for one of the Sherrin programmes, coarsening it in the process: the old man became quite definitely a tramp and my mini a Rolls-Royce (partly, though, to accommodate the camera crew) and the social implications nowhere. Still, it was this that gave me the idea for ‘Life and Times in NW1’, none of which now survive, as in those days programmes were wiped as easily as dishes and scarcely had the series been transmitted before it was obliterated.

But of course thanks to Mark Boxer the; Stringalongs did have a continuing life, as when he was trying out cartoon strips for them Listener in 1967 he asked if he might use them. I’ve a vague feeling that I even tried to write one or two of the strips myself but gave it up as I couldn’t work in such a condensed format. With Marc my characters had a much more sophisticated and metropolitan life than they’d had with me but he was always careful to acknowledge their origins – or else I should feel that I was stealing this dusty flower from his grave.