- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

UNTOLD STORIES

By Alan Bennett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $32.50, 658 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Alan Bennett first came to the attention of the world as a member of Britain’s other Fab Four

phenomenon of the Sixties: Beyond the Fringe. All four members of that outrageous troupe who had scandalized and delighted audiences in London and New York with their unique blend of cabaret, comedy and satire went on to achieve stardom in their respective fields.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore became major screen presences, while the polymath Jonathan Miller with his medical degree and enormous learning in history, the arts and multifarious aspects of culture, has lit up the television screen through documentary series and the stage as an accomplished opera and theater director.

Alan Bennett was the straight man in Beyond the Fringe, the quiet, mousy one, with his horn-rimmed spectacles, Yorkshire accent and understated demeanor. He went on to play similar roles on stage and screen, but has made his mark in the nearly half-century since Beyond the Fringe mainly as a playwright.

From “Forty Years On” and “A Question of Attribution” to “The Madness of King George,” his work has delighted audiences across the world. Now in his 70s, he has a play entitled “The History Boys” on Broadway this season that is a smash hit, as it also was in London.

Enjoyable as Mr. Bennett’s plays are — you get the feeling that actors like playing the parts he has written for them as much as audiences do watching them — for me, his unique achievement as a dramatist has been the “Talking Head” playlets he has written for television. What a marvelous thing to take an insult, or at best a bit of faint praise, and show just how much you can do with one wonderful actor looking into the camera and talking; just that; no more.

Who can forget the memory of, say, Maggie Smith or Eileen Atkins, looking at you from the screen, fixing you with that steady gaze while you watch her talking head delivering indelible lines made up of big phrases and small, adding up to so much?

And of course that’s where Alan Bennett comes in, for he does all those voices, those personas, those characters as no one else has done. A little phrase, “I’m not that sort of person,” can be repeated almost as a mantra to show that this is indeed that sort of person; and all at once you see that Alan Bennett is the master of the prose dramatic monologue as Robert Browning was of the poetic.

Which brings us to Mr. Bennett’s latest collection, “Untold Stories,” which is in structure similar to his earlier collection of bits and pieces, “Writing Home.” Here again, we have a little autobiography, some diaries, a few essays, a couple of introductory comments on his plays, the odd tribute to departed colleagues, even a couple of book reviews.

What strings them together beautifully is that Mr. Bennett, who is so adept at doing other people’s voices, has a wonderfully distinctive one all his own: wry, matter of fact, incisive, pointed. This will come as no surprise to those who have enjoyed the odd “Talking Head” he has done for himself where he discusses a peculiarity of his upbringing or a quirk of someone in his family, himself included.

But what is amazing in this latest collection is the way he is able to deploy his voice in all manner of places and occasions, to keep this up almost endlessly, without ever striking a false note. It represents a considerable advance over “Writing Home,” perhaps because Mr. Bennett feels increasingly comfortable in talking about the private life he had so zealously protected in the past. Whatever the reason, “Untold Stories” is obviously the work of a man increasingly — and gladly — comfortable in his own skin.

Mr. Bennett is an unusual sort of public man or celebrity. How many people in his position travel to the theater in London by bicycle? A resident of London for more than four decades now, he has never lost his attachment to his native Yorkshire. Not content with being mentally and emotionally rooted there, he has kept a house there even though his parents are no longer there to connect him with his native heath.

Perhaps this is because he gets a kick out of the locals cutting him down to size, as in the case of the man who tells him that no matter how much he has achieved, he’ll never be a patch on his father, who was the local butcher.

Mr. Bennett’s portrait of both parents is deeply fond yet also profoundly clear-eyed. He is alive to their idiosyncracies but never condescends to them. Whether he is discussing his father’s efforts to teach him to play the violin (this butcher was also in his spare time an accomplished musician) or his mother’s slow descent into depression and eventually dementia, he is unflinching but never unkind.

About himself, Mr. Bennett is also unsparing. Whether describing his incredibly late achievement of puberty — at 18, thus just sparing him the indignity of entering the army still awaiting its arrival — or his protracted though ultimately successful treatment for colon cancer, he is consistently humorous, self-critical and, above all, honest. As he is about the hideous experience of an unprovoked physical assault by a group of louts while on holiday in Italy.

As befits an alumnus of Beyond the Fringe, Mr. Bennett has remained a lifelong iconoclast. This has, among other things, led him not once but twice to decline honors offered him by Queen and country.

Having turned down a lower honor in the 1980s, he thought that would be the end of the matter, but to his astonishment (the general belief is that once an honor is declined, no further ones will be offered, as Evelyn Waugh in his day discovered to his considerable discomfiture), Mr. Bennett was offered a knighthood in the 1990s.

This, too, he declined and unlike his fellow Yorkshireman, David Hockney, he does not have the Companion of Honour, which along with the Order of Merit, exists for those whose principles do not allow them to have titles. (Although the irony is that their exclusivity — the CH limited to 48 and the OM to 24 — makes them more coveted than other honors, with the result that most of their members are also peers or knights.)

Mr. Bennett is just not interested in that sort of thing and his principles have also led him to decline honors from his alma mater, Oxford University, because he does not approve of some of the sources of their fund-raising. But this does not mean that his country does not have rewards that can be meaningful to him:

“The greatest honour I have ever been given had nothing to do with the Honours List and thus evaded the strictures of my recusatory temperament and all my misgivings about authority. This was when in 1993 I was appointed a Trustee of the National Gallery. It was entirely unexpected and unlooked for; when I asked, ‘Why me?’ I was told that I represented the man in the street.

“The position of Trustee carries with it one inestimable privilege, namely permission to go round the gallery out of opening hours. To be made free of the nation’s pictures and to be allowed to roam the gallery at will seems to me a distinction of more substance and worth than any of those doled out in the Honours List, particularly since, though a Trustee serves for five or seven years, the privilege of out-of-hours entry is given for life. Even though I was for all sorts of reasons an indifferent Trustee, nothing I have ever been given has pleased me more.”

Here you have the measure of the man: individualistic, a rebel by nature, but never merely a show-off; deeply appreciative of culture and knowledgeable as to what kind of privilege is actually of value to him. I think it is fair to say that in few other figures are the public and private so attractively blended as in Alan Bennett.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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