Alan Bennett in conversation

Few writers have successfully mined northern culture and specific northern speech patterns as Alan Bennett. Growing up in Leeds, he listened in on the chatter of his relatives, absorbing the patter of domestic conversation, which would emerge across a glittering and much-loved range of plays, particularly those written for television. We are delighted to welcome Alan Bennett back to BFI Southbank, to celebrate the work of one of the UK’s finest writers and offering a great opportunity to explore the way northern culture is so integral to his creative process.

It’s hard to pigeonhole Alan Bennett, and correspondingly easy to undervalue his achievements. Although one of the most recognisable writers of his generation, his unassumingly owlish persona and fondness for self-deprecation has created the impression of a lovably eccentric minor talent, whose amusingly droll plays about elderly Northern women (typically played by Thora Hird) and fusspot secretaries (Patricia Routledge) are merely one step up from sitcom. The idea that he might be the most important and innovative British television playwright since Dennis Potter initially seems laughable.

But it’s hard to think of a stronger contender. His prolific output includes individual television plays, television series and cinema films, together with numerous stage works, short stories, assorted journalism and his inimitable diaries. An Englishman Abroad and the two Talking Heads series are regularly cited amongst British television’s greatest achievements, and he is widely recognised as the master of the television monologue.

Furthermore, his work is generally darker, harsher and more satirically barbed than his (deeply resented) ‘national treasure’ status and peerless ear for the eccentricities of Yorkshire dialect and workplace gossip would suggest. Often, what looks like endearing shyness is closer to full-blown paranoia (Kafka is a character in two plays, and his shadow looms over several more), with family life either fractious or awkwardly silent, his elderly characters often facing a lonely, neglected death. His ability to get under the skin of such withdrawn people and write about them with such empathy, compassion and wry (often gallows) humour makes him not just a great writer but the definitive chronicler of a certain kind of English ordinariness, whose outwardly placid surface conceals inner turmoil as intense as anything displayed by the more emotionally articulate.

Born on 9 May 1934 in Armley, Leeds, the son of a butcher, Bennett grew up surrounded by gossiping Yorkshirewomen, which made an indelible impression on him, as did regular holidays to coastal resorts like Morecambe. His first encounter with comedy was via the radio, but he later said that he disliked popular comedians like Tommy Handley and Tommy Trinder for being ‘relentlessly cheerful’: more down-to-earth figures like ITMA’s appropriately-named charlady Mona Lott were closer to an already melancholic outlook.

Winning an Oxford scholarship, he spent the 1950s preparing to become a medieval historian, until his increasing fondness for the stage culminated in a legendary collaboration with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. Almost single-handedly, Beyond the Fringe revolutionised British satire, moving it from Goonish surrealism towards pointed, often controversial political comment. Post-_Fringe_, Bennett contributed to BBC sketch shows Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life and BBC-3 and played the Dormouse in Jonathan Miller’s imaginative adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, before writing the sketch show On the Margin.

His first small-screen play, A Day Out, was filmed by Stephen Frears, who would direct and/or produce the majority of Bennett’s television work over the next decade. It and Sunset Across the Bay were wistful, elegiac pieces, with Bennett drawing on his Yorkshire roots for the first time in his portraits of, respectively, a Halifax cycling club in 1911 and an elderly couple (based on his parents) retiring to Morecambe but feeling desperately homesick for Leeds.

His television breakthrough was with the LWT series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett. Although he would publish five of these scripts under the title The Writer in Disguise, there was little overt autobiography, but much delving into recurring preoccupations, be they shyness and loneliness (Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Afternoon Off), office minutiae (Doris and Doreen, One Fine Day), the limited appeal of Northern seaside towns (Afternoon Off, All Day on the Sands), family alienation (Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, One Fine Day, All Day on the Sands) and a foreboding sense of impending doom (Doris and Doreen, The Old Crowd). The play that garnered most attention, much of it strongly negative, was The Old Crowd, an unusually experimental piece for mainstream British television, though much of its confrontational style came from director and uncredited co-writer Lindsay Anderson.

Bennett returned to the BBC for his second cycle of plays, given the unofficial collective title Objects of Affection. These showed a deepening concern for the lives of ordinary people, whether the dying fathers in Intensive Care and Rolling Home, the slow-witted Our Winnie, the unemployed teenager and his mother in Marks, or the elderly couple and naïve social worker in Say Something Happened. As before, one piece stood out for stylistic innovation, the monologue A Woman of No Importance, with Patricia Routledge inaugurating what may be Bennett’s most lasting television monument.

The mid-1980s saw several one-off scripts, often about real-life figures such as Guy Burgess (An Englishman Abroad), Franz Kafka (The Insurance Man) and Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears). The last of these was Bennett’s second cinema screenplay: his first, A Private Function (directed by Malcolm Mowbray) revisited the postwar Yorkshire of his boyhood in a story of food rationing and unlicensed pig smuggling.

But it was Talking Heads which lifted Bennett’s television writing onto a higher plane. The title was inspired by the adage that ‘talking heads’ made bad television, but Thora Hird, Maggie Smith, Stephanie Cole, Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge and Bennett himself comprehensively countered it, painting unforgettable portraits of damaged lives and thwarted expectations. It took less than a decade for them to appear on the A-level syllabus, cementing their modern classic status. A second, equally acclaimed series followed in 1998.

A few months after the first Talking Heads series, the BBC broadcast Dinner at Noon, a documentary that was Bennett’s most autobiographical piece to date. Although wary of the media (fuelled by horror at the way the tabloids hounded his friend Russell Harty as he lay dying in hospital), he would gradually reveal more personal information via carefully-selected diary extracts, published first in the London Review of Books and then collated in the surprise best-seller Writing Home (1994). He also made a reflection on art and portraiture (Portrait or Bust), a personal tribute to Westminster Abbey (The Abbey) and two series of short television monologues, Telling Tales and Bennett on Bennett, which collectively offered the most vivid reminiscences of his childhood and parents to date.

Bennett’s previously prolific output slowed noticeably in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He initially complained that he had been suffering from writer’s block before finally admitting that he had undergone treatment for cancer in 1997. This was revealed in his 2005 collection of confessional essays, Untold Stories originally written in the expectation that they would appear posthumously: they also dealt frankly with his homosexuality, a family history of mental illness, and his motives for refusing a knighthood.

Throughout his career, Bennett also wrote extensively for the stage, his greatest success being The Madness of George III (1992). Bennett himself adapted it for the cinema, and, scenting its American backers’ preference for a major star, made it a contractual condition that both original star Nigel Hawthorne and director Nicholas Hytner be retained. The slightly retitled The Madness of King George was a critical and commercial triumph, with Hawthorne and Bennett receiving Oscar nominations. Of the later plays, The History Boys (2004) was subsequently filmed, again by Hytner. The Lady in the Van (2015) chronicled Bennett’s 15-year relationship with Miss Shepherd, who resided in a Bedford camper on his Gloucester Crescent drive. 2022 saw the release of Allelujah, Richard Eyre’s all-star adaptation of Bennett’s acclaimed play about a hospital for the elderly under threat of closure.
Michael Brooke, BFI Screenonline,

Director: David Giles
Production Company: BBC
Producer: Innes Lloyd
Music: George Fenton

Patricia Routledge

BBC2 tx 19/11/1982
UK 1982
50 mins

Director: Stuart Burge
©: Slow Motion Limited
Production Company: Slow Motion Limited
Produced for: BBC
Executive Producer: Alan Bennett
Producer: Mark Shivas
Associate Producer: Lorraine Goodman
Production Co-ordinator: Sarah Atkinson
Production Accountant: Patrick Isherwood
Post-production Supervisor: Liz Pearson
1st Assistant Director: William Campbell
Script Supervisor: Heather Storr
Screenplay: Alan Bennett
Lighting Director: John Treays
Camera Operator: David Fader
Gaffer: Joe Ryan
Graphic Design: Mina Martinez
Editor: Sue Wyatt
Production Designer: Stuart Walker
Art Director: Diane Dancklefsen
Production Buyer: John Bush
Property Master: John Hogan
Costume Designer: Dany Everett
Make-up/Hair Design: Frances Hannon
Telecine Grader: Alan Tully
Music: George Fenton
Sound Recordist: Tony Jackson
Dubbing Mixer: Paul Harris

Thora Hird (Violet)

BBC2 tx 11/11/1998
UK 1998
30 mins

Born 9 May 1934, Leeds, Yorkshire
All UK unless stated

Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life
(TV series, BBC1 tx 13/11/64-11/4/65)
My Father Knew Lloyd George
(TV fictional documentary, d. Jack Gold, BBC1 tx 18/12/65) writer of additional material + cast as Gladstone
(TV series, BBC1 tx 2/10/65-16/4/66)
On the Margin
(TV series d. Sidney Lotterby, BBC2 tx 9/11/66) + participant
A Day Out
(TV play, d. Stephen Frears, BBC2 tx 24/12/72)
Sunset Across the Bay
(from TV series ‘Play for Today’ BBC1 tx 20/2/75; d. Stephen Frears)
A Little Outing (from TV series ‘Premiere’, d. Brian Tufano, BBC2 tx 20/10/77)
A Visit from Miss Prothero
(from TV series ‘Play of the Week’, d. Stephen Frears, BBC2 tx 11/1/78)
Six Plays by Alan Bennett (Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, + narrator, d. Stephen Frears, ITV tx 2/12/78; Doris and Doreen, d. Stephen Frears, ITV tx 16/12/78; The Old Crowd, d. Lindsay Anderson, ITV tx 27/1/79; Afternoon Off, + cast as Mr Petty, d. Stephen Frears, ITV tx 3/2/79; One Fine Day, d. Stephen Frears, ITV tx 17/2/79; All Day on the Sands, d. Giles Foster, ITV tx 24/2/79)
Intensive Care
(from TV series ‘Play for Today’, d. Gavin Millar, BBC1 tx 9/11/82)
Objects of Affection (Our Winnie d. Malcolm Mowbray, BBC2 tx 12/11/82; A Woman of No Importance d. Giles Foster, BBC2 tx 19/11/82; Rolling Home d. Piers Haggard, BBC2 tx 3/12/82; Marks d. Piers Haggard, BBC2 tx 10/12/82; Say Something Happened d. Giles Foster, BBC2 tx 17/12/82)
An Englishman Abroad (TV film, d. John Schlesinger, BBC1 tx 29/11/83)
The Insurance Man
(TV film from series ‘Screen Two’, d. Richard Eyre, BBC2 tx 23/02/86)
Prick Up Your Ears
(d. Stephen Frears) screenplay
Talking Heads
(A Chip in the Sugar, d. Stuart Burge, BBC1 tx 19/4/88, + cast as Graham Whittaker; A Lady of Letters, d. Giles Foster, BBC1 tx 26/4/88; Bed Among the Lentils, d. Alan Bennett, BBC1 tx 3/5/88; Soldiering On, d. Tristram Powell, BBC1 tx 10/5/88; Her Big Chance d. Giles Foster, BBC1 tx 17/5/88; A Cream Cracker Under the Settee d. Stuart Burge, BBC1 tx 24/5/88)
Poetry in Motion
(Thomas Hardy (d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 6/6/90; A.E. Housman d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 13/6/90; John Betjeman d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 20/6/90; W H Auden d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 27/6/90; Louis MacNeice, d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 4/7/90; Philip Larkin d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 11/7/90) + presenter
102 Boulevard Haussmann
(TV film from series ‘Screen Two’, d. Udayan Prasad, BBC2 tx 17/2/91)
A Life in Death (short from TV series ‘Screenplay Firsts’, BBC2 tx 28/8/91) as script adviser
A Question of Attribution (TV film from series ‘Screen One’, d. John Schlesinger, BBC1 tx 20/10/91)
Julie Walters and Friends (TV comedy sketches, d. Alasdair MacMillan, ITV tx 29/12/91) + on- screen participant.
(from 2nd TV series Poetry in Motion, d. Tony Cash tx 29/11/92) + presenter
The Madness of King George
(UK/US, d. Nicholas Hytner) screenplay + based on play by AB + 2nd MP
The Abbey
(three-part TV documentary, d. Jonathan Stedall: A Royal Peculiar, BBC2 tx 25/12/95; Whom Would You Like To Be Seen Dead With?, BBC2 tx 26/12/95; A Mirror of England, BBC2 tx 27/12/95) + presenter
Talking Heads 2
(Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, d. Patrick Garland, BBC2 tx 6/10/98; The Hand of God, d. Stuart Burge, BBC2 tx 13/10/98; Playing Sandwiches, d. Udayan Prasad, BBC2 tx 20/10/98; The Outside Dog, d. Gavin Millar, BBC2 tx 27/10/98; Nights in the Garden of Spain d. Tristram Powell, BBC2 tx 3/11/98; Waiting for the Telegram, d. Stuart Burge, BBC2 tx 11/11/98)
Telling Tales
(A Strip of Blue and Our War BBC2 tx 4/11/2000; An Ideal Home BBC2 tx 12/11/2000; A Shy Butcher BBC2 tx 15/11/2000; Days Out BBC2 tx 18/11/2000; Proper Names BBC2 tx 22/11/2000; Eating Out BBC2 tx 25/11/2000, all d. Patrick Garland; Aunt Eveline BBC2 tx 29/11/2000; Unsaid Prayers BBC2 tx 2/12/2000; No Mean City BBC2 tx 6/12/2000, all d. Tristram Powell) + reader 2006
The History Boys
(UK/US, d. Nicholas Hytner) screenplay + based on play by AB
Bennett on Bennett
(Mixing, BBC 46/12/2009; Shy, BBC4 7/12/2009, Writing BBC4 8/12/2009; Star Gazing, BBC4 9/12/2009; Postscript BBC410/12/2009) uncredited writer + presenter
The Habit of Art
d. Nicholas Hytner, screen d. Robin Lough) play by AB
The Lady in the Van
(d. Nicholas Hytner) screenplay + based on memoirs by AB
(d. Richard Eyre) play by AB + executive producer

Augustus Hare
(from TV series ‘Famous Gossips’, BBC2 tx 19/9/65) as Augustus Hare
The Drinking Party (from TV series ‘Sunday Night’, d. Jonathan Miller, BBC1 tx 14/11/65) as Eryximachus
Alice in Wonderland
(TV film, d. Jonathan Miller, BBC1 tx 28/12/66) as Mouse
(US/UK, from TV series ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’, d. Peter Wood, NBC tx 17/11/70) as Osric
Every Home Should Have One (d. Jim Clark) as counsel in court
Long Shot
(d. Maurice Hatton) as Neville’s doctor
Intensive Care
(from TV series ‘Play for Today’, d. Gavin Millar, d. David Jones, BBC1 tx 9/11/82) as Denis Midgeley
The Merry Wives of Windsor (from TV series ‘The BBC Television Shakespeare’, d. David Jones, BBC2 tx 28/12/82) as Justice Shallow
The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (d. Julien Temple) as participant
Difficult Customers
(from video series ‘So You Want To Be a Success at Selling?’, d. Charles Crichton)
A Private Function
(d. Malcolm Mowbray) screenplay + co-story with Malcolm Mowbray
The Elastic Church (TV documentary, d. Hugh Newsam, Channel 4 tx 2/9/84) narrator
The End of the Line
(documentary, from TV series ‘First Tuesday’, d. Ian McFarlane, ITV tx 4/6/85) presenter
Dreamchild (d. Gavin Millar) as voice of Mock Turtle
Man and Music
(series of 4 TV documentaries, d. Tony Cash, Channel 4 tx 26/1-23/2/86) presenter
Breaking Up (TV drama series, d. Stuart Burge, tx BBC2, 19/11-10/12/86) as Mr Posner
Fortunes of War
(7-part TV serial, d. James Cellan Jones, BBC1 tx 11/10-20/11/87) as Lord Pinkrose
Little Dorrit (d. Christine Edzard) as the Bishop
Dinner at Noon
(from TV series ‘Byline’, BBC1 tx 8/8/88) narrator
A Chip in the Sugar (episode of TV series ‘Talking Heads’, d. Stuart Burge, BBC1 tx 19/8/88) as middle-aged man
Coral Browne – Caviar to the General
(TV documentary, d. Christopher O’Hare, C4 tx 23/12/90) narrator
The Walrus and the Carpenter
(from TV series ‘The Poetry Book’; Channel 4 tx 11/4/91) narrator
Selling Hitler (parts 4 and 5 of TV series, d. Alastair Reid, ITV tx 2/7/91 & 9/7/91) as Hugh Trevor-Roper
The Traitor (episode of TV series ‘Ashenden’, d.Christopher Morahan, BBC1 tx 24/11/91) as Grantly Caypor
Wind on the Willows
(TV documentary, BBC2 tx 24/1/92) narrator
Looks Like a Chair, Actually It’s a Lavatory (TV documentary, d. David Jeffcock, BBC2 tx 5/7/92) presenter
Sickert’s London
(TV documentary, d. Jake Auerbach, BBC2 tx 2/1/93) reader
The Long Summer (series of 6 TV documentaries, various directors, Channel 4 16/5- 20/5/93) narrator
Portrait or Bust
(TV documentary, d. Jonathan Stedall, BBC2 tx 4/4/94) presenter
Breaking Glass (5-part TV series, BBC1, 29/5-10/7/94) narrator
Thank God It’s Sunday
(from TV series ‘Everyman’, d. Jonathan Stedall, BBC2 tx 28/5/95) introduction by AB
The Story Store (TV animated series, ITV 27/7-6/12/1995) narrator
The Willows in Winter
(animated TV film, d. David Unwin, ITV tx 26/12/96) as voice of Mole
The House at Pooh Corner (from TV series ‘Jackanory’, BBC1 tx 24/3/96) reader
In Love and War (d. Richard Attenborough) as a porter
Heavenly Stories – An Easter Miscellany
(episode of TV series, BBC2, 27/3/97) presenter
Mouse and Mole (d. Alison De Vere, BBC1 tx 4/4/97) as voice of Mole
A Dance to the Music of Time (4-part TV drama, d. Alvin Rakoff, Channel 4 tx 9-30/10/97) as Professor Sillery
Christmas Under Fire
(TV documentary, BBC2 tx 24/12/02) narrator

About AB
Beyond the Fringe
(d. Duncan Wood, BBC2 tx 12/12/64) on- screen participant
Pleasure at Her Majesty’s
(from TV series ‘Omnibus’, BBC1 tx 29/12/76) on-screen participant
(TV review, d. Jeremy Swan, BBC2 tx 12/6/80) on- screen participant
Alan Bennett
(from TV series ‘The South Bank Show’, d. David Hinton, ITV tx 7/10/84)
County Arcade, Leeds
(episode of TV series ‘Building Sights’, d. David Hinton, BBC2 tx 9/4/91) on-screen participant
Beyond the Fringe
(from TV series ‘Fame Set & Match’, d. Karen Blumenfeld, BBC2 tx 23/11/2002)
Alan Bennett
(from TV series ‘The South Bank Show’, d. Archie Powell, ITV tx 9/10/2005)
Alan Bennett
(from TV series ‘A Taste of My Life’, BBC2 tx 2/9/2006)
Alan Bennett’s Diaries
(TV documentary, d. Adam Low) BBC2 tx 24/12/2016

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email