Who said never meet your heroes? Whoever it was, and whilst they are often right, I’d like to present some evidence to the contrary, specifically a memorable encounter (for me) with Alan Bennett. I greatly admire his work: the pioneering days of Beyond the Fringe, the tragi-comic genius of Talking Heads, the poignancy of The Madness of King George.
Back in May 2013 and just a few months into writing for theatre, I had started reviewing performances for a local publication. Thanks to a generous offer from a contact, I was asked if I would like to attend a regional theatre day at the National Theatre to see Alan Bennett’s People which had opened in October 2012 and was about to embark on a UK tour. There would also be time for tea with Bennett himself. For me, “no” was not an option.
I arranged a day off work, travelled down from Leicester to London, and tried hard to quell the ongoing inner battle between imposter syndrome versus giddy excitement. Arriving embarrassingly early at the NT, I killed time in the café with an overpriced sandwich and nowhere to sit.
Sometime later, the NT’s press officer opened an innocuous looking door and beckoned us—a group of around 25 people—into the inner sanctum of the National Theatre, its grey corridors lined with production images and framed black and white headshots of celebrated actors.
We were led into a large, square room, tables and chairs arranged in a slightly smaller square leaving little room for manoeuvre. Most people had come with a colleague and / or a dictaphone. I felt very alone. My imposter syndrome sensed victory.
Our host, a deadringer for Nicholas Hytner, explained that Alan would come in shortly and be happy to answer questions, although his approaching 80th birthday wasn’t his favourite topic of conversation. Tea and coffee in plastic cups were offered, we were welcome to pour ourselves one.
And then, there he was. Alan Bennett was just like Alan Bennett: witty, chatty, charmingly down to earth with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, unmistakable in his “uniform” of blazer, V-neck jumper, shirt and tie.
Questions came from around the room and the country, his answers were measured but with a light sprinkle of barbs, mainly around the subject of the play: the marketing and monetisation of our heritage and national treasures through organisations such as the National Trust. He gave a modest, self-deprecating response to a question on his status as a national treasure.
We were asked if there were any final questions—my last chance! May, 2013 was “peak furore" between Leicester and York as to who should be burying the recently identified “king in the car park”. I’m a Leicester girl, Mr Bennett is a Yorkshire lad, what was his view of the affair? To my lifelong joy (and relief) he laughed, pondered the question and said he found the whole business “unseemly”. Which is a perfectly Alan Bennett-esque thing to say.
Alan Bennett stood near the door and shook hands with us all as we filed out. Anything after the hour that had just passed was in danger of being an anticlimax, however, what a privilege to see Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett together on the Lyttelton stage amidst Bob Crowley’s towering set of a crumbling old mansion. And, in act 2, an impressive transformation of said set to “luxe" as, against type, Bennett tackles the production of a porn film. Unseemly? No, but, like the day itself, unexpected, humorous and hugely enjoyable.
And how does Alan Bennett take his tea? Milky.