Alan Bennett on why his love for Yorkshire has never waned
PUBLISHED: 00:20 15 August 2013 | UPDATED: 16:49 24 December 2014
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Alan Bennett’s fondness for Yorkshire has never waned although his home has long been London. Natalie Anglesey meets him after the premiere of his latest play inspired by a Leeds museum.
Call Alan Bennett a national treasure and he winces slightly. The award-winning playwright, author and performer is a modest man who has done more than most to put Yorkshire on the literary map.
We meet at the National Theatre which has premiered his plays since Nicholas Hytner’s hugely successful production of The History Boys which transferred to Broadway and then to film. A success repeated with The Madness of King George.
Bennett appears every inch the country squire in his leather-trimmed tweeds. He is taller than I expected and younger looking than his 79 years, which he attributes to his healthy mop of hair.
In spite of time in Oxford, Cambridge and touring with Beyond the Fringe as well as many years in London, he still has the Yorkshire accent he grew up with in Leeds.
‘My dad was a butcher in Armley where I attended Upper Armley Church of England Primary School. Barbara Taylor-Bradford was apparently in the same class but we don’t remember one another. I went to Leeds Modern now called Lawnswood School and when we moved to Headingley we lived over the butcher’s shop on Otley Road which is now a dry cleaner.
‘I vividly remember my mother hiding buttered bread under the table at Bryan’s Fish and Chips café so we could have chip butties - in spite of a notice saying you weren’t allowed to take your own food. My parents retired to a small village 50 miles outside Leeds and I still go there as often as I can to recharge my batteries. I still ride my bike because I find that easier than walking these days.’
Bennett’s fondness for Yorkshire is evident in much of his work. In Talking Heads there are references to Harrogate and Bettys Café. ‘I like the phrasing of a Yorkshire accent and I sentimentalised it a bit in my plays Hymn and Cocktail Sticks in which Alex Jennings plays me and I write about my parents. I do remember once when I was in the village ordering coal on the phone and this voice retorted, “I don’t care how high and mighty you are - you’ll never be a patch on your dad”. I quite liked that and I like seeing my father portrayed on stage because that’s just what he was like.’
His latest play People, which premiered at The National to packed houses and rave reviews, can be seen in the autumn at his beloved Leeds Grand Theatre. ‘I saw my first play at the Grand Theatre up in the gods of course and as we got all the pre and post London tours I saw all the great actors of the day; Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra, Olivier in The Entertainer and John Osborne’s only musical The World of Paul Slickey. ‘When I went to London’s St James’ Theatre I was amazed to see the eyes of actors as I’d never been that close to the stage before.’
People is set in South Yorkshire although Bennett admits the inspiration was the former stately home of Temple Newsam in Leeds. ‘It was the only museum open during the war and I thought it was a wonderful place. After the war there was a coal crisis and the grounds were closed to the public but opened to open-cast mining. I thought how awful but they must have dug much deeper down because there’s lush green grass there now. So I’ve used that in my new play.’
As well as good reviews there’s also been a backlash from those who think the play is an indictment against the National Trust which Bennett says is wrong. ‘I wish people would not confuse the leading characters’ words as the voice of the playwright. In any case I thought I’d given both sides of the argument about handing over decaying property to preserve it so the public could enjoy visiting.
‘I once heard a little boy say that people spoil things and I know exactly what he means. I enjoy going round old houses and churches. I particularly like St Bartholemew’s Church where my parents were married and there’s a lovely old church in York called Holy Trinity Goodramgate. But when I last went there it was thronged with people and it’s the same with Primrose Hill in London where I live. At the weekends people spoil the place. Entirely selfish I know but that’s how I feel.’
I wondered if writing got easier with age. ‘I still write most days,’ says Bennett. ‘I had a typewriter for years but now it’s hard to get broken ones repaired. I had a computer which was stolen and I haven’t bothered to replace - so it’s pen and paper which someone at the National then has to transcribe.
‘But nothing beats hearing laughter at a live performance and I still find time now and then to visit Bettys Café for tea and cakes.’
People is at Leeds Grand Theatre from November 5th -9th