Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club by Betty Sherwood
April 23, 2019
Alan Bennett is one of England’s most beloved writers and media personalities. Born in Leeds in 1934 to a humble and modest butcher and his equally shy and unassuming wife, Alan was a diligent student who was able to attend concerts and plays even as a teenager. After completing compulsory military service, he attended Oxford University on a government scholarship and continued with postgraduate studies in history. Around this time, he entered the theatre world with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore in creating and performing in “Beyond the Fringe.” His career as a playwright, actor, diarist, and guest speaker at countless events has continued until now, with forays into such creative endeavors as adapting children’s stories for radio and writing and presenting “Talking Heads.”
Mr. Bennett has blended stories from his own life into many of his works, both factual and fictional. For example, The Lady in the Van, the book, play and film, is the mostly true story of a woman who lived in a van in his London yard for 15 years. The Madness of George III, the play, retitled The Madness of King George for the movie, reflects his studies in English history as well as the mental illnesses that afflicted his mother and grandfather. Although set in later decades, The History Boys, the play and film, explores the lives of working-class boys who get a chance at higher education. Alan Bennett’s very entertaining Writing Home, Untold Stories and Keeping On, Keeping On take you behind the scenes as he works with theatre and movie personalities to bring these stories to life, while he steadfastly maintains he prefers theatre people to literary people. These memoirs and excerpts from his published diaries reveal other facets of his life such as his hobby of visiting churches, travels abroad, his enthusiastic support of public libraries, his health, his family and his attitudes towards his government and its leaders. Also included are his introductions to several of his books and plays, which he says might be just as enlightening as the works themselves.
Among Alan Bennett’s short stories and novels, The Uncommon Reader, in which a passion for reading takes hold of Her Majesty the Queen, has been widely read in Canada. Much of his humour is “very English” and not well understood or enjoyed by critics or readers in North America. However, to those on either side of the Atlantic who do appreciate his work, he “focuses on the everyday and mundane” and “is adept at dissecting the mores of the English and their institutions.”
Literary works by Alan Bennett have won numerous awards and prizes but he has declined most honours offered to him. Many of his writings can be found at the Calgary Public Library as books, ebooks or audio books. A Google search of his name or titles of some of his works will lead to interviews, panel discussions, portions of or complete performances or readings of much of his literary output. In other words, hours of enjoyment are readily available for admirers of his gentle and charming satire and humour.