Alan Bennett

For other people named Alan Bennett, see Alan Bennett (disambiguation).
Alan Bennett

Bennett in 1973,
photographed by Allan Warren
Born (1934-05-09) 9 May 1934
Armley, Leeds, England
Occupation Actor, author
Years active 1960–present
Partner(s) Rupert Thomas

Alan Bennett (born 9 May 1934) is an English playwright, screenwriter, actor and author. He was born in Leeds and attended Oxford University where he studied history and performed with the Oxford Revue. He stayed to teach and research medieval history at the university for several years. His collaboration as writer and performer with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival brought him instant fame. He gave up academia, and turned to writing full-time, his first stage play Forty Years On being produced in 1968.

His work includes The Madness of George III and its film adaptation, the series of monologues Talking Heads, the play and subsequent film The History Boys, and popular audio books, including his readings of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh.

Early life

Bennett was born in Armley in Leeds.[1] The son of a co-op butcher, Walter, and his wife Lilian Mary (née Peel), Bennett attended Christ Church, Upper Armley, Church of England School (in the same class as Barbara Taylor Bradford), and then Leeds Modern School (now Lawnswood School).

He learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists during his national service before applying for a scholarship at Oxford University. He was accepted by Exeter College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a first-class degree in history. While at Oxford he performed comedy with a number of eventually successful actors in the Oxford Revue. He was to remain at the university for several years, where he researched and taught Medieval History, before deciding he was not cut out to be an academic.


Bennett (second left) in Beyond the Fringe on Broadway c. 1962

In August 1960 Bennett, along with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook, achieved instant fame by appearing at the Edinburgh Festival in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. After the festival, the show continued in London and New York. He also appeared in My Father Knew Lloyd George. His highly regarded television comedy sketch series On the Margin (1966) was unfortunately erased; the BBC re-used expensive videotape rather than keep it in the archives. However, in 2014 it was announced that copies of the entire series had been found.

Around this time Bennett often found himself playing vicars and claims that as an adolescent he assumed he would grow up to be a Church of England clergyman, for no better reason than that he looked like one.

Bennett's first stage play Forty Years On, directed by Patrick Garland, was produced in 1968. Many television, stage and radio plays followed, with screenplays, short stories, novellas, a large body of non-fictional prose, and broadcasting and many appearances as an actor.

Bennett's distinctive, expressive voice (which bears a strong Leeds accent) and the sharp humour and evident humanity of his writing have made his readings of his work very popular, especially the autobiographical writings. Bennett's readings of the Winnie the Pooh stories are also widely enjoyed.

Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden. Life has brought them to an impasse or else passed them by. In many cases they have met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and a failure to connect with others.

Despite a long history with both the National Theatre and the BBC - Bennett never writes on commission, declaring "I don't work on commission, I just do it on spec. If people don't want it then it's too bad."[2]

Bennett is both unsparing and compassionate in laying bare his characters' frailties. This can be seen in his television plays for LWT from the early 1970s through to his work for the BBC in the early 1980s. His many works for television include his first play for the medium, A Day Out in 1972, A Little Outing in 1977, Intensive Care in 1982, An Englishman Abroad in 1983, and A Question of Attribution in 1991.[3] But his perhaps most famous screen work is the 1987 Talking Heads series of monologues for television which were later performed at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1992. This was a sextet of poignantly comic pieces, each depicting several stages in the character's decline from an initial state of denial or ignorance of their predicament, through a slow realisation of the hopelessness of their situation, progressing to a bleak or ambiguous conclusion. A second set of six Talking Heads followed a decade later, which was darker and more disturbing.

In his 2005 prose collection Untold Stories Bennett has written candidly and movingly of the mental illness that his mother and other family members suffered. Much of his work draws on his Leeds background and while he is celebrated for his acute observations of a particular type of northern speech ("It'll take more than Dairy Box to banish memories of Pearl Harbour"), the range and daring of his work is often undervalued. His television play The Old Crowd includes shots of the director and technical crew, while his stage play The Lady in the Van includes two characters named Alan Bennett.

The Lady in the Van was based on his experiences with an eccentric called Miss Shepherd, who lived on Bennett's driveway in a series of dilapidated vans for more than fifteen years. A radio play of the same title was broadcast on 21 February 2009 on BBC Radio 4, with actress Maggie Smith reprising her role of Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett playing himself. The work has also been published in book form. Alan Bennett adapted The Lady in the Van for the stage. In 2015 a film version was released to critical acclaim. Once again Dame Maggie Smith played Miss Shepherd, with Alex Jennings appearing as two versions of Bennett. Alan Bennett himself appears in a cameo at the very end of the film.

Bennett adapted his 1991 play The Madness of George III for the cinema. Entitled The Madness of King George (1994), the film received four Academy Award nominations: for Bennett's writing and the performances of Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren. It won the award for best art direction.

Bennett's critically acclaimed The History Boys won three Laurence Olivier Awards in 2005, for Best New Play, Best Actor (Richard Griffiths), and Best Direction (Nicholas Hytner), having previously won Critics' Circle Theatre Awards and Evening Standard Awards for Best Actor and Best Play. Bennett also received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre.[4] The History Boys won six Tony Awards on Broadway, including best play, best performance by a leading actor in a play (Richard Griffiths), best performance by a featured actress in a play (Frances de la Tour), and best direction of a play (Nicholas Hytner). A film version of The History Boys was released in the UK in October 2006.

Bennett wrote the play Enjoy in 1980. It was one of the rare flops in his career and barely scraped a run of seven weeks at the Vaudeville Theatre, in spite of the stellar cast of Joan Plowright, Colin Blakely, Susan Littler, Philip Sayer, Liz Smith (who replaced Joan Hickson during rehearsals) and, in his first West End role, Marc Sinden. It was directed by Ronald Eyre.[5] A new production of Enjoy attracted very favourable notices during its 2008 UK tour[6] and moved to the West End of London in January 2009.[7] The West End show took over £1m in advance ticket sales[8] and even extended the run to cope with demand.[9] The production starred Alison Steadman, David Troughton, Richard Glaves, Carol Macready and Josie Walker.

At the National Theatre in late 2009 Nicholas Hytner directed Bennett's play The Habit of Art, about the relationship between the poet W.H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten.[10]

Bennett's play People opened at the National Theatre in October 2012.[11]

Personal life

In September 2005, Bennett revealed that, in 1997, he had undergone treatment for colorectal cancer, and described the illness as a "bore". His chances of survival were given as being "much less" than 50% and surgeons had told him they removed a "rock-bun" sized tumour.[12] He began Untold Stories (published 2005) thinking it would be published posthumously, but his cancer went into remission. In the autobiographical sketches which form a large part of the book Bennett writes openly for the first time about his homosexuality. Previously Bennett had referred to questions about his sexuality as like asking a man who has just crawled across the Sahara desert to choose between Perrier or Malvern mineral water.[13]

Bennett lives in Camden Town in London, with his partner Rupert Thomas, the editor of World of Interiors magazine.[14] Bennett also had a long-term relationship with his former housekeeper, Anne Davies, until her death in 2009.[15]

Bennett is a lapsed Anglican; brought up in the church, he became very religious as a teenager, but has "slowly left it [The Church] over the years," though he still holds a faith, and is often supportive of the restoration of churches throughout Britain.[16]

Bennett declined a knighthood from the British government in 1996. In 1988 he declined the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire.


In October 2008 Bennett announced that he was donating his entire archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and books to the Bodleian Library, stating that it was a gesture of thanks repaying a debt he felt he owed to the British welfare state that had given him educational opportunities which his humble family background would otherwise never have afforded.[17]




  • The Story Store (Voices and Narrator), 1995
  • Meg and Mog (Owl)
  • Down Cemetery Road: The Landscape of Philip Larkin (presenter), 1987
  • Fortunes of War series (actor), 1987
  • Dinner at Noon (narrator), 1988
  • Poetry in Motion (presenter), 1990
  • 102 Boulevard Haussmann (writer), 1990
  • A Question of Attribution (writer), 1991
  • Selling Hitler, 1991
  • Poetry in Motion 2 (presenter), 1992
  • A Night In (presenter), 1992
  • The Long Summer (narrator), 1993
  • Portrait or Bust (presenter), 1994
  • The Abbey (presenter), 1995
  • A Dance to the Music of Time (actor), 1997
  • Talking Heads 2, 1998
  • Telling Tales (writer, as himself), 2000
  • The South Bank Show (documentary), 2005
  • Being Alan Bennett (BBC documentary), 2009
  • Mark Lawson Talks To Alan Bennett (BBC, extended interview), 2009
  • Bennett On Bennett (5 10-minute monologues, as himself), 2009
  • Family Guy (Brian's Play, as himself), 2013


  • Better Late, 1959
  • Beyond the Fringe (also co-writer), 1960
  • The Blood of the Bambergs, 1962
  • A Cuckoo in the Nest, 1964
  • Forty Years On (also writer), 1968
  • Sing a Rude Song (co-writer), 1969
  • Getting On (writer), 1971
  • Habeas Corpus (also writer), 1973
  • The Old Country (writer), 1977
  • Enjoy (writer), 1980
  • Kafka's Dick (writer), 1986
  • A Visit from Miss Prothero (writer), 1987
  • Single Spies (An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution) (also writer and director), 1989
  • The Wind in the Willows (adaptation), 1990
  • The Madness of George III (writer), 1991
  • Talking Heads (Waiting for the telegram, A Chip in the Sugar, Bed Among the Lentils, A Lady of Letters, Her Big Chance, Soldiering On, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) (also writer), 1992
  • The Lady in the Van (writer), 1999
  • The History Boys (writer), 2004
  • The Habit of Art (writer), 2009
  • People (writer), 2012
  • Hymn (writer), 2012
  • Cocktail Sticks (writer), 2012



  • The Great Jowett, 1980
  • Dragon, 1982
  • Uncle Clarence (writer, narrator), 1985
  • Better Halves (narrator), 1988
  • The Lady in the Van (writer, narrator), 1990
  • Winnie-the-Pooh (narrator), 1990
  • Denmark Hill, 2014 (from unproduced 1982 screenplay) [20]


The gravestone, in Larch Wood (Railway Cutting) cemetery, of Alan Bennett's Uncle Clarence, subject of a 1985 radio monologue

Audio releases

  • Alan Bennett At The BBC (compilation)
  • Diaries 1980–1990
  • Diaries 1997–2004
  • Telling Tales
  • Hymn
  • The Lady in the Van
  • Alan and Thora
  • Untold Stories
  • Smut: Two Unseemly Stories: The Greening of Mrs Donaldson & The Shielding of Mrs Forbes
  • Written on the Body
  • A Common Assault
  • Beyond the Fringe
  • Alan Bennett's On the Margin
  • Forty Years On (1973 version)
  • Forty Years On (2003 version)
  • Kafka's Dick
  • An Englishman Abroad (1983 version)
  • An Englishman Abroad (2006 version)
  • A Question of Attribution
  • The Madness of King George III
  • The History Boys
  • The Lady in the Van (play)

  • A Woman of No Importance
  • The Clothes They Stood Up In
  • The Laying On of Hands
  • Father! Father! Burning Bright
  • Say Something Happened
  • A Visit From Miss Protheroe
  • Two in Torquay
  • The Uncommon Reader
  • Dear Philip, Dear Kingsley (with Robert Hardy)
  • Poetry in Motion
  • Winnie the Pooh (narrator)
  • The House at Pooh Corner (narrator)
  • A Party for Pooh (narrator)
  • The Wind in the Willows (narrator)
  • Peter Pan and Wendy (narrator)
  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle (narrator)
  • The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (narrator)
  • Doctor Dolittle's Garden (narrator)
  • The Owl and the Pussycat (narrator)
  • The Little Prince (narrator)
  • Animal Farm (narrator)
  • Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass (narrator)

Awards and honours



Bennett was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1987. He was also awarded a D.Litt by the University of Leeds in 1990[21] and an honorary doctorate from Kingston University in 1996. In 1998 he refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, in protest at its acceptance of funding for a chair from press baron Rupert Murdoch.[22] He also declined a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996.[23] He has stated that, although he is not a republican, he would never wish to be knighted, saying it would be a bit like having to wear a suit for the rest of his life.[24] Bennett earned Honorary Membership of The Coterie in the 2007 membership list.

In December 2011 Bennett returned to Lawnswood School, nearly 60 years after he left, to unveil the renamed Alan Bennett Library.[25] He said he "loosely" based The History Boys on his experiences at the school and his admission to Oxford. Lawnswood School dedicated its library to the writer after he emerged as a vocal campaigner against public library cuts.[26] Plans to shut local libraries were "wrong and very short-sighted", Bennett said, adding: "We're impoverishing young people."


  1. Bennett, Alan (2014). "Fair Play". London Review of Books. 36 (12): 29–30. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
  2. "Alan Bennett".
  3. "Alan Bennett". IMDb.
  4. Jury, Louise."Historic night for Alan Bennett as his new play dominates the Olivier awards", The Independent, 21 February 2005
  5. Shenton, Mark."Which flops are ripe for revival?" Theatre Blog,, 28 August 2008
  6. Let's enjoy Alan Bennett's revival play for what it is – Daniel Tapper on Alan Bennett's Enjoy, 6 February 2009
  7. Enjoy by Alan Bennett at the Gielgud Theatre, review Telegraph, 3 February 2009
  8. Curtain re-opens on Bennett Play BBC News, 29 January 2009
  9. Bennett's Enjoy extends two weeks to 16 May 2009 London Theatre, 18 February 2009
  10. "Nicholas Hytner on his time at the National Theatre", Times Online, 9 February 2009
  11. "Alan Bennett's new play to open at National Theatre", The Guardian, 23 January 2012
  12. "Alan Bennett reveals cancer fight", BBC News, 24 September 2005
  13. "Inside Bennett's fridge", Telegraph, 30 October 2004
  14. The Guardian profile: Alan Bennett The Guardian,_14_May 2004
  15. Alan Bennett reveals that his lover, 'Café Anne', is dead The Independent, 22 November 2009
  16. Video on YouTube
  17. Kennedy, Maev "A small way of saying thank you: Bennett donates his life's work to the Bodleian", The Guardian, 24 October 2008
  18. Euan Ferguson. "The Complainers; The Story of Women and Art; Harry and Paul's Story of the Twos – review". the Guardian.
  19. "Leeds Theatre Shows at West Yorkshire Playhouse".
  20. "Alan Bennett contemporary Hamlet 'Denmark Hill' heading for Radio 4". Radio Times. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  21. An evening with Alan Bennett University of Leeds, 29 October 2007
  22. "Bennett snubs Oxford over Murdoch chair", BBC News, 15 January 1999
  23. "Birthday boy" – Blake Morrison salutes Alan Bennett as the writer approaches his 75th birthday The Guardian, 7 May 2009
  24. Featured interview: Alan Bennett In Conversation Front Row archive, BBC Radio 4 (Audio, 1 hr)
  25. "Alan Bennett: Playwright returns to Leeds school VIDEO".
  26. "Alan Bennett warns over tuition fees". BBC News.

Further reading

External links

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