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Alan Bennett: above and beyond the Fringe

At a recent fundraiser, Alan Bennett ably demonstrated why he’s a national treasure... whether he likes it or not!

19 April, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Clockwise from top left: Beyond the Fringe’s Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett

WHEN Alan Bennett was asked what made him laugh, he paused and said he did not really know. But after hearing his slow Yorkshire accent deliver jokes, observations and play on words for two hours to an enthralled audience on Thursday, the answer is surely everything.

Last week he was the guest of the Mayor of Camden Richard Cotton at a fundraising event for the mayor’s chosen charity, the homeless group C4WS at the Friends Meeting House in Euston Road.

“Trashy TV makes me laugh,” he eventually conceded. “I like watching Love Island.”

Reading excerpts from 10 years of his diaries – 2005 to 2015 – he covered topics ranging from politics to health, trains to Beyond The Fringe, and by doing so told his audience home truths about life that they all could recognise.

He spoke of living in his Primrose Hill home and catching a train up to his native Yorkshire, where he has a cottage, telling stories of being asked if he was a “lookalike” of someone famous called Alan (“just be happy with that,” he was told), of the posh French rugby fans gracefully painting the Tricolore on their cheeks as they headed to Wales for a game, and of the train guard he has got to know who has an ear for languages and follows announcements with a translation in Finnish.

“The fact the trains are still a place for eccentrics is a cause for celebration,” he said. “I was once told by a man selling refreshments to be careful opening a bottle of sparkling water as he warned it would be ‘Vesuvial’.”

He recalled seeing TS Eliot at the Leeds terminus accompanied by a flotilla of porters – and how years later, at Eliot’s funeral, his widow Valerie incorrectly recalled how Alan could be spotted as a child doing his homework in the corner of his father’s butchers shop.

“My father would have frowned on that,” he said.

“He would have thought it showing off.”

He also remembered Eliot’s response to Beyond The Fringe, saying it was a mixture of juvenility, bad taste and brilliance, and how the poet was perturbed by the anti-bomb, anti-capitalist stance of many of the sketches – and “the absence of any jokes at the expense of the Labour Party”.

Alan touched on living in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, and told a couple of anecdotes of his fellow Fringe contributor, Jonathan Miller, who still lives in the Crescent.

Alan Bennett

“Jonathan used to range through the Crescent looking for someone to talk to and once noticed someone peeing in my front garden,” he recalled.

Miller confronted the man and it started a long discussion about public decency, ending with the person caught short walking up the Crescent with his trousers round his ankles to illustrate a point.

And he described Miller’s particular way of dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses, looking for souls to save.

“When Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door, I would lie flat on the floor so they couldn’t see I was in,” he said.

“Jonathan, on the other hand, likes a debate and they get half an hour of it when they knock on his door.”

He recalled how after one gruelling session, the browbeaten Witnesses left and as they did so, saw a rather beautiful Ferrari parked on the street, which they stopped to admire.

“Jonathan, who was still at his doorstep, shouted at them: ‘You should not be looking at that! That represents the sins of this world,’” he added.

And Peter Cook, his fellow Fringer, was remembered for his delivery of criticism of Alan’s post-Fringe work.

“He’d call me up in the middle of the night and shout at me,” he revealed.

“But it was Pete, and he was allowed to.”

Some diary entries touch on old age – and how his eyesight and hearing have deteriorated.

“I was buying wine at Fresh and Wild [in Parkway] and was pleased to see it was suitable for vegetarians and vagrants. I said to myself, how thoughtful to make it suitable for winos…” He was also bemused to see a new high street clothing brand called Hot Faeces – until his partner, Rupert, pointed out it was actually called Fat Face.]

His sardonic humour allowed him to cover a brush with bowel cancer in 1998 with a smile, and the regular check-ups supplied more material to share. Alan said he had to have regular colonoscopies to check the cancer had not returned, and likened the experience to riding the rollercoaster at Morecambe – with the last part of the procedure reminding him of the gentle straight at the end, that offered magnificent views of the bay.

As he has grown deafer, conversations have taken a surreal turn: “I thought Alan Titchmarsh had told me he had moved to Grantham – when he’d said ‘we have a grandson’,” and that speaking to a man who had a camera round his neck, he was surprised to learn that the main subject of his photos was “Ramsgate” – it was actually “landscapes”.

Alan Bennett looked embarrassed when told by an audience member he truly has earned the title a National Treasure, but as ever, he showed why. His thoughts and musings are much more than the eloquent jottings of a well-read wordsmith – instead, they offer something that speaks to all of us, as if he channels the collective thoughts of the nation that holds him so dear.

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