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Playwright Alan Bannett speaks to the Messenger ahead of Lowry run
“I HOPE you enjoy the play,” said Alan Bennett, sounding like an enthusiastic young writer making his stage debut, rather than the celebrated national treasure he is.
But that’s a measure of the man, he’s breathtakingly unassuming and one of the most pleasant people you could wish to meet.
The play in question is People, which comes to The Lowry in a blaze of critical glory and Alan said it’s a play about conservation - with laughs.
Alan said: “It’s about a decaying aristocratic woman called Dorothy Stackpool who lives in a grand but very run dowm mansion in South Yorkshire which is falling apart but she can’t afford to maintain it. There are various interested parties, including The National Trust, but she just wants to go on living there. The play is a discussion about conservation generally and it’s also about the questions which arise when you’re trying to preserve the past. And I hope it’s very funny.”
Alan said he enjoys writing female characters and said his upbringing in Leeds, surrounded several female relatives who were natural born talkers, has been a constant source of inspirattion.
He said: “I find it easier to write about women than I do to write about men. When I was a child the women did all the talking, really, as they tend to do in the north. My father was rather taciturn and my mother had two sisters who talked a lot. As a child I got used to women talking so I find it easier to write dialogue for them. It’s a bit of a stretch to write aristocratic dialogue for posh ladies.”
While there are other writers he admires - Alan said he’s enjoys the plays of Peter Nichols for instance - he doubts if any of them have had a direct influence on his work. However, theatre was in the blood from an early age and he recalls with affection childhood trips to the Leeds Grand, where he was introduced to a variety of theatrical styles.
Alan said: “I saw a very eclectic mixture of plays. I saw Olivier in The Entertainer and I saw the original production of Waiting For Godot. But I also saw a lot of silly plays which I don’t regret seeing, farces and plays like that. i used to go every Saturday afternoon and there was often only about 50 people in the audience. i was quite religious in those days so I used to think of the theatre as a kind of church, which wasn’t full either.”
For me, one of Alan’s finest pieces of work is The History Boys, which I saw as a critique of an education system obsessed with passing exams, at the expense of offering students a more varied education that would better prepare them for the wider world beyond the school gates. The writer partly agrees and said despite the play’s setting, the 1980s, it was in fact inspired by his own schooldays.
Alan said: “I went to a state school and the headmaster there, although he wasn’t foul-mouthed like the headmaster in The History Boys, he was very keen on pushing the cleverer boys to go in for Oxford and Cambridge. But what I’m passionate about, and it’s not really mentioned in The History Boys, is that we have two systems of education, state education and private education. I think state education and private education should be melded together and I think the nation could only benefit from that.”
He’s provided us with some memorable moments on the screen as well as the stage, of course, and while Alan doesn’t like to dwell on the past, he’s particularly proud of the Talking Heads monologues he wrote for the BBC. Very funny and sometimes painfully poignant, they featured a number of classic performances from the likes of the late Thora Hird, an actress Alan holds in very high esteem.
Alan said: “By the time she did the second Talking Heads she was in her 80s and she was marvellous in the sense that nobody else at that age can remember the words but Thora could. It was amazing to work with her.”
Returning to the present, People sees Alan re-united with director Nicholas Hytner, who worked with him on The History Boys and The Habit of Art. What’s the secret of their successful working relationship?
He said: “If I could explain what is in the partnership it probably wouldn’t work. I show him plays and it’s like a boy showing off their homework to a schoolmaster and wanting a pat on the head.”
National Theatre On Tour presents People by Alan Bennett at The Lowry until October 19 at 7.30pm. The run includes matinees and tickets are available from 0843 208 6000 or thelowry.com.