Alan Bennett (b.1934)
Alan Bennett, author, playwright and actor, was born in Armley in Leeds on 9 May 1934. The son of a Co-op butcher, Bennett attended Leeds Modern School from 1946 to 1952.
During his National Service he learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists. He then went on to gain a first-class degree in history at Exeter College, Oxford. He was to remain at Oxford for several years researching and teaching Medieval History before deciding he was not cut out to be an academic.
While at Oxford he performed comedy with a number of future successful actors in the Oxford Revue. 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. A highly regarded television comedy sketch series On the Margin (1966) was regrettably erased. 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, was produced in 1968. Many television, stage and radio plays followed, along with screenplays, short stories, novellas, a large body of non-fictional prose and broadcasting, and many appearances as an actor. Bennett's lugubrious yet expressive voice (which still bears a slight Leeds accent) and the sharp humour and evident humanity of his writing have made his readings of his own work (especially his autobiographical writing) very popular.
Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden, or meek and overlooked. Life has brought them to an impasse, or else passed them by altogether. 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.
Bennett is both unsparing and compassionate in laying bare his characters' frailties. This can be seen in his television plays and particularly in the 1987 Talking Heads series of monologues. This was a sextet of poignantly comic pieces, each of which depicted several stages in the character's decline from an initial state of denial or ignorance of their predicament, through a slow realization of the hopelessness of their situation, and progressing to a bleak or ambiguous conclusion. A second set of six Talking Heads pieces followed a decade later.
In his 2005 prose collection Untold Stories Bennett has written candidly and movingly of the mental illness that afflicted his mother and other family members.
In 1994 Bennett adapted his popular and much-praised 1991 play The Madness of George III for the cinema as The Madness of King George. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including 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 Olivier Awards in February 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 himself received an Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre.
The History Boys also went on to win 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 on 13 October 2006.
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. However in 1998 Bennett refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, in protest at its accepting funding for a named chair in honour of press baron Rupert Murdoch. He also declined a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996.
In September 2005, Bennett revealed that, in 1997, he had undergone treatment for cancer, and described the illness as a "bore". His chances of survival were given as being "much less" than 50%. He began Untold Stories (published 2005) thinking it would be published posthumously. In the event 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 (Bennett has had relationships with women as well, although this is only touched upon in Untold Stories). Previously Bennett had referred to questions about his sexuality as being like asking a man dying of thirst to choose between Perrier or Malvern mineral water.