Sunday, December 06, 2009

Telling Tales On Television

The first weekend of December and already people are entering into the true spirit of Christmas. Couples that set off, arm in arm and all lovey-dovey, eventually make their way back from a long and tiresome day of being jostled along the High Streets, walking apart and weighed down by shopping bags, their faces like thunder.

It also seems to be the time when some quarters start bitching and moaning about the number of repeats that will apparently fill the holiday’s television schedules of the main terrestrial channels. I haven’t seen them yet so I can’t comment but no doubt Channel 4 will stick The Snowman on again and there’ll be the usual festive editions of old sitcoms kicking around, which in the case of Porridge wouldn’t particularly be a bad thing.

Irritating as repeats can be if they’re simply shown ad nauseam at any time of the year, there are occasions when audiences should be happy that long–forgotten gems have finally come up for air. Yesterday evening the BBC began a week of programmes to celebrate Alan Bennett’s 75th year as an undisputed national treasure (whether he likes the title or not), mixing repeats of his best–known television plays and monologues with a new, specially commissioned, documentary and interview.

With each programme briefly introduced by the writer, the short season kicked off with his 1988 documentary Dinner at Noon, which took a witty look at the temporary inhabitants and staff of the Crown Hotel in Harrowgate. It was a perfect introduction to Bennett as the camera eavesdropped on the guests and briefly overheard their conversations, whether it was an elderly couple turn picking which horses to bet on into a romantic interlude, residents of a nursing home enjoying tea, or young children entertained by a local conjuror.

In the hotel’s function rooms managers solemnly attended a bizarre meeting that instructed them on how to hold meetings, rehearsals for a Dr Barnardo’s fashion show were in progress, and then later the French mayor from one of Harrogate’s twinned towns looked suitably bemused by the proceedings as the wife of one of the local dignitary’s bent his ear. In the reception the daily agenda announced a conference for the Institute of Explosives Engineers.

When Bennett wasn’t listening in to the beautifully observed goings–on he reminisced about the holidays taken with his parents, revealing their numerous social faux pas that would leave him feeling humiliated. Whether it was his father’s inability to find the right time to tip the bellboy, or his mother – used to eating dinner at noon – perusing the restaurant’s evening menu and enquiring if she could have a poached egg on toast, as they years went on and they tried their best to aspire to be parents of an Oxford scholar, Bennett admits that in the end all he wanted was for them to be themselves.

Later in the evening came Being Alan Bennett in which a camera crew simply followed him around during this, his 75th year. There were trips to the Bodleian Library where his archive of papers, manuscripts and diaries now reside. Previously in the press Bennett had stated he donated them free of charge as payment for his free state–funded education, but on camera he admitted with a sigh that no other institution had asked for them. After stopping by the National to check up on the rehearsals for The Habit of Art he then pottered around Camden, gave a speech at the opening of a new health centre in Kentish Town, and finally got to address the womenfolk at his local village hall in Yorkshire.

With anyone else the documentary might have seemed aimless and a wasted opportunity but with Bennett’s running commentary of unique observations, with his droll, self–deprecating humour and a deadpan delivery that makes him sound as if Eeyore had left the Hundred Acre Wood to tour the comedy circuit, the programme was an absolute delight. The only problem was, like a good comedy I immediately wanted to see it again simply to catch everything I had missed from laughing so hard. When he suggested a song that puts Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse to the theme music of Last of the Summer Wine and then started to sing it the laughter turned into an extended coughing fit from which it was difficult to recover.

This evening came the more formal interview with Mark Lawson Talks to Alan Bennett on BBC4 covering aspects of his life and career from Beyond the Fringe to The Habit of Art. Earlier in the day, over on BBC2, there had been a screening of A Day Out, Bennett’s first television play, broadcast in 1972, following a local cycling club as they spend one Sunday in May of 1911, riding from Halifax to the ruins of Fountains Abbey for lunch and a spot of cricket. The two big dramas of the weekend were An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, Bennett’s pair of dramas concerning the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

The former, set in Moscow though filmed in a wintry Dundee, was Bennett’s fictional account of actress Coral Browne’s real life encounter with Burgess in the late 1950s. Having fled to Russia with Donald Maclean earlier in the decade, Bennett’s Burgess has gone from being a traitor to an exile, trying to convince himself that he doesn’t miss the Old Country as he yearns for proper soap, cigarettes and a new suit from his London tailors. Although entertaining with great performances from Alan Bates playing Burgess and Browne as herself, if An Englishman Abroad suffers in comparison to A Question of Attribution it's only because the linear storyline lacks the wonderful complexity of the later drama.

First broadcast in 1991 and dedicated to the recently deceased Innes Lloyd who had produced all of Bennett’s television plays, A Question of Attribution is set during the lead up to Blunt’s eventual exposure as the Fourth Man. A Director of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, as Blunt is pressured to name names by his new MI5 handler, Bennett cheekily juxtaposes their meetings with an investigation into a painting previously attributed to Titian that begins to reveal more and more hidden characters beneath the surface. Meanwhile, at the very heart of the drama is an encounter at Buckingham Palace between Blunt and “HMQ” in which the pair discuss fakes and forgeries after which he drily comments, “I was talking about art. I’m not sure she was.”

A simply astonishing piece of drama, just showing A Question of Attribution alone would have been enough to showcase Bennett’s talent. But also dotted throughout the schedules of both channels were five of the monologues from the two series of Talking Heads, each achieving a marvellous balance between laugh out loud comedy and a dark, almost clinical dissection of the various characters’ frailties and shortcomings.

All combining to creating a weekend of exemplary television drama, you would have thought that a lot of new writers looking for their first proper screen credit would have been glued to their sets, furiously taking notes. Instead, according to comments left on facebook and various blogs, most of the silly fuckers were watching The X–Factor instead. As a proponent of gallows humour I suppose he would see the funny side.


At 5:42 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Well, it just goes to show. You can aspire all you want.

At 9:55 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Maybe they already have Alan Bennett at the BBC, the DVD box set from 2 Entertain that includes Dinner at Noon and the three dramas shown over the weekend, along with the likes of A Visit from Miss Prothero, Sunset Across the Bay, A Woman of No Importance, The Insurance Man, and 102 Bvd Haussman, or even the Talking Heads discs. It’s doubtful though.

At 4:54 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Maybe I shouldn't carp. I don't own the boxed set either, and my own Bennett-awareness was acquired over the years as the material originally went out; but the winner in tomorrow's Darwinian race-of-the-writers is the one who dipped in (because s/he dips into to everything that might have a bearing on the craft) and thought, "F*** the X-factor, I can steal gold from this."

At 9:50 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Oh, I doubt they own the box set. I was trying to be very restrained in my reply because their updates/announcements just made my head want to explode at the utter idiocy of what they had said.

My awareness of, say, Bennett, Dennis Potter and Poliakoff was also acquired when their plays were transmitted for the first time. Some of the early ones I had to catch in repeats. I mention these three in particular because they have/had unique voices, and the odd oddball could say, “well, because of that I can’t learn anything from them!” Why not?

I remember when Blackpool came out five years back there were murmurs that Peter Bowker was encroaching on Potter’s territory with the characters bursting into song. But when the drama was screened it was obvious Bowker had taken the format and adapted it to his own ends, and very entertaining it was too.

Bennett’s Talking Heads is an absolute masterclass of presenting characters that say one thing but reveal something completely different. Aren’t they being taught at schools as part of English Literature A-level? And I think A Question of Attribution is just astonishing for the way it intertwines the comparable lines of inquiry that attempt to uncover the figure hidden behind the public facade.

Even if these kids just to write for Holby City they could still learn something. In the documentary, when Bennett was opening his new health centre he admitted to listening in on conversations and using it for dialogue. I’m not sure you could say the same for The X Factor. Still, everyone chooses their own path.


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