r“ 7 V r r a The walls of the basement study of
Alan Bennett's London home are covered with hundreds of rather sombre. sepia-tinted faces. They stare out stiffly in groups ofsoldiers. schoolboys. farm workers and wedding parties. a random assortment ofonce photographed. long-forgotten Edwardian occasions — pictures rescued many years ago by Bennett from junk shops before. he says. such items became fashionable and thus expensive. 'l‘hey lend the room a vague air of a small public school common room. somehow appropriate for Bennett. a former Oxford history lecturer. former Beyond the I’ringe star and quietly successful stage and screen playwright. who defined the public school experience in Forty Years On.
Sitting at his work table. in addition to the shelves and piles of books and videocassettes. he can catch with any glance one of hundreds of momentary reminders ofhis own past. scattered about 7- old tickets. postcards. nostalgically pocketed objects and one tiny photo of himself as a wartime child evacuee. Bennett's last three works have seen him reaching further back into the past for inspiration: .‘ln Englishman .’Ihf()(1(l his award—winning BBC television film in 1983 about Ciuy Burgess in Moscow. .4 Private Function his first feature film. in 1984. about class snobbery in post—war-austerity Britian. and latterly another BBC film The Insurance Man based on the life and writing of Franz Kafka. to be screened by BBC 3 on Sunday 33 February. They are a long way from the kind of television plays in the Seventies for which Leeds—born Bennett. now 53. became best known (and in which he displayed his occasional acting talent). but there is. he says. no particular reason why he has sought out historical settings ~ ‘I suppose I got a bit fed up with writing sensitive Northern pieces. That sounds as if I‘m contemptuous of that. but no. you just become frightened ofimitating yourself. I‘m writing a stage play about Kafka as well as this film. I get interested in things and then write about them. rather than deciding to write about them and then doing the research. It takes so long to finish some things and I start to think — I shouldn‘t be writing this now. I‘ve got a great pile ofunfinished stuff. Kafka is an interesting man. but I‘ll be glad to be shot of this stage play.
‘I don‘t think I‘d be much good at writing about absolutely contemporary things anyway. The Northern plays purport to be in the present. but they‘re set in the past. I write about people speaking in ways that I remember them speaking. When I go back up there it‘s different. I always find it significant that the people who stop me in the
street are old ladies. I was stopped in Marks and Spencers today by a woman from Morecambe who lives in London. She was bl). That‘s my
1 public really" — he laughs — ‘but I
i The Insurance Man beautifully directed by Richard Eyre and
Daniel Day-Lewis and Rosemary Martin (below) are two of the stars of The Insurance Man. A loose adaptation ofthe life ofthe writer. Franz Kafka it is
part ofthe Screen 'I‘n'o series to be screened on BBC
2 on 23 February. David Ilousham spoke to its author Alan Bennett (left) playwright and star of Beyond the Fringe.
a Dr Franz Kafka. an official in a I’rague workers‘ industrial compensation institute before World War I. who tries to help a young dye factory worker sacked after contracting a hideous skin disease. Bennett and Iiyre‘s portrayal of the young workers nightmarish search for compensation in the grotesquely uncaring. confusing. labyrinthine bureaucracy ofthe institute recalls the chilling frustration and hopeless sense ofinjustice found in the writing ofthe real Kafka. who did work in such an institute. Bennett's decision to write The Insurance Man came after the BBC had rejected an offer of an adaptation of Kafka’s IIH’ 'I‘riaI. He claims to be uncomfortable with literature and points to various scenes from his plays in which characters have been intimidated by books. 'I‘m not aware of these things when I‘m writing. but afterwards I think — oh. I‘ve written
all that again. It obviously is to do
starring Daniel Day-Lewis, concerns I with somehow feeling that you‘re an
outsider or an upstart. and I think that is to do with the business with Kafka. It struck me that the workers coming into the Institute must have seen Kafka as a representative of the bureaucracy. as inaccessible to them as justice was to K in IIlt‘ I‘riaI. I don't think anyone has ever made much ofthat. ’I‘Ize 'I‘riaI is one ofthe great unread books people don‘t really know what it‘s about.‘
Bennett unexpectedly confesses that his comment to Iiyre on first seeing the completed film was that it says more about him than the ("/ech author. ‘I can see the repeated thing about the body being something to be ashamed of. something blemished. I wrote that unconsciously. but afterwards I could see it‘s to do with me. That‘s neither here nor there. I don't suppose anyone will ever want to do a textual study . . .' he breaks off into an amused giggle.
Kafka. who died at 41 from tuberculosis in 1924. was an
.ibsessively sensitive man (he did go out of his way to help claimants at the Institute) who found it difficult to form relationships with women and his family. One had to ask Bennett the obvious question. ‘Do I identify with Kafka‘.’ I don't think anybody could? The stage play I‘m writing about him is meant to be a comedy. Kafka was thought to be self—centred. Yet lie was heroic he went on writing right until he was dying. Identify with Kafka . . . oh. no
Bennett‘s conversation brims with laughter. Ile can seem by turns. a boyish don. reflectiy c then frivolous. more ready for a sherry then serious discussion. He seems to be entertained by the interview process. as if he is curious to discover what he will find himselfsaying in answer to both new and no doubt familiar questions.
I Ic can't be pigeoti-lioletl as a modest. retiring introvert. Ile likes to get out. and his lugubrious Yorkshire voice pops up regularly in films. on television and in commercials. ‘I really Used to like going to the shootingofmy television plays. I like it less now - once you get older you realise you can't just swan offand sit around for six weeks. It seems to me I perform a social function when I‘m there. I chat to the actors. oil the social wheels a bit. Iliad to be there for the pig film (.‘I I’rivaie I’unciion ) with the director .‘ylalcolni Mowbray. because there was much more cutting and shaping of the script while we were on location.
‘It was hard to write the pig film. ()n television you get more time to spread youself and the plot doesn‘t have to be the all-important thing as it does in a feature film. ()n television you get more time to take in the odditiesof behaviour. .‘yly' strength. such as it is. is in discursive dialogue. 'I'clevision is more of a writer‘s medium. But you‘ll never see it reproduced on film in the way you see it in your head. Having been an actor. you realise its partly a matterofempiricism.’
Bennett laments the difficulty he says he now faces in getting work accepted onto his preferred medium. Ile feels the BBC is currently more interested in big ratings and drama series that tend to be less contentious and daring than single plays. by tradition. have been. Despite his strong theatrical track record I-oriy Years On. Ian/or v be is similarly unconfident that his Kafka stage play will find an outlet. ‘I‘m supposed to be doing it for The Court. but I don't know. I think its death at the box office. Kafka.‘ he chuckles.
‘I’eople think I've abandoned the theatre. but I think the theatre has abandoned me. No. I just . . . I find it easier to write for the telly. normally. not having to be literature with a capital I.. That doesn't mean you don’t have to do it as well as you can. But somehow it out-flanks culture 7- no one knows where to place television. Whereas theatre. it seems to me. is culture. and then you‘re measuring up against all sorts ofthings you don‘t want to be.~
lliel ist .‘_l I‘cb b Mar 3