T'each his own

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am

ALAN BENNETT DOESN'T much like giving interviews. When his publicist at the National Theatre is asked for clippings of interviews from the 2003 launch of his play The History Boys, she says there aren't any. 'He didn't do any,' she says. 'He didn't have to - it sold out before it opened.'

But with The History Boys set to have its Asian premiere in Hong Kong, the playwright agrees to waive his reservations (even though it's sold out here, as well).

'It's just that I don't talk very well,' he says, explaining his reticence. 'It isn't self-denying, but I tend to write better than I talk.'

There's another reason for disliking interviews. 'I don't mind being called 'Alan Bennett', but I resent being called 'Bennett', which is what seems to happen when an interview goes into print. It's as if someone's taken possession - as if people should somehow know what 'Bennett' implies.'

It's not surprising that many people feel they know what 'Bennett' implies, because for the past decade or more he has been publishing his dryly entertaining diaries in the London Review of Books, (later to become books).

So his life story - growing up in working class Leeds, enduring the slow tragedy of his mother's mental illness, his own more recent cancer, the lady who lived in a van in his driveway for many years, and his acute interest in theatres, churches and the delicious ordinariness of people's lives - has in a way become common knowledge.

People knowing quite intimate details of his life is something he calls 'peculiar, but my own fault really'. Which doesn't get over the problem of his surname. Some people call him 'AB', he says. 'And I like that best somehow.'

And yet surnames are how all the 'history boys' are referred to in the play that will be coming to Hong Kong this month: Posner, Dakin, Scripps, Timms, Rudge, Akthar ... We don't even know their first names, although we quickly learn what drives each of them.

They're all boys in the sixth form of a Northern English grammar school in the 1980s, and all of them, for different reasons, are trying out for the biggest competition of their lives: the chance to study history at Oxford or Cambridge university. The play takes the form - in a comic, thought-provoking way - of a debate between three teaching styles. The first is familiar to everyone who has ever been to school. It involves learning facts, dates and arguments by heart in order to regurgitate them later in exams - and in The History Boys it's taught by the no-nonsense Mrs Lintott.

The second style is demonstrated by a teacher called Hector, who believes that learning and creativity, not exams, are the important things about school.

He shows the boys how to be playful with knowledge. He encourages curiosity and fun. One of his classes, for example, involves the boys acting out, in French, a visit to a brothel run by an effusive madame. In another, the boys are invited to sing old jazz numbers, including a striking rendition of Ella FitzGerald's Bewitched.

'That's how the play started, really,' says Bennett. 'I heard Bewitched on the radio - that bit that goes, 'I'll spring to him and sing to him/ And worship the trousers that cling to him'. And since my voice was quite late breaking I thought it would sound quite interesting sung by a boy with a choir-boy voice ... although in the end we couldn't do it, so that went by the wayside.'

Hector is the kind of old-fashioned, eccentric, inspiring, wayward teacher that few people have, but those who do, never forget. In many ways he's based on real life teachers - but not on any of those who taught Bennett.

'My school wasn't like that,' he says. 'The only time I was taught by anyone who had any charisma - although he wouldn't have liked the world - was right at the end of my academic career when I'd got my degree and was staying on for research.' His name was Bruce McFarlane, and he taught in the medieval history department. 'And he had it, whatever it is. Without in any way pushing it, he made it so that medieval history was the only thing I wanted to do.

'However, maybe it's a good thing I never had anyone like that earlier on because he made me think that since I'd never be like that - I just didn't have that effect on people - I'd be better off doing something else.'

When the play starts, these two methods have been co-existing at the school for years, but they're thrown into relief when a new teacher, Irwin, arrives.

Irwin's trick is simple. He shows the boys how to spin history, how to turn questions on their head and then do tricks with them, like subversive performing seals - while scattering their speech with wise-sounding quotations.

This trick is something Bennett has experience of. It's something he used to win a scholarship to Oxford, and later to get a first-class degree, but it's also something that repels him. He regards it as cheating. 'It made me appear cleverer than I was. I was a promising something, maybe, but it certainly wasn't a scholar.'

The History Boys is clever, funny and thought-provoking. In one way, it's a good play to take abroad, because it's uncompromisingly English. For the same reason it's also a tough play to export.

It's full of specific cultural references: to the likes of Reformation, the quirks of the British education system, and the poets A.E. Housman, W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin - whom Bennett once met, 'but he was quite shy and I was shy and he was deaf and it was at a party and I couldn't hear what he said. So I virtually didn't meet him, you could say.'

'I don't know how The History Boys will translate,' Bennett says. 'But as far as the plot is concerned, people only need to know that Oxford and Cambridge are extremely desirable places to study.'

That's certainly something that he felt when he made his first visit to Cambridge. 'At that time you went up there for three days' exams and sat four or five papers and then were interviewed. It was a sort of residential thing.

'I went in December 1951 and it was the most wonderful weekend in the sense that the weather was very cold and Cambridge was covered in white frost and it looked magical and I've never forgotten. I came from Leeds, which was black and sooty and miserable, and then here was this beautiful place, the like of which I'd never seen before.'

His application was complicated by National Service, and Bennett ended up going to Oxford, instead, where he met many of the people with whom he would learn and hone the art of comic writing.

However, despite all the new worlds that have opened up and that he has lived in London for a long time, he has remained loyal to his northern roots.

When I was travelling to London from Manchester for the interview, the train conductor commented on my copy of Untold Stories, Bennett's new book of collected writing. I told him I was going to meet the author. 'Ah, Alan Bennett,' he said. 'He's done more for the people of the North than any other writer. He tells it how it is - all the little things we care about, all the funny things we do. He's given us a voice.'

When I recount this to Bennett he smiles. 'That's nice,' he says. 'When I go up to our house in Yorkshire the guards are always very friendly and also very eccentric. One of the conductors likes learning languages - he's on to Finnish now, so God knows how many others he speaks - and when we got into Leeds he said on the system, 'Your train is now coming into Leeds', as they usually do. And then he said it in Finnish and you saw people looking at each other and thinking, 'What's going on?''

It's that kind of quirkiness that he loves to pick up on in his diaries, and that eye for odd, quirky detail that makes them best-sellers.

'When we got mice in the Yorkshire house I went into the hardware store and said, 'Have you got anything for mice?'. And this old chap said [Bennett puts on a formal, Yorkshire accent], 'Follow me to the Mice Department'.

'Anyway, I got various things, including mouse poison and I said, 'Does this put them to sleep painlessly?'. And he said [the comic voice again], 'We like to think so'.'

Bennett says it's unlikely he'll come to Hong Kong with The History Boys, although he has been invited. 'I haven't ever been east of Venice,' he says. 'I've not travelled a great deal. I don't like it when it's hot and that's one reason.' Another reason is that he craves familiarity.

'Larkin once said that novelists should travel, but that poets don't really need to - and I think maybe that's true,' he says. 'Larkin also said - as a joke, though I think he meant it - that he wouldn't mind going to Australia if he could come back the same day. And really, I think I feel the same way.'

The History Boys, National Theatre of Britain, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Lyric Theatre, Tue-Sat, 7.30pm (Sat, 2.30pm also), $75-$520 (all sessions sold out). Inquiries: 2824 2430

Untold Stories (Faber & Faber, $290)