Alan Bennett is best known as the author of The History Boys and The Madness of King George while those of a certain age may also remember him as a regular on the ‘60s comedy review, Beyond the Fringe. Of course there’s much more to his career than that, and The Alan Bennett Collection, a 4-DVD set of his works written for the BBC, offers the chance to experience some of the rest of it. The collection includes two documentaries and nine television plays and gives you the chance to not only observe the development of Bennett’s style, but also to see some eminent actors (Alan Bates, James Fox, Patricia Routledge) and directors (John Schlesinger, Richard Eyre) in work that may have previously escaped your notice.
The most heralded work in this collection is An Englishman Abroad (1983; dir. John Schlesinger), winner of seven BAFTA Awards. The story is based on a true incident involving the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) and the Australian actress Coral Browne (playing herself) who met him by chance while on tour in Russia. Bennett’s writing is a masterpiece of subtlety and humor with vivid characterizations and dialogue (Browne: “If this is communism I don’t like it because it’s dull!”) and the conclusion packs quite a punch as well.
A Question of Attribution (1991; dir. John Schlesinger) involves another of the Cambridge spies: art historian Anthony Blunt (James Fox) who served as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures under Elizabeth II (Prunella Scales). Fox is a real treat as the imperious Blunt who believes he can have it both ways yet may have met his match in the Queen. After an a conversation with her about potential forgeries in the royal collection Blunt remarks “I was talking about art. I’m not sure she was.”
A Woman of No Importance (1982; dir. Giles Foster) is Bennett’s first monologue written for television and thus a precursor to his Talking Heads series. Patricia Routledge plays a clerical worker who believes herself to be the center of the universe and is remarkably resistant to evidence which might suggest otherwise. It’s a real tour-de-force of writing and acting as Routledge’s character looks directly into the camera and self-assuredly regales us with the minutiae of her life while gradually cracks appear between how she would like the world to be and how it really is.
The Insurance Man (1986; dir. Richard Eyre) wasn’t written by Franz Kafka but it might have been. Building off the fact that Kafka worked for an insurance company investigating industrial accidents, Bennett spins a tale of a dye worker named Franz who seeks redress for a mysterious skin condition. Attempting to file an insurance claim brings Franz into contact with Kafka (Daniel Day Lewis) as well as a number of other sinister characters in a labyrinthine bureaucracy seemingly designed to drive him mad. There are many allusions to Kafka’s work, perhaps a few too many, but the cinematography and production design create a Kafka-esque atmosphere which helps to carry a self-consciously literary script.
102 Boulevard Haussmann (1991; dir. Udayan Prasad) uses an incident from the life of Marcel Proust (Alan Bates) to examine the cost of genius. On a surface level it works well enough, dramatizing Marcel Proust’s (Alan Bates) relationship with his protective maid Celeste (Janet McTeer) as well as his yearning for a handsome young musician, but attempts to get below the surface and pose philosophical questions about the creative process are less successful.
Bennett’s four earliest television plays are mainly interesting for the examples they provide of themes and techniques he would develop more fully in his later works. A Day Out (1972; dir Stephen Frears) follows an Edwardian gentleman’s cycling club on a day’s outing and creates a snapshot of the state of British society just a few years before outbreak of the first World War. Sunset Across the Bay (1975; dir. Stephen Frears) follows an elderly couple (Gabrielle Daye and Harry Markham) as they move from a high-rise in a decaying Leeds neighborhood to the seaside resort of Morecambe.
A Visit from Miss Protheroe (1978; dir. Stephen Frears) is a sly two-hander about a retired businessman (Hugh Lloyd) and his former secretary (Patricia Routledge) who waits until the most devastating possible moment to reveal a piece of information. Our Winnie (1982; dir Malcolm Mowbray), contrasts a self-involved and manipulative art student (Lesley Manville) with a mother (Elizabeth Spriggs) and aunt (Constance Chapman) taking their mentally-retarded adult daughter/niece (Sheila Kelley) to visit her father’s grave.
The two documentaries included in The Alan Bennett Collection tell you more about Bennett than about their ostensible subjects and as such provide invaluable insight into his life and work. Dinner at Noon (1988; dir. Stuart Burge) began as a documentary about the Crown Hotel in Harrogate but quickly turned into a series of reminisces about lower-class life in Britain and the humiliation of never feeling quite proper enough. Portrait or Bust (1994; dir Jonathan Stedall), filmed primarily in the Leeds City Gallery, provides the occasion for Bennett to offer his thoughts about art (“art and antiquity make it quite proper to peep”) and the history of the city of Leeds.
Each film is introduced by Bennett and a 37-minute interview is included as an extra. Both provide useful general information (Bennett always starts work by writing down scraps of dialogue he thinks the characters would say) as well as context for individual works (he made Dinner at Noon after becoming intrigued with the ideas of sociologist Erving Goffman). The quality of the transfers vary, with some of the earlier programs looking quite washed-out while those from later years are generally sharp and clear.