British Icon of the Week: Alan Bennett, the Tony Award-Winning Writer Behind Jodie Comer's Latest Role
Actor, playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett is a somewhat reluctant British national treasure. He once said pithily that "if you can eat a boiled egg at 90 in England, they think you deserve a Nobel Prize." At 85, Bennett hasn't won a Nobel Prize just yet, but he is the recipient of two Tonys, two BAFTAs, and four Olivier Awards for his film, TV, and stage work. Though he's pictured above with Queen Elizabeth II and identifies as a monarchist, the Yorkshire-born writer revealed a few years ago that he turned down a Knighthood because "it would be a bit like having to wear a suit for the rest of my life."
This week, Bennett and the BBC announced they are remaking his classic Talking Heads monologues with an incredible cast that includes Killing Eve's Jodie Comer and Dame Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, and Martin Freeman. These beautifully written TV plays, first broadcast in 1988 and 1998, are a perfect introduction to Bennett's funny, poignant, and often tragicomic writing, which tends to delicately uncover the foibles of the British way of life. To whet your appetite, here's a guide to some of Bennett's most notable works.
The History Boys
This wistful and quietly shocking stage play about a group of students preparing for their Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams is one of Bennett's greatest triumphs. After premiering at London's National Theatre in 2004 and transferring to Broadway two years later, it deservedly won a clutch of Olivier and Tony Awards, and helped to launch the careers of James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, and Samuel Barnett. A film adaptation featuring the original stage cast, including the late Richard Griffiths as the boys' eccentric teacher Hector, also premiered in 2006.
The Lady in the Van
Dame Maggie Smith gives one of her finest late-career performances in this 2015 film about Mary Shepherd, an enigmatic and often bad-tempered homeless woman who lived in a van outside Bennett's house in Camden for 15 years. Alex Jennings co-stars as Bennett, who reluctantly allows Miss Shepherd to stay on his driveway in spite of her poor hygiene and unpredictable moods, and several members of The History Boys' cast make cameos. Bennett first wrote The Lady in the Van as a memoir in 1990, before adapting it into a 1999 play starring Smith and eventually the movie version.
The Madness of King George
Like The History Boys and The Lady in the Van, this acclaimed 1994 comedy-drama film is directed by Bennett's longtime collaborator Sir Nicholas Hytner, who's also serving as lead director on the Talking Heads remakes. Adapted by Bennett from his own play, The Madness of King George features Oscar-nominated performances from the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne as King George III, an 18th century monarch who suffered from serious mental health problems, and Dame Helen Mirren as his loyal wife Queen Charlotte. Bennett also earned an Oscar nomination for writing the witty, sympathetic, and emotional screenplay.
A Private Function
This 1984 comedy film co-written by Bennett is a quintessentially English affair: it centers on an unlikely attempt to defy post-war rationing in late-'40s Yorkshire. Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Michael Palin play a seemingly respectable couple who steal a blackmarket pig that a group of local businessman had been rearing for a dinner celebrating the upcoming wedding of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Bennett's work always attracts great actors and A Private Function is no exception, featuring Richard Griffiths, Fleabag's Bill Paterson, and Gavin & Stacey's Alison Steadman in supporting roles.
Prick Up Your Ears
Bennett wrote the screenplay for this excellent 1987 biopic about the tragic romance between British playwrights Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, which was conducted at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the U.K.. Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman give terrific performances as the two writers slipping into an increasingly toxic relationship, supported by an equally impressive Vanessa Redgrave as Orton's formidable agent Peggy Ramsay. Sir Ian McKellen later admitted that he regrets turning down the role of Halliwell, which eventually went to Molina, because he felt at the time that he really needed a holiday.
These single-person plays are so revered in the U.K. that they're now included on the A-level and GCSE English Literature syllabus in schools. Six monologues were broadcast on the BBC in 1988, followed by another six a decade later, and 10 are now being remade along with two new Talking Heads scripts written especially by Bennett. The late Dame Thora Hird, who won BAFTA awards for both of her Talking Heads performances, once noted that precision is key when performing Bennett's work, telling The Guardian: "That's an 'if', not a 'but', and when you do a Bennett it is an 'if', not a 'but'."
Which is your favorite Alan Bennett movie or TV play?