Seventy-two this year, Alan Bennett has outlasted his companions from the comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe. No, I do not mean that Dr. Jonathan Miller is dead. But just as Miller was prodigious when young, so he has calmed down lately. He was not just the most chillingly coherent of the four, not just a director of theater, opera and film, not just a doctor capable of doing a brisk television tour of The Body. It seemed only a matter of time before the BBC asked him to be prime minister for a week, as a way of explaining that tricky job–or God. As for the other two, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, they are gone, as if death were the price of their extra fame and sexual luster. After all, Cook was beautiful in a satanic kind of way, while Moore was married to Tuesday Weld, Susan Anton and nearly every other stunning blonde in California.
Which leaves the fourth man, a phrase that in England is foggy with subtext (usually involving homosexuality and espionage), and why not? For Bennett is still the most recessive of the quartet that went Beyond the Fringe. Or do I mean the one with the most to hide? He was boyish still, with a National Service haircut in the ’60s–he could have been a Latvian spy with a perfect Leeds accent. In Untold Stories, he confesses with exactly the crushed ego that distinguishes him that at least two well-meaning fans of Beyond the Fringe–the writer Edmund White and Prime Minister Harold Wilson–have asked whether he was actually one of the original group. Which is a way of saying that Bennett was not only the least likely satirist but by far the most reticent of the four, the one who sat there as dumb as a sofa when a magnificence like Elizabeth Taylor elected to perch on his lap.
No matter. There are defeats that deepen the soul and quietly whisper to an austerely timid Yorkshire lad (the other three were more or less Londoners) that fate has something else up its sleeve for him. And so it has proved. What that thing is remains hard to define and harder still to grasp in America, because Alan Bennett “at home” is now regarded as a national treasure by many of the classes most readily lampooned by Beyond the Fringe. I mean the people he writes about best: the country people; the provincials; the widowed conservatives; the stranded gentry or gentility who remember county borders, cathedral cities and cricket grounds; the ones who know Milton, Tennyson, A.A. Milne and Larkin by heart; radio listeners; the old English who feel forgotten by progress and Blairism; the lonely; the victims and even their killers; the people afflicted still by shyness and the lifelong search for some love or comfort that will not be mocked by those blithe scummy media Brits; the ones having it so good and so often that they wouldn’t notice if they were being served beef tenderloin or uncooked human flesh.
What has emerged is that Alan Bennett was meant to be a writer, albeit a late bloomer. True, England boasts classier literary names–Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and so on, all the way to the latest Nobelist, Harold Pinter. But it is about time that someone pointed out how reading those blokes is like bitter small talk with a stranger in a bus queue in the rain, whereas Bennett is a full lunch and high tea afterward. It is a glaring example of modern English frivolity, I think, that he is not simply regarded–with awe and terror–as one of the greatest living English writers, and a man whose nose for solitude and its thoughts is so unforgiving that sooner or later he will frighten the life out of you, especially if you cling to the belief that he is an “entertainer.”
Bennett may still be regarded as principally a dramatic writer–of stage plays and scripts for film and television–but Untold Stories settles on a more personal prose voice. Indeed, this is the second “compendium” volume that Bennett has produced. In his introduction he compares Untold Stories with those annual Christmas comic books he loved as a kid. Tread carefully with that comparison and with his further suggestion of many different things “jumbled together,” as in an anthology. Do not fall for the notion that this is youthful reading or even “no less serious because it is funny.” The American publisher repeats that in its blurb, anxious to have Bennett purchased for his comedy. And it’s not that he’s not funny. But the comedy is so often gallows humor, or like tap-dancing in a cancer ward.