The Bennett Diaries
Alan Bennett is my biggest hero – and not just a literary one. I’ve always devoured everything he’s written or talked about, and some time ago I wrote a gentle satire of his diaries just for fun, some of which has subsequently reflected in events or diaries he’s written since – for example, stuff about libraries and the state of the NHS. As Bennett says himself, "Write it and it happens." I once added this satire to an application for a publishing job and later discovered it had swung the job in my favour at the expense of the other shortlisted candidate. I used to vocally impersonate Bennett as well and was once asked to dress as him and deliver my cod diary at an Amnesty fundraiser. I was unable to and regretfully said no… but apart from anything else I was scared the real Bennett might turn up – the event took place only a couple of tube stops from his beloved Camden Town.
Below are a selection of entries, none of which is a reflection of true events or conversations.
I am just polishing the Formica when Thora Hird calls, ostensibly to ask if the thromboses in my legs have gone down. I ask her what she’s been doing. “A Last of the Summer Wine special – I have to hold Peter Sallis’s ankles while he and Brian Wilde launch Bill Owen off a stone bridge into the Dee wearing only pink flippers and a tutu.” I say how wonderful she is. “Well, Alan, they didn’t give me two new hips so I could just sit in an old people’s home like I pretend to do in those chairlift advertisements.” I promise to send her the next draft of my monologue Smelling of Yardley’s when it’s finished, and then she goes off to Toni & Guy for a blue rinse, and that’s where we leave it.
25th January – Yorkshire
I drive into Ribblesdale and sit on a ridge overlooking the landscape, the Ribblehead viaduct in view, and consider revisions of my new play, Kafka in Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Parts of it I like and are what I want to say about Kafka, but I find too often that a promising piece of action is more than likely to end in Stead & Simpson’s. Wardle in The Times will have a field day, and not because he likes to see row upon row of brown brogues on the stage.
I wake at dawn from a nightmare (in which Jonathan Miller is articulately belittling my myriad achievements while eating a cheddar ploughman’s) by a terrific commotion in the front garden, and I see that a large crow has landed on the roof of Miss Shepherd’s van and started picking at the remnants of stair carpet she placed there to collect rainwater for wash day. She wants the RSPCA called to “shoot the thing, possibly”, but I tell her there’s nothing she or I can do and go back to bed. Later in the day I see the crow strung up by the van, dead, with a sign saying, “You may meet the same fate, possibly,” as a warning to other crows. I don’t like to tell her that, apart from this gesture being no deterrent to illiterate bird life, it is actually I who have been systematically removing the carpet from the van while she is inside listening to Any Questions.
A postcard arrives from Hollywood this morning on which Dudley Moore has written, “Ha, you bastard!” He has sent me a card with this same message from nearly every holiday destination he has visited since I snubbed him for making one of my sketches slightly funnier during Beyond the Fringe in 1961.
Apropos of Beyond the Fringe, John Wells has written to me suggesting that I use the wittier parts of my contribution to the original show, entitle it Beyond the Whinge and set it in a run-down hospital far from Camden Town. I have written back to find out if he is joking.
I set the video for the South Bank Show and get it right first time. I take pleasure in doing little tasks like this – switching the light off, changing a toilet roll – as they are not usually associated with a temperament like mine. I suppose I ought to put talking to strangers in bars in this bracket too.
As I am poring over a raft of equally dull magazines in a west London newsagent’s, I spot Ian Hislop doing the same and ask what he’s been doing since he last narrowly avoided libelling me in Private Eye. He has been writing for Spitting Image and is about to start another series of Have I got News for You. He suggests I try going on, as Stephen Fry has done so well. Unable to decide if he’s taking the piss, I make my excuses and leave. Later I return and buy a copy of the Eye to discover a satirical column purportedly written by me entitled 'Me and My Spoon'. I immediately call my agent and tell her to cancel my now-scheduled appearance alongside Ian on the show and relay the corniest excuse I can think of, which is that I’m sorry to cancel so spoon, it was a knife idea, but now I cannot be forked.
Snapshots of Life