Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner in Conversation
Earlier this evening I went into Oxford for my only visit to the Oxford Literary Festival this year. It was a sell-out event at the Sheldonian – with two national treasures who have been collaborating for decades in conversation. We were all crammed into the Sheldonian. I’d bought a lower gallery ticket, and the ushers were trying to fill the gallery up from the furthest corners. Not wishing to only see the back of their heads, I decided to be awkward and claimed a decent seat, happily moving to let people past – I’d got there early enough to pick my seat I’d hoped…
Time for the talk, and Bodleian Librarian Richard Ovenden lead the pair in, Bennett shuffling – he is 80 now. Ovenden then introduced them, and told us that Bennett had gifted his papers to the Bodleian in 2008. Bennett quipped that they were assured of legend status as both had been “a small stepping stone in the rise and rise of James Corden.”
They settled down to chat, and Bennett started off by quizzing Hytner about his time as a chorister aged 12 at Manchester Grammar School and the joy of singing under the direction of Manchester legend John Barbirolli. They then moved on to when they first worked together – on the Wind in the Willows in 1990 at the National Theatre. Bennett had been asked by Richard Eyre, then the NT director, to write a play coming out of Wind in the Willows incorporating Kenneth Grahame’s life, but Bennett found that too tragic and adapted just the book (I saw it twice – loved it). Hytner directed and went on to direct many more family-friendly productions for the NT including their adaptations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and latterly War Horse. Here Bennett interjected that he had been approached to adapt War Horse, but said no, “not a literary work at all.” He said that there was not enough in War Horse for the playwright to do to it – it’s all in the action and production design and direction.
Moving on to The History Boys – Hytner thought it better on stage than film. They talked about how they collaborated on the drafts of the play. Bennett told a funny story about how he performed one of the scenes at the NT 50th anniversary gala – it was from the French lesson – so all in French – but he got a laugh in one bit where Richard Griffiths who played Hector never did – Griffiths would have loved to get the extra laugh.
Then, before questions, they talked about their latest project – the film of Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van. This is the true story of Alan Bennett himself and Miss Shepherd – who moved into Gloucester Crescent in her van – Bennett invited her to temporarily park her van on his drive – she stayed for fifteen years. Dame Maggie Smith will reprise her role from the stage as Miss Shepherd, and Bennett will be played by Alex Jennings (left). They filmed it in Gloucester Crescent in Bennett’s old house, so a real nostalgia trip for Bennett – and the remaining neighbours who remembered Miss Shepherd. I shall really look forward to seeing this film.
The early evening lecture finished with Ovenden presenting Hytner with the Bodley medal, Bennett already has one. I resisted going down to the book stall, there not being signing on offer (and I’d succumbed to a couple of purchases in Waterstones on my way to the venue earlier!). I could have sat and listened to Bennett all evening – he is just so simultaneously Eeyorish and witty – when he could get a word in edgeways – Hytner tended to be rather expansive, but it was a lovely event.
P.S. I forgot to say that Bennett finished off the conversation by reading a speech from his play A Habit of Art. Kay, the stage manager (as played by Frances de la Tour on stage) speaks the speech which defines ‘The Habit of Art’. This speech was another collaboration between Hytner and Bennett – originally it had stopped halfway through, but Hytner suggested it needed more.