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Alan Bennett

With his scathing and often comical takes on the British class system, Alan Bennetts has proved himself to be one of Britain's most popular writers. Here we will look at the life, books and plays of Alan Bennett.

Alan Bennett: biography

Alan Bennett was born on 9th May 1934 in Leeds, United Kingdom. He is an English playwright, screenwriter and diarist. Much of Bennett's work took a humourous but critical look at the British class system and cultural differences between the north and south of England. His most famous plays were The Madness of George III (1991) and The History Boys (2004). Both plays were later adapted into films. Alan Bennet has also been celebrated for his published diaries.

Bennet studied history at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1957. At Oxford, Bennett joined the comedy revue 'Beyond the Fringe' (1960-1968) with comics Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It was Bennett's first experience writing for stage, and the show was a great success, with the quartet touring the show in Edinburgh, London and New York City.

In New York City, Bennett began to write his first play, Forty Years On (1968), which starred John Gielgud, an actor who he would go on to collaborate with often. For the next twenty years, Bennett wrote prolifically for stage, screen and radio. In 1987 Bennett found fame writing his TV monologues 'Talking Heads'. The series would feature a single actor delivering a monologue directly to the camera.

Bennett achieved greater success with his 1991 play The Madness of George III at the National Theatre in London. The play was soon adapted for film and earned multiple Academy Award nominations, including one for Bennett's screenplay. In addition to writing numerous plays, Bennett is also a dedicated diarist; a collection of his diaries and other prose, Writing Home (1994), became a bestseller. Bennett's next big hit on theatre was 2004's The History Boys, which won many awards, including The Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony Award for best play. Alan Bennett is 88 years old and is still writing today.

Alan Bennett, a turreted building in Oxford University with a green in front of it, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Oxford University, where Alan Bennett was educated and joined the group 'Beyond the Fringe' .

Alan Bennett: books

Here we will look at some of the more popular books written by Alan Bennett, including his memoirs and prose.

The Lady In the Van (1989)

The Lady In The Van first appeared in the London Review of Books as part of Bennett's published diaries. It is based on the real-life story of the eccentric Miss Shepard, who lived in her van on Bennett's driveway in Camden, London. Bennett has presented his odd story in many forms; as a memoir, a stage play and then eventually as a film.

Writing Home (1994)

Alan Bennett's collection of prose and diary entries was immediately popular with readers in 1994. The book covers the period in Bennett's life from 1980 to 1994, when he was publishing diary entries in various publications. The book reminisces on Bennett's time writing and producing plays and gives the reader a unique insight into the writer's life. It also includes the eccentric account of Miss Shepard, 'the lady in the van'.

Untold Stories (2005)

As suggested by the title, Untold Stories is a collection of previously unpublished work and memoirs. The first part of the book details Bennett's life growing up and the difficulty of his mother's ongoing dementia. The book also recounts Bennett's early life in the theatre, including his time spent as part of the comedy revue 'Beyond the Fringe'. The book also covers Bennett's time working on his most successful play, The History Boys.

Alan Bennett: plays

In this section, we will take a look at some of Alan Bennett's more well-known plays.

Forty Years On (1968)

Forty Years On is Alan Bennett's first play to be performed in the west end of London. The play is set in Albion House, a fictional public school which is preparing to perform an end-of-term play. The end-of-term play deals farcically with the aftermath of the First World War. The school's headmaster is leaving after forty years of service and agrees to take part in the student's show without reading the script. Bennett's play is seen as a lampoon of the public school system.

The Madness of George III (1991)

The Madness of George III is a fictional account of the last days of the real-life King George III's reign. The play focuses on the King's mental health struggles and their effect on his court. The play was first performed at the National Theatre in 1991 and starred Nigel Hawthorne as the eponymous King. After a long run in London, the production then moved to the United States and was later adapted into a highly successful film.

Alan Bennet, a portrait of King George III in elaborate yellow clothing with fur trim, StudySmarterFig. 2 - King George III was the subject of one of Bennett's most successful plays.

The History Boys (2004)

The History Boys is Alan Bennett's most successful play, proving popular in both the West End of London and on Broadway in New York. The play is centred around a fictional grammar school in Yorkshire in the 1980s. The plot follows the school's attempt to get a group of coarse but intelligent boys through their Oxford and Cambridge entrance examinations. The play is seen as a commentary on what education means to students and the institutions themselves.

Alan Bennett: Talking Heads

Alan Bennett's television series Talking Heads was originally twelve monologues performed by well-known actors directly addressing the camera. The series ran for two seasons, one in 1988 and the second ten years later in 1998. In 2020 many of the monologues were remade by the BBC, with two new episodes included.

The original series proved popular with audiences and made Bennett a household name. The series is even included in the English Literature syllabus in the United Kingdom. There is no consistent theme between the monologues, each works as a stand-alone piece of drama. The series was nominated for many BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards across the first two seasons and was frequently adapted for radio.

Alan Bennett: facts

Here we will look at some of the more interesting facts regarding Alan Bennett's life.

  • Alan Bennet is a prolific writer. He has written over 70 plays for television and stage, also 13 screenplays for film and over 30 books.
  • Alan Bennett had the recordings of his sketch show 'On the Margin' deleted in 1966 by the naturalist David Attenborough, who was then controller of BBC 2.
  • Bennett has won over 30 prestigious awards in his career, including two BAFTAs, four British Book Awards and five Laurence Olivier Awards.
  • Alan Bennett has declined both a knighthood and a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from the Queen. Not because of any anti-royalist sentiment but because he considered it a formal burden.

Alan Bennett: quotes

Below are some quotes from Alan Bennett and his plays.

Teachers need to feel they are trusted. They must be allowed some leeway to use their imagination; otherwise, teaching loses all sense of wonder and excitement. - Alan Bennett on education.1

This quote is taken from an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2006. While discussing his new play at the time, The History Boys, Alan Bennett talks about issues in education he wished to raise in the play.

Loth though I am to raise my voice against His Majesty, it must be said. Should this frail and piteous wreck of a man govern this nation? Can he do so? I say no. Let us look to the hope of this House, the Prince of Wales. -Sheriden, Act two, scene four, The Madness of George III

This quote from The Madness of George III shows the strain on the king's court owing to his illness. Sheridan, in parliament, is accusing Pitt of lying about the King's health and how he is unfit for rule.

History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket. - Mrs Lintott, Act Two, Scene 9, The History Boys.

In this quote, the character is cynical toward the Oxford and Cambridge attitudes to education and questions the value of history itself.

Alan Bennett - Key takeaways

  • Alan Bennett is an English playwright and scriptwriter born on 9th May 1934 in Leeds, Yorkshire.
  • Alan Bennett is most famous for the play The Madness of George III (1991) and The History Boys (2004)
  • Alan Bennett became a household name after the release of his TV monologues 'Talking Heads'.
  • Bennett was also a dedicated diarist, frequently publishing entries in the London Review of Books.
  • Alan Bennett's first play was Forty Years On (1968).

1. John, Crace, 'Critical Acclaim'. The Guardian. 2006

Frequently Asked Questions about Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett is an English playwright and scriptwriter born on 9th May 1934.

Alan Bennett was born on May 9th 1934, at the time of writing he is 88 years old.

Alan Bennett has declined both a knighthood and a CBE from the Queen. Not because of any anti-royalist sentiment but because he considered it a formal burden. 

Alan Bennett is most famous for the plays The History Boys (2004) and The Madness of George III (1991) and the tv series 'Talking Heads'.

The Lady In the Van is based on the real-life story of Miss Shepard and her relationship with Alan Bennett.

Final Alan Bennett Quiz

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Who is Alan Bennett?


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Answer

Alan Bennett is an English playwright and scriptwriter born on 9th May 1934.


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How old is Alan Bennett?


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Answer

Alan Bennett was born on May 9th 1934, at the time of writing he is 88 years old.


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Why did Alan Bennett refuse a knighthood?


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Answer

  • Alan Bennett has declined both a knighthood and a CBE from the Queen. Not because of any anti-royalist sentiment but because he considered it a formal burden. 

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Question

What is Alan Bennett most famous for?


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Answer

Alan Bennett is most famous for the plays The History Boys (2004) and The Madness of George III (1991) and the tv series 'Talking Heads'.


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Was The Lady In the Van a true story?


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What was Alan Bennett's first play?

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Answer

Alan Bennett's first play was Forty Years On (1968).

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What was the name of the Comedy revue Bennett joined in 1960?

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Answer

The comedy revue Alan Bennet joined in 1960 was 'Beyond the Fringe'.

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Where was Alan Bennett educated?

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Alan Bennett was educated at Exeter College, Oxford University.

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Which tv series made Alan Bennett a household name?

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Answer

The tv series 'Talking Heads' made Alan Bennett a household name.

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What is Alan Bennett's most successful play?

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Answer

The History Boys (2004) is Alan Bennett's most successful play. 

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