An interview with Alan Bennett

An interview with Alan Bennett

'Talking Heads’ director, Ben Occhipinti, and the Octagon’s Artistic Assistant, Alex Joynes, were granted an interview with Alan Bennett in May. They travelled to London to discuss monologues, the writing process and key influences.

We hear Alan Bennett before we see him, his gentle and measured voice greeting us both as we walk through the front door. It is ever so slightly surreal to be in the room next-door to one of the most distinctive and famous speaking voices in the country, much-loved and oft-impersonated. A similar feeling is evoked when we find ourselves in the front room being offered a cup of tea.

We are here to discuss Talking Heads.

Alan isn’t sure why it is that he’s drawn to write about people on the fringes but he says that he is definitely ‘interested in them.’ What he does know is that the people he writes about ‘have to have something about them’ to make him want to tell their story, even if it is their exceptional ordinariness that makes them engaging characters. ‘If they are ordinary then they have to be very, very ordinary,’ he says.

Of the thirteen monologues, all but two of them are women. When we ask if there is a reason behind this, Alan answers, ‘When I was little, the women did all the talking, which is not unusual in Yorkshire.’ This forms part of his belief that ‘Foundations for dialogue are laid down from when you are young.’

Sue Wallace, Lesley Hutchison, and Ben Occhipinti - photo by Ray Jefferson, Bolton Camera Club

Irene Ruddock in A Lady of Letters shares many similarities with one of Alan’s aunties, especially ‘when she talks about her “correspondence”’. He continues, ‘She took great pride in taking out her writing kit, thinking of herself as a person of some consequence.’

Irene’s circumstances emerge over the course of A Lady of Letters. This same structure of truths emerging slowly, characters unravelling before the audience, is one of the hallmarks of the Talking Heads series as a whole. Alan describes how, at the start of each one, ‘You have enough information to keep you interested and wanting to know more. If you come out with it right at the start then there is nowhere to go.’ 

The writing process for Talking Heads would see Alan ‘start off with the character and a sort of rough situation.’ He wrote A Chip in the Sugar first and it was only after he had started it that he discovered the plot. This then meant that Alan ‘understood from that what to do with the others.’

Cathy Tyson - photo by Ray Jefferson, Bolton Camera Club

Alan shares his experiences of what it was like performing A Chip in the Sugar onstage. He admits, ‘It’s frightening’ and goes on to say ‘It’s hard not having other members of the cast around you, who are in the same boat.’ He discusses one performance in which he forgot his words, explaining how ‘the first time I said sorry and the audience laughed, and the second time too, but they didn’t laugh the third time.’

As we head home, it comes to us that perhaps the way in which we first met Alan Bennett, his voice reaching us from another room before we properly saw him, is how we will remember our conversation.

Here is a modest and self-effacing man not entirely comfortable with being in the limelight but also a writer whose voice rings out and rings true, defined by its empathy and humour, which has in turn given a voice to those previously invisible and unheard.

You can read the full interview with Alan in the programme of Talking Heads.

Talking Heads is on from Thu 8 June until Sat 8 July 2017.