Simply Bennett

The documentary ‘Alan Bennett’s Diaries’ is part of the Epos film festival.

‘Alan Bennett’s Diaries’ (photo credit: PR)
‘Alan Bennett’s Diaries’
(photo credit: PR)
Sampling the end product of a creative process can be an enjoyable and edifying experience but, by the same token, it can also be fascinating to get a fly-on-the-wall idea of what the gestation stage involved.
The eighth edition of the Epos International Art Film Festival, which will take place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on April 5 to 8, incorporates a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage across a wide range of disciplines. The visual arts are in there, as are architecture, theater, music, dance and cinema, with an intriguing documentary lineup in the Israeli competition sector to boot.
There are plenty of A-listers in the docu lineup, such as David Bowie and renowned Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid – both of whom died last year in their 60s. The latter’s documentary was directed by Jewish British TV host and executive Alan Yentob, who will attend the festival.
Director Adam Low will attend as well, at the screening of his film Alan Bennett’s Diaries, which is included in the festival’s The Written Word category.
Now 82, Bennett is of an age and accrued professional and cultural backdrop that put him in danger of being consigned to “national treasure” status.
Bennett first came to wider notice as a member of the early 1960s satirical foursome Beyond the Fringe. His snook-cocking cohorts Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore also went on to become household names in the entertainment industry. The troupe achieved instant fame in Britain after appearing at the Edinburgh Festival, and later took the revue on the road to London and New York.
All four members went to university in Oxford or Cambridge. Interestingly, Bennett managed to complete his history degree at Exeter College in Oxford with his Yorkshire accent intact. That says much about the man and his down-to-earth ethos.
“I think he’d been keen to maintain those roots,” Low observes, adding that he finds Bennett’s northern quality an endearing trait. “I think it’s the case that people in Yorkshire are friendlier and warmer than people down south. It’s a fact.”
Bennett has been a venerated member of the English-speaking world’s literary and entertainment communities for more than half a century. Does the fame stymie the documentarist’s work? Does the knowledge that the subject matter had been out there, available to all sundry, for some time hamper the portrait-building process?
“In some ways that can be more difficult, and in others not,” says Low. “It is quite a simple film, in its way. There have been quite a few films made about Alan in the past, but probably less than you think.”
Low feels that Bennett’s working credentials also offered a flipside aspect to the filmmaking process.
“The good thing about him is that he has been an actor himself. In that respect he is used to filming, so it can sometimes be a slow process, and he can also be quite amenable,” he says.
Bennett is also a highly respected and multiaward- winning playwright and author.
There appear to be all sorts of equal-andopposite factors in the Bennett equation. There is the aforementioned accent steadfastness which must have set Bennett apart during his time at Oxford. He hails from Yorkshire but has been living in London for most of his life, and there is the business of the traditional British abhorrence of expressing emotion in public and the deeply ingrained desire to maintain a stiff upper lip, no matter what.
But, as the documentary title suggests, this is about Bennett’s most personal writings. There is, surely, nothing more revealing and intimate than diary entries, and they make an excellent substratum for the exploration of the genial Yorkshireman’s life and character.
In the film, Bennett comes across as a salt-ofthe- earth type who basically just gets on with his life. Low’s documentary offers plenty of delectable anecdotal tidbits. For example, we follow the slightly hobbling octogenarian – who, nevertheless, still cycles his way around his London locale – as he makes his way to his neighborhood library to make some photocopies.
There is an air of unapologetic yesteryear about Bennett, but without even a whiff of faux nostalgia.
“He uses a typewriter, and most of our communication was done by phone or letter – actually postcards,” says Low. “I treasure them.”
It is hard to come away from Alan Bennett’s Diaries without feeling that you know the gent and without feeling empathetic, if not sympathetic, towards him. He has no qualms about talking about his late mother’s severe bouts of depression, is open about his single sex life partnership, and describes his fortnightly visits to Yorkshire, when he stays at the cottage in which his parents lived for several years, as “going home.”
“What you see [of Bennett] is what you get,” notes Low. “I think that is what people like about him. I don’t think he’s acting, but I think he still feels incapacitated by shyness and the kinds of feelings he has always had.”
That may be the case, but you don’t feel emotionally shortchanged by Alan Bennett’s Diaries, particularly when we see the writer as a guest host on a radio show, where he presents some of the music that palpably connects with his innermost memories and feelings.
Bennett may be in danger of having a dinosaur-inferring epithet slapped on him, but he is a plain-speaking, culturally enriching man who should – dare I say it? – be treasured.
For more information about the Epos International Art Film Festival: