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The Habit of Art

10 fascinating facts about The Habit of Art writer Alan Bennett

Posted on 1 August 2018

With Wednesday 1 August marking Yorkshire Day 2018, we’re celebrating the occasion by taking a look at the life and career of one of the region’s most famous sons. Ahead of the arrival of The Habit of Art at the Belgrade 6-10 November, here are ten fascinating facts about playwright Alan Bennett.

1) Born in Leeds in 1934, the youngest son of a co-op butcher, the working class Bennett was able to study at Oxford thanks to its scholarship programme – something he still values tremendously to this day. In 2008, he announced that he was donating his entire archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts and diaries to the Bodleian Library, describing it as a gesture of thanks to the British Welfare State, to which he felt indebted for his education.

2) After graduating, he remained at Oxford University for some time, teaching and researching Medieval History before giving it up to become a full-time writer.

3) From 1952-1954, he served in the Intelligence Corps, studying Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists as part of his National Service.

4) His 1966 comedy sketch series On The Margins was lost for years after the BBC’s copies were destroyed under orders from none other than David Attenborough! During the late 1960s, Attenborough was Controller of BBC Two, and the videotape used for recording was still so expensive that it was not unusual for archived shows to be wiped and the tape repurposed.

“I can remember perfectly well someone coming to me and saying, ‘Look, we have to build another set of vaults and it’s going to cost X million pounds,’” Attenborough later admitted.

Luckily, a surviving copy was discovered many years later in 2014!

5) With nearly 50 TV plays, over 20 stage plays, 13 films and more than 30 books to his name, Bennett is one of the most prolific and well-regarded writers living and working in Britain today. Over the course of his career, he has received more than 30 different awards for his work, including five Olivier Awards, two BAFTAs, five Evening Standard Awards and four British Book Awards.

6) On 24 March 1996, he appeared in the last ever episode of the popular BBC children’s TV series Jackanory, reading The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne. It’s an appearance that’s still fondly remembered by many viewers from the time.

7) He has declined two separate honours from the Queen: a CBE in 1988, and a knighthood in 1996. He claims that this is not out of any reublican sympathies, but simply because “it would be like wearing a suit every day of your life.”

On the other hand, his declining of an honorary degree from Oxford in 1999 was more politically motivated, owing to the fact that the Chair of Language and Communication was sponsored by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

“I’m aware of the arguments about bad money being put to good use, but I still think that Murdoch is not a name with which Oxford should have associated itself,” he said.

8) Much of his writing was done on a second-hand typewriter picked up cheaply from a charity shop in the North Yorkshire town of Settle.

9) The Habit of Art is in part about the business of creating plays itself, featuring a play within a play titled Caliban’s Day. The title reflects W H Auden’s view that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was incomplete, and that Caliban end the play with an epilogue. At the start of the story, the director has been called away, and so the actors have a run-through directed by the Stage Manager, in the presence of the playwright.

10) His latest play, Allelujah!, is currently showing at London’s recently opened Bridge Theatre. It is directed by Bridge Theatre co-founder Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the original National Theatre run of The Habit of Art during his time as Artistic Director of the venue.

The Habit of Art shows at the Belgrade Theatre 6-10 November. Tickets are available to book now.