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The Alan Bennett Collection
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Alan Bennett at the BBC (DVD)
Though hardly a household name in the United States (his scripts for The Madness of King George, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1995, and 2006's The History Boys are probably his best-known works in America), playwright-screenwriter Alan Bennett has had a long and distinguished career in his native England. The reasons for that are evident throughout the Alan Bennett Collection, a four-disc set containing 11 works (including one documentary) produced between the early 1970s and mid-'90s and ranging in length from about 40 to 75 minutes. Bennett is an erudite, articulate writer. His work contains few jokes, but is often satirical and very witty; there's not much action (indeed, there's so little happening in some of these pieces that Masterpiece Theatre seems positively rousing in comparison), as he establishes his characters with crackling dialogue and situation, helped along by outstanding performances by Alan Bates, James Fox, Daniel Day-Lewis, Coral Browne, Harry Markham, Patricia Routledge, and others, along with fine directors like Stephen Frears and John Schlesinger. Given Bennett's background in the theater, some of the films are a bit stagy, and the production values vary considerably. But while fans of, say, Jersey Shore may not be interested, those in search of genuine depth, not to mention Anglophiles who revel in quintessentially British entertainment, will find much to admire.
Among the more renowned works is 1983's An Englishman Abroad, based on actor Browne's account of her meeting in Moscow with the notorious Guy Burgess (Bates), who defected to the USSR after being caught spying for the Russians in the '50s. Bennett, who supplies new introductions for each film, aptly describes this meeting between "the elegant actress [Browne plays herself] and the seedy exile" as both funny and sad; Burgess comes off as a drunken, fairly pathetic character, a self-described "tremendous villain" who knows he can never go home again. Another of the so-called "Cambridge spies," Sir Anthony Blunt (Fox), who was the "keeper of the Queen's pictures" and also confessed to spying for the Soviets, is the subject of A Question of Attribution, while The Insurance Man stars Day-Lewis as Franz Kafka in a surreal fantasy about a nightmarish bureaucracy that can only be described as Kafkaesque. These portraits are brilliant, but so are the ones about more ordinary folks, like Sunset Across the Bay, a meditation on aging in which a couple moves from Leeds (Bennett's hometown) to the seashore, only to find that retirement isn't quite what they'd hoped for, and A Woman of No Importance, a 48-minute monologue with Routledge as the title character (the very idea of this piece--one woman talking for nearly an hour, mostly about trivial matters--sounds impossibly boring, but in fact it's remarkably poignant). Bonus features include an extended interview with Bennett. --Sam GrahamSee all Product Description
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Some notes on the individual pieces from my film diary;
An Englishman Abroad (1983)**** (Dr. John Schlesinger) Very dry wit joins with a rueful sadness in the 1 hour based on truth drama of English traitor in exile Guy Burgess (the wonderful Alan Bates) striking up a brief friendship with actress Coral Browne (playing herself) when he goes to see a cultural exchange production of Hamlet, in 1958, wanders backstage, and throws up in her dressing room sink. Full of trenchant observations on both Soviet and British life,, what it means to miss one’s homeland, Though a few comic moments when Browne speaks with two dolts at the British Embassy are a bit overstated, this is full of beautifully observed moments.
A Woman of No Importance (1982)***** Deeply moving 45 minute precursor to Bennett’s “Talking Heads” monologues, this monologue tells the story of a somewhat fussy, but somehow also endearing middle-aged spinster, and her being beset by an illness. At first the piece feels rather light weight. But as we watch Patricia Routledge in an amazing performance we are taken deeper and deeper into the darkness by a woman who refuses to acknowledge it. Funny, simple, wise and terribly sad, this was also daring for TV in it’s very theatrical simplicity. Between Bennett, Routledge and director Giles Foster, they create a piece far more impactful and memorable that most films double or more the running length.
A Day Out (1972)*** (Dr. Stephen Frears) Quite minor, if sometimes charming early piece for both director Frears and Alan Bennett (this was his first TV play). A 48 minute film about a group of male cyclists making a day trip one Sunday in 1911. While the group is made up of an interesting array of types leading to all sorts of minor conflicts, it’s a bit hard to believe this group would hang out with each other, or even know each other given the wide diversity of age, class, personalities, etc. And the coda, after WW I has stripped away the innocence of the earlier days, feels a bit forced. Not bad, just a bit dull, although it is very nicely photographed (in black and white) for a BBC show of the time.
Sunset Across the Bay (1975)**** Dr. Steven Frears/ This represents a nice step forward from “A Day Out”. This 70 minute film for the BBC follows the quiet story of an older couple as they move from Leeds to the Seaside town of Morecombe after the husband retires. Both quietly funny, and quite melancholy, the portraits of the couple is full of the kind of lovely, intimate moments and details that give us the feeling we’re watching a real couple, abetted by terrific performances by the two leads; Harry Markham and Gabrielle Daye. Both are wonderfully understated, never falling into the trap of playing ‘cute old folks’. Then young director Stephen Frears also does a terrific job at quietly modulating the piece, and creating visuals that feel cinematic, in spite of the intentionally claustrophobic nature of the tale. This marriage is complex – they two are inextricably intertwined, they need each other, but there is also a distance that has come with time and habit. That tension between love and habitual need is dealt with great subtlety. In his introduction to the piece on the BBC Box Set, Bennett makes it clear that the couple drew much from his real parents, who lived in Leeds. He also reveals that Harry Markham, who is so good, wasn’t a professional actor until very late in life, although he did a lot of amateur theater. A simple, quiet, humorous and touching portrait of growing old in a society where being old can leave you an outsider, and a prisoner of the way you’ve always done things.
A Visit From Miss Protheroe (1978) **** Dr. Steven Frears. Amusing, but slightly one-joke premise starts to wear out even in this brief 36 minute BBC film. Mrs. Profroe a self satisfied social climber goes to visit her newly retired boss. On the surface her visit is to keep him informed of what’s going on at their old place of business, but in truth she’s more interested in undermining his happiness and self-confidence. Both Hugh Lloyd and Patricia Routledge give very good performances in this very stagy, one0set piece directed by Stephen Frears. But as good a writer as Bennett is, and as well observed his dialogue and turns of phrase are, in the end, we don’t know much more at the end of the piece than we do about 5 minutes in. So most of this consists of just running variations of Miss Prothroe slowly driving poor Mr. Dodsworth crazy. With this much talent, that still leaves much to enjoy, in spite of the frustration as it slowly dawns that the piece is almost more a long comic sketch then a true play showing the best of all involved.
Our Winnie (1982)**** Lovely, simple piece, combing humor and gentle pathos as Bennett does so well. A retarded woman in her late 20s is take to see her father’s grave by her mother and aunt. There, they encounter a young woman who’s a photography student, dealing with her project to take photos at the cemetery. There are some very funny side scenes as the photographer tries to get natural looking, shots of the staff, but directing them into total stiffness. (A young Jim Broadbent gives a wonderful comic turn as one of the attendants). At the same time, the film very gently raises some real questions about the intrusion of art into people’s private lives. In just 40 minutes Bennett does his thing of letting feel like we’re eavesdropping on real life, and getting to know all these people very well in a very short time.
The Insurance Man (1986)**** Dr. Richard Eyre. Beautifully shot and very well acted by a large cast that includes Daniel Day Lewis and Jim Broadbent. This is an attempt to make Franz Kafka the man a character in a story full of the feel of his writings; the nightmarish surreal confusion and darkness – in this case of the world of insurance covering industrial accidents, a world in which Kafka did in fact earn his living. There are trenchant and often funny observations on the abuses of the industrial world to those that labor in it, and the absurdity built into the system of insurance, mostly working to insure that the majority of people will simply give up. In 1945, with Prague under Nazi control a man dying from asbestos poisoning tells his doctor of how many years earlier he sought help for a skin condition brought on by his work in a dye factory, ending up being helped by Kafka. While there is a lot to admire here, I did find the tone a bit wobbly, and some of the ideas more heavy-handedly overstated than would have been needed. At least on first viewing it worked slightly better as an idea than as a finished piece. I enjoyed seeing Alan Bennett stretch himself as a writer and director Richard Eyre’s eye for noir-like nightmare images, but in the end, I didn’t find the whole all that emotional or impactful. Always interesting but not always involving.
Dinner at Noon (1988)***** A wonderful short documentary as Alan Bennett explores the Crown Hotel in Harrogate UK. It’s an interesting mix; some stolen moments of hotel guests interacting, often filled with real dialogue that could be right out of one of Bennett’s witty, and affectionately satirical pieces about people from all of Britain’s various walks of life. But the piece is dominated by Bennett himself, musing to camera on the boyhood memories that are brought back by the various sights, sounds and characters at the hotel. A little like Bennet’s “Telling Tales” in that sense, but I found this often even more touching, less theatrical, given it’s real life setting giving it context. Bennett also seems more relaxed here, his presence shorn of any pretense. This would make a fascinating double bill with Chantal Akerman’s short documentary “Hotel Monterey”. That brilliant piece is wordless, giving us the flavor of a run down hotel in New York City just through long, wordless lingering images – an almost experimental film. Here, it’s just the opposite, the images are important, but it’s words that carry the day; mostly Bennett’s wonderful prose, but also the captured words of the various guests, young, old, rich and working class.
102 Boulevard Haussman (1990)**** A terrific, performance by Alan Bates and strong supporting ones by Janet McTeer and Paul Rhys anchor the quiet, understated study of a few months in the life of writer Marcel Proust. This Proust is fragile and eccentric, ironically seemingly blithely disconnected from the sufferings of those around him, while at the same time writing his works of insight into the human mind and heart. Yet, as the film goes on, we become more aware that Proust’s seeming lack of empathy is as much a defense mechanism against his own sadness and loneliness as they are an unintentional cruel streak. The piece is by nature a bit chilly, and the emotions to be found are of the quiet, subtle variety. Yet there is also something haunting about it in the end. It’s one of those pieces that has lingered in my mind more strongly and positively than I would have expected based on my more mixed reaction while watching it.
A Question of Attribution (1991)***** Dr. John Schlesinger. A sort of follow up to “An Englishman Abroad”, which was about the spy Guy Burgess living in Moscow in 1951, I enjoyed this piece even more. This piece of speculative fiction based in fact is also about an upper-class Englishman turned spy, Sir Anthony Blunt. James Fox is wonderful as Blunt, now returned to England, living with the promise of immunity, in exchange for being constantly, if not humorlessly badgered for information by the Secret Service. Blunt is an art expert and historian. At the same time he is being investigated, by the government, who are trying to figure out who he really is underneath, Blunt is doing the same to a painting, finding new faces that have been covered up in a renaissance work. This might seem a very heavy handed symbol, but because Alan Bennet’s writing is so witty and deft, and because both the piece and the character acknowledge the obvious irony irony, it’s actually quite effective. The best section is when Blunt finds himself suddenly and surprisingly alone with the Queen herself (a terrific turn in a tough role by Prunella Scales), and the two have a chat about art, facts and other things that could indeed be an innocent chat, but could also be a very subtle game of cat and mouse between two very clever people. A very strong study of a fascinatingly ambiguous, often haughty, but somehow still likable man.
Portrait or Bust (1994)*** One of the more minor efforts on the terrific 4 disc BBC set. Filmed at a public art gallery in Bennett’s home town of leads, it’s a mix of his philosophizing about art, which is less interesting than his more personal memory pieces, and footage of local people reacting to the art works. This is the far more interesting part of this 50 minute film, as we see stereotypes broken, with old people reacting to avant-garde art with interest, and working class folk showing sophisticated taste and understanding. (Although there is one very funny bit where an older know-it-all type keeps misidentifying the works and artists, only to look at the wall label and cheerfully correct himself.)
This selection is very much a mixed bag and I would not recommend sitting through it all at once. But each part has its special value.
"A woman of no importance", played brilliantly by Patricia Routledge, starts in comic vein and ends in stark tragedy.
For cold war afficionados we have "An Englishman Abroad". The final scene is a gem, with Guy Burgess (played by Alan Bates) strutting flamboyantly through a Moscow snowstorm in his newly-arrived English clothes, to the patriotic strains of Gilbert and Sullivan's song "...for he is an English Man".
Last but not least, reality fans will enjoy the fly-on-the wall documentary from the Crown Hotel in Harrogate. Brilliant editing and a thoughtful commentary by Bennett. It goes to show the truth of the old Yorkshire saying, "there's nowt so queer as folks." [queer in its original meaning!].
Lots of good stuff here, as they would say in Leeds.