Tag Archives: E.M. Forster

Alan Bennett – the mystery boy

KEEPS THEM GUESSING Writer Alan Bennett.
KEEPS THEM GUESSING Writer Alan Bennett.

OVER many late nights during my last year of drama school, overworked head full of theatre productions, closeted young body starved of sex, I came across Alan Bennett on the television screen.

Volume down very low so that my grandmother (with whom I lodged) would not be disturbed, I encountered Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters in their now iconic episodes of Bennett’s first Talking Heads series.

Bennett remained the cursory sketch of the opening credits until the episode in which he appeared – A Chip in the Sugar.

The tale of the hapless Graham Whittaker living with his ‘Mam’ in Yorkshire drew me into its closeted fold, where I recognised absolutely everything about the character’s world, right down to the old woman sleeping in the room next to mine.

“Alan Bennett keeps explaining what’s behind his writing style, it’s just that no-one’s really been listening.”

A month after I was born, the great writer E. M. Forster died publicly closeted despite reaching the era in which homosexuality was decriminalised in England. His gay-themed writing was entrusted to friends and took time to come to light.

He’s rarely comfortable admitting it, but Alan Bennett is something entirely different. Yes, the first thirty-six years of his life were lived under laws against homosexual acts between men, but these days he’s a right here, right now gay writer and actor, infinitely closer to generations of men easing our way out of the closet than Forster ever was.

Although back in the 1980s, nobody seemed to question Bennett’s ability to create characters on a scale E. M. Forster only dreamt of.

The most infamous query came from Ian McKellen, who asked the playwright publicly whether he was gay or bisexual at an event raising funds to fight Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28 regulations in June 1988.

Fifty-four at the time, Bennett’s answer left him rather begrudgingly out of the closet ever since.

But that news didn’t reach Australia, not in my world anyway. It did not need to – I could tell by the ‘takes one to know one’ method that Bennett was not just acting like a gay man in A Chip in the Sugar.

Although that realisation meant that I was going to have to do some clever acting of my own to put people off the scent of the truth.

Writing this now I feel of a kind of rage that a gay drama school student did not feel validated by Bennett’s achievements.

Instead, it left me afraid, with the sense that there was nowhere to hide; that all gay men were bound to the apron strings by the kind of fear which Graham Whittaker manifested as mental illness. It offered little hope for those men who did not stay silent.

Perhaps that’s why I disconnected from Alan Bennett for a decade, during which I lived in England and did my level best to become a theatre and film-maker. ‘Gay’ was kept at arm’s length, and I got certain very specific signs that I needed to keep it there.

The most direct of these came during my year of drama training in Yorkshire (Alan Bennett ‘country’) when I was taken aside by one of the pivotal staff members and told that I needed to curb myself or the work I would get on graduation would be “limited”.

His admonishing tone about my natural demeanour came, as it always seems to, with the “I’m only saying this to you because I know plenty of gay people” lie.

By the time I’d gathered the courage to go home to Australia and come out, six years later, Alan Bennett made another appearance in my life, in the form of his memoir Writing Home.

The book was given to me with an unusual amount of sadness by one of the many male friends I’d made in England who were soon to come tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out.

Bennett’s book helped me realise that being openly gay would not necessarily be an issue, but it would probably leave me more prickly than ever.

I have paid much closer attention to Alan Bennett ever since, but it’s taken another decade to understand the writer who constantly tells us that he does not want to be understood.

You see, Alan Bennett keeps explaining what’s behind his writing style, it’s just that no-one’s really been listening.

MAKING HISTORY Richard Griffiths headed the cast of Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys'.
MAKING HISTORY Richard Griffiths headed the cast of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’.

One of his recent plays – The History Boys – is also one of his most popular, regularly featuring at the top of ‘Britain’s Favourite Play’ lists.

The story of a group of school boys preparing for their university entrance examinations, Bennett instilled this play with a major theme in his writing – authenticity versus artifice.

Ever since his own entrance into Oxford in the 1950s, Bennett has employed a writing technique which he used when answering examination questions.

He calls it “taking the wrong end of the stick”, a journalist’s approach to ‘the facts’. In entrance examination answers it can be utilised to impress with a new ‘out there’ angle on a subject that has been ‘done to death’; an attention-grabber, if you like.

This is also the key to the pathos in all Bennett’s work. His characters show pluck in the face of diversity. They laugh when it might be more appropriate to cry. They see obstacles as opportunities.

Good use of pathos is funny, not in the side-splitting sense but in the chuckling one. It’s right up the other end of the stick from turgid, and it totally avoids the branch of melodrama.

It took maturity, and an understanding of pathos,  for me to realise that Gordon Whittaker’s salvation came with his mother’s admission that she had found his hidden gay pornography.

It is the great power shift in A Chip in the Sugar, when Graham’s ‘chip’ is seen as considerably smaller than Mam’s, giving the viewer hope that the result is a more accepting future for Graham.

There is some proof of this in Bennett’s recent writing. In A Life Like Other People’s (published in 2005 as Untold Stories) Bennett let slip that the mental illness he imbued Graham Whittaker with in Talking Heads (1987) was actually that endured by his real-life mother years before.

In the early 1970s, Bennett (‘Graham’) was torn away from a healthy same-sex life in London to care for his mother (‘Mam’) in Yorkshire.

Art stood in for life until Bennett ‘came out’ about the true nature of his family’s struggles with mental illness, thirty years after the fact.

So, ‘Graham Whittaker’ wasn’t in the least bonkers and went on to live a successful life as one of England’s finest playwrights and found love with a man. Phew.

PLUCK COVER copyAlan Bennett has published enough about himself for people to leave him alone about his sexuality, although in recent interviews he’s hinted at posthumous diaries which may come to rival E. M. Forster’s.

He’s also managed to avoid the tag ‘gay playwright’ by taking the wrong end of the stick whenever one is offered.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

Don’t f**k with Judy Davis

LOVE or hate Judy Davis, chances are you’ve seen one of her acerbic, riveting onscreen meltdowns – they’re synonymous with the media-shy Australian actress who’s long been preceded by an offscreen ‘difficult’ tag.

Already a staple in period dramas by the time of Charles Sturridge’s 1991 production of E.M. Forster’s debut novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, Davis had breathed life into array of heroines on the brink of brave new worlds, and used a decidedly English voice to do so.

“Davis levelled the F-word at the director, and she hit a sore point.”

Her debut in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career saw Davis as Sybilla Melvin quite matter-of-factly assert to her suitors that she will never marry. Her Adela Quested, when pressed on Doctor Aziz’s crime in David Lean’s A Passage to India, eventually and quite calmly enunciates the truth.

Perhaps it was Sturridge who saw something more in Davis than polite colonial girls when he cast her as the boorish Harriet Harriton, one of Forster’s best-drawn wowsers who will not be broken down by Italy’s disarming romantic freedom.

DON’T JUDGE JUDY Davis in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (Photo: John Clifford).

After admonishing the cheering crowd at the local opera as “babies”; banging around the pensione in tears and rage, and delivering the final devastation of Forster’s story, with this Harriet Harriton, 1991 became the year the Judy Davis ‘volcano’ was finally able to erupt on the screen.

She moved on to a comic romance as 19th century French author George Sand in James Lapine’s Impromptu. The best scenes are those in which Sand verbally explodes, elucidating how it might have felt to be a woman in the period without the filmmaker having to resort to all the usual corset-tightening symbolism.

But the shrewish screen potential of this actress was fully realised when Davis appeared in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives as the woman who finds true love by losing it, literally…

PLUCK COVER copy300 of 1266 words. Unlock the rest of this article by purchasing Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Running with the rats of Soho

A Writer’s next day job.

WITHOUT a short-cut into the BBC or an entrée into a production company, it was almost impossible to get a job in film or television production in London, but pushing a foot through the door of a post production (editing) facility with a resume in your hand was a viable way to enter the industry.

And so, within 24 hours of pounding the narrow thoroughfares of Soho, between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street, I was offered two jobs.

Having just signed a lease with a group of friends on a cottage on the Isle of Dogs in east London, I had rent to pay, so I said yes to both.

As it happened, that weekend I went back to ARTTS International in Yorkshire to complete the final edit on a drama-documentary, and I was greeted like a conquering hero on the Saturday morning by a mob of students, hungry for a taste of the world beyond the pig farm, and then confronted by a Feedback Session.

Only ARTTS alumni around the world will know exactly what I mean by the latter. How do I describe it and not make it sound like ARTTS was, on occasion, a little like a correctional centre?

In any case all the accolades looked kindly beyond the fact that the best position of the two on offer was that of a lowly Post Production Runner.

A Soho Runner in those days was not an enviable position. If you were serious about your career, you’d want to stay in the job for no longer than six months.

So I took the offer than a Dean Street post production facility made to me, and started that very week. By the end of summer, I hoped, I’d be up the next rung of the ladder.

The other runners showed me to my first task – to clean-up the soft drink supply room below street level in a dank passageway that looked (and smelt) like I’d imagine the very same street did in Dickens’ time. Five years of tertiary education had prepared me to recognise dramatic tension, at least.

The rats gave ground by retreating around a bend in the subterranean storeroom, while I re-arranged the pallets of lolly water, trying to ensure they were not sitting in the inch of water that flowed across my shoes.

This post-production company liked to keep its clients happy, so there was no set lunch menu. Instead, the gourmet delights of central London were ordered and fetched on foot.

FABULOUS FOOD For fabulous people, Berwick Street Markets, Soho.

But we runners were also required to make a selection of sandwiches for clients who just couldn’t wait, created from the fresh produce of the fruit and veg markets on Berwick Street, with slabs of fresh bread and the finest cold meats from local delis. Luckily I’d had some sandwich-hand training while studying at NIDA, so I knew my way around a slice of focaccia.

There were some pretty speccy people making their way through these doors, but also plenty of clients who just believed they were on the A-List, and the only way they could gauge their level on the ladder was by shouting at the runners.

I never got shouted-at, but when a music-video maven came through to the kitchen in a tube dress right to her tennis-shoed ankles, calling for a “toasted ciabatta with marmite”, I made the mistake of answering that we were fresh out of ciabatta, but we had plenty of focaccia.

Her perplexed look quite naturally led me to believe that she simply didn’t know what focaccia was, so I began to explain. Before I got through the basics, she said: “I know exactly what it is!”, before insisting her first choice was fetched.

LONDON’S MAZE Soho is a small district jammed in between four major thoroughfares.

Now, most people couldn’t pick ciabatta from focaccia in a blind test, and since I was a Soho Runner of some weeks’ experience, I knew at that hour there wouldn’t be a fresh piece of either available anywhere. So I just sliced some bread quite thickly and smothered it with the maven’s favourite spread.

And so the cry of “I know exactly what it is” went on to be summer’s catchphrase at that end of Dean Street.

Each week I religiously wrote my first screenplay (an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Other Kingdom), and duly typed it up for consideration. The potential to make movies flowed through my veins, even if I was really working in catering under a fancy name.

Running video tapes and reels between editing houses meant I soon got a great knowledge of Soho’s street network. Rarely did we have to travel beyond the zone bordered by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Regent Street.

I also discovered the locations of all the production offices listed in the films I aspired to join-in-on – Merchant Ivory, Goldcrest, The Oil Factory – behind glossy doorways with polished buzzers at street level, with people rarely coming and going.

In this maze I realised that if you spend enough time in Soho, you’ll encounter famous people. I saw Sean Connery looking both ways as he turned into Dean Street in his rather boring looking car; Greta Scacchi looking like she’d locked herself out of her flat; and Germaine Greer leaning into the wind of a stormy night as she ambled next to me along Oxford Street.

Soho also brought me face-to-face with entertainment by a different name. One racy shopfront near the markets displayed hilarious posters of new porn films with names that referenced the mainstream movies of the day. There was A League of their Moans (a slightly different take on the all-girl baseball team flick), and Howard’s End (in which Howard’s end was about to be spanked by a rather domineering lady).

The really sad element to Soho was the homelessness. At the end of almost every day I packed-up the leftover sandwiches and took them to St Anne’s Court, where legions of homeless men spent their days in the sunlight. They accepted the fresh, nutritious food with a quiet gratitude … they knew exactly what it was, and they didn’t care if it was ciabatta or focaccia.

After a couple of months the boss found out and told me to stop, since the bags I carried the food in were the very same we used to run tapes and reels around Soho – a handy way of advertising, I guess – and he didn’t want our company associated with any feeding-of-the-poor.

But I didn’t stop. I didn’t even use different bags. I wasn’t going to leave perfectly edible food for the rats.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.