Alan Bennett: the teddy bear with sharp claws

Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett Credit: Jay Williams

Over the years, Alan Bennett has come to embody cosy Northernness. British impressionists, taking him on, invariably reach for the same kind of phrase; something snug and parochial like “I took a cup of Earl Grey with Mrs Ramsbottom from number 56; we talked about the miner’s strike and her husband’s lumbago.”

We know that this is at least mildly frustrating for Bennett because he’s written about it in his latest collection of diaries and essays, Keeping On Keeping On, which covers the years 2005-2015 and has been Radio 4’s Book of the Week since last Monday. “I am in the pigeonhole marked ‘no threat’,” he wrote in an entry from 2005, “and were I to stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.”

The prospect of listening to a teddy bear read from his journals across 10 mornings would not have quickened the pulse. But thankfully, the real Bennett is far more interesting, and ready to surprise, than his caricature. The diaries were the work of a writer – and a reader – at the height of his expressive powers; and fizzed with wit, eloquence, anger, pathos.

Alan Bennett Credit: Rii Schroer

There were breathtaking turns of phrase, such as Bennett’s description of a “fairy ring of polyps, innocent enough but ruthlessly lassoed and garrotted by the radiographer”; finely observed anecdotes about everything from a Camden Town robbery to a blue moon in Yorkshire; and sharp little comic sketches that recalled the mischievous brilliance of Beyond the Fringe, the revue show that made his name alongside Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and his Camden neighbour Jonathan Miller in the early Sixties.

There were also moments of powerful moral indignation; foremost among them his description of his own state-funded education – “none of it cost me or my parents a penny” – which he contrasted with the financial burden now faced by university students everywhere.

This is hardly a new argument, but coming from one of the nation’s great writers – whose career was built on the foundations of a free education – it landed with renewed force; and without either a teddy bear, or a cup of Earl Grey, in sight.

Alan Bennett Credit: Callum Bennetts / Rex Features

Bennett is now 82, and it is highly likely that there will be no more published diaries after this latest volume. As Keeping On Keeping On draws to a close on Radio 4 this week, it will be hard not to feel the poignancy of the moment.

The staff at 6 Music had reason to celebrate last week, as the latest Rajar (Radio Joint Audio Research) figures showed that the network is now pulling in a record 2.34 million listeners.

Part of the reason for this success is technological, with more people reaching the digital network via their smartphones and increasingly affordable DAB radios. But, of course, it’s the DJs and the production teams who deserve the most credit. Thanks to them, the network is a rich source of creative, surprising, keenly informed music programming.

Jarvis Cocker Credit: Rex

Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (6 Music, Sunday) is a key example of the station’s consistently strong output. This week’s edition had a Hallowe’en theme; which, in a lesser broadcaster’s hands, might have been an excuse for creaking sound effects and overuse of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But Cocker, his voice hovering in the seductive zone just above a whisper, instead guided listeners through two hours of compellingly strange and original radio.

There were, among other things, snippets from films; songs by Kate Bush, Billy Idol, Marc Bolan; a menacing excerpt from an Ennio Morricone score; a reading of a Neil Gaiman short story; and a hilariously difficult-to-follow recipe for pumpkin pie. I sat back and marvelled, knowing that radio that flows as effortlessly as this is ghoulishly hard to make.

Desmond Carrington Credit: Alamy

And finally, it’s farewell to Desmond Carrington, whose last ever edition of The Music Goes Round went out on Radio 2 on Friday evening. Carrington, who began his career with the BBC in 1946 and had been presenting the joyously eclectic music show from his home in Perthshire since the early-Eighties, is retiring due to ill health.

Charming and avuncular to a fault, and with a librarian’s deep-rooted knowledge of the musical archives, he signed off with a show that drew connections between everything from Randy Newman to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Julio Iglesias – and which ended with an emotional sucker punch in the form of Mel Tormé’s That’s All. He will be missed.