British writer, actor, and director whose plays, television monologues, and books have delighted audiences.
Born in Leeds, the son of a butcher, Bennett was the epitome of the introverted ‘scholarship boy’, gaining a place at Oxford University to study modern history. Initially Bennett seemed destined to pursue an academic career. Postgraduate research on the court of Richard II, followed by National Service in the Joint Services School for Linguists, led to an appointment as a junior lecturer in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford (1960–62). However, the success of the satirical review Beyond the Fringe, which Bennett co-wrote and starred in with Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore, indicated another interest and another talent.
Bennett's first stage play, Forty Years On (1968), set in a boys' boarding school and including a play within a play, is rich in parody and paradox. Typically, it both mocks traditional England and simultaneously mourns its passing. Self-contradiction is a recurrent theme for Bennett as a creative writer; he has said that ‘a writer's normal situation is to be in two minds’ and is convinced that an Englishman's heritage inevitably involves ‘scepticism about one's heritage’. Sympathy for ambiguity may also explain his attitude to spies and traitors in plays about Guy Burgess (An Englishman Abroad; 1982) and Anthony Blunt (A Question of Attribution; 1988). His knowledge of English history and fascination with royalty resulted in The Madness of George III (1991), filmed as The Madness of King George (1995). Bennett's more directly literary plays have been inspired by other writers, including Kafka (Kafka's Dick; 1986), Proust (102 Boulevard Haussmann; 1990), and Joe Orton (in the screenplay for Prick Up Your Ears; 1987). Bennett's ruminative television work often features strong-minded women or the weak-minded elderly. His monologue series, Talking Heads (1987), was hailed as a television masterpiece. A second series, Talking Heads II (1998), placing more emphasis on the darker aspects of his subjects' lives, was also acclaimed. Occasionally Bennett himself acts but his desire for self-expression results more often in prefaces accompanying printed versions of his work. Fragments of autobiography were published as Writing Home in 1994 and subsequently read in his characteristically northern drawl on radio.