Playwright Alan Bennett is a great believer in getting the right people for the job.
The late, great Richard Griffiths came to personify Hector, the anarchic teacher and lover of life in The History Boys; Frances De La Tour is a regular fixture in his National Theatre work.
He confessed to me that he’d love to sign up the indomitable Maggie Smith for a film version of The Lady In The Van but she’s tied up with “something on the telly”.
But he’s delighted to secure the services of another grand dame of British theatre – Siân Phillips – to play Dorothy, the down-at-heel former model fighting to retain the family seat, in the touring production of People which comes to Milton Keynes Theatre later this month.
It’s always wonderful interviewing Bennett. You press play and off he rambles with glorious anecdotes. Even so he’s a bit of an enigma, always seemingly incapable of explaining or analysing where he gets his ideas and how they formulate into the written word.
He seems constantly surprised when a play is a hit. You’re never sure whether the modesty is an act or genuinely sincere-but I hope the latter.
The Yorkshire-born writer is a lovely man, who looks years younger than 79 (thanks, in part, to a great head of hair). He wears the tweeds and corduroy of a bookish and somewhat stylish don, which, indeed he once was.
He’s been prised out of his Camden home to help promote People. It’s a subtle, affectionate, but provocative, comedy about a family resisting handing over their shabby northern pile to The National Trust because it would mean allowing strangers into their home.
A desperate Dorothy even agrees to a porn film being shot there in a bid to keep the place going. Phillips takes over the role from De La Tour and joins original cast members Selina Cadell and Brigit Forsyth.
It supposedly upset the NT when it first opened but Bennett now denies they fell out – with a twinkle in his eye. That’s another endearing trait – mischievousness.
The National Theatre is celebrating 50 years of excellence and is asking for reminiscences. Bennett immediately pitches in with his own.
“I remember seeing Laurence Olivier (who opened the venue) on stage and he was trembling with stage fright. I’ve never forgotten that. No matter how celebrated you are, you never get over it.”
But back to People.
“When I go around country houses I look at other people and wonder what have they come for and then I think, well what have I come for?
“The fact you can’t explain why you’re there or what you hope to come away with depresses me. That’s where the inspiration for People came from.
“When the play first started it was taken to be some sort of criticism of the National Trust. It’s not really. It’s just the whole business of looking at country houses and conservation, and how you present these places. I couldn’t settle it in my own mind which is why I wrote the play.
“When it opened Simon Jenkins (journalist and NT chairman) wrote a full page article in the Guardian condemning it, but someone sitting behind him said that he was in gales of laughter throughout.
“What slightly galled me was that he and other people assumed that the main character is the voice of the author. Some of the things she says I do endorse, but not everything. There’s a dig at the Church of England but I think it’s a fair dig which Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) loved.
“I’m often surprised at how funny people find it. I knew that it was funny but not in the way some audiences react”.
Conservation is a theme he’s visited before with Enjoy, a delightfully dotty tale about an elderly couple (based on his eccentric parents) whose traditional terraced home is bought and moved to a living museum with their daily lives forming the exhibit.
“People isn’t a lament for a life now past because I don’t really lament it. Dorothy’s solution of doing nothing and letting the house fall down around her is wrong. You can’t do that. You’ve got to preserve it. But I can sympathise with her wanting to live in it the way she’s always lived in it.
“It’s her home. Home goes beyond preservation.”
Mr B likes to be a hands-on writer. He gets involved in casting and comes to daily rehearsals.
“Partly because it gets you out of the house,” he said. “When you’re a writer you spend most of the time stuck at home staring out of the window.
“Siân Phillips is a very strong personality but she’s also very elegant. She’s astonishing to look at. She will be a very statuesque figure.”