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on 29 August 2001
Alexander Games by his own admission could have been given an easier subject for a biography such as 'Several long intimate chats with J.D. Salinger'. The playwright, writer and actor Alan Bennett however is shy rather than reclusive and those close to him respect this and his wishes to remain private.
Games describes in his postscript - 'The Futile Pursuit' his rather poor attempt to approach Bennett and the flood of rejection letters from Bennett's contemporaries. He ends by saying that there was no alternative now but to write the book, as if it were an essay and the deadline were looming.
What we are given therefore is a biography composed mainly of already accessible text (much of it taken from Bennett's own entertaining 'Writing Home') and lacking enough extra insight that would had hopefully come from research conducted by the biographer. There is a chapter on Bennett's days at Exeter College Oxford containing some good original material. What there isn't is the first hand reflection from others that makes a biography special.
Games knocked this book out in a year and for a man as important to both British arts and literature as Alan Bennett, this doesn't do him justice. The book is thick with praise but it is the praise from old newspaper stories... A better and more personal biography would have been possible if Games were willing to have spent longer getting closer to his subject rather than hitting the bookshelves. In all, an interesting but inessential read for Bennett fans.
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on 10 December 2012
I assume most of those attracted to this book will already be familiar with Bennett and, like me, will have probably read both 'Writing Home' and 'Untold Stories'. Does this add anything to those two hefty tomes which, after all, provide an immense amount of fodder for even the most voracious of Bennett admirers? Well, having read it I'd say that, although there's not a great deal of new material here, it's value lies in pulling together various bits and bobs of fact and anecdote from numerous sources and adding enough titbits, some of which will be new to all but the most ardent Bennett fan, to provide a satisfying and worthwhile overview of both his private and professional life.

For example, there are revelations such as Bennett taking exception to the actor, Kenneth More, changing his script of the play 'Getting On' to make it (as More saw it) more palatable for the audience - and Bennett's sardonic speech at an award ceremony for its success during which, with typically dry humour, he virtually dismissed any personal plaudit due to the significant changes More had made to the production. Nor did I know that Bennett and Dudley Moore went through a long period of not speaking after Moore angered Bennett by changing their stage routine during a US tour. And the text is littered with many such insights.

There are quotes and references from many magazine and newspaper interviews Bennett has given over the years, both in the UK and America, which you won't find in either of the two previous mentioned works - one of which refers to Bennett's unguarded revelation of his relationship with Anne Davies and the ensuing publicity which followed.

Author Alexander Games makes a great show of how hard he tried to gain Bennett's approval and cooperation with this book but all to no avail. And, ironically, I found Games' account in the 'PostScript' chapter, quite a fitting and interesting end to the book. It deals with how, in desperation to get some kind of personal, one to one response from Bennett, Games made the journey to Clapham in the Yorkshire Dales, where he knew of the (in)famous Cafe run by Anne Davies which was close by Bennett's rural retreat in that small village. He meets Davies and, eventually, it leads to a denouement which is typical Bennett and, perhaps inevitably, a suitable end to what can be reasonably called an unofficial biography.

I'd say Bennett fans will find this book well worth the effort, if only for the value of bringing together already known facts and stories about him, many of which may have become dimmed by time and are worth being reminded of. And when you throw in a healthy amount of material and articulately expressed subjective opinion and comment, it amounts to a work which I think Bennett himself would, perhaps, grudgingly acknowledge as being at least well researched. As for it being an enjoyable and informative read - I'd say yes, for everyone except perhaps Bennett himself, whose reticence and fierce protection of his privacy would no doubt result in some typically pithy riposte.
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Very much unauthorised, inevitably so given the vice-like grip Bennett himself maintains on the intimacies of his private life which he has filtered through to us via his plays, diaries, readings and assorted musings over the last 50 or so years. The author found Bennett almost wholly uncooperative, and it shows as much of the book feels like padding using (frankly not very interesting) publicly-available source material. I presume this was written as Bennett was receiving treatment for cancer, and was deciding to write a lot more down just in case his days were numbered - fortunately not the case. Only the liaison with Anne Davies, Bennett's longtime part-time lover and occasional spouse, gives the author a chance to put some meat in a very thin stew. Sad to say it also misses the concurrent relationship with Rupert Thomas, and what was presumably a lengthy "overlapping" menage-a-trois? quatre? - but errors and omissions aside I did read it front to back in one sitting, so it has some merit.
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on 4 October 2005
Alan Bennett and his close friends refused to cooperate with this book, so instead the author spends whole chapters analysing, for example, the contents of Bennett's school magazine, and the suggestions book of the JCR at Exeter College Oxford. The term scraping the barrel comes to mind. The book is a useful chronology of Bennett's life, but for anything more, read Bennett's own far superior memoirs.
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VINE VOICEon 13 July 2010
Rather a curate's egg, I fear.

The best source (not necessarily the most accurate) for AB's life is AB himself, i.e. Writing Home and Untold Stories. This biography borrows heavily from both the first and the fragments which would go towards the second. No disrespect to Games, but it's better in the original.

The best part of the book for me was the coverage from the Footlights period through to the televising of Talking Heads, when AB belatedly attained his crown as a national treasure. (Sorry Mr Bennett, but it's a fair cop.) From memory, Writing Home and Untold Stories are fairly light on this period. I have to admit ignorance of the Anne Davies revelations, so this biography filled in a gap for me.

Games seems to have had more luck tracking down Ms Davies than tracking down AB himself. Sometimes you might think the theme of the book is "I wanted to be Boswell, but Johnson kept running away".

A little more rigour would help things:
-Although I can accept that the phrase "backing into the limelight" was applied to AB by Nigel Hawthorne, the Internet quickly tells me that the phrase was first applied to T E Lawrence by his self-appointed publicist Lowell Thomas. Lawrence of Arabia and Bennett - there's a good contrast.
-There are only a few slips of English, but the best is the reference to the "antiquaries" on the Sergeant Pepper album cover. I've never noticed John Aubrey or any M R James characters there! AB would make hay of this - remember his outrage at the piece of music announced on Classic FM as "The Female Gardee"?

Some of Games' judgments are a little unfair. For example, he contrasts the fame and fortune which AB accrued as a result of Miss Shepherd with the negative impact of her occupancy upon AB's neighbours (could you sell a house with that van next door?) I can see his point, but I think AB was only getting a justified return on a very scruffy cuckoo in the nest. Besides, what is a writer to write about but the people he knows? As his mother once told him, "By, you've had some script out of me!"

Read by all means, but read Writing Home and Untold Stories first.
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on 9 October 2001
This is one of the most right-rivetting reads that I have come across for some time. This young lad Games is a new talent in the biography world, but I have to say he has got that Mr Bennett down pat - as it were. The articulacy of the man is something to marvel. Realistic portrayals of moments in the writer's life that could only be conveyed with the sensitivity of another true literary talent - whose light is definitely languishing under a bushel - if you don't mind my saying so. Think about it no longer. This is a great bedside table companion, that will keep you chuckling and intrigued for a few nights or weeks to come (depending as it were on your speed reading prowess).
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