31 January 2013
The Leeds-born dramatist joined a long list of speakers from the world of the arts and politics who have given the lecture, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, actor Patrick Stewart and last year’s guest speaker, comic actor David Walliams.
Accepting an invitation from former South Shields MP and ex-Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who now leads a New York-based international charity, Bennett delighted his South Tyneside audience with his dry, sharp-witted humour, which once led poet Hugo Williams to describe him as “a one-man Yorkshire Gilbert and George.”
He told the Gazette: “David lives near me in London and when he was Foreign Secretary I would bump into him from time to time. He asked me if I would speak in South Shields some time and I was pleased to do so.”
Bennett admitted his knowledge of South Tyneside and the North East was “sketchy”, having visited Newcastle on occasion and also West Hartlepool for the filming of one of his plays.
Before giving his lecture, which saw all tickets quickly snapped up, Bennett, 79, spoke to sixth formers at Harton Technology College, where the lecture was held, about a literary and stage career stretching back more than half a century.
He joked: “I talked to the kids about Beyond The Fringe, but I suppose it was like telling tales from Shakespeare, it was so long ago!
“But the kids were great, and as usual the girls asked more questions than the boys, but they were a great crowd.”
Bennett, who turns 80 this year and has a “few ideas knocking about” for new projects, said he decided to read from his ongoing diaries, revealing most of his talks these days are in support of public libraries in London.
Bennett first found fame as part of the 1960s satirical revue Beyond the Fringe, alongside Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller.
His later stage plays won critical and popular acclaim, including Forty Years On, Habeas Corpus, The Old Country and Enjoy.
His other work has included the modern TV classic, Talking Heads, while he also adapted his stage plays The History Boys and The Madness of George 111 for cinema.
Bennett has seen his work presented by the National Theatre and his many accolades include the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and the South Bank Award.
Mr Miliband was back in his old constituency after a recent trip to Africa as part of his role with the New York-based International rescue Committee.
He said: “I was delighted when Alan agreed to deliver the South Shields Lecture.
“We have had a great line-up of guests over the years since 2001, and I believe the South Shields Lecture has really put the town on the map.”