Alan Bennett’s “A Day Out” and the mainstream maverick

Alan Bennett’s first television play provides a platform for two mainstream stars/maverick geniuses.

A Day Out

My wife is wary of cyclists. She suspects that the appeal is less the cycling, and more the lycra and resulting genital display.

In A Day Out, Alan Bennett’s first television play, a Halifax cycling club takes a day trip to Fountains Abbey. It’s 1911, the First World War is round the corner, and soon this group of Yorkshiremen will be thrown over the top. It’s well worth 50 minutes of your time.

And the cyclists are respectably dressed.

Here it is on YouTube!

There not much action, but gently and persistently it picks at issues we’d later recognise as classic Bennett themes: class, social hierarchies, overbearing mothers, the kindness and cruelties towards those with learning difficulties.

There’s the usual bunch of excellent character actors. Paul Shane (later of Hi-Di-Hi) is in it and is perfectly fine. Brian Glover (I’ve written about his greatness elsewhere) gives a lovely performance, warm, charismatic and heartbreakingly optimistic about the new 20th Century.

Shane and Glover are examples of crowd pleasers who can easily handle serious work, perhaps because they don’t take themselves too seriously.

I’m not saying that Stewart Lee’s success is his ability to flatter audience members into thinking they’re smarter than normal people, but I am saying that he wouldn’t be top of your list if you needed someone to both host a gameshow and do some acting.

There seems to be some relationship between your comfort with a mainstream crowd and your ability to do striking artistic work. The more comfortable you are — the lower your brow — the greater your range.

A good contemporary example is the bafflingly underrated Lee Evans. Wildly successful as a stand-up he can also anchor West End musicals and is lauded for his work in Pinter and Beckett plays. Still doesn’t get any magazine covers.

America has Will Ferrell, fart-gagsmith and creator of one of the most subversive examples of recent contemporary art.

Then there’s Lenny Henry, who went from Theophilus P. Wildebeeste to Othello and Fences and probably isn’t too worried that Ricky Gervais doesn’t think he’s funny.

It’s almost enough to think we don’t need the Eton/Oxbridge conveyor belt of performers. I can’t see Dominic West pulling this off:

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