Sunday, December 06, 2009

Alan Bennett, Harrogate and the ladies who ran the world

"Dinner At Noon" is a documentary Alan Bennett made for the BBC's Byline series in 1988. I was enchanted by it at the time and until last night I'd not seen it since. It's about the guests in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate. None of them are named, we don't get to know their back story, there is no jeopardy. As Bennett says, it's about "types". We eavesdrop on the people with the magic markers in the meeting rooms, sipping champagne at a wedding reception in the Bronte Room, addressing a meeting of the Environmental Health Officers in the Elgar room and ultimately doing the thing that elderly Yorkshire people like doing most of all, sitting in the lobby and having tea while eavesdropping on the other guests and speculating about what might have brought them there. Bennett's parents did it, so did mine. Actually, I do it as well. As he says in the beginning it's not a film about people behaving, it's a film about people trying to behave.

It lingers on one particular "type" that has always fascinated Bennett - the over-fifty ladies who seemed to drive everything in that part of the world in years gone by. In their working lives these ladies were head teachers, queens of typing pools and office managers. They put no less effort into their spare time where they acted as church secretaries, principals of light operatic societies, fund raisers, tin-rattlers, hospital visitors and holders of tapes for egg-and-spoon races. Some of the older ones had probably delivered babies and laid out the dead. Although they didn't own a pair of trousers between them there was nothing they couldn't do.

At social gatherings they would turn up armoured in their best hat, have two glasses of Spumante and then go looking for a chair in the corner where they would swap highly detailed gossip with their fellows. They had that factory girls' trick of suddenly dropping their voice in the middle of a particularly choice item so that the meaning could be carried by the sound of their tongue against their lips. They knew *everything* and could be trusted with most of it. People think Bennett's satirising these people, who were represented in drama by Thora Hird. He's not. He has immense admiration for them. I do as well. One of the less appealing characteristics of the feminist movement of the last thirty years is its claim to have recently invented The Strong Woman. They never met my Auntie Lily.


  1. Anonymous2:30 pm

    Or my Auntie Jean, who is also, comincidentally, a Yorkshirewoman - a farmer's wife to boot. Not that I think all "strong women" are from Yorkshire, but they do put something in the water there, don't they?


  2. My Inner Yorkshire Auntie has come out as I've hit middle age, and it's quite wonderful. It means you can give people withering looks and not mind going to the corner shop in your slippers.

  3. Just have to say that I had an aunts Lily, Milly, Etty and Bettie. (From Liverpool, via the pogroms in Poland). Can't remember which one ran the local newsagent, but I always got my copies of The Dandy and Beano every Sunday.

  4. A really splendid piece of writing here too. Nice.

  5. They do sound much like the 'Excellent Women' in Barbara Pym's novel of the same name.