Author and actor Alan Bennett has a
long list of credits to his name. The youngest
generation might know him as the lugubrious voice of
Winnie-The-Pooh and friends in the BBC audio
recordings from the 1990s; the next generation up
are likely to know him as the playwright of The
Madness of George III, or the more recent The
History Boys (which won six Tonys including Best
Play); and the generation above may admit to being
old enough to have seen him perform with Dudley
Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller in Beyond
The Fringe (see sidebar).
The Uncommon Reader is not an insiders look into the life of the person best known as the Queen of England but rather an opportunity for Bennett to play around with the caricature of the Queen, familiar to most of us from comedy sketches and news reels. If that is the case, one might ask what distinguishes The Uncommon Reader from any old late night comedy show? The answer is there's simply no comparison - Bennett is one of the great satirists of the English language and, now in his 70s, has honed his craft to perfection, developing a style uniquely his own. It is immaterial whether in real life the Queen is an avid reader or not (one is told she is not) - her perceived character is merely the foil through which Bennett can poke some heartfelt fun and take the reader on a Queen's-eye whistle-stop tour through the best and worst of English literature.
Whatever themes an eager reviewer might be able to extrapolate from The Uncommon Reader, the bottom line is that it's really about the laughs; but if themes are sought, they can be found loud and clear. There is Bennett's "savagely Swiftian indignation against stupidity, Philistinism and arrogance in public places [which offers] a passionate argument for the civilizing power of art" (The London Times). Also, through his humane picture of this royal icon, Bennett gently asks us to question why so many of us are in thrall to "royals" (and by extension, to anyone who inhabits a famous body), when they are, let's face it, just regular, flawed individuals, like the rest of us? All this in a compact, always entertaining 128 pages.
Rated by BookBrowse members as one of your top 4 books of last year, The Uncommon Reader, is an uncommonly good read.
A brief video interview with Alan Bennett about The History Boys.
This review was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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