Say Something Happened and The Country Wife

bud-clipart-mp3_player_blackAs I listen to British radio plays on Audible, I pretend I am walking the streets of London, hearing familiar voices intoning the accent – and laughing out loud with a favorite British author.   The plays are short enough to hear in a sitting – or, if I am motivated, on a short walk.

Say Something Happened

Alan Bennett’s short radio play on Audible – Say Something Happened – confronts the same difficult topic in audio as Roz Chast attacked in cartoon form in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?    

June Potter, a trainee social worker, visits an elderly couple to collect information for a government survey on old people.  Of course, the couple have their own opinions on being old, and turn the tables on June, offering her advice on how to improve her life.  A few sad moments reveal their relationship with their children, and when June asks who would take care of them – say something happened – it’s clear they only have each other.  June’s solution to the problem is hilarious in its typical government approach.

With Bennett’s flair for humor, this short piece will have you laughing and crying, as he addresses the dilemma of growing old.

Related Review: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?


The Country Wife

This seventeenth century Restoration play  by William Wycherley has Maggie Smith playing the title heroine,  with wry asides and bawdy humor.  Listening to the subtle innuendo, it’s easy to imagine her in a role she made famous on the British stage as Mrs. Margery Pinchwife.

Harry Horner, a rakish bachelor, pretends to be impotent to gain the trust of his fellows and access to their wives.  When newlywed Margery Pinchwife comes on the scene, the action gets fast and furious with disguises and fast exits – as funny as a Marx Bothers movie.  Margery is dissatisfied with her stuffy husband, and tries for a second husband.  You need to listen carefully to catch all the complicated twists, but, even if you miss a few, Maggie Smith will keep your attention.

The Lady in the Van on Audible

51jkNj-OPEL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_   If you’ve missed Maggie Smith’s clever asides on Downton Abbey, her voice as The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett on Audible’s BBC radio adaptation will have you smiling. Maggie and I took a long walk together, as she enacted the role she made famous in Bennett’s witty play and recently in the movie version.

When I heard Maggie Smith revealing her character’s life with the nuns, who tried to break her spirit but never succeeded, and her escape from the asylum for a year and a day thereby freeing her to live on her own, I realized this homeless character who lived in a van in Bennett’s driveway, had a colorful past.

Bennett has gone on record to confirm the source of the story – the bag lady who actually lived in a van outside his garden.  Sadly, so many homeless now have changed the landscape here, not the lone lady in a van who slowly made her way down the hill to Bennett’s house.  When I first came years ago, I remember two homeless men living in the park – both had the same philosophical view of the world as Bennett’s character, and neither wanted the Christmas cookies nor the old quilt I offered.  Like the lady in the van, they were independent, self-reliant, and had wild stories to tell.  Times have changed, and now hundreds make camp on the sidewalks.  A few nights ago, the news scared residents with a stabbing and a murder between two homeless men in that same park.  Local residents now treat the homeless with fear and avoidance.

The story offered glimpses of humanity thorough the social worker who brought clean sheets and the emergency medical technicians who handled her with dignity and respect, never cringing at her shabby clothes or her smell.  And, of course, Bennett himself, who finally discovered her past – after she died – but always treated her well while she was alive.

Amazing how all came together for this story – the lady in the van living outside a writer’s window for fifteen years, a wry Englishman who has even taken on the Queen in his astute ramblings  (The Uncommon Reader), and the friendship of the writer and the famous actor who brought the play to life.

The Lady in the Van has a poignant message.

Related Review:   Smut 



Smut by the author of The Uncommon Reader

Why is it that reading a book by a British author, in that proper tone, can render any topic more auspicious?  In Smut, Alan Bennett’s wry humor and clever asides carry the message, but you will be distracted by his language, and, as with The Uncommon Reader, Bennett turns perceptions upside down with humor and truth.  Have a cup of tea and enjoy the book, but be careful that the surprises don’t have you snorting out your nose. Just remember, you were warned by the title.

This slender volume actually has two short stories – different respectable characters, same topic.  In both, Bennett preserves the outer images of the prim and proper, while revealing their unexpected secrets.

In “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” a middle-aged widow, trying to supplement her income after her husband dies, decides to take in boarders from the local medical school, despite her daughter’s misgivings.   Mrs. Donaldson also works part-time as a pseudo-patient for medical students.  Her role-playing as a fake patient provides opportunities for Bennett’s crackling comments and funny scenes.  But the exhibitionist activities of her tenants offers her unexpected enjoyment when she allows them to pay their overdue rent in an unconventional way.  Alas, even the thrilling eventually becomes mundane.

In “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” a middle-aged mother is disappointed that her handsome son is marrying an unattractive woman.  The son, trying to protect his mother from his secret life, becomes an unwitting victim of his gay police officer partner who  blackmails him.  He is rescued by his wife, who had only been pretending not to know of his proclivities – as does his mother –  in a twisted tale of strange allegiances and misplaced trust.

Although witty and mocking, Smut is a strange commentary on lives that are more complicated than they seem.  The British flavor lends some respectability to the bawdiness, and Bennett has a gay old-time in the telling.

Related ArticleReview of The Uncommon Reader