Going to see a play that you loved nearly 30 years ago is like having lunch with an old boyfriend. The temptation is irresistible, the chances of disappointment are great. For years (since 1977) Alan Bennett’s The Old Country has been one of my favourite plays. My memory of Alec Guinness as the English spy living with his wife in exile in the Soviet Union is so clear that I could replay it in my mind. When I learned of the play’s revival with Timothy West, I booked tickets immediately.
I’m pretty sure that I missed many of the references in the play first time around. The utter Englishness of Hilary listening to Elgar probably clicked, but not comparisons of the dacha in the Russian countryside to the stern and wild landscape of John Buchan’s Scotland. Hilary’s Garrick Club tie would have been lost on me, but not the irony in his take-off of the Times obituary column ‘Sir, Might I be permitted to pen a footnote to your (otherwise admirably comprehensive) obituary of Sir Derek (Jack) Clements?’ Other passages feel nicely pertinent now.
When Hilary shoots a hare with a revolver from his front porch, his sister calls it a large rabbit. Hilary firmly corrects her: ‘They’re quite far apart in the evolutionary chain. Further apart than a dog and a fox, for instance. Rabbits are gregarious, slow-moving, leading a rich underground life. Hares are swift, solitary creatures of the open field’. And a wistful lament from Hilary’s newly-knighted brother-in-law Duff: ‘That is something I never do, if I want to sleep at night. Look at back copies of Country Life. The properties. Palaces practically. Sold, for nothing. Ten, even five years ago. Had one but known?’
The same year I first saw The Old Country, a newspaper sent me to interview a real couple in exile. Oswald and Diana Mosley were living near Paris in a miniature ch?au called Le Temple de la Gloire. She had just published her memoir A Life of Contrasts. Like Bennett’s Hilary and Bron, the Mosleys had a sad air of co-dependence, and Le Temple, despite its Louis XVI furniture, felt like an English country house: The Times, The Spectator and The Listener in the library; Georgian silver on the tea tray; a garden with delphiniums, erect and radiant, rising out of the deep herbaceous borders.
In The Old Country, his brother-in-law tries to persuade Hilary to return to England. A short spell in prison, a suitable show of remorse and all would be forgiven. What he would earn from the Sundays would buy a nice cottage in Gloucestershire. Hilary could then write his memoirs. Do Parkinson, do Desert Island Discs.
The Mosleys served their time in prison before their exile, three and a half years during the war. When they were refused passports in the early 1950s, they escaped to France via Ireland. They never returned to England to live (and never expressed remorse), but occasionally came back. Oswald Mosley actually went to see The Old Country on one of his visits to London in the 1970s. He never made it onto Desert Island Discs, but Diana did in 1989.
I wonder what an audience will make of The Old Country if it is revived in another 30 years’ time. The theatre programme will explain Lyon’s tea shops and the strange, terrible world of political extremism in the 1930s. The themes of loyalty and betrayal, homeland and exile, friendship and family, may be as timeless as laments for the lost properties of Country Life, but Englishness and its close companions, irony and tolerance, may be lost in the fog of time.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on May 4, 2006.