A Writing Machine That Doesn’t Hum

By Robert Messenger

 The late Nigel Hawthorne (of Yes, Minister fame) once bemoaned the fact that the great British playwright Alan Bennett used a disconcerting array of typewriters to write his scripts - often inserting additions from different machines. Hawthorne would have known – he played the title role in Bennett’s The Madness of King George.

In keeping with this alleged penchant, stage productions of Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van have been performed throughout Britain in the past 20 years, in each case with a different portable typewriter as a prop. These have ranged from a cream Olympia Monica to an an Olivetti Lettera 32, a Smith-Corona Corsair, a cream Olympia Splendid, a blue Olympia Splendid and an Imperial 2002.

In the 2015 movie of the play, starring Maggie Smith, lead actor Alex Jennings used a taupe Olivetti Lettera 22. And as an added bonus, a Lettera 32 was seen amongst the jumble in the back of the said lady's van. The portable Bennett actually used was an AEG (Olympia) Traveller de Luxe S.

Reviewing the movie, The Guardian assumed Bennett had moved on from the 1970s setting of The Lady in the Van into the digital world. But Bennett responded, “Well, we had a computer, but we were burgled and that was the one thing that was taken. I was relieved, really. There was nothing on it. I didn’t know how to put work on it.”

Bennett also pointed out he had spurned electric typewriters. “They hum,” he said. “They are waiting, you see, for the next note. So an AEG Traveller de Luxe manual typewriter it is – lacking both expectant hum and flickering cursor.” Apparently the machine was bought second-hand for £5 at an Age Concern charity shop in the North Yorkshire town of Settle.

In 2010 Bennett recalled that, “Ever since I wound a piece of white paper into my first Petite typewriter as a child - turquoise in its plastic turquoise case - I have wanted to write.” Those Petite toy typewriters were made in Nottingham, in the typewriter factory built by the Richardson family in 1919 to make Bar-Locks. The plant was later owned by the Jardine family. The mechanics in the Petites, though plastic, are based on the beautiful, small Bar-Let typewriters which are today so keenly sought by collectors.

Bennett has been producing stage plays since 1968. The Lady in the Van was first published as an essay in 1989 and adapted into a stage play 10 years later.