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Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads: from the sublime to the, er, sublime

June 29, 2020

Alan Bennett is my hero. Well, one of them. I wish he could have written one of his Talking Heads monologues featuring a character in lockdown. Perhaps he hasn’t because to do so would be obvious. And anyway someone’s already done it, not as well as him, by the way. Or perhaps because at the age of 86 he reckons he’s been there and done that.

In case you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about I should explain that Bennett, one of the main instigators of the British satire movement, along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and David Frost, wrote a series of half-hour monologues for TV in the late 1980s. They were instantly acclaimed, and won awards both for the writing and several of the actors both here and in the US.

I missed the original series because at the time we were in Saudi Arabia, a time when no satellite TV and catch-up features could enable you to watch stuff unless it had been recorded on video. Now there’s a new production by the BBC, which includes a couple of fresh monologues.

The monologues are priceless, and, to extent timeless, because they’re distilled from a lifetime spent observing Englishness. Social tics and minutiae that through Bennett’s dramatic flair lead to triumph, disaster or despair.

In A Lady of Letters, for example, Irene, played by Imelda Staunton, is a lonely net curtain twitcher. She writes angry letters to all and sundry, usually officialdom, complaining about stuff that she sees out of her front window or reads about in the papers. Not quite a troll, nor an anonymous poison pen, but malignant enough for her to end up in prison, where she discovers the joy of companionship.

Many of Bennett’s monologues are set in Leeds, where he grew up. He captures Northern quirkiness beautifully. But his journey out of Yorkshire, from Oxford to Beyond the Fringe celebrity and then to fame and fortune as as successful playwright and author, has given him a wider sense of Englishness than that to be seen among denizens of Harrogate tea shops.

Soldiering On features Muriel, played by Harriet Walter. She’s a woman from a comfortable Southern town. Her husband has just died. From references she makes, we discover that he’s a former army officer who made a second career with a tractor manufacturer.

Her husband has left her well off, but she embarks on a trajectory to penury kicked off by her feckless son who ends up losing all her money. Along the way, she’s blighted by the strain of her relationship with a daughter who is mentally ill.

Harriet Walter is a magnificent actress. Her career has never been so buoyant. Recently she’s played Dasha, Villanelle’s mad mentor in Killing Eve, and a whole bunch of other high-profile roles.

She gives a virtuoso performance in her Talking Heads episode. Every pause, every facial twitch behind her “mustn’t grumble” smile, suggests the despair of someone whose life has fallen apart for no fault of her own. It cut me to the quick because of its truth.

I have known women like Muriel, pillars of their communities, whose place in society was based on their husband’s success, but whose lives were lacerated by pain of one sort or another. Middle-class women, who expected to live out their lives in comfort, and when things went wrong, went to any length to keep up appearances. My mother, for example.

Aside from admiring her as an actress, I have a personal link with Harriet. Once, a long time ago, she decapitated me. At the time we were in neighbouring boarding schools. When, as a boys school, we needed female cast members for our plays, her school provided them.

Which is how I was cast as King Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae, and she as my mother. My rather pervy character was stupid enough to spy on his mother’s women-only Dionysian rituals, and ended up dead for his troubles. Not only did I have to have my head cast in plaster, but it was the only time in my very undistinguished acting career that I had to cross-dress.

It was great fun, especially as it was staged in a magnificent open-air Greek theatre in the school grounds. The play itself has some interesting modern echoes, and no doubt Dionysian rites were quite regularly enacted in obscure parts of the grounds by my school-mates, though unfortunately not by me.

Harriet went on to great things, and I to, well, less great things. Hence her fame and my obscurity. I still have the original programme, which reminds me what, with a little more dedication and determination, I might have achieved. A bit of talent might have helped as well.

But no point crying over spilt milk, as Muriel might have said. I still love to see great acting. On the basis of the first three episodes, Talking Heads is an opportunity to watch a bunch of great actors at the top of their game, and to appreciate, as you would a finely crafted Elizabethan miniature, the work of one of Britain’s finest living playwrights.

Only one thing surprises me, though. Why does it take a team of thirty-three people to produce a series that uses the currently-vacant East Enders set as its backdrop? Shows how little I know about TV production, I guess. Not that I’m criticising. People in theatre and TV need as much work as they can get in these troubled times. It’s good to see some of them in employment.

So go ahead – make their day. You won’t be disappointed.

From → Books, Film, Social, Theatre, UK

One Comment
  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    The highlight of the year.

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