Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads
Series 1 (1988)
Series 2 (1998)
Alan Bennett’s series is… just monologues. Just people passing the time of day; just ordinary people, talking about their lives, to camera, and revealing rather more about themselves than they bargained for.
Therein lies the genius of the writing. Talking Heads was more than just a TV series – Talking Heads was a trend, a beacon of hope, a thesis: drama can take many more forms than the ones we are given. Talking Heads was TV stripped back to basics.
A Woman Of No Importance
Inexplicably, the original Talking Heads monologue from way back in 1982 is not included on the DVD. I have read the monologue however, from the BBC Books print of the scripts, and it has all the hallmarks and successes of the series that spawns it. The tragic tale of an office worker who falls ill, only for her world to crumble around her, stars Patricia Routledge. The actor impressed the production enough to be invited back in later monologues, making further appearances in A Lady of Letters and Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet.
A Chip In The Sugar
I often marvel at how strong a handle all the actors in this collection have on Bennett’s style of dialogue. But it is not until you hear Bennett himself perform his words that you realise that there is no comparison with the real deal. I would have liked to see him perform more.
There isn’t the sense of exclusive authorial over-immersion that you sometimes get – despite the fact that Bennett both wrote and acted in second monologue, A Chip in the Sugar. It’s a stunning, sympathetic performance, and the monologue is evocative. The other characters, namely Graham’s mother and her fancyman, are sketched so skillfully that it feels as though they were physically featured in the drama. Plus there is genius at work in the image of the title – we’ve all been in a greasy spoon and seen sickly sights such as that!
A Lady of Letters
It’s hard not to see A Lady of Letters as a pilot for Keeping Up Appearances – but one that plays Hyacinth Bucket straight rather than for laughs. Hyacinth: After Hours, if you will. Here, the consequences of being a nosy old biddy (and the reasons why it starts) are teased out, rather than just the humorous outcome.
Patricia Routledge is incredible throughout, but especially when she blurts out that the neighbour’s kiddie she’s been complaining about has actually died. The words trip over her lips and her facial muscles flounder, as the director holds close on her expression. The revelation at the end – that Irene was trapped at home but in the community of prison she is free – is glorious.
A Bed Among The Lentils
I couldn’t help feeling that here Maggie Smith lacks some of the gravitas she acquires in later life, whereas similar national treasures such as Julie Walters seem to exude their magnetism earlier in their careers, in Talking Heads, as well as later.
It is, nevertheless, a strong performance. When Bed works best is when Smith is impersonating the bitchy village women who surround and suffocate her character. With her head and mouth jutting at odd angles like a chicken pecking around a pen, she evokes the very best of her Dowager performance from Downton Abbey.
It may not seem it at first, but Soldiering On is perhaps the most subversive of Bennett’s monologues. Mainly in the sense that it tries to resist the gloom of its narrative – inadvertently becoming even more downbeat as a result.
“I wouldn’t want you to think this is a tragic story”, the superlative Stephanie Cole tells us, breaking the fourth wall in multiple ways. This is the story of an incredibly strong woman who refuses to be seen the victim, not by defiantly using her fists, but with a smile. The only problem is that the pompous string music from George Fenton feels rather separate from the tone (and the rest of the series), but maybe that’s the point.
Just when Talking Heads was at risk of becoming stale, Bennett proves there is much more versatility in his arsenal.
Her Big Chance
The story of the bit-part actor, unwittingly too free with her body and too slow on the uptake, is immensely sympathetic, moving, and witty. Lesley is completely believable as a character and yet completely remarkable; there is more interesting action and incident in this half-hour of standing still than there are in most seasons of modern TV. This is the episode in which the plot side of the series gets to shine. It is so much more than just a woman and a camera. It is the absolute highlight of the Talking Heads series.
A Cream Cracker Under The Settee
We open with Doris, among the debris of her evident fall. The arrangement of props – oddly static after such an active moment – and her panting performance completely sells that. We never see her falls, or her undignified movements, just the aftermath, which feels respectful, and also more tragic.
Thora Hird gives a stunning (BAFTA-award winning) performance, looking down the lens at us less than some of the other performers, as though embarrassed by her situation. When he says she’s going to attempt to move, and we fade back up to her on the floor again, it is genuinely affecting. Bennett’s writing is, yet again, perfection, especially during Doris’s reminiscing.
“…When people were clean, and the streets were clean, and everything was clean, and people would smile, and pass the time of day…”
Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet
Onto the second series now, produced ten years on from the first, but surprisingly with next to no discernible differences in style and content. Almost uniquely for a sequel (especially one produced so much later), it does not really mark a decline in quality either.
It is a joy to see Patricia Routledge back, performing (if it is possible) even better this time, as Miss Fozzard, housewife and eventual victim of sexual exploitation for cash. Bennett’s sleight of hand is in evidence again, as the significance of the saying ‘finds her feet’ gains a darker second meaning. Flawed like all the rest, Miss Fozzard is nevertheless one of Bennett’s most likable characters, thanks partially to Routledge’s soft and assured performance, differentiated from the Hyacinth-type for which she was, by this point, famous.
More brilliant lines include, “I may not be a feminist – although I did spearhead the provision of potpourri in the ladies’ toilets…” and her response to “have you ever had any champagne?” “No but I’ve seen it at the conclusion of motor races.” Perhaps the most significant line in re-establishing the Talking Heads modus operandi is: “People don’t like to think you have a proper life…”
The Hand of God
The Hand of God ends, unusually, not quite on the note you are expecting. Celia, an antiques trader played by Upstairs, Downstairs’ Eileen Atkins, is out-foxed, rather than reprimanded for doing the ‘foxing’ herself. With her cruel mouth and her wide, piercing eyes, Atkins is wonderful in this monologue.
The highlight of the piece is when the camera pans from Celia to the table, on which now stands homemade jars of chutney, Celia having baulked sharply at the suggestion of selling chutney before. There is another lovely touch when Celia specifies how she was told to look at the woman, not at the camera, when being interviewed for local news. She says, while looking directly down the camera, telling us her story…
Talking Heads 2 does show off slightly more ambitious sets than the first series, which is the case with the exterior park pieces in Playing Sandwiches. For me, this doesn’t quite feel right; the series should be more insular than that, and with incarceration being such a crucial theme to the characters, it feels strange to see Wilfred freely sweeping up leaves.
Playing Sandwiches, with David Haig playing a paedophile, is very dark but very good. Haig is perhaps a less distinguished actor than his peers, but then maybe his unassuming nature is part of the point. The turning point – “So I took her in the bushes” and an electronic sting of music – is haunting, and even more chilling is the way Wilfred attempts to blame the small girl for his terrible actions.
The Outside Dog
The only problem with the Talking Heads actors turning up for round two under a different guise is it could well lead to a certain lacking in their new monologue; a general feeling that their definitive role has passed. Not Julie Walters. Walters broke our hearts in Her Big Chance and she does it again here. Majory is a gutsier character than Lesley, particularly when she wags her finger at the screen or (in an amazing bit of scripting) calls her tongue a “murder weapon”.
Here more than ever the emotional reaction to a situation rings true – often on Heads the characters’ trademark naivety covers the truthful response. But we see Majory stop herself from crumbling, and gabble her words. As usual, the script is bursting with beautiful, human details, such as her husband describing the trousers she likes, “shit-coloured trousers”. It is truly gutting to discover she doesn’t report her husband in the end, which means this episode maybe plays on the mind after it’s over more than others.
The only slight problem with the series, one that is illuminated by this episode, is that it is difficult to believe the narrators are in direct jeopardy because they must survive in order to tell the story. So when the show wants to be playing the “is Marjory going to be next…?” card, it can’t. But that’s a small price to pay for an otherwise interesting dramatic set-up.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain
If one was being critical, one could say that Nights in the Gardens of Spain is simply a rehash of many of the ideas that Bennett has been entertaining in the previous monologues – a ‘greatest hits’, if you will. Yet again we have a murder in suburbia (I would have moved around the transmission order, because The Outside Dog and this are remarkably similar in some parts), sexual fetishism and adulterous obsession. Nevertheless, Nights is as much a masterpiece as the other plays (and claims one of the best titles).
Penelope Wilton has long been one of my all-time favourite actors, and her turn as Rosemary consolidates that. Wilson has a skill of seeming to show hundreds of emotions play across her face at any one time. I love the innocence evident in “I’m still a bit nervous of calling 999 because I’m not sure what constitutes an emergency” (she says after a murder.) Another heart-wrenching exchange is “I said, ‘I know what this is’ and she said, ‘what is it?’ and I said, ‘It’s life’”.
Towards the end we fade up to Rosemary in a courtyard in Marbella, and straightaway we know what that means, before she has even opened her mouth to explain. That’s excellent, economical storytelling.
Waiting for the Telegram
Thora Hird rounded off the first series with a devastating portrayal of old age, so it makes sense for her to repeat the trick in the second. Admittedly, at times Violet is slightly too similar to Doris, and it’s obvious that Bennett has less of a revelatory ‘point’ to make here, but Waiting for the Telegram is nevertheless a brilliant ending.
Hird’s portrayal is all the more impressive when you consider her own age at the time – if she was reading off an autocue, it is not noticeable at all. If she wasn’t, what a feat! Sadly Hird is no longer with us, having passed away in 2003, not quite reaching telegram age.
This is the most overtly emotional performance we have seen from Talking Heads, which coupled with George Fenton’s best score, makes it an affecting and fitting finale.
Overall, there is little to criticise in the series. It is true to say that one gets used to style as the episodes rumble on. The exposure of the formula of telling comment, piano interlude then slow cross-fade means that the telling comments lose some of their subtlety and intelligence. Having said that, the writing must be free-form to some degree because, even on repeat viewings, I seldom predict the piano will come in exactly when it does.
Bennett is a rare breed of writer who can entertain sufficiently you with just words on TV – and yet it never feels as arrogant as a show in “Look what I can do”.
After all, Talking Heads is deceptively complex. It celebrates the extraordinary in the ordinary, with a hawk-eye for mundanity. All of the characters are not just tragic, but tragically naïve; we always realise more than they themselves are ready to admit. That tension is what creates the drama, and indeed, sometimes, the comedy. Continually referring to the question of entrapment, and what is freedom?, these are all lonely characters. Except now they have people to talk to – they have us.
Or, as Violet puts it in Waiting for the Telegram: “It’s a complicated business, talking.”