Delicate remake of Alan Bennett’s remarkable but none too cheering classic monologues
Is this a good idea? On the one hand, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are bona-fide classics, and to have them performed afresh by a host of national treasures – including Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter and Martin Freeman – under the hands of directors experienced in drawing out delicate performances – including Nicholas Hytner, Marianne Elliott, Jonathan Kent and Jeremy Herrin – can only lead to excellence.
On the other hand, they are also a bucketload of misery, and, after three months of theatre-starved, coronavirus-induced isolation, one can well imagine their nigh unrelenting gloom proving a bit of a busman’s holiday for viewers. Perhaps it will have the opposite effect, though: no matter how bad things are, you probably haven’t got it half as bad as this sorry lot.
Fans of the original two series – the first six episodes came out in 1988, the second six a decade later – will remember the format, as will anyone who studied GCSE English in the last 15 years. A sole character monologues to the camera for 30-40 minutes, their narrative split into great chunks, their story gradually unveiling itself with heavy dramatic irony, their tragic inner emotions slowly bubbling to the surface.
For this lockdown reboot, two of the original episodes have been jettisoned – A Cream Cracker Under The Settee and Waiting for the Telegram – and been replaced by two new ones, written recently by Bennett.
We start, though, with A Lady of Letters, in which Imelda Staunton plays Irene Ruddock, an elderly, unmarried woman who sustains herself by writing complaint letters to anyone and everyone – the council, the chemist, even Buckingham Palace. In between bouts of curmudgeonly correspondence, she sits at her chintzy tea table and spitefully spies on her neighbours through drawn curtains, making disapproving comments about their clothes, their tattoos, and their toddler.
Everything that is great about Talking Heads is here, straight away, in the first 40-minute episode. A story that deliberately grows from the trivial to the tragic, shifting from the tea table to the police station. A pitch-perfect social satire, as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. And a complex character both deeply depressed and in desperate denial. “Sometimes I catch myself thinking it will be better the second time around, but this is it,” Staunton spits at the camera, in what is surely one of Bennett’s most brutal lines. “This is my go.”
The second episode is new – Sarah Lancashire stars in An Ordinary Woman, a spectacularly uncomfortable half-hour about a middle-aged and married mother-of-two, Gwen, who falls desperately in love with her own teenage son. “I didn’t think this could happen,” says a terrifically tearful Lancashire. “I thought there was genes or something that gave you immunity.” Dark and depressing, as ever, and decidedly not one to watch with the family.
The 1988 remakes are arguably the best: there’s Soldiering On, in which a heartbreakingly stoic Harriet Walter plays Muriel, a wealthy widow whose life and love crumbles around her after the death of her husband. There’s A Chip in the Sugar, in which Martin Freeman inhabits the role Bennett himself took in the original episodes – that of a middle-aged man who spends his life looking after his infirm “mam”, sleeping in a single bed, and squashing his emotions deep down inside himself.
Less successful perhaps are Her Big Chance – with Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer as an ingenue actress, unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that the job she has just accepted is not the part of a lifetime but a bit-part role in a German soft-porn film – and Playing Sandwiches – with Lucian Msamati as a paedophile wrestling with his own desires. These two, although expertly executed, seem slightly less subtle, more sensationalist and lazier than their companion pieces. Time has not been kind to them.
They are all undoubtedly remarkable works, though – masterclasses in slow, structured storytelling, laced with that quintessential Bennett humour and stewed in his keen eye for social observation. They are also unlike anything else – it takes a single character talking at you for half an hour to realise how underappreciated stillness is on our screens, how fast and furious most TV is. Here, the slow zooms and the long silences have a magnetic power – a power augmented by the extraordinary performances at the centre of it all.
It is also a remarkable feat to have pulled this all together during lockdown. The cast members rehearsed with their directors online, but the actual filming took place at Elstree Studios, with social distancing observed throughout. Costumes, hair and make-up had to be sorted by the cast themselves, and the sets are simply repurposed from EastEnders. You couldn’t tell, though. Hats off to Hytner, whose London Theatre Company is behind it all.
Because they are magnificent, undoubtedly. But, bloody hell, they are miserable, too. And – dare I say it – a bit samey after a while. TV viewers can enjoy watching two episodes every Tuesday for the next six weeks, and you wouldn’t want to visit Bennett’s world of wretchedness any more often than that. I watched the first half-dozen in the space of a few hours – they are all up on iPlayer already – and their isolation and anguish does start to grate.
I would say that I’m looking forward to the next six episodes, that maybe Bennett will turn on the cheerfulness, that maybe they will be a bit happier. But I studied GCSE English not that long ago: he doesn’t and they aren’t. This set of Talking Heads is probably best consumed as its two forerunners were – episode by episode, week after week. Magnificent misery in moderation.