Six more slices of delicately delivered depression, courtesy of Alan Bennett
Another six episodes of Talking Heads. Another six acclaimed actors playing another six anguished individuals, excellently, under the direction of another set of theatrical heavyweights. Another six delicately packaged doses of despair.
Watching all 12 episodes of Nicholas Hytner’s lockdown reboot of Alan Bennett’s classic monologues over two days – they are all available on iPlayer – is a bit like being a Catholic priest in a particularly unfortunate parish. You are bombarded with sad, sordid confessions everywhere you look. Everyone you meet is in denial. Everyone you meet is depressed. Then you go to bed, get up, and do it all over again.
The monologues are, it occurred to me halfway through episode 10, the dramatic equivalent of Richard Yates’ short stories: pint-sized portraits that slowly show, rather than tell, the spectator a character’s fatal flaw. For half an hour or more, in five-minute chunks, they talk directly at you, and by the end you understand their inner workings intimately. That Bennett can couple this with his astute eye for social satire and his sparkling, side-eyed humour is testament to how rare a writer he is, and how much we should treasure him.
And perhaps this second batch of episodes isn’t quite as miserable as the first. In The Hand of God, the worst thing that happens to Kristin Scott Thomas’ antique-dealing Celia is that she lets an original Michelangelo go for only £100 by mistake. Mind you, she is also a recent widow, running a failing business, whose identity now hinges entirely on her eye for quality, so her £5 million-pound error still proves something of an existential threat.
And in The Outside Dog, the worst thing that happens to Rochenda Sandall’s hygiene-obsessed, housebound Marjory is that her abbattoir-worker husband’s Alsatian won’t stop barking when he’s not home. But then, it does transpire pretty quickly that her husband is a serial killer as well as a slaughterman, and that she has been sitting on the evidence of his crimes all along. So she has it pretty bad, too, actually.
Both Scott Thomas and Sandall are superb. The former imbues Celia with an old-school ostentation and a sparkle in her eye that only crystallises into tears at the very conclusion. The latter makes Marjory almost as furiously fierce as the attack-dog chained up outside her house, until the reality of her situation comes crushing down on her.
Both of these episodes are remade versions of Bennett’s second series from 1998, along with episode nine – Nights in the Garden of Spain, in which a prim, gardening-obsessed Tamsin Greig meets a murderer across the street and unexpectedly makes friends with her – and episode eleven – Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, in which Maxine Peake plays a lonely department store clerk who enters into an unlikely relationship with her podiatrist, a man who takes foot-care a step too far.
It is difficult to discern when they are interleaved alongside one another, but these 1998 monologues do have a distinctly darker, markedly more macabre tone than their 1988 forerunners. They mostly concern murderers and criminals: episode five, reviewed earlier, is also from the 1998 batch, and features Lucian Msamati as a paedophile living under a false name. They are more sensational, more shocking, and paradoxically pack less of an emotional punch as a result.
The same is true of the second new episode, written recently by Bennett. In The Shrine, Monica Dolan plays Lorna, bereaved wife to birdwatcher-cum-biker Clifford, who sets up a shrine of sorts at the roadside spot of her late husband’s death. Dolan is great, as she often is at the moment – all furious blinks and uncertain hands – but there’s something a bit stretched, a bit try-hard about the revelations Bennett brings about as the narrative progresses.
He is better when he is dealing with the ostensibly banal, as he does in the earlier monologues. See A Lady of Letters with Imelda Staunton, Soldiering On with Harriet Walter, or A Chip in the Sugar with Martin Freeman – also reviewed earlier. Or see episode eight, Bed Among the Lentils, featuring Lesley Manville in the role originated by Maggie Smith in 1988 – that of Susan, the unhappy, alcoholic wife of a country vicar who somehow strikes up a romance with the young Indian owner of a Leeds liquor store.
Bennett is on home turf here – religion and repression. Susan is a brilliantly written character, her whip-smart wit cloaked in a wan smile and a soft self-awareness. Watching her come out of her shell from downtrodden “Mrs Vicar”, meekly arranging flowers as she cracks open the communion wine, to sexually satisfied lover of “Mr Ramesh, 26, with wonderful legs” is just delightful. The tragedy, when it inevitably comes, is at least bittersweet too.
If you were only going to watch one of these new Talking Heads – and I would definitely recommend dipping your toe into at least one episode – then Bed Among the Lentils would be a good bet. It has all the ingredients that make the series a classic: the slow zooms and the silences; a phenomenal female role, brilliantly acted by Manville; shedloads of social satire and a font’s worth of pithy Bennett-isms. “That’s the thing nobody ever says about God,” murmurs Manville, in one of a dozen killer lines. “He has no taste at all.” Oof.