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24 June 2020

Why Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is past its sell-by date

It isn’t only thanks to the passage of time that Bennett-land seems so anachronistic now.

By Rachel Cooke

When the first batch of Alan Bennett’s monologues, Talking Heads, emerged piping hot from his writerly Baby Belling in 1988, it was still (just about) within the realms of possibility that a person (admittedly, quite a weird person) might regard the fact that her neighbours didn’t use a tablecloth at teatime as yet further evidence of Britain’s ongoing moral decline – and even, at a push, that a vicar in bicycle clips might turn up at one’s doorstep uninvited. Were there then people who had not yet encountered a cheeseburger? Though I hadn’t met any myself, memory dictates that my granny had eaten lasagne for the first time only two years previously. I was prepared to concede that in some far corner of Leeds, there might indeed be one old lady who’d yet to hear that melting cheddar and minced beef could be taken together in what she would undoubtedly have called a “bread cake”.

What I’m trying to say is that it isn’t only thanks to the passage of time that Bennett-land seems so anachronistic now; even then, it was a pretty mildewed realm, whatever you felt about all the great roles for women, the (slight) taboo-busting involved in the verbalising of their innermost thoughts. For Bennett, it is forever 1978 (or perhaps I mean 1958), and should you need fresh evidence for this, here it comes in the form of the two monologues he has added to this revival of the show (23 June, 9pm), written only in 2019. In both, there are walk-on vicars, albeit one female, and the other a biker – as if vicars loitered on every corner, waiting to dole out pastoral care like free samples of kombucha.

In the one called “An Ordinary Woman”, moreover, there is a teenager whose name is Maureen, which I’m afraid stretched reality to breaking point for me. What next? If the character played by Sarah Lancashire had had a husband called Cedric, I would hardly have been surprised – though, in fact, his wife only ever calls him “Dad” (something else that went out with the Sony Walkman).

“An Ordinary Woman” replaces one of the two monologues, originally performed by Thora Hird, that have been ditched in the BBC’s remake of both series of Talking Heads (the second was originally broadcast in 1998). This was done on grounds of taste, a distressed, lonely old lady not being what people want to see during the pandemic. As usual, though, the BBC has got things arse about face here, panicking over something totally unobjectionable but failing to worry at all about the fact that in “An Ordinary Woman” Lancashire plays a mother who lusts after her 15-year-old son. (Personally, I think inappropriate desires are precisely the kind of thing contemporary drama should explore. Even so, it’s barely credible that this script rang fewer alarm bells than one about a cream cracker under a sofa.)

But I digress. This must be just about the greatest cast ever put together for a single project (Lesley Manville, Lucian Msamati, Kristin Scott Thomas, Harriet Walter, Monica Dolan), all of whom worked with some of our finest directors (Nicholas Hytner, Josie Rourke, Marianne Elliott). Martin Freeman’s performance in “A Chip in the Sugar”, in which he plays a man whose poor mental health cannot quite account for his cloying attachment to his ageing mother, is one of the finest I’ve ever seen, on screen or on stage – so replete with both pathos and spite, I had to lie down on the floor of my office for a few moments when it was over.

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To me, though, these performances are the actorly equivalent of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. However miraculous, they cannot quite disguise the reality: the monologues’ clunking trajectories; their tendency to camp cliché. I often wonder about the public’s love for Bennett. Is it the fact that he is a socialist with a Yorkshire accent that leaves people unable to countenance the idea that he might also be a snob? I’ve always felt that he patronises his characters – and thus, that the joke is really on us.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy watching the new Talking Heads, because I did. But it was the actors I loved. Bennett’s words, set in aspic like some terrible ­offering at what he’d probably call a fork lunch, still leave me perplexingly cold. 

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Talking Heads 

This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football