The return of Alan Bennett’s anthology monologue series comes at an interesting moment, one where social and technological restrictions meet new expectations on all kinds of diversity, on-set behaviour and the value of the individual experience. When first screened in the late 1980s, Talking Heads was hailed as a masterpiece, gathering some of the UK’s finest actors in a series of short and somewhat radically presented stories direct to camera, celebrating the extraordinary in the ordinary and everyday, those closely observed tragicomic moments and personalities that Bennett has always chronicled so well.
Talking Heads is the perfect drama for our socially distanced world, created during lockdown at Elstree using some of the Eastenders sets (part of the fun is trying to spot them), and unlike much of the content created in the last few months no video calling platforms are involved either as the subject matter or the technical filming solution. Staged demonstrated that TV dramas can still achieve a level of pre-lockdown quality under the right conditions, and while Talking Heads retains a focus predominantly on the domestic, as a collective experience it shows what is now achievable as a seamless visual and technical experience, focusing entirely on the storyteller and their narrative rather than being distracted or disrupted by the medium used to deliver it.
Bennett is a writer who has always served his female characters particularly well and in this version of the play set which includes two new or previously unperformed stories, ten of the twelve Talking Heads have female protagonists, most designed specifically for middle-aged characters. Times have changed of course in the last 30 years and recent campaigns have highlighted the lack of substantial roles for older actors, the dwindling representation of working class characters and the sexual exploitation of female actors within the wider industry, and it is interesting to see how well Bennett’s work anticipates and actively responds to these issues.
Bennett writes particularly well for women and within the ten monologues presented here, there is a strong sense of how the outer lives of the speaker and their public demeanour conceals a more complex, often conflicted, inner life. Looking across the selection, these are characters that modern drama would rarely consider – the quiet and apparently unassuming vicar’s wife, the antique shop owner and pensioner – their voices and their stories overlooked for women living racier and more dramatic lives.
That Bennett finds the value in the experience of such women and the simmering emotional pull of desire, vanity, anger, grief and guilt is the joy of Talking Heads. That there is drama and meaning in the most ordinary of lives is Bennett’s point, and beneath the folds of the drabbest cardigan are layers of personality, some of it sympathetic, some utterly monstrous with masses of contradictory impulses to know and be known. No life is truly ordinary at all. It is useful, then, to reconsider a selection of these monologues in the light of modern sensibilities, to consider how the new performances bring a different or more developed insight to Bennett’s original text.
Her Big Chance
Performed by Jodie Comer, this is one of the few stories written specifically for a younger actor, dealing with a world beyond the domestic. Directed by Josie Rourke, this version takes on an enhanced resonance in the light of Me Too and thus retains its 1980s setting. This tale of an exploited young actress has many levels, one of which would read Lesley merely as a naive young woman tricked into appearing in a low-rent film and increasingly exposed both physically and emotionally. There is a version in which her failure to grasp what is really happening is a deluded lunge at fame in which she takes herself and her craft far too seriously, the outcomes entirely due to the personality of the character.
But with the testimonial experiences of recent years and those who have spoken out against film and television industry abusers, Rourke and Comer take a more knowing approach, ensuring that both the audience and Lesley understand the scarring consequences of her various encounters, building a moving sense of her vulnerability as the monologue unfolds. Screening tonight on BBC1, Her Big Chance picks up the story at different points in time, with Lesley pausing to reflect on her experience as it happens, changing the tenure of the narrative as it unfolds and continually repositioning our image of this young woman as the recognition and experience of violation slowly crystallises in her mind.
And it was all there already, between the lines of Bennett’s script giving the performer any number of possibilities for interpreting this character and her degree of self-knowledge, something which ebbs, flows and morphs across the 42 minutes – one of the longest pieces in the set. Comer chooses these spaces between the words to situated her interpretation, putting a brave face on the narrative itself, even half-believing the effect she hopes this will have on her career and desire to be a serious actress, but in those breaths is a universe of pain, fear, regret and sorrow, that truth sitting like a shadow on her soul.
And while in the dozen monologues on offer Her Big Chance is not in the top tier, Comer’s performance certainly elevates the material and shares with her fellow actors a particular ear for the rhythm of Bennett’s dialogue, those fruitful commas that so purposefully create the peculiarities of speech, cadence and the conversational drift between remembered events and the protagonist’s present mindset. Comer uses the camera so well, open and expressive during the early excitement of auditioning for and landing a big film role, before shyly almost guiltily glancing away, the hint of tears as shame and fear creep in.
It is a theatrical experience with takes sometimes as long as 8-minutes in which Rourke places her camera in a confessional space, adding a girlish tinge to her set, dressed with soft low lighting in Lesley’s bedroom while the backstage area of her movie has hints of neon lights and a glamour just out of reach. There’s something of Tennessee Williams about it at times, a caged creature trying to break free and only falling deeper into the mire while the bolshie fragility that Comer unveils is troubling, dramatising her exploitation but always with the understanding of how that will resonate in twenty-first century Britain.
The Hand of God
In many ways, The Hand of God (screening on Thursday 2 July) is an interesting companion piece, fronted by a woman whose financial, social and emotional position seems relatively secure in comparison to Lesley. Played by Kristin Scott Thomas this tale of an antiques dealer failing to recognise an important treasure while preying on the homes of the soon to be deceased, is filled with snobbery, avarice and ambition while retaining its small-world community feel.
Directed by Jonathan Kent The Hand Of God is a gripping 32-minutes set in Celia’s shop where, like several other characters in the series, she watches life beyond the window while recounting clients and encounters we never see. Celia frets about an unsold table, the pressures of turning stock over quickly and the transparent games customers play when hoping to find a bargain.
But Kent uses these really interesting slow-tracking shots, a barely perceptible movement of the camera which during the lengthy segments subtly circles across and then in towards the character as her true nature is increasingly exposed. Using this technique, a layer of surface decency is expunged revealing, more subtly than in A Lady of Letters, the snobbery and occasional venality deep within her character.
But there is something incredibly rounded in Scott Thomas’s portrayal which quietly pinpoints grief and loneliness as the origin of her behaviour, while in her most vulnerable moments when exposed and publicly embarrassed, there is an empathy too that suggests how thin her veneer of respectability has been. Scott Thomas has a way of glancing from the corner of her eyes, fearing what our reactions to her will be. The repeated references to Celia’s love for painted furniture and loathing for the denuded appearance of stripped pine favoured by other dealers is crucial to her interpretation, the mask of middle-class decency, culture and poise she presents hides a multitude of traits that in Scott Thomas’s contained performance seem to surprise her as much as they do the viewer.
In one of the new monologues, Monica Dolan’s character also finds herself surprised by her reaction to the death of her husband, one which in a sense upends the confessional nature of the previous stories. Although other tales have used the camera to unburden their conscience or their hearts, in The Shrine there is sometimes a marked contrast between the things Lorna tells us she feels and her subsequent actions. And while loneliness is an outcome of her newly widowed state, the driving forces of this story are grief and revelation, as Lorna discovers she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought.
Give Monica Dolan any kind of role to play and she will be devastating in it, and she has specialised particularly in the types of women Bennett likes to write about, seemingly ordinary, often put upon and fighting against an emotional repression that eventually bursts forth. In this story, Lorna has supported her husband throughout their marriage, guiltily telling the audience early on that she isn’t upset by his death, creating the impression of a once comfortable but now loveless marriage retained through habit and ease because at their time of life they don’t quite knowing what else they would do with themselves.
But Dolan’s performance is full of labyrinths so the audience is never quite sure how honest Lorna is being with herself and what information she has simply chosen to ignore or deny. Soon we discover regular visits to the place where her husband’s motorbike crashed, a spot which initially she insists has no meaning but is one she continues to return to, holding vigil day after day. The complexities of grief in Dolan’s characterisation manifest as subtle twitches and shakes as though holding in a tidal wave of feeling, telling us she doesn’t care but showing us how destructive Clifford’s death has been.
Screening on 9 July with Nicholas Hytner at the helm – the architect behind the reshoots taking direct control of several of the monologues – he directs The Shrine as though the audience is catching Lora unawares in the midst of other tasks. One scene is almost intrusive as the camera takes her by surprise in the hallway, forcing her to confront a knowledge of her husband that she wants to hide from. Hytner’s approach isn’t aggressive, more nagging, reflecting Dolan’s own performance in which Lorna knows the truth but wants to pretend a little longer that she doesn’t.
Across the 10 monologues, Bennett’s women prove to be not-so-ordinary after all, and watching them in fairly quick succession it is interesting to consider how easily society dismisses or just doesn’t even see so many of these people. Bennett’s particular gift is for peeling back the cardigan to reveal female characters who may present one face to the neighbourhood but underneath are a blaze of contradictory emotions, hopes, fears and possibilities – their interior life, Bennett argues, is just as vital and valuable as anyone else’s. So, 30 years on the decision to reshoot these is entirely understandable, our context may be different and standards of behaviour changing rapidly, but human nature, is constant and whether it is petty jealousies at the antiques shop or inappropriate love stories, Bennett’s women have seen and felt it all.