New versions, new monlogues – Alan Bennett’s ground-breaking series, Talking Heads, finds new voices more than 30 years after the original first season of six were broadcast on the BBC.
Now there are 12 following the same formula – individuals, alone, talking directly to the camera voicing specific concerns. Time is marked by a change of clothes or a different location within the suburban home of the speaker. As each of the narratives unfold, it’s soon apparent that life is not quite following the expected pathways. Poignancy, regret, frustration, sadness, disbelief, fear… yet all (mostly) wrapped up with the ironing or afternoon tea and biscuits (and, in Bed Among the Lentils, more than a shot of whisky. A mesmerising Lesley Manville, as the alcoholic vicar’s wife who, not very good at flower arranging, finds solace and sexual release in the storeroom of a young Indian shopkeeper in Leeds).
As to be expected, some of the monologues appeal more than others – and there’s one misfire in terms of delivery (Rochenda Sandall in The Outside Dog in, arguably, the most melodramatic of the 12). But there are some real gems.
One-sided these monologues may be, but there’s delectable delight to be had in listening to street busy-body Imelda Staunton rant about the neighbours and fire off letters to all and sundry in A Lady of Letters; the shock of financial impropriety for recently-widowed Harriet Walter in Soldiering On or Manville’s guilty confessions. A repressed gay man, Martin Freeman continues to live with his elderly mother (A Chip in the Sugar) and is shocked by a possible love affair for her and a former lover. At 80! And then there’s the sensitively written An Ordinary Woman where Sarah Lancashire recognises she is in love with her 15 year-old son.
Nuanced in performance and dialogue, at their best, the individual monologues unravel slowly and are rooted in the everyday – loneliness, changing attitudes and values, petty jealousies, missed opportunities – pushed that little further by Bennett’s dramatic observational insight and dry wit. Less successful are those with larger, external themes (The Outside Dog and a serial killer).
Ground-breaking at the time, Talking Heads are masterclasses of their craft as Staunton, Manville, Lancashire hold you in thrall for the 35-45 minute running times.
Rating: 72% (average)