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Lancashire Times
A Voice of the North
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Erin Wilson
Features Writer
11:00 AM 25th July 2020

Tragic Humanity In A Time Of Human Tragedy

Alan Bennett’s classic ‘Talking Heads’ has returned to the BBC at a time where we perhaps didn’t need a reminder that life isn’t always rosy.

Or maybe it’s the perfect time. Such focussed dramas in miniature can provide solace for a moment. Not only are they entertainment but, perhaps ironically considering their subject matter, an escape from the mundane. It seems that allowing oneself to be absorbed in someone else’s misery, or to wallow in someone’s everyday problems, can be a balm - or at least a distraction.

There is something about Bennett’s monologues that draw in the observer and hold your gaze. It may be the direct address, the single character, the relatability or the plight of normal people, or some other magic of penmanship, but the maestro’s writing is as clear, concise and as compelling as ever.

I watched the original monologues for a college project and to give me some inspiration for my writing. And now many years later it is a considerable comfort to see that they have aged so well. Watching the re-make feels like the return of an old friend.

That comfortable feeling is of course misleading in a Bennett play. His signature opening sets the viewer at ease with a familiar narrative – annoying neighbours, the stress of suburban family life, relationship problems or dealing with grief – only to drift towards the inevitable gut-wrenching twist in the tale.

The return of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ is like listening to a new album – there are several you know you will return to and can’t get enough of at the time, but there are always one or two that fall a bit short of the rest of the bunch. Where classics like ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ and ‘A Lady of Letters’ have aged well, and remain firm favourites (made even more so by being performed by Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton), the remakes of ‘Nights in the Garden of Spain’ and ‘The Hand of God’ I found laborious and frankly boring. Where tales of chiropody were surprisingly engaging, these stories were tiresome, and I found myself wishing for them to be over.

What the remake did prove was that ‘Talking Heads’ is timeless – even the most repugnant stories have a sadness to them and a way of preventing you from breaking eye contact. I am particularly referring here to Sarah Lancashire’s 'An Ordinary Woman', a new addition to the Bennett collection and by far the hardest to watch. Lancashire depicts a woman with a family and two children – a boy and a girl – with a particularly close relationship with her son. After what seems like an affectionate ‘mummy’s boy’ relationship, it soon becomes clear that she harbours a more intense affection. Lancashire is a woman in love with her 15-year-old son. Under the impression he feels the same, she reveals her feelings, dramatically changing the family dynamic.

It seem churlish to have a favourite from such a fine bunch, but if forced I would have to mention Maxine Peake’s performance of ‘Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet’. On the surface it is about a sheltered single woman and her relationship with her chiropodist. But this being a Bennett it drifts into something decidedly quirky.

As Miss Fozzard herself says:

“People don’t like to think you have a proper life…or more of a life than they know about, and when they find out, they think it’s shocking.”

How true is this?

Every character in these monologues has a life, and everyone watching these monologues has a life. We are all a little nosy by nature, but the moment we learn that someone else’s life is different to our own we are apt to judge. Or is that just me?

Alan Bennett’s remade monologues are as good – if not better – than the originals. They remain poignant, tragic, and human; a marker of Alan Bennett’s skills as a writer.