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ONLINE THEATRE Heads-up on an excellent revival

Alan Bennett's timeless monologues have been given a great new lease of life, says TOM KING

Talking Heads
BBC iPlayer

TALK of stockings, bicycle clips and soft furnishings can only mean one thing. Talking Heads, Alan Bennett’s landmark series of television monologues, is back.

Comprising 10 of the original pieces and two new ones, they have been revived by the BBC after the abrupt curtailment of all filming led to a sudden dearth of drama content.

Though each is different in subject and tone, they share a common theme — behind every front door, in each living room and kitchen, ordinary people turn out to be anything but.

Bennett’s bewitching dialogue lulls the viewer into a false sense of security: passing comments and harmless observations come back with a vengeance later on, when the chaos, heartbreak or deeply buried secrets come spilling out.

The original actors — Patricia Routledge, Eileen Atkins, Julie Walters and Maggie Smith among them — have all been replaced with a new generation of celebrated practitioners.

Maxine Peake, Kristin Scott Thomas, Imelda Staunton and Harriet Walter play roles which have awaited them for years and, of them, Peake does a particularly splendid job of channeling not one but two indomitable women, the fictional Miss Fozzard and the very real Routledge, who played the character during its first outing in 1998.

All but two of the monologues are written for women, and mostly older women to boot, and it would be easy to conclude that Bennett is playing it safe, comfortable in his home territory. But that would be false. Bennett clearly rejoices in imbuing these busybodies, battleaxes and pillars of the community, as well as the actors who play them, with titillating lines and salacious plot twists.

Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the new monologues performed by Sarah Lancashire, An Ordinary Women. It’s about a mother — spoiler alert — who falls for her own 15-year-old son. Bennett once again excels in plumbing some dark depths of the human soul while avoiding weary cliche.

After all, he can afford to take risks when offending the sensibilities of the viewing public: “Did I stab Judi Dench with a pitch-fork, I should still be a teddy bear,” he observed, sagely, long ago.

Talking Heads redux stands the test of time. The narratives themselves do a decent job of transcending context, though certain references and characters now seem a tad old-fashioned. At one point Peake, sitting in what is clearly a modern kitchen, makes reference to a polaroid camera, all but replaced by the smartphone these days.

Filmed on the set for Eastenders in extraordinary circumstances, when it was only possible to observe social-distancing guidelines with one actor. Bennett appears to have made the perfect pandemic drama, without once mentioning the C word.

Enjoy that while it lasts.


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