Isolation, suppressed emotions and the trials of domesticity: Why Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is ripe for remake

Jodie Comer's episode, 'Her Big Chance', tackles very current themes around film industry power relations and sexual consent: BBC/London Theatre Company
Jodie Comer's episode, 'Her Big Chance', tackles very current themes around film industry power relations and sexual consent: BBC/London Theatre Company

The past few months haven’t been great for television. Audience figures and streaming subscriptions may have skyrocketed but, behind the scenes, the view is pretty bleak. Filming for existing series remains indefinitely postponed and commissioning has all but ground to a halt. In a sure sign that the apocalypse is here, we have finally run out of EastEnders episodes.

Nonetheless, some new projects have found ingenious ways of working around social distancing restrictions, in the process producing some brilliant dramatic moments. Staged, a semi-scripted comedy with Michael Sheen and David Tennant, finds the pair ostensibly rehearsing for a post-lockdown Pirandello play, though, mainly, they squabble, riff and reminisce. The BBC Four anthology series, Unprecedented, features a smorgasbord of fictionalised lockdown experiences, from teen group chats and awkward work meetings to a homeless man talking to his dog over Zoom. Now we have Talking Heads, a remake of Alan Bennett’s TV monologues, delivered directly to camera, which were first screened in the late Eighties.

When the series was announced, there were disapproving noises from some critics who felt we would be better off watching the originals. In fact, the remake, born as much out of necessity as nostalgia, is a triumph. Talking Heads could have been created with lockdown in mind, featuring as it does a cast of characters in isolation, whether psychologically or literally, and for whom the camera is their confidante. They are trapped variously by domesticity, their own suppressed emotions or lack of self-worth. Most pointedly, friends and family are nowhere to be seen. All is quiet inside and out. It all feels very… now.

I can remember the first series, which aired in 1988 (a second series arrived a decade later), particularly “A Cream Cracker under the Settee”, in which Thora Hird sits on the floor of her flat after a fall and is enraged to find bits of food under the furniture. As time passes, her fury at the stray cream cracker is overtaken by more practical considerations – should she eat it? It’s one of two instalments that hasn’t been remade on account of safety concerns around actors over 70 – perhaps just as well since Hird would have been a tough act to follow. Instead, we have Martin Freeman as the repressed bachelor, Graham, in “A Chip in the Sugar”, a role initially occupied by Bennett himself; Lesley Manville replaces Maggie Smith in “A Bed Among the Lentils”, about a vicar’s wife who embarks on an extramarital affair; and Lucian Msamati takes over from David Haig as a disgraced park attendant in “Playing Sandwiches”.

Patricia Routledge played the original Irene in “A Lady of Letters” – a piece of casting that aptly echoed her role as faux-posh curtain twitcher in the comedy series Keeping Up Appearances. In the new version, she is played by Imelda Staunton with a perfect combination of cantankerousness and pathos. Irene, who lives alone and has no family, finds purpose through letter-writing. She writes to the local crematorium to complain about the hearse drivers smoking during a service; to the local opticians thanking them for the reminder to make an appointment for a check-up; and to a sausage manufacturer to draw attention to a hair embedded in a sausage (the hair is enclosed). Irene is a relentless busybody, a result of her loneliness and social intolerance. Her letters take a cruel turn as she casts judgement on a new family who have moved in across the street and lands herself in hot water.

These are individuals living insular lives. Grudges are aired, secrets divulged and excuses made for past failures. There is invariably a gulf between what they say and what we understand. I find it odd, watching these miniature portraits, that Bennett maintains a reputation as a gentle and cosy writer, a man who envelops the world of letters like a fluffy cardigan. As Talking Heads underlines, his work can be caustic, not to say profoundly uncomfortable. There are stories here featuring incest and paedophilia, and during which we are invited to understand the torment of the transgressor rather than the victim. Jodie Comer’s episode, “Her Big Chance”, about an aspiring actress, tackles very current themes around film industry power relations and sexual consent.

In a lovely twist, the new Talking Heads series was mostly filmed in refurnished houses on the set of EastEnders in Elstree. Thus, we see Sarah Lancashire loading the washing machine upstairs at the Queen Vic; Manville’s Susan, an alcoholic, in the living room in which Phil Mitchell, also an alcoholic, has crashed around in a whisky-sodden stupor; and Staunton expostulating among Dot Cotton’s antimacassars. In 2008, June Brown, who plays Dot in EastEnders, delivered an episode-long, award-winning monologue about her hospitalised husband, Jim, in what was a clear homage to Talking Heads. Life goes in circles, and so does TV drama. The return of Bennett’s series is a wonderful thing, but it never truly went away.

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