This is a review of episodes 5 – 8
The newly minted versions of Talking Heads were produced under difficult conditions as social distancing had to be observed throughout the process. The actors and directors involved rehearsed using Zoom although series supremo Nick Hytner is less than enthusiastic about this: Zoom rehearsals have no future. Working with an actor cries out for human contact. But we all managed, because there was no alternative. Neither was life any easier on the technical/creative side of filming: The camera could only move when moved by the operator on its own pedestal. Lighting was slow as everyone had to keep their distance. (The costume designer) had to conjure up whole worlds mainly from eBay and the actors’ own wardrobes. For sets the production used those in Elstree which would normally have played host to Eastenders: The sets all needed refurnishing and redressing. Many of the sets were familiar to regular viewers, so they had to be made strange and new again through the way they were lit”. Indeed, as the programmes have been broadcast a little game has sprung up on social media where people try to “spot the set” – let’s hope that isn’t detracting too much from the superb performances.
In the opening scene of Playing Sandwiches, Lucian Msamati (who really should be on TV more often) skilfully blindsides the audience as he presents the protagonist Wilfred as a mild-mannered middle-aged man whose activities seem harmless. He works in the local park clearing rubbish, unblocking drains and taking pride in his work. But his records have gone missing and that is cause for concern; it transpires he has “a past” which soon catches up with him. His downfall is in starting up a casual friendship with a couple of regular park visitors and at this point the dialogue Msamati utters become increasingly disturbing. Suddenly we are seeing earlier apparently innocent events in a new light forcing us to re-evaluate our opinions. The last seven words of the penultimate section, simply stated and all the more chilling for it, pack a real sucker punch as the truth sinks in. Not quite in the first rank, this monologue is strong stuff which when first performed (by David Haig) raised an eyebrow or two as it addressed the issues raised through the experience of the perpetrator rather than the victim. It is still quite disturbing even today and it is to Msamati’s credit that he makes it work so well.
Graham Whittaker in A Chip In The Sugar is middle aged and still living at home; Vera, his “Mam” is increasingly forgetful and so he has become her carer. Though clearly a burden he wouldn’t want it any other way as it gives him a sense of stability that he desperately needs to maintain his own equilibrium. However, when their routine little world is invaded by a figure from Vera’s past, Graham becomes defensive and the solid relationship deteriorates. Martin Freeman has a particular challenge to face, what with Alan Bennett being both writer and original performer of this piece. Freeman not only rises to the occasion but surpasses Bennett’s characterisation; Freeman can be underrated as an actor but here he gives a masterclass in technique using pauses to huge effect and suggesting so much with a simple use of inflexion and emphasis. He attacks the piece with a degree of still energy (if that makes sense) and cleverly avoids playing for sympathy. The big revelation that Graham is a closeted gay man has none of the surprise it used to and director Jeremy Herrin rightly makes little of the moment concentrating instead on the mental health issues (dementia, paranoia, loneliness, etc.) which keep the piece relevant thirty years on.
Deep dark secrets are at the heart of many of the monologues, none more so than The Outside Dog featuring Rochenda Sandall. She plays Marjory, a somewhat OCD oriented housewife who is for ever “swilling out” and “cleaning down”. Her husband, Stuart, works in an abattoir so cleanliness is a particular problem for her, but the biggest bane of her life is Tina, her husband’s dog which she won’t even let in the house. Little does she know that this is the least of her problems. Gradually we piece together that the big secret is not so much hers as her husbands and revolves around what he gets up to while supposedly walking Tina. Sandall makes a thoroughly convincing and brittle victim for that, ultimately, is what Marjory is. Indeed, our sympathies are manipulated by both writer and performer as we see the character evolve from being a figurative captive of her own cleaning regimes to a literal captive in her own home. Although I definitely saw all the originals (this one featured Julie Walters) it was perhaps the one I least remembered. However, this new version with its chilling denouement is certainly one that will stay in the memory.
Perhaps the most iconic of the Talking Heads, and certainly among the most personally memorable, is Bed Among The Lentils, the tale of Susan, a vicar’s wife who has sunk into alcoholism and depression but makes a last ditch attempt to find relief and happiness. The writing in this episode is as sharp as a rapier as Bennett conjures up a cast of memorable characters that populate his protagonist’s world – her apparently god awful husband Geoffrey, the superficially genteel parishioners (dubbed by her his “fan club”), the exotic grocer Ramesh Ramesh – are presented alongside Susan’s withering portrayal of her own supposed inadequacies (“chicken wings in a tuna fish sauce” anyone?). Lesley Manville is Susan this time round and she has the incredibly large shoes of Maggie Smith to fill; she does so magnificently, finding depths of emotion which it is hard to ignore. Although this is the longest of the episodes, Manville is spell binding throughout and each of the sections of the monologue are presented with subtle changes of mood and emphasis which chart Susan’s emotional graph. Manville also makes the most of the scornful understated put downs that are the essence of Bennett’s best writing – “This is the altar of St Michael and All Angels. It is not ‘The Wind In The Willows’”. Glorious!
The final tranche will follow in a few days’ time…..
Photographs by Zac Nicholson
Talking Heads 1 – 4 reviewed here
Talking Heads 9 – 12 reviewed here
Talking Heads can be found on BBC iPlayer. Click here
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