Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads review – still a masterclass in storytelling

Thirty-two years on, Bennett’s TV monologues have lost none of their impact – as Imelda Staunton’s menacing take on Patricia Routledge’s poison-pen shocker shows

“He’s Labour but it’s always very good notepaper, and beautifully typed.” “They don’t expect you to be an atheist if you’re a ‘Miss’.” “Her mother was blind but made beautiful pastry.”

The phrases resurrect themselves, benevolent ghosts from the past. They come back to you just before they are uttered again and you can – if you are not careful – find yourself mouthing them along with the speaker. I’d forgotten, but I remembered.

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues were first broadcast in 1988. Obviously, they were simpler times, and we had less to amuse ourselves with in between tilling the fields and carding the village sheep’s wool, but they had an impact beyond all that you might have expected.

They were so unusual, for one thing. They slapped you awake. Just one camera, and a person speaking to it. Four or five changes of scene so small that the moment we found Thora Hird sitting on the floor instead of an armchair in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee was a proper jolt to the system. And words, just words in an actor’s mouth, conjuring up a life and a world. A fully peopled, entirely credible, hysterically funny, heartbreaking world. Technically, each one was a masterclass in writing and acting. Un-technically, it came perilously close to magic.

Now, a selection of them have been remade, airing on BBC One. The first – and the only one available for review, although it was paired for broadcast with a new piece, performed by Sarah Lancashire – is A Lady of Letters, first made famous by Patricia Routledge. This time round, the gig – the gift – goes to Imelda Staunton. She plays (if it weren’t too cringeworthy I would be tempted to say “inhabits”, but as her character would be likely to uncap her trusty Platignum and fire off a letter of complaint, I will not) Irene Ruddock (Miss).

We first meet her as she recounts her latest triumph – an apologetic response from the director of operations at the local crematorium, to her letter pointing out the undesirability of letting hearse drivers smoke in public. She notes other successes, too, in between keeping a weather eye on the new couple and their child who have moved in opposite. “The kiddie looks filthy.” There’s a bruise on her. The father does nothing but tinker with his car, the mother doesn’t put a cloth out at teatime and they’re probably not even married. Something must be done.

There’s no one who evokes domestic menace, ordinary savagery, like Staunton. In Irene, you can see a lifetime of loneliness and powerlessness curdling before your eyes into frustration, resentment and increasingly vicious fury that must find an outlet. Despite previous encounters with the police, complaints to crematoria cannot, in the end, satisfy the urge to lash out – to have the world notice her in some way. When the couple report receiving poison pen letters, the police come calling again.

Not that the phrase “poison pen letters” or anything like it is ever used, of course. A repeated “No cloth on” and a defiantly raised chin, or a “He wants reporting …” followed by a styptic blink is enough to point the mind to where it needs to go. And that’s the genius of this and all the monologues – perhaps of all Bennett’s work, although they are surely the purest example of it. So little is said and so much evoked that they are the dramaturgical equivalent of an artist’s negative space. We know Irene entirely from the moment she tells us she wore her maroon coat to the cremation of a woman she barely knew,. We can map the descent into bitterness and we can also believe in her redemption when the voids in her life are eventually and unexpectedly filled. It remains a masterclass in everything and still perilously close to magic.

There have been objections to the monologues being remade, but they are hard to give much credence to. They have had 32 years to themselves – now there is cultural room for another production, just as there always is with All My Sons, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or (please) The Browning Version – and room for another generation of actors to give us their take. And monologues are, of course, perfect fodder for lockdown productions, losing nothing to the depredations of the pandemic beyond. The rest of the dozen are available on iPlayer immediately. To quote the lady herself – I’m so happy.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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