A review of Talking Heads by Alan Bennett

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Talking Heads
By Alan Bennett
BBC Audio
6 Audio CD Set, rrp $59.95, 2008

Alan Bennett is something of an institution in Britain, known for the way in which he can encapsulate a world of voices within a single monologue. The monologues that make up this collection were written for BBC TV in 1987 and 1988, and feature a number of well known actors including Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Julie Walters, Anna Massey and Bennett himself. While it might have been possible to distance oneself while reading these on the page, listening to them is quite another experience. There’s an insular intensity that draws the reader in. You feel just a little bit dirty, implicated, and complicit as you listen to a range of confessions; stories of suppression, pretentions unhinged, and above all, a kind of pervasive loneliness that is almost too much to bear at times.

Most of the monologues contain just one character, and yet, by reference, there seem to be many more. For example, in the opening monologue “A Chip in the Sugar”, there is Graham Whittaker, a middle aged man who lives with his mother. His mother, and her ‘beau’ Frank Turnbull, have no voice in the piece – it’s all Graham’s recount, but they are as present and real to the action as if they were there. We’re in Graham’s point of view the entire time, but Graham’s mother is as tragic a character as Graham, and her excitement and loss moves the drama forward. Similarly, in “Bed Among the Lentils,” Anna Massey’s Susan has a transition which involves her husband, the parish ladies, and an Indian Grocer Ramesh. Each of these characters has life and depth, even as they exist only in the confessions of Susan.

Nearly all of the stories have a twist of some sort, usually in terms of character development. Susan discovers passion and begins to breath a little bit deeper in her transition. Irene Ruddock, in “A Lady of Letters”, changes entirely, as does Routledge’s other character Miss Fozzard in “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet”. Most of the transitions occur slowly, and are handled with tremendous subtlety. Bennett uses the characters’ perceptions to show what they lose and find in the course of each monologue. Many of the monologues are funny, showing up the pretensions and imaginings of ordinary people in unusual circumstances, such as Celia in “The Hand of God”. Celia is both pompous and devious in the way she covets, helps, and befriends an elderly neighbour in an attempt to get hold of her antiques cheaply and then resell them. She is put back in her place when the odd picture of a finger she sells cheaply turns out to be a Michelangelo original sketch for the Sistine Chapel. Her realisation is both humorous and satisfying. Not all of the monologues are pleasant though. A few are chilling. Three in particular manage to combine both pathos and horror as they move away from the ordinary world of aging and loneliness into mass murder, child molestation, and torture. From the perspective of a single witness, you almost come to understand Wilfred’s compulsions in “Playing Sandwiches”, and feel Rosemary’s humiliation and anger in “Nights in the Garden of Spain”. The most intense of all, “The Outside Dog” takes the reader on a journey through denial and discovery, and although it’s an eye opener, it’s not at all easy to listen to. Nevertheless, this is heady listening. Alan Bennett is the master of the monologue, pondering a range of social issues with a deftness that few other playwrights could match. This powerful collection features some of Bennett’s most famous monologues, performed superbly by actors that clearly have a deep understanding of the work. The combination of character development, a great eye for the minutiae of everyday life, and a theatrical sense of the absurd and tragic inherent in that life makes this an excellent piece of work.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.