Life is generally something that happens elsewhere – Alan Bennett
Ten of the twelve Talking Heads involves a woman and all but one is a mature woman opening the door to some of the country’s finest character actresses like Penelope Wilton, Stephanie Cole and Eileen Atkins. A young Julie Walters is the one exception and, although she gives it her all, it will not be the performance that she will be remembered for. “Alan writes so beautifully for women,” Eileen Atkins has said.
Bennett portrays embarrassment probably better than any other living writer, people uncomfortable in their own skins:
Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden, or meek and overlooked. Life has brought them to an impasse, or else passed them by altogether. In many cases they have met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and a failure to connect with others. – Wikipedia
The title of the very first official Talking Heads monologue was A Chip in the Sugar. The character may be called ‘Graham’ but he’s ‘the Alan Bennett character’ on full throttle. When Graham and his mam are taken to a new café he is appalled to find a chip (a fat, soft Northern version of the American french fry) in the sugar bowl. What’s funny here is the snobbery. It’s a café for God’s sake not a Michelin-star restaurant. The café they usually patronise is “plain, but it’s classy, no cloths on the tables, the menu comes on a little slate and the waitresses wear their own clothes and look as if their doing it just for the fun of it.” This new place is all “done out in red” and the one thing that Graham and his mother agree upon is that “red is a common colour.”
Bennett has said he’s “never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions” but he has noted that his own mother’s social sensibilities “admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, ‘refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’. It’s clear from this interview with Mark Lawson that he was acutely aware of snobbery as a child:
Mark Lawson Talks to Alan Bennett (2009)
It’s unusual for the snob to be the son. But in many respects Graham is just an extension (or perhaps a proxy) for his off-screen mother. Snobbish mothers are a mainstay of Northern humour and Thora Hird has made a career out of playing them in sitcoms like Meet the Wife or, playing it straight, in the film-adaptation of A Kind of Loving. This role (the mam), of course, is caricatured to the extreme in the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (written by fellow Yorkshireman Roy Clarke) where Patricia Routledge, who has been cast in a number of Bennett’s plays, hams it up as the eccentric, social-climbing snob Hyacinth Bucket (which she pronounces “bou-quet”) and we just love to see humiliated week in and week out. She starred in Bennett’s play, A Woman of No Importance, which was televised six years before Talking Heads but was also a dramatic monologue and paved the way for the creation of the series. The story is typically Bennett:
Peggy Schofield, clerical worker and self-described linchpin of her office, finds that when her strict regime is disrupted, her world crumbles around her. Her health deteriorates and she is rapidly spirited away to hospital, where she reconstructs her office routine, appropriating doctors, other hospital staff and patients as replacements for her co-workers. It is soon revealed, through hints that she has lost her job and her co-workers haven't bothered to visit, that she is not as popular and significant as she assumed. – Wikipedia
This is not a million miles away from the character she came to play in the second Talking Heads, A Lady of Letters, where she is cast as Irene Ruddock, a compulsive letter writer and interfering busybody whose conflated sense of her own importance lands her in hot water. Here’s a short clip from an interview in which she talks about being approached to do the first play:
from an interview with Alan Titchmarsh
Bennett had hoped to have directed A Woman of No Importance, in fact he admitted that was partly in his mind when he wrote the script, but, in the end, Giles Foster did the honours. Foster can be credited with coming up with the title Talking Heads because that was his initial opinion of A Woman of No Importance; he was worried that the public might dismiss the play as “talking heads” the standard euphemism in the trade for televisual boredom. What he was missing is that people like being told stories. All he had to look at was the long-running children’s programme Jackanory which, especially in the early days, involved little more than a person sitting in a chair reading a story. Bennett himself read his first one in 1968, The House at Pooh Corner.
In the Talking Heads monologues these people get to tell their stories. In his introduction to the published texts he calls them “artless” – “They don’t quite know what they are saying and are telling a story to the meaning of which they are not entirely privy.”
They address us personally. There is next-to-no action. Occasionally they’ll shift position, fiddle with a prop or the screen will fade to grey and open in another location with the same person sitting perhaps in an easy chair this time rather than at a table. Sometimes time passes, occasionally months even but every time we return to our storyteller they’re alone in a room, a living room, a bedroom, a hotel room, a prison cell; two of the characters finally wind up in jail. In the hands of a lesser writer these would have had people switching channels in their droves but they entranced audiences and even though the Talking Heads have dried up the BBC has recorded a number of short films since (Bennett on Bennett, Telling Tales) where all we have is Bennett reminiscing talking directly to the camera and no one seems to mind a bit.
He told the writer, George Brandt, in an informal interview where the idea for the plays probably had its roots:
My mother had two sisters and one of them used to tell you everything that happened to her in Proustian detail. She worked in a shoe shop in Leeds, and used to come up after work and tell you everything. And when she’d gone, my dad used to say, “I wouldn’t care but you’re no further on when she’s finished.
If there is one character that embodies what these monologues is about it’s probably Stephanie Cole’s portrayal of Muriel in Soldiering On, who, following the death of her husband, finds herself backed further and further into a corner due to relying on her inept – possibly dishonest – son. Like a female Job she takes whatever life throws at her squarely on her very square chin:
I wouldn’t want you to think this was a tragic story . . . I’m not a tragic woman . . . I’m not that type.
She is the epitome of British stiff-upper-lipedness. Those are her final words to us sitting in her drab flatlet as she picks up her Walkman and headphones with which insulates herself from any disturbing thoughts or doubts that might creep into her mind.
Pathos is hard to pull off. An appeal to pathos asks an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the character on stage and say: “They are one of us,” as Rosemarie Jarski put it. It doesn’t matter that Graham is gay and I’m not, that Susan has a drink problem and I never have or that Miss Fozzard is avaricious and I’m certainly not. They’re all ordinary people like me. A dramatic monologue is not a soliloquy, these people are not talking to themselves, they’re addressing us directly, they make eye contact, and they desperately want to be understood. They don’t orate. They don’t declaim. They simply tell their tales: this is how I got to be here.
When Bennett was thinking about writing his first monologue he recalled an earlier play, A Visit from Miss Prothero, where an office worker, a fussy middle-aged spinster (played again by Routledge), visits her (up until then) happily retired boss and tells him about how they’ve reorganised the office since he left scrapping a billing system he spent four years perfecting, essentially informing him that his life’s work has been effectively destroyed. (You can watch a clip here.) Bennett says:
It’s quite funny but she’s a really unpleasant person. Anyway, when I started thinking about doing another one, I thought, Well, it’s the same sort of person, and then I thought, Well, the more you know about her the more you perhaps come to understand a person like that.
But here’s the key point: Bennett felt that to allow her to tell her story in her own words would be “somehow to redeem her.” Why are all these characters talking at us? Why do they insist on us hearing their tales? There’s a touch of the Ancient Mariner about all of them, talking themselves towards redemption. The jabbering trio is Beckett’s Play also come to mind.
I’m not sure I could pick a favourite. I can tell you that Thora Hird work the BAFTA for Best Actress for both her roles in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee and Waiting for the Telegram and Maggie Smith won a Royal Television Society award for Best Actress for A Bed Among the Lentils. I have to admit though a fondness for Penelope Wilton’s portrayal of Rosemary in Nights in the Gardens of Spain but frankly there’s not a bad performance in the lot of them.
Thora Hird’s characterisations are worthy of special note. Her career spanned eight decades beginning in repertory theatre and she continued working right up until her death in her nineties with a small part in Roy Clarke's, Last of the Summer Wine. Best known as a comic actress she appeared in a number of Bennett’s plays. In an audio recording of one of his diary entries Alan Bennett tells an anecdote about Thora from her memorial service at Westminster Abbey:
In his book, Writing Home, Bennett mentions a 1979 TV film, Afternoon Off, which featured Thora as a patient in hospital being visited by her husband:
‘I bet the house is upside down,’ she says to him.
‘It never is,’ says her husband. ‘I did the kitchen floor this morning.’
‘What bucket did you use?’
‘The red one.’
She is outraged. ‘That’s the outside bucket. I shall have it all to do again.’
After giving us this brief excerpt, Bennett explains where the idea for this little interchange originated:
I am assuming this is common ground and that the tortuous boundary between the clean and the dirty is a frontier most households share. It was very marked in ours. My mother maintained an intricate hierarchy of cloths, buckets and dusters to the Byzantine differentiations of which she alone was privy. Some cloths were dishcloths but not sink cloths; some were for the sink but not for the floor. There were dirty buckets and clean buckets, brushes for indoors, brushes for the flags. One mop had a universal application while another had a unique and terrible purpose and had to be kept outside, hung on the wall. And however rinsed and clean these utensils were they remained tainted by their awful function.
This scene is not a uniquely Northern one, not by any manner or means, but this is precisely the kind of thing that Bennett hones in on in his writing; the devil is in the detail. We’ve just had a flood, Carrie and I. The little girl upstairs turned on all the taps and we were the recipients of several gallons of murky-coloured water filtered through their floor and our ceiling. While Carrie hammered on their door I got busy arranging buckets and towels under the worst leaks only to find myself chided, once things had calmed down and the drips subsided, for not knowing that there were towels specifically set aside for this purpose in (of all places wouldn’t you know) the towel cupboard.
My parents were both Northerners and so I grew up hearing the pair of them express their views on the world and on each other and I wish I’d written down some of the things they said. The simple fact is that both of them, but especially my mother, would have been an endless source of inspiration. That said although my mother was one for most of my life I’ve never been able to equate her with the type of over-fifty ladies that seem to fascinate Bennett. Of course she loved to gossip. I’ve never met a woman who didn’t love to gossip although the same goes for most of the men I’ve known too; they just use fewer words. Which brings me to a wee anecdote by someone I can only identify as ‘Graham’ who left it in a comment on a video clip in YouTube; a glimpse of the ‘real Alan Bennett’ perhaps:
Funny how oblivious he is to being famous.
He was in the queue in front of me in 'Fresh And Wild' – a shop in Camden and I started to talk to him about an old cassette I had of his called Poetry in Motion and he chatted away to me as though he knew me.
As we spoke I was aware of part of my brain thinking "you're talking to one of Britain's major writers" but he seemed to think he was gossiping to a neighbour.
He gathered his shopping and said "Ok – see you!"
It was an amazing experience.
If you’ve never heard of Alan Bennett then please do yourself a favour and take the time to get acquainted with him. If you’re not a Brit you might still have come across his work. He was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of his stage play The Madness of George III. The film had to be called The Madness of King George because it was thought that Americans would think it a sequel and avoid it otherwise. Anyway, this is what The New York Times had to say:
Alan Bennett playwright, writer, actor, comedian and chronically embarrassed person -- was nominated for an Academy Award last year for the screenplay of The Madness of King George, but he didn't go to Hollywood, put on formal dress or even watch the awards on television. He just went to bed.
Reminds one a little of a certain New York filmmaker who prefers to play the clarinet with his mates rather than go hobnobbing with superstars, stars and wannabe-stars. I mentioned that no one writes embarrassment like Alan Bennett, well, how does his portrait of the King of England compare to his more modest offerings? In an interview he says:
George III, for one, is nervous and shy, like many royals. His bluntness and heartiness proceed from social unease. But his role is to present himself as King. When madness sets in, he drops this façade; he isn't embarrassed anymore. Embarrassment is a continuing theme in my work. I can't say I'm George III, but I certainly understand him!
The Madness of King George (trailer) (1994)
From king to tramps it doesn’t seem to matter. Alan Bennett could have easily written Waiting for Godot. I can just see his Didi saying to Gogo: “Nowt t’be done, lad.” Many of his characters are waiting for something that will never come or at least may never come trapped within unforgiving lives or unalterable personalities, marooned and alone.
Two things inspired this essay. The first was discovering a book in the local library entitled Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking which I took out mainly because no one had borrowed it since August 2002 and I felt sorry for it; the second was a poem by Dave King:
Voices in his head
Alan Bennett's Talking Heads
silent now - writer's block?
I asked him what inspired the piece and he told me:
Alan Bennett told an audience a couple of nights ago that his Talking Heads had been drawn from voices that he heard in his head. Now they are not there anymore. He doesn't hear them and the scripts have dried up. He has tried to write new scripts, but he can't. Some newspaper articles have described it as a specific form of writer’s block.
I can’t pretend for a second I wouldn’t jump at the chance to see a new monologue by Bennett. The BBC had a little retrospective recently and I watched all but one of the plays and I was miffed at myself because the one I missed, A Woman of No Importance, I’d never seen before. But if he never wrote another monologue he can die happy in the knowledge that he has raised the bar exceedingly high.
If there’s one thing that Bennett could be accused of doing wrong, wrong that is if he ever wanted to be truly remembered as a great British playwright, it was this: fellow Northerner Victoria Wood hits the nail on the head when she said of him, "I really think he's been underestimated over the years because he's accessible and that somehow is considered less worthy than being obscure." Incidentally she said this following the 2005 Olivier Awards where his play The History Boys won three prizes and he himself was presented with a special award for his outstanding contribution to British theatre.
We started this with Maggie Smith and I think it’s only fair we end with her. She’s like me, an honorary Northerner, born in Essex to a Glaswegian mother and a Geordie father. Apart from her award-winning casting in A Bed Among the Lentils she also received great acclaim for her performance as Miss Shepherd in Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. Miss Shepherd is not a fictional creation despite bearing all the hallmarks of one. She lived in a van in Camden Town and briefly parked her van in his garden except that what he had intended as a short time to help her out ended up lasting fifteen years. No writer could have asked to be imposed upon by a more inspiring character who constantly spoke in anecdotes. All the man had to do was write them down which he did in his diaries many of which have been published; indeed an annual event is the appearance of selected entries from his diaries in the London Review of Books.
If he did not always feel generous ("One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation"), he always acted generously. To allow this radical intrusion in a quiet life seems the emblem of English accommodation. But, Bennett insists, "allow isn't quite the word. I was just faced with her – it was like Eleanor Roosevelt moving in! I just got used to it. I know this sounds odiously modest, but I don't think it needed much goodness. It's more laziness. Just as you can do harm by being lazy, you can do some good as well."
As you can probably appreciate this article only skirts over Alan Bennett’s output. All you have to do is skip to the bottom of his Wikipedia entry to see what he’s been doing for the last fifty years. He’s not been idle. Don’t be put off by expressions like, “Mozart of the mundane” or “bard of the drab” – they’re meant to be affectionate pokes at him but they really sell him short. He is to the ordinary what Beckett was to the downtrodden, a voice crying in the wilderness.
I’ll leave you with Maggie Smith in A Bed Among the Lentils, the only Talking Heads incidentally directed by Bennett himself. “Bennett says that the idea for the piece came to him from finding the words ‘Get lost, Jesus’ written in ‘tiny, timid letters’ in a hymn book at his school.” The play is a brilliant analysis of the role of women (wives especially), the diminishing power of religion and the changing face of English society. Unlike A Woman of No Importance Bennett did not begin the play with Smith in mind – “I didn’t think she’d do it,” he admitted, “She’s very choosy.” – but he’d worked with her before and they’d got on well so he sent the play straight to her bypassing her agent. And, to his surprise, she liked it. She had very little time to prepare having only a single day’s break between completing her last job and beginning this one. You’d never know it but Bennett believes that much of the subtlety in her performance comes from her thinking on her feet. It is an acting master class.
The comparison to Beckett’s Happy Days is an easy one to make. Winnie is, of course, literally buried; Susan, figuratively so, and, as the play progresses we see her sink deeper and deeper. She begins the play as a social embarrassment but is still allowed a certain freedom of expression; she can go where she wants and do what she wants as long as she does it quietly. By the end, when she gets transformed into a paragon (I choose my words carefully) she has become completely entrenched, buried up to her neck in a life from which there is no escape.
MORE COMPLETE PLAYS AVAILABLE ONLINE
Say Something Happened (1982) (5 parts)
Intensive Care (1982) (9 parts)
A Lady of Letters (1988) (4 parts)
Playing Sandwiches (1998) (4 parts)
 Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, p. 13
 Alan Bennett, Writing Home, pp. 43,44
 Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, p. 7
 Ibid, p. 22
 Alan Bennett, Writing Home, pp. 441,442
 Sarah Lyall, ‘Home Is the Place That Is Heartening For Alan Bennett’, The New York Times, 19 October 1995
 Daphne Turner, Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking, p. 57