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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 13:54   #1
John Self
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Default Talking Heads

...by which I mean to refer not to David Byrne's jitterpop 80s outfit, worthy of a thread of their own as they undoubtedly are, but Alan Bennett's series of monologues for BBC TV.

Odd to remember now, as The Complete Talking Heads is released on DVD today (Buy this from Amazon), that there were two series, as the second one is mostly forgotten. Maybe it was because the first series, broadcast in 1987, could never be supplanted in our affections (and I blithely presume I speak for the entire nation here). Each one is so distinct and memorable that even though I haven't seen them in 10 or more years, I can still remember entire scenes and nuances of performance: Julie Walters as the washed-up actress unknowingly signed up for a porn film ("Normally I like homosexuals... but I think he must be one of the ones that's turned bitter"); Stephanie Cole being swindled out of her husband's estate by her devious son; Alan Bennett himself playing repressed mother's boy Graham in A Chip in the Sugar. The one most people remember is Thora Hird, in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee (which along with the previous title, makes it seem as though there is a formula at work here), as a pensioner who has fallen in her home and can't (or won't) get help. For me though the best of the first series was the incomparable Patricia Routledge as A Lady of Letters, whose fondness for writing to people with corrective measures proves her undoing, and superbly achieves that overused critical appraisal: both funny and moving. I can still remember almost jumping out of my skin with shock when she recounts the conversation that reveals to her why her new neighbours' little boy has gone away.

By and large the protagonists are deluded, not privy to the things we ourselves know about them through their storytelling. This could seem tricksy but because of Bennett's well-known ability to fabricate naturalistic-sounding speech out of highly artificial elements, it always comes off.

So if the first series of Talking Heads was one of the greatest TV shows ever made - and it was, so there - what happened to the second? Perhaps I will find out when I watch them that there was no fall in quality at all. But I think part of the problem was the casting of several of the same actresses - Hird and Routledge at least - in new roles, which were always going to seem like adjuncts to the original people they played. I do remember David Haig's gentle paedophile in Playing Sandwiches - which was brought to mind when I saw Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman earlier this year - but not much else.

The DVD set also includes Telling Tales, which sounds familiar but I can't place it. Bennett monologuing himself about his childhood, perhaps?
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 14:11   #2
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Default Re: Talking Heads

The transcript of Talking Heads (Buy this from Amazon) reads as well as it listens although it's impossible not to read it to yourself in the style of the TV series actors. My favourite story is the one about the quite refined lady who is having an passionate affair with the corner shop owner, but in his unique style you only find out what's really going on right at the very end.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 14:18   #3
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Default Re: Talking Heads

I'm off to see Bennett's The History Boys for my birthday treat this Saturday

I recall them exactly as you say, John. And was it Maggie Smith in the one you mention, chillicheese? I recall I didn't watch the second series as I thought they would be thin repeats of the ones from series 1.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 14:23   #4
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Default Re: Talking Heads

I can't remember who played the corner shop's best customer - maybe I never saw it on TV, maybe that's why it was my favourite to read.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 14:39   #5
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Default Re: Talking Heads

Yes I think it was Maggie Smith - a very Alan Bennettish type actress, you might say; one would be surprised if she hadn't made an appearance in one of them - though I only know this by reading about it in a bit of recent publicity fluff about the DVD release. I am pretty sure I never saw this one.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 15:05   #6
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Default Re: Talking Heads

got it, Bed Among the Lentils, and yes it was Maggie Smith playing the vicar's wife.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 15:08   #7
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Default Re: Talking Heads

Yes, they were all delicious, in the way you describe. The Heads do not realise what they are telling us about themselves.

Some of them DO go on a bit, though. I remember we didn't see the end of some of them because of ennui in the middle.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 16:23   #8
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Default Re: Talking Heads

Quote:
Originally Posted by chillicheese
got it, Bed Among the Lentils, and yes it was Maggie Smith playing the vicar's wife.
Full of great lines. She's alcoholic and the communion wine was snaffled; she replaced it with diluted Benylin from memory? And as for the corner shop owner, I liked her comment that she never understood why the staff were rude to her when she was buying booze; 'and to think of the money I've put over that counter'. Wonderful stuff.

Talking Heads 1 was just superb; like others I can remember great reams of the sketches. I recall the second series starting off on an odd note for me and somehow it didn't quite bite as hard as the first.

But between the two was a documentary with Alan Bennett and he took the crew to a hotel to candidly film the northern classes playing at posh and being on their Sunday best behaviour. I think it was filmed at Harrogate but will happily stand corrected if not. For those who didn't spend time in Bennett territory, you would readily see from the real life quotes how true to life his characters are. My favourte during the documentary was where a woman said to her husband words to the effect of "Quick, don't leave that toast, eat it up; the waiter will be coming over in a minute"; as if leaving something on your plate was the absolute height of bad manners. With such real life material to work from no wonder his characters are as brilliant as they are.
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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 16:58   #9
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Default Re: Talking Heads

For all us ardent Alan Bennett fans - there's another treat in store. He's recently brought out another delicious slab of memoirs called Untold Stories. I ordered it off Amazon last week. If it's half as good as Writing Home, his first batch of memoirs that included the fabulous The Lady in the Van, then we all in for a real treat. (Buy this from Amazon)

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Old 3rd Oct 2005, 17:33   #10
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Default Re: Talking Heads

Yes, I've got Untold Stories on my to-be-bought list. Only bum note I think is that it includes his recent plays (inc. The History Boys), which seems a bit like mixing your genres to me. The essence of Writing Home was that it was readable in little snatches. At 600-odd pages, I wouldn't have thought they needed the padding for Untold Stories.

I guess Telling Tales must be the documentary idioteque mentions. Anyway, now I have the box of The Complete Talking Heads in my grubby hands (well, this new Berliner Guardian smudges so much more than the old one), I can see that the episodes and performers are as follows:

Series 1
A Chip in the Sugar - Alan Bennett
A Lady of Letters - Patricia Routledge
Bed Among the Lentils - Maggie Smith
Soldiering On - Stephanie Cole
Her Big Chance - Julie Walters
A Cream Cracker Under the Settee - Thora Hird

Series 2
Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet - Patricia Routledge
The Hand of God - Eileen Atkins (who she?)
Playing Sandwiches - David Haig
The Outside Dog - Julie Walters
Nights in the Gardens of Spain - Penelope Wilton
Waiting for the Telegram - Thora Hird

Any of the second series titles ring any bells?
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