The words “national treasure” are bandied about quite a lot these days. But surely no one is more genuinely deserving of that title than Alan Bennett. The ever-green author, who is now in his 86th year, has been entertaining the nation through television, film, radio, plays and memoirs for decades. Bennett first appeared on the cultural landscape as a fresh faced academic in the company of Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Millar. The group were catapulted to international fame and success thanks to the hit show Beyond the Fringe and in the years that followed all four would go on to excel in different areas of the arts – Cook and Moore as performers, Millar as a director and of course Bennett as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Despite his immense literary back catalogue Bennett is perhaps best known for a piece of television so simple and elementary that it is almost inconceivable by modern standards. Imagine a single person, sitting in a room, telling you a story. That’s it. Just one actor, no elaborate period costumes, no one on horseback, no car chases, no explosions, no one screaming or running down a busy street. Just an average looking person with a cup of tea telling their story directly to the audience.
Talking Heads was a series about ordinary people and everyday life; about the seemingly unimportant and inconsequential happenings of domestic strife, personal tragedy, love, loss and regret. And that, of course, was the secret of its tremendous appeal. Bennett who grew up in a typical working class environment learned early on that there is nothing that any of us enjoy more than a good story, a bit of gossip told across the kitchen table or over the back fence. Good writers know that what people really care about is people. We love to hear about other people’s lives; their happiness brings us some relief and a sense of hope while their misfortunes give us comfort and reassurance us that we are not alone in our own personal struggles.
Bennett’s great genius as a writer has always been in the presentation of characters that we all recognise – the hen-pecked son, the unhappy housewife, the nosey neighbour. But far from presenting these architypes as caricatures Bennett manages to imbue his creations with a soul – that indefinable spark of humanity which makes them truly real and relatable.
The first series of Talking Heads appeared on our screens in 1988, the six monologues featured such luminaries as Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith and of course Bennett himself. Bennett playing Graham, a middle aged man who lives with his elderly mother. Graham’s life is turned upside down when his mother begins a whirlwind romance with an old flame.
A decade later, in 1998, Talking Heads returned to our screens with six new stories; once again featuring the cream of British acting talent. Thora Hird, at the age of 87, won a BAFTA for her heart-wrenching performance in Waiting For the Telegram.
A New Cast
In April 2020 the BBC announced that they would be remaking ten of Bennett’s original Talking Heads along with two new pieces written by Bennett just last year.
The new series, like the original, features an assortment of the Britain’s best performers taking on the iconic roles; familiar faces like Tamsin Greig, Imelda Staunton and Martin Freeman as well as Jodie Comer, star of the hit series, Killing Eve.
The rationale for revisiting Talking Heads at this particular time is not hard to understand. With Britain on lockdown due to coronavirus all television production, including soap operas, comedies and drama are on hold. With schedules running dry the BBC desperately needed something they could film under lockdown conditions. And so the broadcaster turned to director and long-time Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner with the idea of reviving Talking Heads.
Hytner was given just a matter of weeks to assemble the cast and produce the series. The make-do-and-mend nature of the production is reflected in the use of the Eastenders’ set as the location for the filming.
Eagle eyed viewers might recognise that Lesley Manville is seated in what is otherwise Phil Mitchell’s living room or that Sarah Lancashire is loading the washing machine upstairs at the Queen Vic.
The use of the Eastenders set seems oddly fitting in a way. In 2008, June Brown, who plays Dot in EastEnders, delivered an episode-long, award-winning monologue about her hospitalised husband, Jim, in what was an obvious homage to Talking Heads.
Great television, like great art, holds up a mirror to real life. This was true of Talking Heads the first time around and perhaps it is even truer now. After three months of lockdown we could all use a visit from a familiar face, a cup of tea and a good chat or a nice juicy bit of gossip.
When is Talking Heads on TV?
The first two episodes of Talking Heads will appear on BBC One on Tuesday 23rd June from 9pm. The episodes feature Imelda Staunton in A Lady of Letters and Sarah Lancashire in An Ordinary Woman.
All twelve episodes will also be made available to watch on the BBC iPlayer from the 23rd June, while also continuing to air on BBC One over the coming fortnight.