Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads 2020 show their age

TV review: They are most satisfying when Bennett lets his penchant for the grisly take over

Alan Bennett occupies a sacrosanct place in English drama and the original Talking Heads, which aired in two runs in 1988 and 1998, is revered as a classic of British television. But how does it translate for an Irish audience, which may be less taken with Bennett's triple-brewed Yorkshire idioms or the quintessential Englishness of his wry, starchy monologues?

This new revival was conceived by the BBC in response to the coronavirus crisis. The pieces are shot in the temporarily deserted EastEnders complex at Elstree Studios, with the actors performing alone to camera. It is a format that could have been dreamt up especially for the age of social distancing.

Bennett has paired 10 of the original monologues with an all-new cast, and written two new scripts (which he actually has had ready to go for a number of years). It’s a mixed bag frankly with some of the instalments showing their age.

For instance, watching Her Big Chance, it's hard to get past the naivety of Jodie Comer as a wide-eyed actress suckered into making soft-porn in Germany. Nobody in 2020 could be so innocent.


In the latest episode, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet (BBC One, Wednesday) Maxine Peake, meanwhile, plays a middle-aged Leeds woman drawn into an unlikely dalliance with a widowed shoe-fetishist. Again, her credulousness is difficult to credit, even if the story is apparently set in the mid-1970s (when the soft-furnishings store where Miss Fozzard works last traded). This tangled tale of stomping boots and pervy chiropodists never rings true.

More satisfying by far are the episodes where Bennett allows his penchant for the grisly take over, such as A Lady Of Letters. Here Imelda Staunton, inheriting the part from Patricia "Hyacinth Bucket" Routledge, chills as a curtain twitcher whose campaign of hateful letter writing, directed at an unhappy family across the road, has terrible consequences.

Of the new new monologues The Shrine works better, with Monica Dolan mesmerising as a woman wrestling with grief. It is raw and devastating, which is more than can be said for An Ordinary Woman, where Sarah Lancashire is a mother with an unhealthy obsession with her teenage son.

It’s a struggle to see what wider human truth Bennett is confronting, and Lancashire’s character is far too guileless to take seriously. An Ordinary Woman is also incredibly bleak and it seems reasonable to wonder whether, in what are already dark times, there is really any purpose to wallowing in the misery of strangers.