Talking Heads by Alan Bennett

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BBC Radio 7, 5 March 2011
Much has already been written about Bennett's series of monologues, which first saw the light of day on BBC Television, and were subsequently directed for radio by Matthew Walters and David Hitchenson. Bennett informed us in an introductory talk that Talking Heads had now become a set text for 'A'-Level English, which meant that he now received scores of letters from students seeking to know the plays' inner meaning. Bennett admitted that he could not provide answers; perhaps the writer was not the right person to ask.
As I listened to the five monologues once more - A Chip in the Sugar (performed by Bennett himself), A Lady of Letters (Patricia Routledge), Her Big Chance (Julie Walters), Soldiering On (Stephanie Cole), and A Cream Cracker Under the Settee (Thora Hird), I became aware of just how unpleasant many of the speakers were. The aging mummy's boy Graham (A Chip in the Sugar), and the letter-writing spinster Irene (A Lady of Letters) were both racist, while Doris (A Chip in the Sugar) distrusted her home help with the foreign-sounding name. Julie Walters's bit-part actor (Her Big Chance) willingly subjected herself to the indignities of a porn film, while insisting that she was discovering the motivations behind her character. Cole's Muriel (Soldiering On) wilfully blinded herself to the evil lurking within her family, with a child-molesting husband and a swindling son. I felt that if the speakers had spent less time using words to cover up rather than articulate their inner feelings, they might have been more comfortable with themselves and those around them.
Of course, one could argue that this was Bennett's purpose - to focus on the lives of a series of unhappy people totally deficient in self-awareness. Graham's insecurities were revealed as his mother found an old boyfriend and contemplated moving in with him, leaving Graham to fend for himself. Irene always believed herself in the right, as she wrote her letters, while being totally unaware of the hurt they could cause. Doris refused any offers of help, even though she was unable to more from her living-room floor.
At the same time I couldn't help but wish that Bennett himself would move outside the narrow sphere of ersatz middle- or lower-middle class gentility characteristic of these monologues (that conceals racist attitudes, as well as inhibiting the development of personality) and write about different people's lives. After nearly three hours of listening to Talking Heads, I had to admit to feeling a little exhausted by the characters' relentless chatter.