Culture Film & TV

Talking Heads: Alan Bennett’s Elegy for the Everyday

Art does not have to transcend life; sometimes, it can sit alongside it. James Joyce knew this when, towards the end of the “Calypso” episode of his book Ulysses, he chose to place his middle-aged protagonist Leopold Bloom on the toilet. Sat in his outhouse with a newspaper in his hand, Bloom tries to focus on his reading matter whilst wilfully straining to void his bowels, and you, the reader, are perhaps jolted into a moment of sudden self-consciousness. That could just as easily be me, you think. Here I am, smug and self-secure with my nose in a modernist classic – but still I have to wash the dishes, feed the cat, powder my nose… Joyce’s point is simple: however refined your aesthetic inclinations, we’re all shackled to the prosaic and vulgar truths of day-to-day reality. Ordinary life doesn’t skimp on boring and embarrassing details – so why should art? Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, a remake of the classic TV show from the ‘80s and ‘90s now available to watch on BBC iPlayer, isn’t as scatological as the foregoing example, but it abides by a similar principle. At its heart, it’s a programme about everyday mundanity, a direct line into the inner lives of ordinary people whose unassuming exteriors invariably hide a troubling core that is as complex and sympathetic as any you are likely to encounter.

“A Chip In The Sugar”, the first of the episodes initially broadcast on BBC One in 1988, is a case in point. The original stars Bennett himself in the role of Graham Whittaker, a nervy, middle-aged man whose life revolves around his mother. When we first encounter Graham, he is in a moment of crisis: he and his mother have just bumped into an old flame of hers, Mr. Turnbull, and it’s clear that the two are keen to rekindle their erstwhile romance. This sudden change threatens to destabilise Graham completely, and, as Turnbull’s presence continues to encroach upon his close-knit relationship with his mother, his already dubious psychological state threatens to unravel even further… 

For those who have seen the 1988 version, Alan Bennett is Graham; his inimitable facial tics, his plaintive Yorkshire cadence, and his air of genial pedantry are almost as integral to “A Chip In The Sugar” as the words spoken and the story told. It’s no real surprise that Bennett inhabited this role with such ease; after all, most of the characters of Talking Heads are gifted with a knack for pithy observation that ultimately reflects the writer’s own, and Graham is no different. All the same, Martin Freeman, who stars in the 2020 remake of the monologue, still manages to make his mark. He may lack Bennett’s idiosyncratically characterful face, but his rendition of the classic material is engaging and touching by turns, even if it does utilise a lot of the time-worn tics with which inveterate Freeman fans will be well familiar.

The sudden reappearance of Talking Heads on our screens can probably be explained by the fact that its direct-to-camera monologue format made it comparatively easy to film in compliance with lockdown restrictions, so it’s no great surprise that this isn’t a radical reinterpretation of Bennett’s material. Still, it’s nice to have a version of the monologues that feels so contemporary: the modern settings, new actors and high-definition camera quality restore the immediacy to a work that, in its original, 1988 wrapping, couldn’t help but appear a little dated. Some things have, of course, changed, but much of the material is still affecting, largely because it creates sympathy for the frustration, loneliness, anxiety and chronic unhappiness of its protagonists in a way that TV, with its smaller scale and essentially commonplace character, is uniquely positioned to foster. 

Graham’s monologue in “A Chip In The Sugar” is a kind of confession, after all, and an inevitably compromised one, full of the kinds of half-truths, lacunae and innuendos that always emerge when people tell stories about themselves. Some of the most painful aspects of his narrative are adumbrated but never fully revealed, and the viewer must construct a picture of a life that only comes into view slowly over the course of the episode’s 35-minute runtime. This is what makes Talking Heads feel like unusually participatory television: the constant tension between disclosure and reticence, which demands that we not merely look on with the casual interest of a detached observer, but listen instead with the ear of a compassionate friend, in order to comprehend the psychodrama that exercises Graham and shows through obliquely in his speech like bubbles breaking on the surface of a lake. 

As with Leopold Bloom’s outhouse in Ulysses, Talking Heads doesn’t shy away from the banal details of everyday life. Many of the glossy prestige dramas that garner critical acclaim place a premium on escapism, but Bennett’s drama zeroes in on the minutiae of daily life instead, and thus draws attention to one of the most underrated strengths of the smaller screen: its mundanity. Television is a superlatively everyday medium, however frequently it might fail to recognise this quality in itself. When Talking Heads first aired in 1988, a lot of TV borrowed techniques from theatre or cinema: but while theatre is usually written to be performed in a dedicated space set deliberately apart from the workaday world, and most films are intended for the big screen, television is always made with the living room in mind. Now that we can watch it almost anywhere, its ability to insinuate itself into the prosaic rituals of our lives is more apparent than ever. By focusing on the travails of normal people, who tell their stories sat in rooms that resemble the ones in which we live, work, and watch TV, Talking Heads invites us into a world at once private and familiar, and tells us stories that we can relate to because they happen amidst the selfsame clutter and mess of daily life which accompany our own personal trials and triumphs. With the production line for big-budget dramas indefinitely halted by lockdown restrictions, Talking Heads is a timely reminder of television’s true métier: the ability, first and foremost, to depict everyday lives in a way that touches our own. What Bennett accomplishes is the figurative equivalent of seating his characters on the toilet – individuals at their most undignified, unflattering, exposed. Thank God he didn’t opt for a more literal approach.

Oscar Jelley

Oscar Jelley is in his second year studying German and Philosophy at Christ Church. Under normal circumstances, his default pint is a Guinness.