Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is a treat – and proves reviving old shows can work if done right

The remade series is a highlight of the lockdown TV schedules, says Patrick Cremona.

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Imelda Staunton in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads

The coronavirus lockdown has been something of a strange time for TV. Although many shows had already completed production long before quarantine was declared mandatory – and there was therefore a stockpile of programmes ready to be broadcast – we’ve also seen a range of new formats inspired by lockdown conditions. Dramas including Jeff Pope’s collection of ITV shorts Isolation Stories and more recently the joyous six-part series Staged, which starred David Tennant and Michael Sheen as fictionalised versions of themselves, have been joined on the TV schedules by a variety of one off events and new entertainment shows, such as one Channel 4 series that allows viewers to spy on celebrity homes with the help of their “Snoop Dogs“.

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However, perhaps the best move made by television executives since the lockdown began is not introducing a new format, but rather reviving an old one. The decision made by the BBC to bring back Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues is an inspired piece of scheduling – especially given the quite incredible cast that has been assembled to perform the pieces, with the participating thespians including the likes of Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman and Imelda Staunton.

Now, normally I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to the endless cycle of reboots and remakes. I often find myself asking if we really need yet another adaptation of A Christmas Carol, for example, while I frequently despair when I see that Hollywood are planning an urgent remake of a successful foreign language film, or yet another reboot of a now-tired franchise. Where’s the originality, I ask myself, where are the fresh ideas?

But Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads proves that, when done right, reviving an old series can actually work a treat. There are a number of reasons why this particular reboot can be considered a success. For one, these monologues always served as, first and foremost, an excellent showcase of acting talent – and so seeing a different generation of performers put their own stamp on such iconic pieces of drama is extremely rewarding. Bennett’s scripts remain as sharp and darkly comic as they always were, full of lonely protagonists, camp Northern humour, and frequent appearances from all manner of vicars, coppers and, in one case, murderous husbands. Who wouldn’t want to see such established stars  as Lesley Manville and Harriet Walter follow in the footsteps of the likes of Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge (which you can rewatch via an Amazon DVD) by giving their own interpretation of these expertly drawn characters?

And, as if that wasn’t enough, the series is bolstered by the addition of two brand new monologues – An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine, performed by Sarah Lancashire and Monica Dolan. These two scripts might have been written decades later than the original lot, but you could hardly tell – all the Bennett hallmarks are present in as much force as ever, with An Ordinary Woman in particular imbued with a real sense of tragic darkness.

But perhaps the thing that really makes this revival work is that from a thematic perspective it couldn’t have come at a better time. Many of the characters in the series are connected by a sense of isolation – they’re not locked indoors, perhaps, but they’re certainly characterised by a profound loneliness – and that will no doubt chime with many viewers in the age of lockdown, at a time when people up and down the country have found themselves cut off from family and friends.

Everyone will have a different favourite episode – personally I found it hard to look past Imelda Staunton as the pompous, busy-body neighbour in A Lady of Letters, while I was also charmed by Martin Freeman’s performance in A Chip in the Sugar, the monologue that was originally performed by none other than Bennett himself. But you could equally find that Jodie Comer’s naive young actress in Her Big Chance is the one that works best for you, or that you are especially impressed by Rochenda Sandall’s disgruntled, suspicious housewife in The Outside Dog. And surely the simple fact that it’s so difficult to pick one stand out episode is proof alone that the series is a triumph.

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So while I’m not suddenly a convert to the school of endless reboots and remakes – and I’m certainly not proposing that we start bringing back these monologues with new performers every couple of years – in this case I reckon that the timing, the array of acting talent involved and the addition of new material combine to ensure that this is a clear highlight of lockdown TV.

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads begins on BBC One at 9pm on Tuesday 23rd June with a double-bill featuring Imelda Staunton in A Lady of Letters and Sarah Lancashire in An Ordinary Woman. All 12 Talking Heads will be available to stream as a boxset on BBC iPlayer.
If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.
You can also buy the DVD boxset of the original Talking Heads here on Amazon.