Saturday 3 April 2021

The everyday as exceptional

The Complete Talking Heads I studied Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at school and even forty years on I can recall, probably inaccurately, some of the wonderful language. The teacher had to explain what it was that would have made Queen Elizabeth 1 and her court laugh, although as a teenager it was enough to know that one of the characters is called Sir Toby Belch. The thing was tho', the play was rather dry and stolid on the page, and it was only when a group of us went to the theatre to see it performed that it came alive.

And so, I was wary of expecting too much from Alan Bennett's "The Complete Talking Heads", a collection of 13 monologues that were originally dramatised on TV. There was a pilot episode, then two series, narrated by people talking about their lives, speaking from their own home, occasionally from an institutional room. Bennett says that "To watch a monologue on the screen is closer to reading a short story than watching a play", and I hoped that reading the scripts would be close to watching them performed.

In the pilot monologue, "A Woman of No Importance", Miss Schofield elevates her humdrum life into one of comedy and tragedy. She is the voice of women I grew up with, which is not surprising as Bennett is about my parents' age and was raised not too far from my own home town. The northern English voice is soothing in its rhythms and phrases, and the character is able to talk about nothing yet sound interesting. Her constant refrain, "we laughed", reflects how she deals with life's difficulties, a shorthand for the platitude "if you didn't laugh, you'd cry".

The first series stories are narrated by people who mostly have to deal with everyday problems. My favourite was "Bed Among the Lentils", which puts a vicar's wife into the spotlight. Her own identity has been suffocated by her position, and she questions why she must attend church, grumbling that no-one asks her opinion about God. "Not that it matters", she says, "So long as you can run a tight jumble sale you can believe in what you like."

In the later, second series of monologues there are more external forces at play in the lives of characters. You have to put the pieces of these darker stories together and I did not enjoy being inside some of the heads.

At the end of the book I thought I'd done a pretty good job of making the characters speak in my mind, hearing their fortitude, picking up on all the things that were not being said. Bennett was right, I thought, they do stand up as short stories. Then I watched Patricia Routledge bring Miss Schofield to life as the "woman of no importance" and realised how much I'd missed.

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