If you can remember anything about drama class at school, it's likely that somewhere in the depths of your memory is your teacher talking about Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, a series of 13 monologues written by the much-loved playwright between 1988 and 1999. If you were really lucky, you might even have watched the original BBC broadcasts on the big TV on wheels that your teacher would roll into the classroom on special Friday afternoons.
Now the BBC has revived the series for 2020 — and Alan Bennett has written two new monologues to go along with it. COVID-19-induced quarantine has meant that production on everything from small-time television dramas to big-time Hollywood films has ground to a halt. However Talking Heads, which features just one actor per episode talking straight to a camera, was able to be shot observing social distancing rules and the result is 12 episodes featuring Jodie Comer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lucian Msamati, Line of Duty's Rochenda Sandall, Imelda Staunton, Maxine Peake, Killing Eve's Harriet Walter...the list goes on.
If watching one person talk for half an hour doesn't sound hugely appealing, I hear you, but give it a chance. Each monologue evolves in such a way that the actor slowly reveals more and more unsettling information about their situation. The monologue follows the narrative that the character has created about themselves and often, it's not the narrative that those around them accept. And so to the audience, the upsetting reality of what's really going on in the character's life soon becomes painfully clear.
Despite being written between 20 and 30 years ago, the themes of the monologues are still relevant. Jodie Comer's character in Her Big Chance is an actress trying to make her way in an industry dominated by men with unsavoury agendas. How much she understands about what is happening to her is unclear. And it doesn't take much imagination to put the unpleasant Imelda Staunton in A Lady of Letters into the role of a modern internet troll with a need to be heard and noticed — no matter the cost to others.
The first two episodes are A Lady of Letters and one of the new additions, An Ordinary Woman starring Sarah Lancashire, a deeply disturbing monologue from a middle-aged mother considering her relationship with her teenage son. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch and while Sarah Lancashire is marvellous, for me it wasn't quite clear what message the audience is meant to take away. These episodes are followed by Tamsin Greig's Soldiering On, about a mother caring for a mentally ill daughter and harbouring a despicable family secret, and Jodie Comer's Her Big Chance, with the rest of the episodes following over the coming two weeks.
Although many of the themes of Talking Heads transcend the years, some of the language from the old monologues does not and several sentences and phrases land like a lead balloon on a 2020 ear, snapping you out of the story and forcing you to struggle to get back in. It is also a huge shame that the cast isn't more diverse. These are 12 iconic roles and the UK has an incredibly impressive roster of actors of colour; not to showcase this in such an important production – one which is so intrinsically linked with 'British' culture – feels like a real missed opportunity.
Nevertheless Talking Heads is worth tuning in for. Bennett's scripts manage still to be both unsettling and funny, and remind us that behind the most ordinary of people, the most extraordinary things can be at play. In this world where we're so quick to judge someone by one tweet, or one selfie, it's a timely reminder that none of us is one-dimensional and we would do better to dig a little deeper before dismissing someone entirely.
Talking Heads starts on BBC One on 23rd June at 9pm, streaming shortly after on iPlayer.