BR: ‘Talking Heads’ by Alan Bennett

Contains spoilers!

‘Talking Heads’ is a set of dramatic monologues originally broadcast by the BBC in the 1980s and 90s. Although they were written for television, I find that they work just as well as a set of short stories, and it was interesting to watch some of them afterwards, comparing my impressions of the characters with the actors’ interpretations. I admire the way in which Bennett has managed to mimic the speech patterns of various different characters, with all their flaws and idiosyncracies, so that their words sound natural both on paper and spoken aloud.

Each monologue is narrated by a different character, but there are some overarching themes. Each one is full of wit and pathos and has a dark, surprising twist. There is also something rather old-fashioned about the world of ‘Talking Heads’; it reminded me of the lost Britain of the ‘Just William’ stories, a country populated by clergymen, umarried old ladies and members of the WI. However, I think the monologues are just as moving today as they would have been when first broadcast.

My favourite pieces in the collection were undoubtedly the darker ones: ‘Playing Sandwiches’, which gives a disturbing insight into the mind of a paedophile; ‘The Outside Dog’, narrated by a compulsively neat woman whose husband is a murderer; and ‘A Woman of No Importance’, the desperately sad story of a lady who tries to keep a purpose in life while in the grip of a mysterious illness. I think Bennett’s subtle sense of humour often works best when combined with more serious subjects; it works as a form of tension release. By comparison, the less weighty subject matter of monologues like ‘The Hand of God’, which deals with a junk shop owner missing out on the find of a lifetime, is unimpressive.

Overall I recommend ‘Talking Heads’, either to watch or read, as an exemplary set of dramatic monologues.

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