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Talking Heads (Volume 1) is series of monologues by Alan Bennett written for the acclaimed 1988 television series. It works equally well in written or audio form though and this audio collection includes the six monologues that made up the first series. A Chip in the Sugar with Alan Bennett, A Lady of Letters with Patricia Routledge, Bed Among the Lentils with Anna Massey, Soldiering On with Stephanie Cole, Her Big Chance with Julie Walters, and A Cream Cracker Under the Settee with Thora Hird. The six stories here are all wonderfully narrated and acted and both funny and sad. From behind the net curtains we hear tales of jealousy, loneliness, shattered dreams and quiet despair and - this being Alan Bennett - you also get vicars, pensioners, voluntary workers, nostalgia and the odd cake or two.
The first monologue is A Chip in the Sugar narrated by Alan Bennett and this is definitely my favourite in the collection. Bennett is Graham Whittaker, a shy middle-aged man who (we soon gather) has had some problems with mental illness and lives with his elderly mother. Graham and his mother are very close and spend their days pottering around the town with the library and a little cafe their main source of entertainment. Graham's daily routine and relationship with his mother is threatened though when they bump into a pensioner named Mr Turnbull. Mr Turnbull is a bit of a character and knew Graham's mother years ago. He's soon taking her out to places and making exotic plans for their future. A jealous Graham - who doesn't like or trust Mr Turnbull - fears that he is going to lose both his mother and his home and be sent back to a hostel. A Chip in the Sugar is absolutely brilliant and you couldn't imagine anyone other than Allan Bennett as Graham. Some great lines ('You want to get one of those continental quilts') and you really build up a vivid picture of Mr Turnbull and Graham's mother through the narration. The clash between the shy, gay and liberal Graham and the old-fashioned, politically incorrect and confident Mr Turnbull is an epic one in its own quiet, small scale way.
The second monologue is Bed Among the Lentils, narrated by Anna Massey (replacing Maggie Smith for this audio version) as a character named Susan. Susan is a lonely vicar's wife who isn't much of a believer herself. 'We were discussing the ordination of women. The bishop asked me what I thought. Should women take the services? So long as it doesn't have to be me, I wanted to say, they can be taken by a trained gorilla.' Susan is also involved in a secret affair with an Asian greengrocer and rather too fond of the communion wine. Anna Massey is excellent in this monologue, which is essentially about Susan's unhappy situation playing second fiddle to a husband that she is every bit as clever and able as. This world of jam making and fetes is driving her crackers and leads to her seeking to escape in other ways. The third monologue is A Lady of Letters and narrated by Patricia Routledge as Irene Ruddock. Irene is an interfering busybody obsessed with writing letters of complaint about everything, including the Archbishop of Canterbury's beard. 'I passed the place where there was the broken step that I wrote to the council was a danger to the public. Little ramp there now, access for the disabled. Whenever I pass I think well, that's thanks to you Irene.' Irene's obsessive behaviour and inflated sense of importance leads her into big trouble though. This is another good monologue with a modest twist at the end.
The fourth monologue is Her Big Chance and narrated by Julie Walters as Lesley. Lesley is an actress but not a very successful one despite her inability to notice or accept this fact. A part in a new German film could be her big break but Lesley seems blind to the fact that this is a very dodgy and cheap production that seems more interested in nudity than anyone doing any acting. Her Big Chance is not my favourite piece here (you do wonder how dense Lesley must be not to realise she's in a dubious foreign softcore film or something) but is entertaining enough with some good lines. 'I shot a man last week. It wasn't Crossroads, of course. They don't shoot people in Crossroads, at any rate not with harpoon guns. If anybody did get shot it would be with a weapon more suited to motel ambience. The fifth monologue is Soldiering On and is narrated by Stephanie Cole as Muriel. Muriel is a widow, charity worker, and volunteer for Meals on Wheels who looks after her disabled daughter and some big family secrets bubble to the surface during this monologue. Soldiering On is a strong monologue with the usual Bennett mixture of sadness and humour and has a wonderfully Bennettesque opening line. 'It's a funny time, three o'clock. Too late for lunch but a bit early for tea.'
The final monologue is the classic A Cream Cracker under the Settee narrated by Thora Hird. Hird is Doris, a pensioner who has had a fall and is trapped in her hallway, all because of her stubborn insistence on tidying and dusting herself despite the fact that home helps come round to do this. In this monologue, the incapacitated Doris ruminates on life, late husband Wilfred, and her fear of being put away in a home. 'I don't want to be stuck with a load of old lasses. You go daft there, there's nowhere else for you to go but daft. They even mix up your teeth.' This is a bittersweet and poignant monologue and second only to A Chip in the Sugar in my view as the highlight of the first volume of Talking Heads. We gradually learn more about Doris through her memories and spoken thoughts and we have to decide if she was responsible for certain things or was just someone struggling through and doing her best. A Cream Cracker under the Settee is a wonderful closing tale in this collection.
Talking Heads is funny and moving and a good companion for a tedious train journey. I find the monologues still come to life each time, even if you've heard and read them several times before, and this first volume in particular (Talking Heads 2 wasn't quite as good if I recall) is certainly up there with Alan Bennett's career highlights.