Thursday, 27 January 2011

Alan Bennett, Talking Heads

Alan Bennett's monologues Talking Heads are surely classics now, the first of which are as funny today as they were when written and recorded for television in 1987.

But what is quite different now – at least in the western world – is the role of women. Those in most of Bennett's work are the age of his mother and, until the 1960's, many such married women were restricted, sometimes repressed, often frustrated. Trapped. Some knew themselves to be more able than their husbands, capable of much more than they were permitted to do.

Pre-war, wives were judged on the cleanliness of their homes, mothers on that of their children, and so many put their vigour – and sometimes their vitriol – into it with a vengeance. All this comes across in Bennett's monologues - fortunately with the most wonderful humour.

Eavesdrop at a bus stop today, a works canteen or social club, and you might still overhear much the same sort of conversations as Bennett relays. But the directness and deadpan delivery of northern humour is not universal. And it needs someone with an 'ear' for such things as innuendo and a masterful ability to form it into something that an audience wants to hear. Not as easy as it may seem.

Although in the majority of the monologues we associate with the views of an elderly mother or grandmother, in some - Bed Among Lentils and Her Big Chance for instance - we can recognize characteristics or emotions that could apply to those of any generation. We all know a character like Lesley in Her Big Chance who tries to convince everyone of her worth – a woman who thinks her talent is greater than it is and whose morals are unimpeachable – but who is quite unaware that she is fooling no-one.

Most of Bennett's characters do not 'see' themselves at all, and he cleverly lets the character reveal this bit by bit as the monologue progresses. Muriel, in Soldering On, really knows that her husband is reprehensibly responsible for his daughter's 'problems', and that their son is a conniving cheat, but she still keeps up appearances and maintains a stiff upper lip – in denial right to the end.

His characters are often disappointed or disempowered in some way. I guess this is simply because happy, jolly characters would not make for such interesting stories. The bitterness of the narrator of A Lady of Letters, and the extent of her meddling, slowly unfolds. In Bed Among the Lentils, the dissatisfaction of the vicar's wife in drives her to drink, but the joy of an illicit affair gives her the strength to carry on.

A Chip in the Sugar, written in Alan Bennett's 'voice' – and indeed recorded by him – is one of the best. This one is not a monologue and the straight talking characters are sometimes cruel but their love for each other is not only a taken, it is spoken. This mother and son are - to the onlooker at least - 'married'. They are as close to bickering husband and wife – with their point scoring and their pretence at independence – as any real married couple might be. Their inter-dependence is clear, humour their saving grace.

Bennett picks up on social taboos and bigotry and shows us how easily these infiltrate and affect ordinary peoples' lives. The stories are sometimes poignant, occasionally sad, but the way that Bennett manages to convey this with humour is nothing short of masterful. Dig out a copy, read and enjoy.


No comments: