Hazel McHaffie

Alan Bennett

Talking Heads and buzzing brains

This lockdown experience has offered a unique opportunity to take stock and think through my writerly options. Masterclasses online, bonanza reading binges, virtual literary festivals, quiet time, space … everything has been guiding me towards the formulation of a plan.

This week added another range of possibilities. You might remember Alan Bennett‘s playlets, Talking Heads, being broadcast back in 1988 – yes? I can hear Bennett’s own Yorkshire voice in my head still – droll, deadpan, downbeat, almost monotonous. So little is said; so much evoked. Famous actors (Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Penelope Wilton, Stephanie Cole, Bennett himself) took on the persona of each character and breathed life into those monologues – the alcoholic vicar’s wife, the paedophile, the antique dealer, the trapped aging son of a woman with dementia, the poison-pen letter writer … No subject seemed to be off limits, no matter how bleak. The characters were almost all inadequate, naive, suppressed, unfulfilled, and their perspectives invited pity blended with ridicule.

Thirty-two years on, new lockdown versions of these brilliant soliloquies have just been streamed again on BBC1, plus a couple of new ones written by the now 86-year-old Bennett. Perfect programmes to conform with the restrictions of this Covid-19 era, with household names such as Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walters, Martin Freeman, Sarah Lancashire, Jodi Comer, Maxine Peake, reprising the roles. And this time I’ve been viewing them much more critically. The writing is superb with the railway-line repetitive ‘I said …, he said …’ thrumming through them all, and the incidental one-liners masterclasses in themselves:
Borage bullying its way all over the borders
There’s been a verucca here, but it’s extinct
England offers more scope for caring than the bush
They don’t expect you to be an atheist if you’re a ‘Miss’

Shutterstock image

Just how did Bennett judge how much to spell out, how much to leave to inference? How did the thespians convey so much more than the words? How does the pathos somehow become so comical? What is it that keeps the suspense, forces me to watch and to anticipate and to think? Is there strength in the sheer breadth of issues covered, or could the format tease out nuances across a narrower spectrum of life experiences?

And a lightbulb went on!! My brain is currently toying with brand new possibilities for my own writing.

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When is a writer not a writer?

I’ve just finished reading Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories – in the hardback version, 658 pages. (Only fit to be a doorstop! as a certain gentleman of my acquaintance would say.) But there’s something about Bennett’s understated approach to life and writing that I find strangely appealing. Without knowing what he sounds like in person I don’t think I’d appreciate his dry self-deprecating humour, but his writing seems to be so much an extension of his personality that you can hear his lugubrious voice speaking the words on the page. Rather like one of his own Talking Heads monologues, in fact.

Anyway, towards the end of the book he ruminates about something that exercises my mind sometimes: what makes a writer a writer? And when is a writer not a writer?

‘A writer only feels he or she is a writer at the point of performance, the moment of writing. Do anything else, even related activities like research or background reading, and the claim seems fraudulent. A writer is only a writer when writing. The rest is marking time. And your published books and plays don’t count; they only prove that you were a writer yesterday but not today, not now … Put down the pen or abandon the keys and a writer is always on the brink of fraud.’ (p543)

I’ve been hovering on the brink this week; researching airports in Thailand, Interpol and surgical procedures. Most of what I’ve read won’t ever be used in the novel but I need to absorb a feel for these subjects if I’m to capture the essence of them in a sentence or two. Hard to justify as work to anyone else who will merely see me idling over books or the Internet.

Could this be why I started writing a weekly blog? Hhhmmmm.

Well, I’m off to the Royal Highland Show to think about that … And if you see me, yes, I’m working!

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