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Try this, and be surprised
on 13 November 2006
Some twenty years ago, mr. van Broekhoven, who taught us english, told us one day to be sure and watch a television programme called "Talking Heads" which would be shown on the BBC that same evening.
I loved it, right from the start. I was spellbound by the quality of the acting and by the words, especially by Alan Bennett's ability to put the right words in a character's mouth. He fashioned these truly moving stories out of little else but the dreary everyday life of ordinary people.
"Talking Heads" started me off on Alan Bennett and I've read a lot of his other work since, which I've also enjoyed very much.
Bennett writes with elegance, understatement and with uncanny empathy. He succeeds in really making these people come to life. One can't help but be moved by what these people tell us and you end up sympathising with them, pitying them, hoping they'll be alright, hoping it'll all work out for them. You end up sympathising with nasty small-minded people like Miss Ruddick, who is a poisoned pen-letter writer, with sad people like Graham, a man in his forties who lives with his mum, with a gullible, naïve half-wit like Lesley: a bit-part actress or "extra" who unwittingly, but unrelentingly cheerful and chirpy, ends up doing a cheap German nookie film, you even end up sympathising, awkward though it is, with a pedophile.
Yet there are no tricks, no ploys being used to achieve this, to draw upon emotions. It's just ordinary people telling their stories, revealing much about themselves, even those thing they would not want to reveal to a stranger. Reading this reminded me of a familiar experience: one feels as if being on a train, or in a waiting room. There is only one other person there and this person starts talking to you. You nod and smile politely, listen with half an ear, try and hide behind a paper or a book, but they just keep on talking, not even expecting a reply, just being glad of the chance to talk.
The form and the words are brilliantly chosen. There is so much in the little, throwaway remarks, in the seemingly unimportant. Much sadness, and loss and so much loneliness, sand painful self-awareness (or the absence thereof), much comedy, too, although these 13 people do not mean to tell a funny story. What they do, in fact, is to tell us the story of their lives (even if they do not really mean to) in little more than 30 minutes. Unwittingly they open cupboards and one or more skeletons fall out, as happens in all our lives.
Also, each of these stories has one or more wicked twists, which work marvellously: your perception of the story and of the person telling it is suddenly being tilted as the story sort of hits a bump. And after it's been given this jolt, nothing is quite the same.
I'll bugger off now but not after making 3 appeals:
1. Do not be put off by the fact that these are monologues, do not be put off by the fact that it's all about very ordinary people and do not be put off by the fact that all kinds of people about whose judgment is suspect (like teachers, critics, or indeed amazon-book reviewers) keep on telling you this is Literature, and great stuff. Just give this book a try. You will be amazed by the quality, the sensitivity and the common sense of the writing. You will probably end up as I did: recommending it to others.
2. Mr. Bennett: I know it's a bore being asked this, but could you find it in your heart to write some more of these wonderful monologues, to celebrate 20 years of "talking heads"?
3. BBC: bring them back!! Show them again, all thirteen of them, and do so every year, please.