The second six individual portraits by Alan Bennett, the master of the monologue
I’ve had these two cassettes on a loop in my car for a few weeks. Listening to them only once just wasn’t enough. They have now been replaced by a collection of short stories by Kate Atkinson, so it’s high time the Talking Heads got a bit of a review. This is a darker set of tales than the first collection, and often quite disturbing.
The first, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, brings us Miss Fozzard, a sales assistant at a department store, and of course her feet. When her chiropodist announces his retirement, Miss Fozzard is introduced to Mr Dunderdale who seems more than happy to take on her pre fungal infection and extinct verucca. Miss Fozzard is quite taken with his charming manner, and finds herself visiting more and more frequently. At the same time, her brother, having suffered a stroke, has moved in with her and they employ a young female Australian carer, Miss Molloy, to help him get back on his feet. Brother Bernard seems to thrive under the care of Miss Molloy, until she disappears along with the contents of his bank account, sending him spiralling downwards into another health crisis. Meanwhile Mr Dunderdale is gradually introducing Miss Fozzard to a variety of new therapies but now he becomes the recipient and Miss Fozzard’s feet take on a power of their own. This is a very funny monologue, performed by the wonderful Patricia Routledge. I love Miss Fozzard’s enthusiasm for something new. She’s doing her own thing and enjoying Mr Dunderdale’s attentions and his sherry. I think she knows deep down that he’s getting off on her feet, but maintains her innocent demeanour in a hilarious fashion.
Next up is The Hand of God performed by Eileen Atkins. Celia, a snobbish antiques dealer who believes herself to be cleverer than her fellow traders, attempts to wheedle her way into a dying woman’s home in order to get her hands on the numerous valuable antiques inside. Her plan backfires somewhat when a niece appears and puts the entire house clearance in the hands of a large auction house. Celia is insulted when the niece offers her a small box of bric a brac – a token of thanks for the “kindness” she had shown her late aunt. Soon Celia unwittingly falls for a customer’s con trick, all the while believing that she has made an unbelievably good profit on a quirky item from the deceased’s box of oddments – a sketch of a finger in a small wooden frame. The picture soon appears in the media with the amazing story of its discovery in a “junk shop” and its true worth of millions. It turns out that Celia has let a Michaelangelo slip through her fingers. So Celia’s comeuppance is almost complete; the final cherry (tomato) on the cake comes in the form of her new line of homemade chutneys, something she poured scorn on in her opening dialogue.
The sole male voice in the collection belongs to Wilfred, played by David Haig. Playing Sandwiches paints a portrait of a previously convicted paedophile with a string of jobs behind him, all of which would bring him within close proximity of children. Wilfred is unable to provide his latest employer with corroborative evidence of his work history and comes under increasing pressure to expose his false identity. Eventually it all becomes too much for him to contain, with catastrophic results. This track was very unpleasant and uncomfortable listening. Wilfred doesn’t really see that his behaviour is wrong because it feels so right to him; he blames his victims for causing their own abuse and is definitely a perpetrator in need of re-education.
Before I had even got rid of the bad taste in my mouth, it was on to the next story, The Outside Dog, performed by Julie Walters. This is scary listening indeed and the monologue which caused me most despair. Marjory keeps a tight rein on the maintenance of her showroom-clean house. Her husband cleans off all traces of his work at the local slaughterhouse before he gains entry to the home, and his noisy dog, Tina, is not allowed indoors at all. It starts to dawn on Marjory that her husband and a local serial killer of women, as yet uncaught, are one and the same. When he is arrested and held on remand, the only way that Marjory can maintain any sort of control over things is to continue with her strict and obsessive cleaning routine. It is during the fumigation of the dog’s kennel that she discovers the evidence that puts her husband’s guilt beyond doubt, but before she is able to do anything about it, she hears that the trial is over and the verdict is not guilty. Marjory’s world falls apart as her husband returns, almost gloating about his freedom, and soon asserts his total dominance by allowing the dog to enter the house.
Nights in the Gardens of Spain performed by Penelope Wilton introduces us to Rosemary and the beautiful, tender relationship she shares with her former neighbour, Mrs McCorquodale, after the latter is imprisoned for killing her husband. Rosemary leads a lonely life with a husband who seems to care only for his own ambition to live in Marbella and play golf every day. The trial brings to light the full extent of her new friend’s cruel and brutal treatment at the hands of her late husband, sometimes with accomplices. The two women become firm friends, but when Mrs McC tragically dies of cancer, Rosemary feels she has only one course open to her; to follow her husband to a new life in Marbella, even though she surely knows that he is one of the men who colluded in the abuse of her beloved friend. Me wailing “NO-O-O-O!” at the tape player wasn’t going to change anything.
The final story of the collection is another heartbreaker. Waiting for the Telegram, performed by Thora Hird, is set in a care home where a confused Violet is told by staff that she would soon be receiving a telegram from the Queen (for her 100th birthday). This brings back painful memories for Violet; memories of the war years when a telegram boy would always be bearing tragic news of a lost husband or son. One of the nurses at the home, Francis, gains Violet’s trust and they become friends, but Francis dies of AIDS and Violet is again reminded of the scourge which took away so many young men from her life – the war. She recalls nothing of her married life and doesn’t recognise her son when he comes to visit, but her memories of her relationship with a young soldier during the war are vivid still. She is haunted by her belief that she let him down, and devastated that the fateful telegram arrived before she could make amends. Thora Hird’s performance is immense and so incredibly moving that I was reduced to tears.
Talking Heads 2 is a masterpiece. Every phrase and comment is so brilliantly conceived, so perfectly delivered. From laughing out loud moments at the beginning, stomach-churning fear and repulsion in the middle and despair and tears towards the end, this collection will bring out a lifetime of emotions in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Miss Fozzard, Celia and Wilfred, Marjory, Rosemary and haunted Violet feel like my own neighbours. I look for them as I’m on my day to day errands and imagine that any one of the people I pass in the street could have a monologue of their own. Every life should make space for some talking heads.