Talking Heads

BBC ONE / iPLAYER

While the impetus for remaking Alan Bennett’s classic TV monologues may have been a practical one (they’re easy to film with minimal cast and crew), (re)watching these stories of loneliness and isolation, it’s striking how thematically in tune with the times they are. Which I suppose might be slightly depressing, if Bennett wasn’t also one of our greatest living wits.

Alongside 10 recast versions of the 80s and 90s productions – substituting such grandes dames as Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge for contemporary national treasures like Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton – are a pair of new monologues. Of the two, The Shrine, about a widow (the fabulous Monica Dolan) who’s increasingly drawn to the scene of her husband’s fatal motorbike accident, is the standout. An Ordinary Woman, meanwhile, stars Sarah Lancashire as a mother who develops an unhealthy fixation with her own teenage son. Essentially a modern rewrite of Racine’s Phèdre (Raquel’s Phèdre?), it’s an uncomfortable watch, though Lancashire is as sensational as you’d expect.

As for the others, the originals cast an inevitably long shadow: it’s no reflection on the brilliant Jodie Comer that it’s hard to tune out Julie Walters as the naïve young actress in Her Big Chance, while a note-perfect Martin Freeman has to compete with the folk memory of Bennett himself as a middle-aged man exerting a quietly sinister control over his confused mother in A Chip in the Sugar.

With a certain irony, the series has been filmed on the currently fallow EastEnders set (Freeman does his monologue from Don Cotton’s bedroom), and it’s striking to contrast Bennett’s poised, rhythmic, darkly comic scripts with the melodramatic nonsense that usually goes on there. In fact it made me think what a tin ear for language so much modern, plot-driven television has generally. But do you know who used to do this sort of thing brilliantly? The soaps. Maybe when EastEnders does come back, they should dial down all the silly murder-kidnap Guy Ritchie stuff, and rediscover the simple joy of people sitting at their kitchen tables, talking. 

THE BRITISH SOAP AWARDS CELEBRATE 21 YEARS

ITV

Right on cue, here was a timely reminder of just how off-the-chain “continuing dramas” have become. In lieu of this year’s ceremony, Phillip Schofield was our guide to two decades of frenzied killings, derailed trams, exploding pubs, exploding churches and all the other madness that’s been celebrated at the annual prizegiving for Britain’s most popular soaps (and Doctors). It’s a bit like the Baftas, except with categories such as Sexiest Female and Best Exit – which last year was won by a dog.

THE HIDDEN WILDS OF THE MOTORWAY

BBC FOUR

In this unusually restful motorway journey, author and naturalist Helen Macdonald made the 117-mile trip around the M25 to discover how nature has adapted to life in the shadow of Britain’s busiest road. (Short answer: surprisingly well.) Macdonald’s easy manner suggests a TV star in the making, and while you might not share her enthusiasm for algae and soil nutrients, this sort of thing is exactly what the under-threat BBC Four is for (and why it would be a minor tragedy to lose it).

Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 2 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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