James Delingpole James Delingpole

Pure poison: BBC1’s Talking Heads reviewed

Alan Bennett despises his characters and the Englishness they embody

Sarah Lancashire as the creepy Yorkshire mum in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Image credit: BBC/London Theatre Company/Zac Nicholson

The big mistake people make with Alan Bennett is to conflate him with his fellow Yorkshireman David Hockney. But whereas Hockney’s art is generous, warm, bright, life-affirming, Bennett’s is crabbed, catty, dingy, insinuating. The fact that the BBC-led establishment keeps telling us he’s a National Treasure tells us more about the BBC-led establishment than it does about Bennett. Bennett is typical of the English intelligentsia Orwell anatomised in his ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ essay: ‘It is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.’

I’d forgotten quite how much I disliked Bennett till I was reminded by the BBC’s revival, this week, of his universally acclaimed 1980s monologues Talking Heads. No Thora Hird this time, obviously. But lots of really top-notch thespian talent — Harriet Walter, Sarah Lancashire, Martin Freeman, etc — going through their paces, dusting down their special accents, meaningful expressions and pregnant pauses, paying homage to the master (now 86).

Bennett despises his characters and the Englishness they embody more than he loves them

The one I particularly hated was one of the two new ones he has written, ‘An Ordinary Woman’. This begins with Lancashire, as an apparently amiable, down-to-earth Yorkshire mum, describing the moment when her 15-year-old son asks her to inspect a worrying spot on his penis, and she realises that she actually finds him sexually attractive.

Is this is a common phenomenon? Personally, I found it creepy and weird — and rather resented having to spend half an hour of life listening as, on Bennett’s behalf, Lancashire riffed on this bizarro theme. It’s a notion that Kate Bush sort of touched on in her song ‘Infant Kiss’, but at least Bush has the excuse of being away with the fairies, poetically oblique and oddly innocent.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in