BBC’s take on Sally Rooney’s Normal People deserves comparison with Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads - Anthony Clavane

And now for something completely different. A good, old-fashioned BBC drama without high-octane thrills and spills, implausible twists and cliffhangers at the end of every episode.

Actor, playwright and broadcaster, Alan Bennett. (Photo by Chris Ball/Getty Images)
Actor, playwright and broadcaster, Alan Bennett. (Photo by Chris Ball/Getty Images)

No, I’m not talking about the announcement this week that the Beeb is remaking Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.

Of course, this is wonderful news. The acclaimed series of late-1980s monologues by the revered Yorkshireman was groundbreaking. It deserves to be revived for the 21st century, adorned by an impressive cast of talented stars such as Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman and Kristin Scott Thomas.

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It will certainly be a welcome antidote to the glossy, big-budget, twisty thrillers of recent years – Game of Thrones, Killing Eve, Line of Duty et al – which, although brilliantly written and beautifully acted, have tended to assume the average television viewer has the attention span of a goldfish.

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Another week, another binge. Last week it was The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the week before that Black Mirror. This week I have burned through 12 half-hour episodes of the best series to hit our screens since Boris issued his stay-at-home order.

Normal People is a brilliantly written and beautifully acted adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, a literary phenomenon which sold more than 570,000 copies, won the coveted Costa Book of the Year and has been translated into 41 languages.

It is an honest, nuanced and poignant account of an on-off relationship between two shy youngsters from a sleepy Irish town. At first sight, it would seem to have little in common with Talking Heads.

For a start, Bennett fans would baulk at the prospect of its explicit sex scenes. Don’t be put off. They are handled very sensitively – always emphasising consent – and are integral to the emotional truth of a story which portrays the fervid intensity of first love.

Like those famous Bennett monologues, Normal People explores the inner world of awkward outsiders.

It is understated and thoughtful, expressing the insecurities and anxieties of “normal people” who struggle to navigate the challenges of life as it is lived – not as it is reimagined in a transgressive, high-concept, dystopian fantasy world full of psychopathic killers.

Like Bennett, it is attuned to the inequalities of class, gender and other social divides. In his drama Bed Among the Lentils, Maggie Smith’s middle-class alcoholic falls for an Asian shopkeeper. Both are lonely, drawn apart by a misunderstanding – he thinks she drinks because she has a problem with his ethnicity – and unable to communicate their feelings properly.

I was reminded of these misunderstandings as I watched the ups and downs of Rooney’s on-off lovers. Their relationship seems a million miles away from Bennett-land. But, like the great man, Rooney is concerned with the inner souls of her characters, not outward appearances.

As we follow their lives from high school through university, Connell and Marianne – outstandingly brought to life by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones – have no great epiphanies. There are no grand moments which reveal Big Messages about love, life and the nature of modern society.

There are long silences, subtle glances and the occasional frenzied showdown.

Certainly, it is a love story for our times, a zeitgeisty take on the hopes and fears of self-absorbed millennials.

But, like Talking Heads over 30 years ago, it proves that TV can tell small stories in offbeat, amusing and complex ways.

In announcing the Bennett reboot, BBC controller Piers Wenger admitted that the current pandemic has forced the corporation to rethink its attitude.

“Covid-19 has laid waste to drama production in the UK,” he said, “but it has also posed a challenge: how do we adhere to restrictions while still offering British viewers the chance to lose themselves in great stories…full of insight, wit, daring and compassion.”

As the lockdown continues, I recommend you lose yourself in Rooney’s captivating portrayal of thwarted love, a series which puts subtle characterisation and cerebral dialogue ahead of a fast-moving plot.

It marks a return to the golden age of TV drama, when Bennett and his ilk ruled the roost.

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