Alan Bennett sheds his teddy bear image with dark new series of Talking Heads: Anthony Clavane

In a diary entry from 2015, our greatest living memoirist wrote: “Robert Hanks, the radio critic of The Independent, remarks that personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel?”

Sarah Lancashire plays Gwen in the new series of Talking Heads. Photographer: Zac Nicholson

This typically self-deprecating, and wryly amusing, observation came to mind when 12 episodes of Bennett’s Talking Heads became available to binge on BBC iPlayer a few days ago.

For those who, like the Leeds-born writer himself, prefer their Bennett fix in small doses, you can watch the monologues at a more leisurely pace on BBC One, spread out over a few weeks.

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To those of us who can never get enough of the 86-year-old writer, the reworking of the esteemed series – originally broadcast in 1988 and 1998 but with two added episodes – has been a godsend.

Alan Bennett pictured in 2015 (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for BFI)

If we have got anything to be thankful for during lockdown, it is the return of this magisterial series which, once again, has showcased the best acting talent in the country.

Filmed independently on unused EastEnders sets, it has been a privilege to watch Sarah Lancashire, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Lucian Msamati, Kristin Scott Thomas, Harriet Walter, Monica Dolan, Martin Freeman and Jodie Comer deliver tour-de-force performances of Bennett’s unsurpassable short plays.

They are tailor-made for the times we live in. Not just because, featuring single voices speaking to camera, they are ideally suited to socially distanced filming. But also because they speak to the emotional reality of the COVID-19 era. Tough and unforgiving, they are an antidote to the trite escapism offered up by other channels.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as into soothing movies, comforting sitcoms and heartwarming dramas as the next telly addict. Over the past three months, I have spent a fair bit of time watching feelgood shows to raise my spirits, relax and unwind.

But sometimes I don’t want to chill. Sometimes I tire of watching barely-recognisable celebrities watching other barely-recognisable celebrities humiliate each other on “classic” reality game shows of yesteryear. Sometimes I crave shows which push boundaries, unearth disturbing secrets about suburban society and give a voice to the ignored, the marginalised and the lonely.

For some reason, Bennett has traditionally been presented as the nation’s comfort blanket. Cosy, gentle and sweet-natured, he has appeared to be a throwback to another era, a harmless soul in a cardigan, making his readers and audiences chuckle out loud with his self-deprecating observations.

Nina Stibbe’s 2013 best-selling memoir confirmed a persona first given an airing three decades earlier in the satirical TV show Spitting Image; in Love, Nina the national treasure would regularly pop in to his neighbour’s house for a chat and say wryly amusing things like: “You don’t want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.” 
One critic described him as “England’s cultural teddy bear”.

In fact, the monologues offer a window on another, unsettling and maudlin, world set vaguely in a Leeds that only exists inside his own head; the vignettes are dotted with Loinerisms like ginnels (alleyways) roaring (crying) and spother (fuss).

They deal with themes which are far from comforting: mental illness, alcoholism, marital abuse, sexual exploitation, claustrophobia, bereavement, loneliness and guilt. The sides of the human condition bland feelgood shows tend to gloss over.

There has, inevitably, been a bit of a backlash. Some tweeters have been shocked that Bennett has apparently ditched his cuddly image. He is no longer, in his own words, “kindly, cosy and essentially harmless”.

The Daily Mail claimed viewers were left “creeped out” by Lancashire’s portrayal of a sexually-obsessed middle-aged mum. And the New Statesman reviewer asked: “Is it the fact that he is a socialist with a Yorkshire accent that leaves people unable to countenance the idea that he might also be a snob?”

The series for me, however, has been a joy to watch. As the best art, however dark, often is. Watching a great actress – the monologues are mostly performed by women – put her heart and soul into the role of a lifetime is a joyous thing to behold.

Each episode has been an acting, as well as a writing, masterclass. And has proven, beyond all doubt, that there is nothing teddy-bearish about Alan Bennett.

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