Television Review: Talking Heads

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALAN BENNETT has an almost Dickensian ear for names. I say almost because there is no name in his world view so descriptive as Wackford Squeers or Uriah Heep, but then there are no Smiths or Joneses either. It's not so much that his characters are given fantastical names, more that their names are discreetly informative labels - like Latin tags on a garden shrub that need a bit of decoding. The supporting cast of "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet", the first monologue in Talking Heads 2 (BBC2), included a woman called Joy Poyser, who worked with Miss Fozzard in soft furnishings in a department store. You knew from her name that she would be a rampart of propriety. Unlike Estelle Metcalf in floor coverings.

Bennett's characters are themselves trained to see meaning in names. When Miss Fozzard's chiropodist retired to Scarborough, he recommended a choice of replacements: there was a Mr Dunderdale, or one Cindy Bickerton, a name which, in Miss Fozzard's estimation, "doesn't inspire confidence". Sometimes they can't read the label. Miss Fozzard hired an Australian nurse called Miss Molloy to look after her brother, Bernard, recovering at home from a stroke. "She said, `Call me Mallory'. I said, `What sort of a name is that?'" It's the sort of name someone is given when they don't conform to the value system of middle-class Leeds, where we once more find Bennett quietly scouring the horizon for exotic plumes like an ornithologist in his tent. It was no news to the viewer that Miss Molloy ended up pleasuring Bernard for money.

As for Fozzard, the name sounds just atypical enough to match the story of its bearer, a respectable spinster in late middle- age who, while her brother squandered his savings on squalid orgasms, found herself inadvertently taken on as a prostitute by Mr Dunderdale, a masochistic foot fetishist.

The reason why Bennett's monologues work so well on television is that his speakers talk as if from living room to living room. They could be neighbours popping round for a chinwag, though thankfully they're not, or else you might end up co-starring with them in an episode of Neighbours at War. The intimacy with which they address the camera looks unmediated by anything as flashy as direction or performance. It helps that the scripts attract the very best actors - in this case, a flawless Patricia Routledge - to create that mirage of naturalism, but also that Bennett has a furtive ability to peer deep into the speaker's soul while the speaker is looking the other way.

Miss Fozzard was more or less the perfect Bennett character in that sense, being a spinster and as ignorant of her own sexuality as she was of others'. She could not see, like the rest of us, that Mr Dunderdale would turn out to be a wrong 'un. She looked rather to his "lovely head of hair", to the silk handkerchief on which he placed his patients' feet and to the fact that he was "a church warden at St Wilfred's, apparently". (Bennett's characters are always saying "apparently" because, though they like eavesdropping, they don't want to be caught at it.) Though Miss Fozzard had to catch the number 17 to travel to her ever more regular appointments, she didn't mind because "It's a bus I like," she said, innocent of the deception she was practising on herself.

After removing a pre-fungal infection from Miss Fozzard's feet, Mr Dunderdale celebrated by offering her a pair of bootees, with which he invited her to walk up and down his back. Her task was to alleviate some stiffness, but not the kind she suspected until he suggested paying her for services rendered rather than the other way round.

Chiropody, which he also tackled in A Private Function, is a rich seam for Bennett, who chooses his polysyllables like someone umming and aahing over a box of chocolates. Routledge licked her lips over succulent morsels such as "texturiser", "mentholated oil (Moroccan, apparently)" and "verruca", although when she said "shiatsu" I thought she'd said "she acts so". It's the worst sort of insult one Bennett character would say about another. On this form, Bennett might like to get his own feet seen to, because once again he is walking all over the opposition.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away