The Critics: Film Studies

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The Independent Culture
This column may offend some readers. For in the last 10 years or so, Alan Bennett has become not just a best-selling author, but a reassuring, hunched figure in our arts and journalism - the David Hockney who stayed loyal to Yorkshire truths, and who has never lost his sharp ear for the sad, daft ways folk talk. More than that, the youthful-looking if never young Bennett has grown into being a precious emblem to the lapsed gentry, to those left behind and alone, to those who do not notice the cruel and thoughtless ways in which life is putting a banana skin under their unsteady feet - exactly the sort of hard-luck cases you get in Talking Heads. To all these victims and emotional refugees who talk to themselves as the darkness of oblivion or the Social Services come in, Bennett is an oracle and a comfort.

And as comforts go, he is a fine and strange writer, a tender yet authoritarian miniaturist whose grim hesitations can give you grief, depression and a lifetime of self-suppression - all in the name of something that is meant to be stoical, wry and enduring. But then I discovered from his introduction to the new series of Talking Heads that the first six were already set texts at A-level, and I thought enough is enough. There are kids tracing this back-stitched art who need to have Coltrane or Celine poured over them, hours at a time, until the guilt is gone.

I know how harsh this sounds, for Bennett has given such pleasure in the past - in his Diaries, in An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, and in some of those first Talking Heads. More than that, he can seem to be the model of something I have been searching for on screen lately. In despair at the mounting rage for special effects, I have argued that there is no effect more special on screen than the sight of a face and a mind being changed in its response to events. At first glance, Talking Heads might seem made to meet this need. For the human face - good, generally restrained actors and actresses (though mostly actresses) - contemplates its own dismay and the gathering entropy of its life. If most of the pieces are hushed lamentations, that may be because the form - 30 or so minutes of self-absorption on the small box - would be intolerable with a boaster or anything like exhilaration. From the outset, there was something unnerving in the form - a potential for nearly gloating over ruin, or mortification.

But there was much more in the first six: Maggie Smith's vicar's wife - her eyes rueful from Communion wine - did find bliss with the Indian grocer on A Bed Among the Lentils; in A Lady of Letters, Patricia Routledge's fierce loneliness took her from sending poison-pen letters to being part of a new community - prison; and briefly, in A Chip in the Sugar, Mum escaped the clammy, depressive control of her needy son (played by Bennett himself).

The outside world was evoked with skill; the playing was sly but tactful; the comic touch was too poignant to allow vulgar laughter. It all worked, even if the balance seemed precarious and the tone close to pious morbidity. The second series tips that balance. The sadness now is habitual, the predicaments are like prisons, and the monologue form is more plainly the nagging, narcissistic rub of self-pity.

It's a form that cannot risk actual meetings or the rough company of other people. Everything is reported in the hallowed hereafter, the only place in which the victim can be the proper centre of attention. This is the masochistic message of people who know they are wronged by the world, but who do not trust others to hear the story. And so the talking to oneself is low-key but incessant - the lines are muttered, yet passionate enough so the wound never heals. Like all self-pity, the tone has created its own private kingdom - meek, yet tyrannical. Bennett is hardly interesting enough as a dramatist, I think, to exploit the subsequent unreliability of his own narrators. But he will not relinquish the litany of their sorrow.

The Heads are films - and films in which the writer is more auteur than the actors or directors. Faces shift, mouths flicker, eyes look away, time passes. But looking away only discovers emptiness, or the castle keep of solitude.

Of course, it's all well done. Bennett is the maestro of his own pained voice. But I find now that I can hardly endure the Talking Heads. They are less open or inviting dramas than still lifes or what the French call natures mortes. For there is a sense in which the people are dead already, so constipated against the value of others that they sit enthroned on their own pent-up loads. Whereas the great faces in movies are as eager as those in life - longing to see and be seen, grappling with the gloom and noise of party or dinner table to know if that face over there is worthy of life and danger. Film may be a private vision with the voyeur alone in his dark - but it offers the dream that we might be with one another. Alan Bennett's greatness - and it amounts to that - is about being beyond reach, and glad of it. And that's what drove some of us out of Britain.

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