Sunday 5 July 2020

TV review: Talking Heads - Her Big Chance /
Playing Sandwiches

Of the collection of current and future dames in the new version of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads the most zeitgeisty is surely Jodie Comer - even with the discussion about Killing Eve largely focusing on how much it falls foul of the law of diminishing returns, she's still one of the biggest names to emerge in recent years. The other big name she replaces in these monologues is Julie Walters, as Comer takes on Her Big Chance. She plays young actress Lesley, who's not very bright but still isn't quite dim enough to fool herself that she's not really being used and abused by the film industry she's trying to break into: More by luck than judgement she lands a role as the villain's mostly-naked girlfriend in a low-budget German crime thriller being filmed in Lee-on-Solent, a distinctly chillier location than the Riviera setting it's meant to be. Her Big Chance is a very cleverly balanced tragicomedy - there's a profound sadness to the inevitability with which every man Lesley meets uses her for sex while pretending to help her career, not just on a one-to-one level but the entire cast and crew barely registering her as a person and walking out on her the morning after the night before.

But while Lesley's mistreatment is never the butt of the joke, her own delusions about her acting ability often are - hired because she fits the costume they already had, and on the misconception that she can play chess and waterski, her acting is never a consideration but even so she seems blithely unaware of the reason her few lines are being frantically cut and given to other actors.

With none of the scripts appearing to be edited to take out contemporary references, we've also got the jokes at the expense of Crossroads, the famously rickety soap Lesley seems to have been slightly out of her depth on when she appeared as an extra. What's also interesting from a modern perspective is that Lesley's defining experience on a film set was on Roman Polanski's Tess, a film made a decade before this monologue's 1988 debut, so the implication being that she was very young at the time. This was long after Polanski's self-imposed exile to avoid sexual assault charges, but at the time the director famously spent decades with people happy to sweep that under the carpet, so that wouldn't have necessarily been the first thing people thought of when his name was mentioned. Still, it's interesting to wonder if Bennett's implying something about Lesley's earliest times on film that set the course for her life thereon. One thing I'm not loving about the new Talking Heads is the tendency to underlight them, and Josie Rourke's film feels particularly guilty of this; maybe it's because they're filmed on the Eastenders set, and it's so bleak there they never bothered installing a proper lighting rig.

The darkness is more metaphorical as we move outside for Jeremy Herrin's film: If the incredibly disturbing areas An Ordinary Woman went to surprised people with a cosy image of Alan Bennett, they can't have remembered Playing Sandwiches, originally done by David Haig in the 1998 series Talking Heads 2. In recent years Lucian Msamati has played Iago and Salieri so he's had plenty of practice playing characters like Wilfred, affable and engaging on the surface but with a true nature that soon comes out. But where those other characters freely admit their villainy to the audience, Wilfred is hiding a lot, and it only takes a couple of minutes for his story to start showing inconsistencies.

I guess it's not one of the best-remembered episodes of the original series but I've found it memorable for its boldness - only a couple of years before the infamous Brass Eye Paedogeddon Special and a moral panic around paedophilia that saw mobs attack paediatricians - in not painting a padeophile as a cartoon monster. Playing Sandwiches doesn't judge Wilfred for his urges ("It's the one part of my life that feels right... and that's the bit that's wrong" is haunting) but for his wilful refusal to see the harm he causes by giving in to them. One interesting thing about casting a black actor as Wilfred has nothing to do with the main plot but with a throwaway racist line, as the young mother he befriends cheerfully admits her dislike of Asians to him: It's hard to define exactly but there's something that feels true about the white woman saying this to a black man without it occuring to her that he might have reason to identify with the target of her comments rather than her. Now: Surely there were a few of these monologues that were a bit cheerier, weren't there?

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett is available until June 2021 on BBC iPlayer.

Running time: 45 minutes (Her Big Chance,) 30 minutes (Playing Sandwiches.)

Photo credit: BBC.

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