Euan Fer­gu­son

Alan Ben­nett’s mas­terly mono­logues were re­booted with top-notch per­form­ers; Matthew Rhys makes a su­perb young Perry Mason; and Chan­nel 4 con­ducted a brave anti-racism ex­per­i­ment

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

on the new ver­sion of Alan Ben­nett’s Talk­ing Heads

Alan Ben­nett’s Talk­ing Heads

BBC One/iPlayer Perry Mason Sky At­lantic The Lu­mi­nar­ies BBC One The School That Tried to End Racism C4

Oc­ca­sion­ally an align­ment of the heav­ens is nudged into place that has you be­liev­ing in the con­cept of serendip­ity. The first weeks of lock­down hap­pened to see a sprawl of empty El­stree stu­dios (what with ’Sten­ders tak­ing a break from its re­lent­less up­lift­ing smileathon) co­in­cide with Ni­cholas Hyt­ner and a dozen of our se­ri­ously finest, wis­est ac­tors thrum­ming their ac­torly knuck­les in savage un­cre­ative bore­dom. And hadn’t Alan Ben­nett just last year added a cou­ple of mono­logues to his ’88 and ’98 Talk­ing Heads, which gob­bled a slew of awards and were due a re­vival; and, ac­tu­ally, did the BBC have any­thing bet­ter to do?

So the thau­maturge Hyt­ner got go­ing with our first of­fi­cial made-in­lock­down piece of drama that didn’t in­volve stut­tered Zoom-ac­ci­dents: rather, a few fixed-point cam­eras, track­ing in ever so slowly un­til you can dis­cern the bright pain in the eyes. There are all the trade­mark Ben­nett mo­tifs: the non se­quitur link­ing the im­mense with the triv­ial. “He was pre-dad! I’m sur­prised you re­mem­ber him, you don’t re­mem­ber to switch your blan­ket off.” “This tea looks strong, pull the cur­tains.” “He says I don’t want my pri­vate parts mauled over by me sis­ter… he’s get­ting some pie from the fridge.” Like­wise the sub­tlety of sug­gest­ing, in one fast line, the en­tirety of other un­seen char­ac­ters: the vicar who proudly doesn’t wear a dog-col­lar but is iden­ti­fied by the fact that he wears cy­cle-clips: the age­ing film-maker who pol­ishes his per­ish-the-thought anti-rape credential­s with “Les­ley! I’ve a son study­ing ho­tel man­age­ment and my daugh­ter’s got one kid­ney!” Or the sim­ple es­tab­lish­ment of an en­tire per­sona with one line: “I’d heard good re­ports of this cre­ma­to­rium, but...” Or: “Don’t talk to me about orange ny­lon.”

Does it sur­vive, in Talk­ing Heads

2020? Ab­so­lutely, and blither­ingly so. There are mild anachro­nisms but hardly worth a tweeted non­thought. This has al­ways been about the ways in which tiny prej­u­dices and snob­beries and def­i­ni­tions gar­gan­tu­ate one’s en­tire life. Did the ac­tors in 2020 do it jus­tice? That would be a big fat yes. Apart from the fact that I could lis­ten to Har­riet Wal­ter or Imelda Staunton talk at me all day, Mr Ben­nett slips in such sly lines to their mouths – “Did Je­sus ever smirk?” – as to have you ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing. Tam­sin Greig has said “it’s like ac­ci­den­tally over­hear­ing hearts that are too full to keep any more se­crets”. Ev­ery­one should watch this tal­ented im­men­sity: those who think it “shouldn’t” have been re­made need to have a word with them­selves and think of cover ver­sions: so of­ten way bet­ter.

Erle Stan­ley Gard­ner, who wrote the Perry Mason sto­ries, was at one time the “most widely trans­lated au­thor” in the world. It was said that when Ein­stein died, a Perry Mason book was at his bed­side. Perry Mason, as rein­ter­preted by a won­der­ful gang of mod­erns, is now in Matthew Rhys come to life. The vest-pocket cam­era, the dirty ties. Mason will even­tu­ally grad­u­ate to law­dom, and go on to win an im­mensely im­por­tant 1930s le­gal case.

It is a fas­ci­nat­ing time on the west coast of Amer­ica – post­de­pres­sion, Hol­ly­wood on the rise with con­comi­tant stu­dio sleaze, and a bizarre (his­tor­i­cally true) rise in rich evan­gel­i­cal cults: not an era en­tirely un­ex­plored in fic­tion and film, but sel­dom ex­plored with such joined-up pizazz as this. This HBO re­make is sadly shorn of Fred Steiner’s orig­i­nal waa-waah cor­net theme but is so im­mensely stylish that I’ll for­give ev­ery­thing.

And dirty young pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor Mason makes many mis­takes – it is lit­tle less than “Perry Mason: Ori­gin”. “There’s what’s le­gal and then there’s what’s right.” He steals ties from dead folk in the morgue, has lit­tle time for those who eke out a knock-kneed ex­is­tence, and says such things as: “Cops in­ves­ti­gate cops? Quite the coinkidink.”

This new Perry Mason has been the big­gest HBO first-night hit for years, and de­servedly so. I have watched it all and can vouch­safe that the style, wit, grim sub­tlety – “she doesn’t have to eat all the sins of Los Angeles” – make pow­er­ful points. It is also so mor­eish that I would beg for a sec­ond se­ries. Did you all ab­so­lutely love

The Lu­mi­nar­ies? Sus­pect not: con­fus­ing, not least in the num­ber­less men pos­sessed of num­ber­less con­fus­ing mous­taches. And yet it does en­thral, this tale of old New Zealand and new gold, bitch­ery and witch­ery and, sud­denly, magic. I am lov­ing the old Maori tales told within, but it has some­how been soaped. I need to read Eleanor Cat­ton’s Book­er­win­ning novel.

Chan­nel 4’s The School That Tried to End Racism was a por­trait of a be­nign at­tempt (at Glen­thorne High in south Lon­don) to end racism by alert­ing young white 11-year-olds to their in­cip­i­ent bi­ases. Or: it was a some­what witchy at­tempt in the guise of docu­d­rama to make ev­ery­body an­grier: a sober glimpse into just how some doc­u­men­tary makers just like to boil your piss.

Take your pick, re­ally: it will di­vide thoughts, as it has di­vided aca­demics. A bold pro­gramme (the first strand of two) which­ever way

you look at it: in one ex­per­i­ment year 1s were split along racial, seg­re­gated, lines. This is based on sim­i­lar Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ments and coun­ter­in­tu­itive: surely seg­re­ga­tion was a Bad Thing, yes? Yet it has been grow­ingly un­der­stood, since the 60s, that the con­cept of “colour­blind­ness” is not at all the whole an­swer. And it did make a cer­tain sense. Black chil­dren talked openly for the first time about the ef­fects of racism. White chil­dren talk openly about guilt and be­ing wary of say­ing the wrong thing.

The pro­gramme of course had its own agenda, and cer­tain patches of disin­gen­u­ous edit­ing. For in­stance it be­gan with a clip of a class be­ing told, after an iPad ex­per­i­ment, that “the ma­jor­ity of the class showed an un­con­scious bias to­wards white peo­ple” and this be­ing greeted with wide-jawed laugh­ter from one pupil, dear cheer­ful Makhai: “That’s re­ally out­ra­geous!” Much later on it turned out, less abra­sively, that Makhai’s out­burst had been a re­ac­tion to the teacher stat­ing that we all share 99.9% of our genes with the next per­son.

And for all that eyes were opened, and pupils were al­lowed to speak openly to their own race, mostly, touch­ingly, they just missed their friends. I was im­mensely taken by Far­rah, half-Sri Lankan, who had to won­der, ba­si­cally: “Peo­ple think I’m not be­ing my­self, just try­ing to fit in. But if I am my­self they say, ‘You’re dif­fer­ent.’ What can I do?” This was said not with an­gry de­spair but with gen­uine irked hu­mour.

I think, on re­flec­tion, this was a rather fine ex­per­i­ment, hugely aided by the charm of all in­volved. It might not be the sim­ple an­swer sought, yet it’s pretty clear we can’t con­tinue with vast num­bers of a new gen­er­a­tion con­tin­u­ing to mis­un­der­stand en­tire swaths of its peers. At the very least, in the words of Perry Mason, ly­ing again bat­tered in some ditch yet hav­ing grabbed a vi­tal clue: “Fuck me, it’s a start.”

Euan Fer­gu­son

BE­LOW, FAR LEFT ‘Con­fus­ing’: Eva Green and Eve Hewson in The Lu­mi­nar­ies. BE­LOW LEFT ‘Im­mensely stylish’: Matthew Rhys as a young Perry Mason. LEFT ‘A big fat yes’: new talk­ing heads, clock­wise from top left: Har­riet Wal­ter, Lu­cian Msumati, Max­ine Peake, Jodie Comer, Imelda Staunton and Martin Free­man.

BE­LOW ‘A rather fine ex­per­i­ment’: Dora and Far­rah in C4’s The School That Tried to End Racism.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.