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
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.”
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.