Talking Heads 1

Alan Bennett
Three compact discs
95 minutes £15.99

Alan Bennett as Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, the very first Talking Head, speaks of "a spot of excitement" and in doing so captures the joy of these half-hour monologues. This playwright doesn't go for the sensational but rather the mildly out of the ordinary.

Bennett's genius is in portraying common or garden people but making their day-to-day lives fascinating. He achieves this by putting a twist into the tails of their stories so that the seemingly innocent rarely are.

One begins to wonder whether Mr Bennett has a streak of very genteel cruelty as, time and again, he builds our sympathy for his protagonists before revealing weaknesses that could easily make listeners feel guilty for becoming friendly with relative monsters.

His wicked sense of humour also helps, so that listening to these recordings in public is a risk, as laughing out loud in the street or on public transport is still frowned upon.

To complement his own impeccable performance, Bennett is blessed with a tremendous team of actors. In A Lady of Letters, Patricia Routledge is perfect as Irene, the ultimate busybody who finds peace and happiness in the strangest way.

In Bed Amongst the Lentils, Anna Massey's Susan is a bored vicar's wife who goes to great trouble to "calm my shattered nerves" on a regular basis. She is not helped by her husband's "fan club", the busybody ladies of the parish, but finds solace in a minimarket in Leeds. Miss Massey's tone of wounded, if bewildered, dignity is absolutely delicious.

Muriel, played by Stephanie Cole is newly bereaved in Soldiering On. She is the epitome of respectability and copes well thanks to her too good to be true son Giles and the support of the local community. The latter do what one might expect, collectively provide the solid advice not to take any big decisions and compete to relieve her of the jumble. The only blot on the horizon beyond a minor liquidity problem is her unstable daughter Margaret - or is it?

Her Big Chance features Julie Walters as Lesley, an actress who takes her job seriously but seems destined to play bit parts. This proves to be a gentle satire on the film industry and those who take it too seriously.

The original series of Talking Heads concludes with Thora Hird playing independent seventy-five year old Doris in A Cream Cracker under the Settee. Trapped after a fall, like all of the other talkers, she sketches her life in well-chosen and gently humorous words, with an underlying vein of tragedy.

This delightful collection could be the perfect gift for anyone who loved the series when it first appeared, for Bennett addicts and as an introduction to the work of this master playwright.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher