Filming begins today on new productions of Alan Bennett’s multi-award-winning Talking Heads monologues, which first aired on the BBC in 1988 and 1998.

The remakes will star Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, Sarah Lancashire and Maxine Peake among others.

Ten of the original pieces will be re-made with the addition of two new ones written by Bennett last year. They are produced by Nicholas Hytner’s London Theatre Company and Kevin Loader, and will air in the coming months on BBC One.

The contained nature of Bennett’s monologues allowed the opportunity to tell the stories while following government guidelines on safe working practices during Covid-19. Filming is taking place at BBC Elstree Studios using existing sets.

Alan Bennett says: “In such difficult circumstances, that the BBC should choose to remount both series of Talking Heads, and produce two entirely new ones, is a comfort and a huge compliment. I hope a new generation of actors will get and give as much pleasure as we did twenty and thirty years ago.”

Nicholas Hytner, Bennett’s long-term collaborator and Lead Director and Producer, says: “Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are among the masterworks of one of the very greatest writers in TV, film and theatre history. It has been a profound and fascinating experience to work out a way of making them again, this time with a company of phenomenal actors who are the equal of those who first made them; with a group of leading theatre directors, colleagues and friends of long standing; and with a team behind the camera that represents the best of the British TV and film industries. It is a wonderful bonus that two of the 2020 Talking Heads are totally new, written only a short time before the current crisis began. And everyone involved has been working in an unprecedented way, rigorously observing social distancing, entirely rethinking ways of filmmaking that until a few weeks ago seemed routine. The shoot will never bring any of us within touching distance of each other, but I hope that in every other way it will reach out and touch millions of viewers. We are all of us beyond grateful to the BBC for setting us this challenge.”

Piers Wenger, Controller of BBC Drama, says: “Covid-19 has laid waste to drama production in the UK, but it has also posed a challenge: how do we adhere to restrictions while still offering British viewers the chance to lose themselves in great stories at this time of national need? Full of insight, wit, daring and compassion, these are stories of individual lives – but of great resonance. I am so grateful to Alan, Nicholas Hytner, Kevin Loader and the whole team for the caution, ingenuity and wisdom which they have shown in bringing these stories to the screen.”

The Talking Heads monologues were first broadcast on the BBC in 1988 and 1998. They had a stellar cast including Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith, Stephanie Cole, Julie Walters, Thora Hird, Eileen Atkins, David Haig and Penelope Wilton, alongside Bennett himself. The monologues won two BAFTAs, an RTS award and have also since been included on the A-level and GCSE English Literature syllabus.

The monologues which will air on BBC One in the coming months are as follows:

[Listed in alphabetical order]
Jodie Comer in ‘Her Big Chance’ (1988), directed by Josie Rourke

Monica Dolan in The Shrine’ (2019), directed by Nicholas Hytner

Martin Freeman in ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ (1988), directed by Jeremy Herrin

Tamsin Greig in ‘Nights in the Garden of Spain’ (1998), directed by Marianne Elliott

Sarah Lancashire in ‘An Ordinary Woman’ (2019), directed by Nicholas Hytner

Lesley Manville in ‘Bed Among the Lentils’ (1988), directed by Nicholas Hytner

Lucian Msamati in ‘Playing Sandwiches’ (1998), directed by Jeremy Herrin

Maxine Peake in ‘Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet’ (1988), directed by Sarah Frankcom

Rochenda Sandall in ‘The Outside Dog’ (1998), directed by Nadia Fall

Kristin Scott Thomas in ‘The Hand of God’ (1998), directed by Jonathan Kent

Imelda Staunton in ‘A Lady of Letters’ (1988), directed by Jonathan Kent

Harriet Walter in ‘Soldiering On’ (1988), directed by Marianne Elliott

Talking Heads will be produced by London Theatre Company for BBC One, with BBC Studios providing the studios facilities.

The series will be produced by Nicholas Hytner and Kevin Loader for London Theatre Company, and co-produced by Steve Clark Hall. Executive Producers are Nick Starr and Anthony Jones for LTC, and Piers Wenger for the BBC. The series has been commissioned by Piers Wenger, Controller of BBC Drama, and Charlotte Moore, Director of BBC Content.

Staff Reporter