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'To be approved of by Alan... I only wish I could have told my mother'

Alan Bennett's Talking Heads returns with a terrific cast. Georgia Humphreys hears about the challenges of taking on a reworked classic

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Martin Freeman as Graham in Talking Heads

Martin Freeman as Graham in Talking Heads

Press Association Images

Martin Freeman as Graham in Talking Heads

While it's been an incredibly difficult few months for the UK, the Covid-19 lockdown has seen some brilliant, creative TV series being made. The latest is a revival of a hit show which first aired in 1988 and 1998 - Alan Bennett's Talking Heads.

The Leeds-born actor and writer won awards and critical acclaim for the tales, which reveal the innermost thoughts of an individual to audiences, and they've since moved to radio and theatre.

Now, 10 of the original monologues have been remade for TV, plus two new pieces which 86-year-old Bennett wrote last year.

The contained nature of the stories meant they could be easily filmed following the latest government guidelines on safe working practices during the coronavirus pandemic.

Expect the series to have great resonance and be emotional, yet also uplifting, viewing.

The 12-person line-up is not one to be scoffed at. Killing Eve fans will be excited to hear it includes Jodie Comer (her episode is called Her Big Chance), while Martin Freeman - star of The Office, The Hobbit and Sherlock - appears in A Chip In The Sugar.

There are a number of big female names reworking some of the old monologues, including Lesley Manville (Bed Among The Lentils), Kristin Scott Thomas (The Hand Of God) and Imelda Staunton (A Lady Of Letters).

Dinnerladies' Maxine Peake takes on Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, with Rochenda Sandall - known for a villainous role in Line Of Duty - in The Outside Dog. Other episodes include Nights In The Garden Of Spain with Tamsin Greig (of Friday Night Dinner fame) and Playing Sandwiches, starring Lucian Msamati (recently seen in Sky hit Gangs Of London).

Meanwhile, the 2019 pieces - called The Shrine and An Ordinary Woman - feature Monica Dolan, who won a Bafta for Appropriate Adult, and Happy Valley's Sarah Lancashire respectively.

For Liverpudlian Comer (27), the biggest adjustment filming in this unique format was "the stillness".

"Usually on set there is a lot of chaos and noise, but as there were less people on set due to social-distancing rules, it was very peaceful. This took some getting used to," she says.

"Normally, you have to zone yourself out of the noise to focus, but it was so quiet, which threw me off balance to begin with."

Preparations for the role also had to be done remotely, which reminded Londoner Msamati (44) of days touring (he has done a lot of theatre work) with "everyone mucking in and getting on with it: no faff, no ego; it's all about the story and the best way to tell it".

"It was a delight to Zoom-collaborate with Jeremy Herrin, the director, Jaqueline Durran, our costume designer, and Naomi Donne, our hair and make-up designer, on how best to realise the character," he adds. "Other than a dodgy internet connection on one day, it was great."

Brighton-born Manville probably sums up what to expect from the series best, when she says: "There's absolutely nothing to compare Alan Bennett's writing with."

In her monologue, he deals with her character Susan's "pain and longing and loneliness", but laces it with such humour and self-deprecation.

"He understands the human condition," continues the 64-year-old star, who was nominated for an Oscar for Phantom Thread.

"Susan is a wonderful woman, who is full of potential and desperate to have a life of love and validation.

"She's stuck in an awful marriage to Geoffrey, a vicar, and is lonely and the only humour she shares is with herself."

Freeman, who's 48 and was born in Aldershot, had the "intimidating" job of remaking the monologue originally performed by writer Bennett himself.

But it was a huge honour to be trusted with it, he adds. "To be approved of by Alan, whom I don't know, is something I wish I could have told my mum," he says. "I knew some of the monologues better than others; I remembered snippets of Alan's, but not too much, I'm glad to say.

"The first thing I said to Jeremy (Herrin, director) was, 'Well, I'm not going to outdo Alan Bennett, am I?' We knew we had to treat it as a new piece of writing and not be swayed by the folk memory of the original performance."

Asked what Peake's first thoughts were when she was asked to play Miss Fozzard (originally portrayed by Patricia Routledge), she admits: "Panic. These are classic pieces, performed originally by the best in the business. I said 'Yes' straight away, then spent the next few weeks in a state of high anxiety.

"The magnificent Patricia Routledge is unsurpassable and, also, I'm 20 years younger than when Patricia did it, so I didn't know if I could convince people I'm a suitable Miss Fozzard."

It's hard to put your finger on it, but there's just something about Talking Heads that resonates with viewers.

"All of the characters are drawn with such compassion, the language so delicately chosen, the situations are so heartbreaking and oddly intriguing, the peculiar idiosyncrasies of each character so funny and detailed, that audiences get drawn into privacy," notes Maidstone-born Greig (53).

"It's like accidentally overhearing hearts that are too full to keep any more secrets."

Then, there's the brilliant way audiences get to follow the characters's train of thought.

Scott Thomas (60) elaborates that the way Bennett writes means "one word can trip into an idea of something else".

"It's all brilliantly observed, calibrated and witty," says the Cornwall-born star, known for films such as Four Weddings And A Funeral and The English Patient. "He takes no prisoners, but he is never cruel. Everybody is boiled down to their absolute core and he manages to make you understand who a character is and what they are about in the space of three sentences."

Talking Heads, BBC One, Tuesday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph