Having taught Alan Bennett’s original Talking Heads to an adult A’Level group at the local college many years ago I have a soft spot for these fabulous works and couldn’t believe it when I heard two new pieces had been written. My enormous thanks to Anna-Marie Fitzgerald at Profile Books for sending me a copy of Alan Bennett’s Two Besides in return for an honest review. I was thrilled to receive it and am still looking forward to finding time to watch the BBC Talking Heads series which was broadcast earlier this year.
Published by Faber and Profile Books on 1st October 2020, Two Besides is available for pre-order online and in all good bookshops, including through the links here.
‘Given the opportunity to revisit the characters from Talking Heads I’ve added a couple more, both of them ordinary women whom life takes by surprise. They just about end up on top and go on, but without quite knowing how. Still, they’re in good company, and at least they’ve made it into print.’
Alan Bennett’s twelve Talking Heads are acknowledged masterworks by one of our most highly acclaimed writers. Some thirty years after the original six, Bennett has written Two Besides, a pair of monologues. Each, in its way, is a devastating portrait of grief. In An Ordinary Woman, a mother suffers the inevitable consequences when she makes life intolerable for herself and her family by falling for her own flesh and blood; while The Shrine tells the story behind a makeshift roadside shrine, introducing us to Lorna, bearing witness in her high-vis jacket, the bereft partner of a dedicated biker with a surprising private life.
The two new Talking Heads were recorded for the BBC during the exceptional circumstances of coronavirus lockdown in the spring of 2020, directed by Nicholas Hytner and performed by Sarah Lancashire and Monica Dolan.
The book contains a substantial preface by Nicholas Hytner and an introduction to each, by Alan Bennett.
My Review of Two Besides
Two new ‘Talking Heads’.
What an absolute gem of a book. I loved every moment of reading Two Besides. Before I review properly, I would say I think it best to read An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine before reading the introduction by Nicholas Hytner as he refers to them in his piece and it might colour the reading experience.
The introductory Talking Heads – How They Happened by Nicholas Hytner is absolutely fascinating. I still haven’t got round to watching the series produced for the BBC, although I have them recorded, but this introduction has made me desperate to find the time. I was completely absorbed in the production process of a Covid world with everything from casting to sound, make up and music explained clearly and interestingly. There’s a reverence and affection for Alan Bennett’s writing and skill that shines through the pages too which gives a real warmth to the book.
However, excellent introduction aside, it is, of course, Alan Bennett’s utter brilliance as a writer that makes these two new narratives in Two Besides so compelling. His distinctive authorial voice, his ability to look into the very soul of his characters, his sublime use of sentence variety and structure gives an authentic cadence that places the reader in intimate contact with the characters. It is as if they are speaking directly to you, making the reader as much part of the story as they are.
In both An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine we have universal and identifiable themes of love and desire, moral acceptability and abhorrence, a sense of self and otherness that rings with emotion so that whilst characters may behave badly or foolishly, they have our utmost sympathy. Both Gwen and Lorna could so easily be a member of our families, a neighbour or a friend. I read both An Ordinary Woman and The Shrine desperate for Gwen and Lorna to triumph.
In Two Besides Alan Bennett writes with a raw understanding of humanity that is astounding. I think any reader picking up Two Besides and not feeling emotionally affected by its contents must be almost inhuman. I loved this book unreservedly.
About Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett has been a leading dramatist since Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His works for stage and screen include Talking Heads, Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, The Madness of George III, an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, The History Boys, The Habit of Art, People, Hymn, Cocktail Sticks and Allelujah! His collections of prose are Writing Home, Untold Stories (PEN/Ackerley Prize, 2006) and Keeping On, Keeping On. Six Poets contains Bennett’s selection of English verse, accompanied by his commentary. His recent fiction includes The Uncommon Reader and Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.