Alan Bennett's award-winning series of solo pieces is a classic of contemporary drama, universally hailed for its combination of razor-sharp wit and deeply felt humanity. In Bed Among the Lentils, a vicar's wife discovers a semblance of happiness with an Indian shop owner. In A Chip in the Sugar, a man's life begins to unravel when he discovers his aging mother has rekindled an old flame. In A Lady of Letters, a busybody pays a price for interfering in her neighbor's life.
First produced for BBC television in 1988 to great critical acclaim, the Talking Heads monologues also appeared on the West End Stage in London in 1992 and 1998. In 2002, seven of the pieces were performed at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles for a highly praised brief engagement, and in 2003 a selection of the monologues premiered in New York at the Minetta Lane Theatre. These extraordinary portraits of ordinary people confirm Alan Bennett's place as one of the most gifted, versatile, and important writers in the English Language.
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About the Author
Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright, essayist, and storywriter, whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He is also the author of The Clothes They Stood Up In, The Laying On of Hands, and Writing Home. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
The Complete Talking Heads
By Alan Bennett
PicadorCopyright © 1998 Forelake Ltd
All rights reserved.
A Woman of No Importance
Peggy: Patricia Routledge
PRODUCED BY INNES LLOYD
DESIGNED BY VIC MEREDITH
DIRECTED BY GILES FOSTER
MUSIC BY GEORGE FENTON
PEGGY IS A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN. SHE TALKS DIRECTLY TO CAMERA AGAINST A NEUTRAL BACKGROUND.
I was all right on the Monday. I was all right on the Tuesday. And I was all right on the Wednesday until lunchtime, at which point all my nice little routine went out of the window.
Normally, i.e. provided Miss Hayman isn't paying us one of her state visits, come half past twelve and I'm ready to down tools and call it a morning. I put on a lick of paint, slip over and spend a penny in Costing ... I should technically use the one in Records but I've told them, that lavatory seat is a death trap. And I'm not ringing up again. 'Try a bit of sellotape.' What are they paid for? I'll then rout out Miss Brunskill from 402 and we'll meander gently over for our midday meal. But you just have to hit it right because, give it another five minutes, and believe me that canteen is dog eat dog.
However if you can manage to nip in before the avalanche you have the pick of the tables and there's still some semblance of hygiene. Our particular stamping ground is just the other side of the bamboo framework thing they tried to grow ivy up. It's what Miss Brunskill calls 'our little backwater'. We're more or less fixtures there and have been for yonks. In fact Mr Skidmore came by with his tray last week just as we were concluding our coffee and he said, 'Well, girls. Fancy seeing you!' We laughed. Girls! Mr Skidmore generally gravitates to the table in the far corner under that silly productivity thermometer-type thing. 'Export or Die'. It's actually broken — stuck anyway — but it's where management tend to foregather since we've had this absurd 'All Barriers Down' policy. Once upon a time management had tables roped off. That's gone, only they still congregate there. 'Huddling together for warmth,' Mr Rudyard calls it. I said to Mr Cresswell, 'You can tell who's an activist.' We laughed, because anybody more conformist than Mr Rudyard you couldn't want, and he has beautiful fingernails. Of course once the management started frequenting that particular table sure enough Miss Hayman and the Personnel brigade pitch camp next door. And she'll turn around and chat to Mr Skidmore over the back of her chair. She never used to have all that hair.
Our table though we're very much the happy family. There's me, Miss Brunskill, Mr Cresswell and Mr Rudyard, Pauline Lucas, who's ex-Projects ... to tell the truth she's still Projects, only she's in Presentation wearing her Projects hat. Then there's Trish Trotter (when she's not in one of her 'bit of cheese and an apple' phases); Joy Pedley pays us the occasional visit, but by and large that's the hard core. Trish Trotter is the only one with a right weight problem but we're all salad fanatics and keep one another in line. I have to watch my stomach anyway and salad suits Miss Brunskill because she's a big Christian Scientist. But to add that bit of excitement I bring along some of my home-made French dressing. Mr Cresswell keeps pestering me to give Mr Rudyard what he calls 'the secret formula'. He's a keen cook, Mr Rudyard. Little moustache, back like a ramrod, you'd never guess it. I pretend there's a mystery ingredient and won't let on. We laugh.
People are a bit envious of us, I know. I ran into Mr McCorquodale the other day when we were both queueing in (guess!) Accounts and he said, 'You do seem to have a good time at your table, Peggy. What do you talk about?' And I didn't know. I mean, what do we talk about? Pauline's mother keeps getting a nasty rash that affects her elbows. We'd been discussing that. Mr Cresswell and Mr Rudyard were going in for some new curtains for their lounge and were debating about whether to have Thames Green. And I was saying if Thames Green was the green I thought it was I liked it in a front door but wasn't keen on it in curtains. So that made for some quite lively discussion. And Trish Trotter had got hold of some new gen on runner beans as part of a calorie-controlled diet, and we kicked that around for a bit. But honestly, that was all it was. I don't know what we do talk about half the time! My secret is, I don't talk about myself. When Joy Pedley went to Thirsk on a 'Know Your Client' course that was apparently the whole gist of it: concentrate on the other person. I said, 'Well, I've no need to go to Thirsk to learn that. It's something I've been born with.' We laughed.
Once we've lined up our eats and got the table organised Miss B. gets her nose into her crossword while I scan the horizon for the rest of the gang. I have to be on my toes because there's always some bright spark wanting to commandeer them and drag them off elsewhere. I don't think people like to see other people enjoying themselves, basically. Take Pauline Lucas. The other day, she came in with young Stuart Selby. He's ginger, and when Mr Oyston went up into Accounts and Mrs Ramaroop moved to Keighley, Stuart did a bit of a dog's hind leg and got into Costing. Him and Pauline were making a bee-line for the window, which is in the Smoking area. Now Pauline doesn't smoke, in fact rather the reverse. So I sang out, 'You're not deserting us, are you Pauline? Fetch Stuart over here. See how the other half lives!' So she did. Only halfway he ran into Wendy Walsh and it ended up just being me and Pauline. I said to her, 'That was a narrow escape.' She said, 'Yes.' We laughed. Her acne's heaps better.
And then look at Mr Cresswell and Mr Rudyard. It's the biggest wonder last week they didn't get sat with the truck drivers. They were dawdling past with their trays and there was room but luckily I just happened to be going by en route for some coffee and saw which way the wind was blowing and rescued them in the nick of time. They were so grateful. I said 'You two! You don't know you're born!' They laughed.
However, as I say, on this particular Wednesday I'm in the office, it's half past twelve and I'm just thinking, 'Time you were getting your skates on, Peggy,' when suddenly the door opens and nobody comes in. I didn't even look up. I just said, 'Yes, Mr Slattery?' He was on his hands and knees with a pro forma in his mouth. Anybody else would have got up. Not him. He crawls up to me, pretending to be a dog and starts begging, this bit of paper in his mouth! I thought, 'You're a grown man.You've got a son at catering college; your wife's in and out of mental hospital and you're begging like a dog.' I enjoy a joke, but I didn't laugh.
Surprise, surprise he's after a favour. The bit of paper is the Squash Ladder. Would I run him off two dozen copies? i said, 'Yes. By all means. At two o' clock.' He said, 'No. Now' Wants to put them round in the lunch hour. I said, 'Sorry. No can do.' I haven't forgotten the works outing. Running round with that thing on his head. He was like a crazed animal. I said, 'Anybody with an atom of consideration would have come down earlier. Squash Ladder! It's half past twelve.' He said, 'It's not for me.' I said 'Who's it for?' He said, 'Mr Skidmore.'
Well, as luck would have it I hadn't actually switched the machine off. And, knowing Trevor Slattery, Mr Skidmore had probably asked him to do it first thing and he'd only just got round to it. I know Mr Skidmore: courtesy is his middle name. But it did mean I didn't get out of the office until twenty to, by which time of course there's no Miss Brunskill. Any delay and La Brunskill's off like a shot from a gun, plastic hip or no plastic hip.
By this time of course the canteen is chock-a-block. I was five minutes just getting inside the door, and if I'd waited for a please or thank you I'd be stood there yet.. They looked to be about to introduce martial law round the salad bowl so I thought, 'Little adventure, I'll opt for the hot dish of the day, steak bits or chicken pieces.' I knew the woman doling it out because she gets on the 56. She's black but I take people as they come, and seeing it was me she scrapes me up the last of the steak bits. I topped it off with some mushrooms, and trust me if I didn't get the last of the yogurts as well. I heard somebody behind me say 'Damn'. I laughed.
I beetled over to our table but no Pauline, no Mr Cresswell and no Mr Rudyard. It's a cast of unknowns and only Miss Brunskill that I recognise. I said, 'Didn't you save me a place?' She said, 'I thought you'd been and gone.' Been and gone? How could I have been and gone, she knows I'm meticulous. But I just said, 'Oh' rather pointedly, and started touring round.
Eventually I pinpoint Pauline sat with little Stuart Selby, only there's no room there either. 'Scattered to the four winds today, Pauline,' I said. 'Yes,' she said, and he laughed. I see she's starting another spot.
I trek over to the far side and blow me if Mr Cresswell and Mr Rudyard aren't sat with all the maintenance men, some of them still in their overalls. Mr Cresswell is smoking between courses, something he never does with us, a treacle sponge just stuck there, waiting. Mr Rudyard is having a salad and I wave my jar of French dressing in case he wants some but he doesn't see me because for some reason he's not wearing his glasses.
Just then I spot somebody vacating a place up at the top end. I say, 'Room for a little one?' only nobody takes on. They're young, mostly from Design, moustaches and those little T-shirty things, having some silly conversation about a topless Tandoori restaurant. I start on my steak bits, only to find that what she's given me is mainly gristle. I don't suppose they distinguish in Jamaica. I thought, 'Well, I'll have a little salt, perk it up a bit,' but as luck would have it there's none on the table, so I get up again and go in quest of some. The first salt I spot is on the table opposite, which happens to be the table patronised by the management; and who should be sat there but Mr Skidmore. So I asked him if I could borrow their salt. 'Excuse me, Mr Skidmore,' was what I said, 'but could I relieve you temporarily of your salt?' I saw Miss Hayman's head come round. She'd naturally think I was crawling. I wasn't. I just wanted some salt. Anyway, Mr Skidmore was very obliging. 'By all means,' he said. 'Would you like the pepper too?' I said, 'That's most civil of you, but I'm not a big pepper fan.' So I just took the salt, put a bit on the side of my plate and took it back. 'Much obliged,' I said. 'Don't mention it,' Mr Skidmore said. 'Any time.' He has impeccable manners, they have a big detached house at Alwoodley, his wife has had a nervous breakdown, wears one of those sheepskin coats.
I suddenly bethought me of the Squash Ladder, so just after I'd replaced the salt I said, 'Oh, by the way, I ran you off those copies of the Squash Ladder,' not in a loud voice, just person to person. He said, 'What?' I said, 'I ran you off those copies of the Squash Ladder.' He said, 'Squash Ladder?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Not my pigeon.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Didn't you know? There's been a flare-up with my hernia.' Well I didn't know. I can't see how I would be expected to know. Somebody laughed. I said, 'Oh, I am sorry.' He said, 'I'm not. Blessing in disguise. Squash is Slattery's pigeon now.'
I went back to my table and sat down. I felt really sickened. He'd done it on me had Mr Slattery.
After a bit Trish Trotter rolls up and parks herself next to me. She says, 'Are you not eating your steak bits?' I said, 'No.' She said, 'Don't mind if I do,' and helps herself. She shouldn't wear trousers.
Anyway it was that afternoon that I first began to feel really off it. I went home at half past four.
FADE QUICKLY TO BLACK. Still shot of her desk: very neat. A single flower in a glass. Typewriter with its cover on.
I want the tableaux between scenes to look like still life paintings.
Peggy is now sat against another neutral background, wallpaper possibly — something to indicate she is at home.
I don't run to the doctor every five minutes. On the last occasion Dr Copeland sat me down and said, 'Miss Schofield. If I saw my other patients as seldom as I see you I should be out of business.' We laughed.
He's always pleased to see me: gets up when I come into the room, sits me down, then we converse about general topics for a minute or two before getting down to the nub of the matter. He has a picture of his children on the desk, taken years ago because the son's gone to Canada now and his daughter's an expert in man-made fibres. He never mentions his wife, I think she left him, he has a sensitive face. Cactuses seem to be his sideline. There's always one on his desk and he has a Cactus Calendar hung up. This month's was somewhere in Arizona, huge, a man stood beside it, tiny. I looked at it while he was diddling his hands after the previous patient.
There was a young man in the room and Dr Copeland introduced me. He said, 'This is Miss ...' (he was looking at my notes) 'Miss Schofield. Mr Metcalf is a medical student; he's mistaken enough to want to become a doctor.' We laughed, but the boy kept a straight face. He had on one of those zip-up cardigans I think are a bit common so that didn't inspire confidence. Dr Copeland said would I object to Mr Metcalf conducting the examination provided he was standing by to see I came to no actual physical harm? We both laughed but Mr Metcalf was scratching a mark he'd found on the knee of his trousers.
Dr Copeland put him in the picture about me first: 'Miss Schofield has been coming to me over a period of twelve years. Her health is generally good, wouldn't you say, Miss Schofield?' — and he was going on, but I interjected. I said, 'Well, it is good,' I said, 'but it's quite likely to seem better than it is because I don't come running down to the surgery with every slightest thing.' 'Yes,' he said. 'If I saw my other patients as seldom as I see Miss Schofield I should be out of business.' He laughed. The student then asked me what the trouble was and I went through the saga of the steak bits and my subsequent tummy upset.
He said, 'Is there anything else beside that?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Any problems at work?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Any problems at home?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'You're single.' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Where are your parents?' I said, 'Mother's in her grave and father is in a Sunshine Home at Moortown.' He said, 'Do you feel bad about that?' (He didn't look more than seventeen.) I said, 'No. Not after the life he's lived.'
I saw him look at Dr Copeland, only he was toying with the calendar, sneaking a look at what next month's cactus was going to be. So this youth said, 'What life did he lead?' I said, 'A life that involved spending every other weekend at Carnforth with a blondified piece from the cosmetics counter at Timothy Whites and Tailors: He said, 'Is that a shoe shop?' I said, 'You're thinking of Freeman, Hardy and Willis. It's a chemist. Or was. It's been taken over by Boots. And anyway she now has a little gown shop at Bispham. His previous was a Meltonian shoe cream demonstrator at Manfields, and what has this to do with my stomach?'
Dr Copeland said, 'Quite. I think it's about time you took an actual look at the patient, Metcalf.' So the young man examined me, the way they do pressing his hands into me and whatnot, and then calls over Dr Copeland to have a look. 'That's right,' I said. 'Make way for the expert.' Only neither of them laughed.
Dr Copeland kneaded me about a bit, but more professionally and while he was washing his hands he said, 'Miss Schofield. I'm not in the least bit worried by your stomach. But, you being you, it wants looking at. There aren't many of us left!' We laughed. 'So just to be on the safe side I want to make an appointment for you to see a specialist, Mr Penry-Jones.' I said, 'Isn't his wife to do with the Music Festival?' He said, 'I don't know, is she?' I said, 'She is. I've seen a picture of her talking to Lord Harewood.' He took me to the door of the consulting room, which he doesn't do with everybody, and he took my hand (and I'm not a private patient). 'Thank you,' he said. 'Thank you for being a guinea pig.' We laughed. Only it's funny, just as I was coming out I saw the student's face and he was looking really pleased with himself.
She very slightly presses her hand into her stomach.
FADE TO BLACK AND UP AGAIN to still shot of bedside table. Clock. Bedside lamp. A bottle of white medicine.
FADE TO BLACK AND UP AGAIN: Peggy is in a hospital bed.
I've just had a shampoo and set. She's not done it too badly, bearing in mind she doesn't know my hair. Lois, her name is. She has a little salon. You go past Gyney, and it's smack opposite Maternity. It's a bit rudimentary, they just have it to perk up the morale of the pregnant mums basically, but, as Lois says, it's an open door policy just so long as you can find your way because this place is a rabbit warren. Lois said my hair was among the best she'd come across. It's the sort Italians make into wigs apparently, they have people scouring Europe for hair of this type. I should have had a perm last Tuesday only when Mr Penry-Jones whipped me in here it just went by the board.
Caused chaos at work. Miss Brunskill said after I'd rung up Mr McCorquodale and Mr Skidmore went into a huddle for fully half an hour and at the end of it they still couldn't figure out a way to work round me. In the finish Miss Hayman had to come down from the fifth floor - though not wearing her Personnel hat, thank God - and Pauline did her usual sideways jump from Records, but it's all a bit pass the parcel. Miss Brunskill says everybody is on their knees praying I come back soon.
Excerpted from The Complete Talking Heads by Alan Bennett. Copyright © 1998 Forelake Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Woman of No Importance
Introduction to Talking Heads
A Chip in the Sugar
Bed Among the Lentils
A Lady of Letters
Her Big Chance
A Cream Cracker Under the Settee
Introduction to Talking Heads 2
The Hand of God
Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet
The Outside Dog
Night in the Gardens of Spain
Waiting for the Telegram