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Talking Heads: The Hand
of God/Telling Tales: An Ideal Home
WGBH/Masterpiece Theatre presents on PBS
Mostly, what appears on television are movies (or movie-like
productions) shrunk down to fit the not-as-small-as-they-they-used-to-be home screens. The
sweep is lost, the grand scale of the big silver screen miniaturized. Bigger than life is
re-scaled to ordinary. The British playwright Alan Bennett is one of the few who has
been able to wed the pleasure of literate theater with the small screen. Talking Heads
(the expression used for all those folks seen shoulder-up and speaking at you in TV and
movie documentaries) is the title of two series that Bennett has written for television.
They are a collection of fictive monologues, the first going back to 1988, acted by
luminaries of the British stage and screen. These actors of consummate skill deliver
Bennett's witty and observant characterizations in short engrossing vignettes that treat
the viewer as a confidante, resulting in an intimacy ideally suited to TV. They range from
hilariously funny to bitingly satirical to poignantly reflective, sometimes all in the
same monologue. Never has the medium of television been used to better advantage.
When theater productions are taped for television, they generally feel
artificial and stagy--utterly different from the very same material seen live on
stage, where audience experience of theatrical conventions and the magic of the in-person
connection easily allow for the suspension of disbelief.
Years ago, the first series ran in full on PBS. Now Masterpiece Theatre
offers one segment only from the second series (1998), which raises the question as to why
American audiences are deprived of the balance of series two. Ah, the mysteries of media
Set the VCR to record it, because the one segment here doled out, The
Hand of God, is an exquisite gem which will be worth repeated viewing over the years.
Eileen Atkins thoroughly inhabits the role of a suburban antique dealer, Celia, a widow,
sitting in her shop, surrounded by her stock-in-trade. She is disdainful of the
inexperienced casual shoppers who come by and she is a snob about her own knowledgeability
both of antiques and the tricks of the trade of buying and selling. Her specialty is
"good cottage furniture" and there are things she would never disdain to carry.
"Teddy bears are a minefield," she sniffs.
When an acquaintance, Miss Ventriss, who lives in a 17th century house
full of antiques, becomes terminally ill, Celia observes that "the sharks are
beginning to gather." What follows, all as she relates it, is rich in plot, irony,
and suitable comeuppance as the reward for hypocrisy. Atkins (Vanity Fair, Cold Mountain) not only delivers the lines
with thorough verisimilitude, but uses every muscle to convey the attitude behind the
words. With refined understatement, she uses a turn of the head, a lift of the brow, a
blink, a shrug, a near-sneer--all perfectly attuned to the underlying feelings, both those
of which Celia is aware and those that she unknowingly reveals to the viewer. It's a
spectacular miniature, forty minutes of bewitching theater that works perfectly on the
Masterpiece Theatre fills out its hour with a short oral essay told by
Alan Bennett himself about his childhood home. The son of a butcher, he was embarrassed by
the accoutrements of his father's trade. He catalogues the sad collection of bric-a-brac
that his mother accumulated, from the somewhat disdainful point of view of the boy growing
up in this working class household in Leeds. In the end he acknowledges that the memories
of his boyhood embarrassments live on, even when no others are left to remember and he
gently rues the depths of his boyhood trivialities. Bennett's gift for the language is a
joy; his ability to draw from descriptions of ordinary day-to-day things the subtleties of
human experience is masterly.
- Arthur Lazere