Paul T Davies reviews Lesley Manville in Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils presented as part of the Talking Heads series now showing on BBC iPlayer.
Talking Heads: Bed Among the Lentils.
Streaming now on BBC iPlayer.
So, we come to, in my opinion, the best of Bennett. Originally performed by Maggie Smith, Susan is a vicar’s wife, deeply unhappy and with a drinking problem. She observes life in the church, mourns that she is not the ideal Vicar’s wife she should be, and she, almost accidentally, begins an affair with Mr Ramesh, an Indian grocer, who is happy to sell her alcohol when the local shop becomes a little sneery with her. It contains some classic Bennett, and the monologue delivers us a cast of characters and village pettiness, the Vicar’s fan club, Susan’s comments about Jesus, (“Do you think he ever smirked?”), and the legendary battle of the Forest Mummers with Mrs Shrubsole, (“If you think squash is competitive, you should try flower arranging.”), worth the entire monologue just for that sequence!
Enough time has passed for the remakes to work, and many performers have stood alongside the original actors, only a couple have been overshadowed. A few, however, have made the piece their own, and Lesley Manville, as you would expect, is quite magnificent as Susan. She conveys so much emotion with just one glance, and she hits the comedy lines with perfect pitch. I’ve realised that one reason I’ve enjoyed watching these monologues so much is the good old fashioned slow closeup. Filmed on the EastEnders lot at Elstree, these works are not Zoom recorded, and I really appreciated the direct connection between speaker and viewer. The camera ever so slowly moves in on Manville’s face as she gets to the heart of her tale. As with most Talking Heads, she ends up worse off than at the beginning. Having been persuaded by Mr Ramesh to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, she now feels she attends two churches, not one, and Mr Ramesh has sold up and moved away. She has wonderful moments when she laughs about Mr Ramesh dancing naked for her, except for tiny tambourines, and her heartbreak threatens to overwhelm her as she speaks between laughter and tears. It’s a beautiful performance.
Director Nicholas Hytner is, of course, a Bennett muse, and knows that the camera just has to watch as the layers are peeled off. Susan is described as slim, and here she is stripped down to a husk until we see the hard, uncomfortable truth. Susan is a victim of habit, of her age, and of her husband’s appropriation of her story. It’s a comedy of bittersweetness, and even though it reflects the attitude of the 1980s, is a tale that has stood the test of time. I’ve also appreciated the length of each episode, that time is allowed for the story to be told, that this is simple yet highly effective storytelling.
Other Talking Heads Reviews
Read our review for An Ordinary Woman
Read our review for The Shrine
Read our review for Soldiering On
Read our review for Her Big Chance
Read our review for The Outside Dog