Paul T Davies reviews Harriet Walter in Soldiering On shown as part of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads now on BBC IPlayer.
Streaming now on BBC iPlayer.
Stoicism is seen as a particular strength of the British character; it is often admired and the stiff upper lip is considered a strength. Yet we are all much more aware of the damage caused by silence, of not asking for help. It’s fertile ground for Alan Bennett, and there are none more stoic than Muriel, who we meet immediately after her husband’s funeral. Part of the “country set”, (I imagine she has a huge back catalogue of Horse and Hounds), she is posh to her eyelashes, and when her son, Giles, gets her to sign some papers, it appears husband Ralph has left her a very rich widow. Except Giles is a “bit of a scamp”, and there emerges a liquidity problem, some poor investments, and it may all be Giles’s fault. Added to that her daughter, Margaret, has special needs and is looked after in a home. Once the money runs out, however, Margaret is put into a “poorer” facility, but one richer in support where she thrives and therapy uncovers her childhood abuse from her father. As Muriel begins to collapse in front of us, Margaret thrives in recovery.
It’s a beautiful performance by Harriet Walter, restrained and dignified, slowly breaking your heart as your own snobbishness towards this kind of moneyed class begins to be challenged. She is relentlessly cheerful, proud that she didn’t cry in public at Ralph’s funeral, forgiving of Giles and the fact he ruins her twilight years, not knowing what to make of Margaret’s revelations, but tamping her feelings deep down inside her. In the final scene, in an off-season lodging house by the sea, watching telly all day, not seeing her grandchildren because it upsets Giles to see her there, she refuses to see herself as a victim, she is a survivor. “I’m not a tragic woman. I’m not that type.”
Marianne Elliott’ direction is as sensitive as the performance, the camera almost hovers, as if waiting for permission to go in closer, that permission given with a slight raising of an eyebrow or a glance around her surroundings. It’s a tribute to the design team that some simple, deft strokes of colour and props, can take us from refined world to seaside survival. You may be frustrated by Muriel, but you will feel sorry for a woman suffering for the sake of stoicism.