Talking Heads: Soldiering On Review
by E. Stevens
‘As a character, Muriel is likeable, and we are definitely supposed to feel sorry for her in many situations. However, she does seem to have one main flaw; Muriel is blind to the faults of the people she loves.’
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Cast: Harriet Walter
Synopsis: Recently widowed Muriel is pleasantly surprised at her son Giles’s helpfulness towards her finances. But soon there is a liquidity problem, the truth behind her daughter’s mental illness is revealed and her life begins to unravel before her eyes.
Some of Alan Bennett’s best-known monologues are brought back to life by a new cast in this BBC series. This series has a very unique structure, in which there is only one actor performing a monologue that describes the events of the story.
Soldiering On tells the story of Muriel, recently widowed, and trying to carry on living a normal life without her husband. She tells the story of her husband Ralph’s funeral, where she has several breakdowns remembering him and all his usual habits. After she discusses the funeral, Muriel introduces us to her daughter Margaret, who we learn has some kind of mental illness. She tries to continue with her life, by seeking advice from various acquaintances about how best to deal with bereavement. Soon after, her son Giles takes her out to lunch, and we learn that Ralph and Giles never got on and were always arguing, but Ralph doted on Margaret. After Giles and Muriel return from the restaurant, Giles tells her that Ralph has left her very well off in his will, but she does have a couple of problems with her finances. However Muriel does feel vaguely uneasy when Giles removes various valuable items from the house to keep them safe. Soon Margaret is admitted to a mental hospital, Muriel is forced to sell the contents of her house and we learn something shocking about the origin of Margaret’s condition.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this monologue was the way it conveyed information. Alan Bennett never explicitly tells the audience what is happening, but instead drops subtle hints throughout the speech that plant doubts in the audience’s heads, and then confirms our uneasiness later on with a slightly more obvious statement. This is done particularly well when we learn the truth about both Giles, and Margaret’s illness. This way of revealing information is particularly effective as the audience learns everything through Muriel, so we have to think further than just what she tells us in order to uncover the truth. As a character, Muriel is likeable, and we are definitely supposed to feel sorry for her in many situations. However, she does seem to have one main flaw; Muriel is blind to the faults of the people she loves. We see this first with Giles, and then with Ralph, and it forces the audience to question whether the other people in Muriel’s life are really as ‘good’ as she makes out.
Although Talking Heads describes very sensitive topics, it handles them very well and in a delicate way. I would highly recommend the entire series, but this episode in particular.
Talking Heads is currently available on BBC iPlayer and was rated 15 by the BBFC. Some of the episodes in the series do contain some distressing content.