Long Read – Reduce, reuse, remake: does Talking Heads mark a sea change?

Published by Florence McCrae on June 28th 2020, 1:01pm

It is said there are only seven kinds of story – overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy and rebirth. All of Western literature, from Shakespeare to Saint-Exupéry, Wilde to Wodehouse, can be boiled down to this collection of plots. Yet the number of stories that can come from this cohort is infinite.

As such, the seemingly recent decision of the movie industry to indulge in remakes with such an appetite is particularly bizarre. With an all you can eat buffet of options, the number of reimaginings of A Christmas Carol is becoming more frightening that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come ever was.

If we had been so naive as to think that lockdown had spared us from the return of the remakes, turning on our televisions on Tuesday evening would prove us quite wrong. Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, which first graced our screens in the mid-1980s, came back, and proved that sometimes, a remake can be just what is needed.

Bennett’s Talking Heads is for television what Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected is for literature, though the former comes with far more of a Northern twang. Bennett, who confessed he had quite forgotten the series of monologues existed, was approached at the beginning of lockdown to sanction the remake. He took little convincing. After all, Nicholas Hytner, his long-time artistic partner would be producing. The complications of a lockdown production did not enter the minds of either party at the very beginning.

Recreating a series of such popularity and note is trying at the very best of times. There is something of a reputation to uphold. Yet the BBC were desperate, unsure how long reruns of Bargain Hunt could sate the general public, and the actors were willing. With ease, Hytner had a cohort of 12 actors and actresses, willing to learn the monologues required in a matter of weeks.

The logistics of the performance were particularly challenging given that Bennett has neither a mobile phone nor a computer. All communication was instead done using his landline, and all directing prior to the big day done on Zoom. As for the actors and actresses, hair and make-up was up to them (though heavily guided by Naomi Donne, fresh from her Oscar win for 1917), and wardrobes were limited, by and large, to what they already had in their wardrobes with a few Amazon investments here and there.

In spite of these limitations, what was broadcast on the BBC on Tuesday was as close to magic as we have seen on the public broadcaster in recent years. So well done is the series that The Independent muses, “You may feel the need for an extended solitary walk afterwards, which is awkward given that popping out for some air isn’t as straightforward as it used to be” while The Telegraph sees the remake as a reminder that Bennett is far more than simply an “amusing figure in a cardigan.”

Initially, the decision to remake the monologues met with objections from all corners. Yet, as Lucy Mangan muses: “They have had 32 years to themselves – now there is cultural room for another production, just as there always is with All My Sons, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or (please) The Browning Version – and room for another generation of actors to give us their take.” For some, this was the very first watching of Bennett’s monologues, for others, it was more akin to going home. The monologues were able to inhabit different cultural rooms in the same house.

There are two aspects of remakes which can be viewed directly in the new edition of Bennett’s Talking Heads – the first far more apparent than the second. The monologue performed by Jodie Comer, was first the acting property of Julie Walters, some three decades ago. “Her Big Chance” sees the actress play, in something of a meta move, an aspiring actress. The youngest of the cohort by far, Comer’s quite remarkable roster of roles means she need not prove her position – her talent is clear. Still, she makes the role her own, the highest hallmark of praise one could hope for in such a remake. Though the script for Comer remained the same, the way in which she interpreted her role was anything but.

Even those monologues which were referred to as “new” – Monica Dolan and Sarah Lancashire’s - fit well with Bennett’s initial corpus, making the viewer uncomfortable in a place where they ought to be the most at home. However, the feeling of a remake which was not supposed to touch either monologue still touches the latter. According to Bennett, An Ordinary Woman, a monologue in which a woman falls in love with her teenage son is a remake itself of Jean Racine’s Phèdre, which he “did for school certificate in 1950 and have always felt to be a bit of a cop-out”. In turn Racine’s work is something of a remake of the Classical Greek tale of Phaedra from Euripides’ Hippolytus. A tale as old as time indeed.

According to the Radio Times (a magazine itself that would not be out of place in the households of some of the Talking Heads): “The coronavirus lockdown has been something of a strange time for TV. Although many shows had already completed production long before quarantine was declared mandatory – and there was therefore a stockpile of programmes ready to be broadcast – we’ve also seen a range of new formats inspired by lockdown conditions.” Lockdown has allowed us a space for the new, as well as a return to the old.

There is, argues Patrick Cremona, a place for remakes, especially when done right as per Talking Heads: “There are a number of reasons why this particular reboot can be considered a success. For one, these monologues always served as, first and foremost, an excellent showcase of acting talent – and so seeing a different generation of performers put their own stamp on such iconic pieces of drama is extremely rewarding.” Cremona is quite correct – the change in time is as important as the change in actors and actresses. Were we not reminded from the off that Talking Heads was a remake (further seen in the BBC’s decision to include trigger warnings prior to each episode), it is unclear whether or not anyone would have noticed.

The flurry of praise for Talking Heads perhaps marks a sea change from the bad rap that remakes have received of late. Disney is in part responsible for this – their almost kinglike resources have, for the past decade or so, been dedicated to remakes of a range of childhood favourites. From a live action version of Cinderella to the slightly sinister remake of Lady and the Tramp, remakes have gained something of a reputation for being lazy, greedy and even downright weird.

According to an opinion piece in the Evening Standard, there is an element of intellectual cannibalism to a remake – with “a total of 115 film remakes and reboots coming to cinemas over the next few years — Hollywood, it seems, has eaten itself” claims the piece. They cite two central reasons for giving air space to remakes. The first: money.

Nostalgia sells. Favourites from bygone eras, from Snow White to the Aristocats, remain just that – favourites. A loyal audience of Disney fanatics already exists – evidenced by the astonishing success of the newest streaming platform, Disney+. For them, a remake is a must see, and for the producers, a sure-fire source of income, irrespective of the views of critics. Indeed, one critic goes so far as to justify the decision, noting that: “The movie industry is what it is: industry. Remakes are safe, lucrative investments. Big-budgeted original films are risky and tricky.” Business is business, after all.

The second factor in the revival of remakes – there is little risk. The creation of an entirely new film or show stands to risk production companies eyewatering sums of money and hard-won reputations. Disney has made some $7 billion from remakes since 2010, proving just how lucrative remakes can be. According to Björn Bohnenkamp, an expert in cultural economics, “the movie industry … builds upon the sensations and familiarity that a movie offers” and while they do “not increase revenues” they “reduce financial risk.” In short, we favour that which we know, even if it includes a live action animated talking elephant.

Yet there is an art to remakes. Indeed, for most, the time period within which remakes are remade is much removed from that of their original creation. The changes between the original airing of Queer Eye, for example, and the new incarnation mean the show serves an entirely different purpose. According to the one member of the so-called Fab Five: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight it for acceptance”. For the new cohort, and for its audience the role of the remake has changed, as society has done too. Our world is different, but the concepts need not be. As times change, so too, do the meaning of the art works we create, whether they are remakes or not.

For some remakes, place is as important as time. The American version of The Office outlasted its British counterpart by some seven seasons, building upon the original premise, and using the same pilot script. Others, most notably the American remake of Peep Show, simply did not translate across the pond – lines like “Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants. That’s the rule. Makes a man look scary, like a chicken” fit well within the cultural cannon of our own island, but rarely beyond it.

Some of the very best remakes are able to distance themselves from their predecessors. The Coen Brother’s True Grit, for example, or Martin Scorsese’s The Departed are both remakes without the cumbersome reputation of their Disney peers. A cult following can make, as much as it can break, a remake.

While it may seem that remakes “are more popular than ever… they've actually declined in popularity in the last 10 years or so. The 2000s saw the most remakes of any decade, with an average of 19 a year. In 2005, a record-breaking 33 remakes made it to the big screen” according to Michele Debczak. A Christmas Carol maintains its title as the most remade film of all time, though after the creation of A Muppet Christmas Carol, one wonders why anyone else even bothered.

It seems that our love-hate relationship with remakes has come about with Disney’s decision to engage with them. While there is a clear place for a reinterpretation of tales such as Cinderella, there is also a clear danger that comes with the creation of a remake – for the most avid of fans, films such as these are on par with their own personal property. To change them in any way is an act that is almost sacrilegious, so great is the fervour of these followers. While it is possible to improve upon box office sales, it is equally possible to damage a hard-won legacy. The problem, therefore, is perhaps not the concept of a remake, but its quality.

It is perhaps possible that instead of dismissing remakes out of hand as crass and tiresome, we try a different tack instead. Why not create and value both remakes and originals? By limiting our cultural options, we only serve to make our world smaller. Allowing both originals and their reimaginings provides us with the very best of both worlds. We are able to contrast and compare one with the other if we so choose, and if we find it not to our liking, we may simply turn off the television. There is a place for remakes now, as much as there has always been. Our world has changed, and with it, so should the way we view remakes – comparable with good covers of songs and reinterpretations of great artworks. The world reflected on our screens is different from years past, but this is by no means to say the script or concept must change too.

On average, Hollywood offers us a 23-year reprieve from the creation of an original, and the remake. The cinematic calendar in the mid-2040s is, by this logic, bound to be full of Fleabag and Killing Eve. One can hardly wait.

For the meantime, we will have to be satisfied with the remakes we are currently offered. From Mulan to Talking Heads, 2020 has offered us some remakes which are on par with the originals – akin to returning home and finding it better than we remembered. In a time as unprecedented as it is uncomfortable, it seems that remakes may in fact be precisely what we needed.

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Authored By

Florence McCrae
Literary Editor
June 28th 2020, 1:01pm

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