Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, the country’s national treasures are coming out to play, lifting the nation’s spirits during these most uncertain times. Alan Bennett, the playwright responsible for The History Boys, The Lady in the Van and others, has sanctioned the reinvention of his Talking Heads series, while observing the government mandated social distancing measures.
Nicholas Hytner, the screen and stage director, was eager to undertake this more unconventional project, charged with finding 12 actors to fill the roles once held by those including Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge and Maggie Smith. The monologues themselves have changed little, the themes of loneliness, isolation and persistence arguably more pertinent now than ever before.
Hytner’s challenge, while already considerable given present circumstances, was magnified by the short time scale with which to deliver, a matter of weeks for a project that would, in less tumultuous times, take months or even years to deliver.
The former director of the National Theatre responded to the challenge, stating that: “My immediate thought was ‘yes’, I thought, ‘I know lots of brilliant people. We will work out a way of doing this.’”
Today marks the first in a fortnight of filming for the reimagined Talking Heads, with Jodie Comer, Maxine Peak and Kristin Scott Thomas among others joining together to film the monologues at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.
Everything that has been done, has observed the government regulations of the Covid-19 pandemic. Make-up artist Naomi Donne has sent each actor a make-up kit and clear guidance on its use, while costume designer Jacqueline Durran has scoured their wardrobes to find the perfect outfits via Skype.
It was agreed that two of the original pieces, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee and Waiting for the Telegram could not be performed as both required older actresses who fall into the high-risk group.
Each member of the potential cast responded to Hytner’s request to perform within 24 hours. With just four weeks to learn a 40-minute monologue, the undertaking was by no means a small one. They received a PDF of the scripts around a month ago.
The actors have agreed to accept the maximum furlough wage of £2,500 for their work, donating the difference to NHS Charities Together.
Talking Heads will be on BBC iPlayer and BBC One over the coming months.