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How they remade Alan Bennett's Talking Heads during the lockdown

The hit series has been remade during the pandemic

Harriet Walter shooting Talking Heads
© BBC/NHU/Victoria Buckley

Released next week, some of screen and stage's biggest names will be breathing new life into Alan Bennett's iconic series of monologues, each filmed during lockdown and distributed on the BBC and BBC iPlayer.

According to Nicholas Hytner, who led the project, it all started with a phonecall: "Piers Wenger, the BBC's Head of Drama, called me on the evening of 26 March, ten days after all the theatres – including my own, the Bridge Theatre – closed. He said that BBC drama production had halted, that the only films they could imagine making were monologues, and that he'd remembered Alan Bennett's Talking Heads". The rest was history.

All of the monologues were filmed at Elstree Studios, many of them, as WOS readers have been keen to point out, using the sets for EastEnders.

Nicholas Hytner and Rochenda Sandall
© BBC/NHU/Victoria Buckley

Hytner was experienced with putting Alan Bennett plays both on screen and stage, be they The History Boys, the recent Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre or The Lady in the Van. But the prolific director was not sold on having to rehearse over webcam: "Zoom rehearsals have no future. Working with an actor cries out for human contact. But we all managed, because there was no alternative. It's the same as seeing your family and closest friends only on screen. Better than nothing at all, but nothing like enough. Still, we coped."

Martin Freeman on the set of Talking Heads
© BBC/London Theatre Company/Zac Nicholson

In terms of getting the space ready, the Talking Heads team had to work wonders within the rigid social distancing parameters: "The sets all needed refurnishing and redressing, but nothing could be done that couldn't be done by one person, or one person with a trolley. The designer Simon Bowles and his associate India Smith worked wonders.

"Zac Nicholson, the extraordinary director of photography, couldn't use many of the routine tools of his trade: the camera could only move, for instance, when moved by the operator on its own pedestal. Lighting was slow as everyone had to keep their distance. Many of the sets were familiar to regular viewers of EastEnders so they had to made strange and new again through the way they were lit. Jacqueline Durran, who had just won her second Oscar (for Little Women) had to conjure up whole worlds mainly from eBay and the actors' own wardrobes: none of the usual costume stores were open."

Tamsin Grieg and Nicholas Hytner on the set
© BBC/London Theatre Company/Zac Nicholson

The experience was odd for some actors as well. Jodie Comer, who starred in Her Big Chance, said: "The biggest adjustment was the stillness. Usually on set there is a lot of chaos and noise, but as there were less people on set due to social distancing rules, it was very peaceful. This took some getting used to. Normally you have to zone yourself out of the noise to focus, but it was so quiet which threw me off balance to begin with."

Comer and her director Josie Rourke used to work together daily to prepare: "We would FaceTime every morning for three or so hours and rehearse (with tea and banana breaks.) We realised that bananas are the secret weapon to keeping my brain free from distraction."

Lucian Msamati
© BBC/London Theatre Company/Zac Nicholson

On the two new monologues, Bennett said they're "both for women and both quite bleak" while Hytner says that "Alan's work often hates the sin but loves the sinner – he has infinite compassion for and empathy with the people he writes about, even when they behave in shocking ways. He finds humour in the darkest places."

Apparently a couple of the cast members had to clarify what some of Bennett's scripts meant: "Monica Dolan [who stars in new piece The Shrine] wanted to know the meaning of ‘wenged'. I'm not sure if this is an actual word or one just made up by my father (he often made up words). It means ‘chucked' as in ‘wenged it in the hedge'. ‘Splother' is another meaning for ‘fuss' or ‘to-do'."

Talking Heads will be released on BBC iPlayer on 26 June, with episodes being shown weekly from the same date at 9pm.