An interview with Monica Dolan on Alan Bennett's Talking Heads

Talking Heads Alan Bennett’s critically acclaimed and multi-award winning Talking Heads return to television

Monica Dolan plays Lorna in The Shrine

TALKING HEADS 23rd June 9pm, BBC One



How did it feel to be asked to originate a brand new Alan Bennett role, in a new Talking Heads? And what made you say yes?
How was I going to say no?! It was a no-brainer. If we were not in the situation we are in it is a chance I would have jumped at anyway, and given that we are in lockdown and work is, to say the least, limited - let alone paid work involving such expertise - and that Talking Heads was going to be approached and made in such a unique way with such specific parameters, I wanted to be part of this!

We were all making it up as we went along, and seeing if we could manage to create these pieces in these unique circumstances, altering the way in which we have been used to relating professionally for years, and that was obviously going to be a fascinating and exhilarating experiment. I felt very excited and obviously privileged to be doing one of the two new monologues, and not a little relieved; I would have found it extremely daunting to try and find my voice in one of the pieces already created by one of those legendary actresses of the 80s and 90s. Massive respect to those actors in our troupe who took that on – though many of them are living legends anyway!

Do you have any memories/experiences of watching the original Talking Heads series?
Yes I definitely remember seeing Her Big Chance and the pieces involving Thora Hird. More recently, at the outset when I was looking into the style I watched Soldiering On and Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, which I found just breathtaking. The thing is, as the audience you are following a story that the character at the centre does not necessarily realise they are telling because they do not have the self-awareness to know what they are letting slip. They are so vulnerable and it is so subtle.

I watched Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet in the thick of the rehearsal period with Nick Hytner and, although it had been invaluable in terms of pointers towards style and what might be available in terms of acting choices, I resolved then not to watch any more of them before filming The Shrine because it was just giving me too much of an outside eye on that which needed to be experienced truthfully from the inside.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about your character in The Shrine, and where we find her at the start of the film?
My character is called Lorna and we find out almost immediately that she has been newly widowed, that her husband Clifford has died in an accident. When we meet her at the beginning she is utterly shattered. She might not appear it, but she is a deeply unconventional person who goes back to the origins of grief in a way that lets her own sprout from that what it really means, not our well-worn and glib expressions of it. She is extremely practical and has great natural faith and belief. It’s very funny.

Did you discuss the role and story much with Alan Bennett ahead of or during rehearsals?
Nick Hytner gave me Alan Bennett’s phone number in the early stages of rehearsal and I rang him, and we talked mainly about the story actually, and the setting because the location, which is important. Alan told me that he had got the idea partly from a musical invention of the singer/songwriter/comedian/multi-instrumentalist Mike Harding, and that he had asked if he could use the title of Mike’s song The Shrine for the monologue and Mike had agreed. And there were also one or two highly specifically-located Yorkshirisms that I needed Alan to explain!

On a practical level, can you tell us about the preparations for the role that were done remotely, and how you found them?
I met with Nicholas Hytner to rehearse on Zoom in the run up to it. He was initially experiencing wifi problems so our first conversation was about personal hotspots! The first rehearsal was for two and a half hours and then we took it from there.

I had never properly met Nick and had a brilliant time working with him, he has razor clarity and instinct for structure and story and what needs to ping out when, and, of course he has been working for years with Alan Bennett. It was a great opportunity rehearsing with Nick one on one, and he is the most optimistic person I have ever met and I told him so.

We took the whole piece through and then worked on each of the seven scenes in detail, and he would get me to do it again and record the scene on his computer once he had given me notes. I did not dislike working like that - though obviously I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. On Zoom there seems to be less room for assumption that the other person knows what you mean, so you are forced to be more specific in your language than in real life - and I like specificity and for me it feeds into the work really well.

In between rehearsals there were a lot of lines to learn and I recruited four generous and exacting friends as my line-learning pool. It was quite a workload - 13 pages of TV script - so I wanted to spread it out. Several of them did not read to the end of the story until I had learnt it all, and I suppose that kept them more invested, wondering what was going to happen next. I would meet a different member of the squad each night on Zoom and we would go through the piece two or three times. There is always that painful moment when you get to the last bit you know well and try to carry on. After the shoot I threw a Zoom wrap party for my team where they all had to bring their own drinks and nibbles. And celebrate in their own houses.

No contact was allowed with any makeup artist, so I did my own makeup and hair, and Naomi Donne the makeup and hair designer and I had a make-up test on Zoom where Naomi had to instruct me very clearly about each look. We decided to curl my hair and I had some rollers that you heat, though obviously there were parts of my head that I couldn’t see!

I learned a lot about lighting in terms of where to put my laptop, and it was interesting because with the light I could tell that different makeups looked a bit paler to her on the screen than they did to me in the room so there was some chat about that. We tried out a few different products of my own and Naomi sent off for some items which were delivered straight to my house on a 'need to handle' basis, so I could then take them straight to the shoot myself.

The costume designer was Jacqueline Durran (who won the Oscar for Little Women!). There had been various emails flying around, and one had suggested that it would all be shot in clothes of my own that I would bring to set from home, and another that the costumes might be ordered and delivered.

The Shrine consists of seven scenes and there are quite considerable time-lapses between some of them. When Jaqueline and I got to chat I said, “Shall I just say what I think the costumes would have been in an ideal/pre-lockdown world and you just tell me if it’s impossible?” and she said “yes”. She said that at that stage some of the shops had just opened up online and their websites had crashed straightaway with the flood of online shoppers, so we would have to see how we went, so it was quite touch and go!

Jacqueline sent waves of clothes she had chosen and ordered round to my house, I tried them on and photographed myself in them, and then we had an online costume fitting (which was fiddly because my laptop screen is landscape) to figure out which outfit Lorna should wear for each story day of the piece. It is extraordinary what Jacqueline achieved. She managed to obtain and assemble just about everything we could have wished for for Lorna, lockdown or no lockdown - and I was one of the first Talking Heads, so at that stage we were really inventing the process.

There is one scene where I could use my own pyjamas and slippers, and another scene for which I needed to bring along my own jumper as a back-up, as I had received an email from Jacqueline saying “we are on a knife-edge!” - as to whether the jumper she had ordered would arrive in time. I remember on the day we shot the 'jumper scene' right after lunch and the jumper had arrived at lunchtime.

How did filming under social distancing guidelines differ to that of work on a regular British TV drama ? Do you feel it affected your performance in any way, or created any specific challenges or enhancements?
For one thing, on ‘the day’, I drove myself to Elstree and that would not normally happen. Driving for 40 minutes beyond Hammersmith made me feel like Wonder Woman. I was to film in a socially distanced way in the deep-cleaned and redressed kitchen and hallway of one of the EastEnders characters.

Everyone had to stay a minimum of two metres away from one another and Tamsin Greig and I (Tamsin was first up like me, and filming her monologue on a different set) had stations set up at opposite ends of the huge EastEnders makeup room - though the arrangement of our calls meant that we never actually crossed paths in there. Naomi Donne stood in the doorway of the makeup room to watch me do my hair and apply my makeup and gave me instructions from there.

The corridors backstage at EastEnders are quite winding and you can easily happen upon someone by accident, so I went around singing to forewarn people I was coming. Everything I needed I took to set myself, which I could see was uncomfortable for the 3rd AD who wanted to help me carry things. I think it must have been most excruciating for Naomi and the make-up assistant throughout the shoot, who had to stand at least two metres behind me and resist tweaking my hair or pointing too closely at it, describing exactly which part of my head needed to be patted smooth or ruffled and where. They were both really good at explaining, but I am sure they were desperate just to do it properly themselves and by the end their articulacy levels must have soared.

During the filming itself, it being a solo piece, there would be a rehearsal of the scene with Nicholas Hytner only, and then he would leave and just myself, the camera operator and the boom operator were present to film the scene - they, gloved and masked. It was quite funny because sometimes a camera operator needs to make hand-movements in a beckoning motion during the take. This is something that is usually very subtle but when his hands are bright blue it can put you off, so he was very kind about tucking them in! I think it must have been so counterintuitive for the EastEnders crew to socially distance - they have been working together as a team for such a long time. I don’t think it affected my performance too much - I enjoyed it and it felt like there was time and space during the day.

Finally, why do you think people should watch The Shrine?
I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet! All I can say is that it was filmed in an entirely new way under completely unique circumstances, and may never have been made if it weren’t for these circumstances, so people will be engaging with a bit of history in this respect, and in that it is an Alan Bennett première.

It is a beautiful and wise piece about love and how we let other people live by giving them what they need to see. And EastEnders and Alan Bennett - how British can you get?

Source BBC One

June 18, 2020 4:15am ET by BBC One  


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