At his best, Alan Bennett is brilliant: poisonous Irene in A Lady of Letters, stoic widow Muriel (Harriet Walter in Bafta-worthy form) in Soldiering On. But by blanket bombing us with 12 episodes of Talking Heads (BBC One), the BBC has shown up his weaknesses. Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet embodied his worst tics.
As played by Maxine Peake, Miss Fozzard talked like a Coronation Street character from the days of black and white TV despite her monologue dating back no further than 1998. Clothing references as signifiers: the mustard Dannimac, the Viyella two-piece. Dialogue spread on thick as marmalade: “I said to her this morning, I said, ‘shiatsu’. She said, ‘Come again?’ I said, ‘shiatsu’. She says, ‘Is it a tropical fish?’ I said, ‘It’s a form of massage that involves various pressure points on the body, invented by the Japanese.’ She says, ‘That’s all very well but it didn’t stop ‘em doing Pearl Harbor, did it?’”
The Talking Heads series is a mostly female affair but I’m not sure Bennett likes women much, considering the humiliations he inflicts upon them. Miss Fozzard was a lonely soul, caring for her brother after he suffered a stroke. The only bright spots in her routine were regular visits to the chiropodist. When he retired, she began seeing a new one who turned out to be in the right profession for a man with a foot fetish. By the end, he was paying Miss Fozzard for her time. “I suppose there’s a word for what I’m doing but I skirt round it,” she said, with the hint of a smile.
The set dressing was peculiar. The script had Miss Fozzard trapped in an earlier era, working in the kind of elegant, old-fashioned department store that bit the dust decades ago, yet her furniture and furnishings were too modern for her character.
There were calls for this episode to be cancelled (in the traditional sense of the word) owing to the presence of Peake, who was recently cancelled (in the newfangled sense of the word) over her comments about Israel. That would have been silly. But the BBC might have been wise to weed out the plays that no longer work.