Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Newly created for the Talking Heads series, Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet sits comfortably with Alan Bennett’s classic monologues.
Resting a basket of washing on her lap, Miss Fozzard (played by Maxine Peake) starts chatting to us as if we are old friends. A woman, not quite in middle age but dressing much older, she has had to put her job on hold in order to look after her brother, Bernard. After suffering a stroke, he needs constant care. He refuses to talk, clearly depressed, and Miss Fozzard, who is eager to return to work, decides to hire some help. She finds a bright and friendly girl, Malory, to become his full-time carer. Miss Fozzard reports early progress: Bernard’s speech and movement have rapidly improved.
Miss Fozzard’s life seems narrow; almost circumscribed. Her only indulgence is a regular trip to her chiropodist. She starts the narrative at a crisis point: her chiropodist is about to retire and move away. He has taken the liberty of presenting her with two options: a young woman (Fozzard baulks at the idea) or a retired male chiropodist, with “all the right letters after his name”. The decision is an easy one, and Miss Fozzard arrives at her first appointment with Mr Dunderdale.
She describes the session to us – step by step – like a seduction. The examination of her toes; the sloughing of dead skin. A woman not used to sexual contact, the touching of her feet is a fetishistic experience. As she speaks about Mr Dunderdale, her voice becomes animated, lighter. Her mouth quivers, as unspoken thoughts threaten to break out. But she swallows them back. Miss Fozzard increases her appointments with Mr Dunderdale, until one day he surprises her with a gift: A pair of boots, in the shade Bengal Bronze.
Directed by Sarah Frankcom, (whose previous credits include Peake’s celebrated Hamlet) the episode is filmed in visual shorthand, perfect for this genre. Cropping in on Peake’s face; often leaving most of the screen in darkness, we focus on Peake’s ability to create character. Peake dares us to think we know Miss Fozzard in the first five minutes. A drab woman, past her prime and tightly wound. We have her nailed. But Peake shifts again, and challenges us to recalibrate our view. As Miss Fozzard relates her story to us, she believes her life to be unremarkable.
Bennett’s monologues are densely layered explorations of what lies beneath an ordinary life, and Peake captures every detail with forensic capability. Her ability to drop the one-liners in with expert timing, and the glances to camera where Miss Fozzard seeks reassurance are all beautifully done.
The character studies in Bennett’s Talking Heads exist beyond the confines of their 30 or 40 minutes on screen. They tempt us with the possibility of their stories – how they will continue and where they will land, none more so than Miss Fozzard. As portraits, they may be miniatures, but the emotion Bennett pulls from them is extraordinary. To bring back a series already lauded for its brilliance was a risk. But in watching these episodes, new and reimagined, it’s clear that Bennett’s Talking Heads still have much to say.
Available here until June 2021