Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Bed Among the Lentils is one of Alan Bennett’s very best Talking Heads monologues and if there was any doubt that the series should have been remade, then Lesley Manville’s outstanding performance will chase all your doubts away. One of the longest entries in the series at 45-minutes this tale of alcoholism, forbidden love and flower arranging is devastatingly played.
Vicar’s wife Susan bemoans her lot as the frustrations of trying to keep up appearances starts to take its toll. Fending off the insincere attentions of a small group of church regulars that Susan calls “the fan club” drives her first to drink and then to Leeds where she finds solace in the arms of Mr Ramesh in a lentil-filled storage room above his newsagent.
From the opening scene as the 50-year old Susan begins her monologue while peacefully smoking in the kitchen, you know you are in for something special. Manville’s performance is exquisite, pitch perfect from the start as she describes the nonsense of her daily life, the meaningless social rituals she must take part in and the emptiness of her marriage, all the while ‘wondering what happened to our life.’
Manville is incredibly subtle, adopting just the right tone of everyday conversation, not trying too hard to emphasise the comedy lines but noting the nonsense of it all. Manville refuses to play all her cards at once, and here she keeps the performance quite small yet fills the scene with such a quiet despair that it draws the audience into the rest of the monologue.
45-minutes almost races by and as we learn more about Susan’s self-deprecating and slightly sarcastic nature, condemning her lack of wifely skills she slowly reveals more about the effects of alcoholism as embarrassing behaviours surface and she attempts to conceal her dependency from the interfering church set. These are moments when she can barely look at the camera, lost in thoughts and awkward memories.
It is only when she talks of her 26-year old lover that her entire being lights-up, her voice softens, and her demeanour expands. Manville conveys all the surprise and delight that it brings to Susan and when we see her in the next scene she is noticeably changed, her hair loose, her face made-up and wearing a summer dress, she seems younger and more alive than at any other point in the story.
Hytner uses the camera to create both confederacy and intimacy between Susan and the viewer, very slowly moving the shot closer in the first scene as she begins to open up only to withdraw as she pulls back from her confession. Manville largely stands when talking about Ramesh to emphasise her new freedom while the final scene in an armchair is completely still, the camera only honing in at the very last moment.
And what a raw and powerful final scene it is as a conclusion of sorts is reached and Susan must face her future. There is so much pain in her performance, a heart-rending ache that she can barely keep in check. But Manville never actually cries, it is so much more affecting that she is seen to struggle but refuses to let a single tear fall, retaining her British middle-class composure to the last.
Bed Among the Lentils is arguably the best of all the Talking Heads screened so far with Bennett’s story rich in detail and in heart, as a troubled woman faces the effects of a disappointed life. Hytner knows the quality of the material and his leading lady, allowing the camera to just capture but never intrude on this terribly moving confession. Manville’s leading performance is truly one of the greats.
Available here until June 2021