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The Complete Talking Heads Discussion Questions

The Complete Talking Heads
by Alan Bennett
Published 1998

  1. In the opening scene of The Hand of God Celia states: "If you love beautiful things... it just breaks your heart." Why does she say this? What does she mean? What qualities would you say Celia values in beautiful antiques? Their finely polished surfaces, for example? Their ability to endure? To what extent does she value the same qualities in other people and relationships? Do you think it is solely the loss of the valuable drawing that breaks Celia's heart? Which other Talking Heads stories feature characters who focus on objects or people outside of themselves, thus avoiding their own inner conflicts? Why?

  2. What do you make of Celia's visit to Miss Ventriss? How would you compare the two women? Return to the scene at Miss Ventriss' deathbed when she turns to Celia and asks, "Happy?" How do you interpret Miss Ventriss' meaning? What insights does the reader have into Celia's character when she later asks: "Am I a person? Or simply a professional bargain hunter?"

  3. Does the lack of people, children, or noise in the antiques shop add to your appreciation of Celia? How does the setting contribute to her characterization? Compare this setting to the pristine hospital room in "A Woman of no Importance" or Muriel's final bedroom in "Soldiering On." How do these bare settings reflect the women's inner lives? What themes do the settings suggest?

  4. How many characters in The Complete Talking Heads yearn for fulfillment in their lives? For what does Celia yearn? Recognition? Money? A changed life? Brainstorm all the things Miss Peggy Schofield -- "A Woman of No Importance" -- has missed in life. Is she aware of what she's missed? How does her awareness change during her illness? What about Muriel in "Soldiering On"? Can you name others? How are their desires the same? Different? In what ways are these characters like Alan Bennett's mother, who had "a... yearning so vague and unfocused it never [stood] a chance of fulfillment." Why do you think Alan Bennett's characters are often unaware of their deepest desires?

  5. What affect does Alan Bennett's use of monologues have in The Complete Talking Heads? How do you think the stories might differ if told by other characters? For instance, what complexities might you learn about Susan in "Bed Among the Lentils" if Geoffrey spoke? Or Mr. Ramesh? How might Celia's story change if told by the Christie's dealer? What might Francis in "Waiting for the Telegram" say Violet has taught him? What information do you lose -- or gain -- hearing these stories told from a single point of view? What literary advantages does a monologue offer the reader/writer?

  6. Is The Complete Talking Heads a book of tragedies or comedies? Which pieces in the book most effectively combine the two genres? How? How might Bennett's family, featured in the Masterpiece Theatre film Telling Tales, have influenced his comic/tragic style?

  7. In the closing scene of The Hand of God Celia practically gives away a Michelangelo drawing, unaware of its value. Does this final scene affect you differently in the film as compared to the book? How so? Can you recall other characters from The Complete Talking Heads who recognize the value of an object, person, or relationship too late? Is this a mistake Alan Bennett acknowledges in his own life through Telling Tales? Finally, in what ways are Bennett's characters portrayed differently in the book and the film? Does each genre have its own value? Which do you prefer? Why?

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