First of all, a disclaimer. Life during lockdown has seen media outlets try some creative strategies in order to stay afloat, one of the more unexpected developments being the BBC's renewed interest in Alan Bennett's classic monologue series, Talking Heads, which recently got a shiny new makeover thanks to its social distance-friendly filming format (and, as a bonus, its prevalent interest in the subject of isolation). Before we get started, I should be clear that this commentary refers strictly to the original version of "The Outside Dog" with Julie Walters, and not to the remake with Rochenda Sandall, which I have yet to watch. I'm sure that Sandall gives a perfectly fine performance, but mine is a prejudiced ticker. When I saw the announcement that we were getting a new series of Talking Heads, my heart leapt, naive fool that I am, as for a brief second there I believed that we were actually getting a Talking Heads 3, something I had been clamoring for ever since studying the series back in school. Then, when I read the fine print and realised that only two of the monologues were brand new and the rest would be remakes of existing installments, such was my disappointment that I couldn't help but harbor a slight grudge against the entire project. Perhaps one day, when my disappointment has fully subsided, I'll be willing to give the remakes a fair chance. Today will not be that day, however.
Prior to this recent development, Talking Heads was comprised of two six-episode series, the first of which was broadcast in 1988 and the second, Talking Heads 2, in 1998. Each episode centres around a different character, typically one experiencing some form of personal or social alienation, who confides their assorted hopes, fears and suspicions to the camera. The speakers regard the camera as a kind of confessional, opening up in ways that most of them would presumably not do in the presence of the various other characters they mention, but they are nevertheless each very selective in how they present themselves. Part of what makes Talking Heads such a complex and absorbing series is that you can never afford to lose sight of the fact that you are, inevitably, only getting one character's side of the story, forcing you to read between the lines to decipher what additional details they might unwittingly reveal about themselves and the people around them. Bennett's keen wit and sharp eye for character observation ensures that every monologue has something to offer in the way of mirth, but they are by no means uplifting viewing - of the original twelve monologues, only a minority have endings that are not thoroughly upsetting. The two that end the most happily are, coincidentally, the two featuring Patricia Routledge - "A Lady of Letters" and "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet" - and in both cases the happy ending is achieved through entirely unconventional means. In each we see Routledge play a judgemental and narrow-minded individual who, by the end of her experience, appears to have learned and grown, and developed a greater empathy and/or tolerance for her fellow human being. "A Chip In The Sugar" has more of a neutral ending than an outright happy one - it's an episode where the status quo ends up being reaffirmed, which is both a good and bad thing. "The Hand of God" closes on a note of deep humiliation for its protagonist that is nevertheless hilarious to the viewer. The remaining eight, however, all have bleak conclusions, although the level of bleakness varies from episode to episode. Some, such as "Her Big Chance", result in the protagonist being left in much the same pitiable situation as when we came in, with no indication that they'll be escaping their rut any time soon. In others, like "Soldiering On", we witness the total downfall of the character, or, as in "Playing Sandwiches", one of several implied downfalls in what clearly forms part of a vicious cycle for the character. And then we have the two monologues featuring Thora Hird - "A Cream Cracker Under The Settee" and "Waiting For The Telegram" - in which the respective protagonist is left with nothing to look forward to except her own (potentially imminent) demise. No character, however, winds up in a situation as unenviably nightmarish as that of Marjorie (Julie Walters) of "The Outside Dog", a genuinely terrifying piece that is perhaps the closest Bennett has ever come to outright horror. On another level, it plays beguilingly like a good old-fashioned murder mystery, but for the fact that we, much like the main character, are aware all along who the culprit is. On top of which, it's also very, very funny. No surprise to learn that it was apparently a major influence on Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's blackly comic anthology series Inside No. 9.
"The Outside Dog" forms part of a trilogy of particularly grim Talking Heads installments that figure consecutively in the middle of Series 2, the other two being "Playing Sandwiches" and "Nights In The Garden of Spain". All three deal with the highly disturbing goings-on in seemingly banal venues, sexual abuse being a universal feature, along with characters who, presumably in response to the sordid reality of their lives, subsume themselves in some kind of extensive cleanliness routine. Whereas "Playing Sandwiches" is a "beware the friendly stranger" narrative (with the twist that it's told from the perspective of said friendly stranger, who perhaps doesn't strike us wholly as being so strange), "Nights In The Gardens of Spain" is more concerned with the abuses that occur within the domestic, familial sphere, or what protagonist Rosemary (Penelope Wilton) glibly describes as "the real face of suburbia." "The Outside Dog", which falls smack dab in the middle of the trio, serves as a bridge between the two. It boasts the most extreme (and by consequence the least probable) scenario, in that Marjorie's husband, Stuart, is a suspected serial killer. It's surely no coincidence that Marjorie is also the most pathological neat freak of the lot - unlike Wilfred (David Haig) of "Playing Sandwiches", whose diligence in eradicating litter is within the bounds of his job as a park keeper, and Rosemary, whose delight in enabling a garden to flourish apparently serves as an outlet for the kind of loving, nurturing energies that are denied in her own martial relationship, Marjorie's dedication to keeping her domestic space spotless is indicative of a deep hostility toward the outside world. This is initially manifested in her disdain for Stuart's dog Tina, who is denied entry to the property and spends her days tethered to a kennel in the yard, hence the title. To Marjorie, Tina represents all that is brooding and distasteful about the world beyond. In the early stages of the monologue, Marjorie takes pride in asserting how well-trained she has Stuart, who works in a slaughterhouse, a job wont to get messy, and who hails from a family she describes as being "scarcely above the pigsty level". Her success in conditioning him to ritually remove the blood from his boots before entering the house, and in enforcing the inflexible rule that Tina must not follow, would indeed appear to bear out her assertions. But of course, the viewer knows that what she says isn't quite accurate, as Marjorie is only concerned how Stuart behaves when inside the property. Like Tina, whose presence Marjorie (barely) tolerates so long as she remains outside in the yard, Marjorie seems willing turn a blind eye to whatever Stuart gets up to when he's out there in the open; it may even be the nexus on which their domestic arrangement hinges. But even then, her claims that Stuart is always perfectly well-mannered when under their shared roof transpire to be completely false. For not only might Stuart have another, very different kind of ritual that he practices out in the wastelands on his nightly walks with Tina, it becomes apparent throughout the course of the monologue that Stuart has a penchant for aggressive sex that definitely isn't mutual, but which Marjorie is powerless to reject.
Marjorie's uneasy relationship with Tina is an early signal that her handle on the situation is considerably weaker than she lets on, for there are multiple ways in which Tina is beyond her control. Not only does Tina bark incessantly in Stuart's absence, incurring the wrath of a neighbour whom Marjorie also abhors, her very presence, even outside the home, represents an encroachment on Marjorie's sense of safety. In the opening scene, Marjorie confides her irrational suspicion that Tina "spies on" her, which is suggestive of the level of control Stuart exerts in their relationship, even when he is not present. Viewed as a mere dog, one might easily feel a degree of sympathy for Tina, who spends all her time exiled to the yard and presumably barks due to her discomfort whenever Stuart, her sole ally, is not around. Tina is, on the one hand, a rival to Stuart's affections; Marjorie clearly envies the doting relationship the dog has with her husband, and the disparaging manner with which she describes Tina ("She licks his boots, literally") suggests that she sees the dog as knowingly commandeering attention from herself. But although the viewer cannot take seriously Marjorie's insinuations that Tina is conspiring against her, as the monologue goes on, Tina does take on a more sinister aura, if only by her association with Stuart's nauseating nocturnal life. The dog, it seems, is indeed in on something that Marjorie isn't. Which is not to say that Marjorie is totally oblivious.
Tina maintains an important presence all throughout the story, not just as an emblem of the ongoing domestic tensions between Marjorie and Stuart, but as a major plot point later on in the monologue, when she comes dangerously close to exposing Stuart's connection to the string of brutally murdered prostitutes that have been showing up in the surrounding area. (She is, incidentally, the only animal character of any consequence in any of the Talking Heads installments, although dogs named Tina seem to be a running gag throughout Bennett's monologues* - one is also mentioned at the start of "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet", and in "A Woman of No Importance", which is not officially part of the Talking Heads canon, but served as a prototype for the series.) The obvious symbolism to be gleaned from the titular dog is that she stands as a totem for Stuart's own bestial nature. He is thus the real "Outside Dog" of the story, one who supposedly surrenders his feral impulses at the door on entering the property (although not actually), but transforms into quite the bloodthirsty cur when left to roam out in the wilderness. The connection is made especially conspicuous in Marjorie's early assertions that, "It was me that trained Stuart. Me that trained the dog. Apart from the din, you can't train that." She would like to believe that she has both mucky pups broken-in, but Tina has found another means by which to express her uncouth nature, and Stuart, it seems, is just the same (Marjorie's resignation toward Tina's persistent barking likewise foreshadows her passivity toward Stuart's ongoing sexual abuse), It is also borne out by Tina's overall character trajectory, as by the end of the monologue, the have barriers come down and she has finally become an inside dog, which is symbolic of the total erosion of Marjorie's presumption of control.
This is the most obvious interpretation. You might even say that it's a little too obvious to truly satisfy. I would not dispute that there is a definite parallel to be drawn between Tina's banishment to the yard and Stuart's apparent ability to separate his domestic life from his private activities, but I'm personally more inclined to see Tina less as an analogue to Stuart than to Marjorie herself. The "real" Outside Dog is Marjorie, and she resents Tina so because it repulses her to glance out the window every day and see her own mirror image staring back at her. Marjorie claims that she has Stuart trained, but the reverse seems far more probable. Clearly, Stuart has Marjorie on a very tight leash. It is not Stuart who's been conditioned to swill off when he returns to the property, but Marjorie, who is required to disregard all suspicion and never question where Stuart goes or what he has been up to (as she says of Tina, "Never makes a muff when he's around"). And when night sets in, she has no recourse but to roll over and accept his unpleasant sexual aggression. The allusion is made all the more salient when viewed back-to-back with "Nights in The Gardens of Spain", which, more so than any other Talking Heads installment, serves as a direct companion piece to "The Outside Dog", in touching on several identical themes. There, the unassuming Rosemary slowly comes to terms with the revelation that the couple next door were far from the bland, respectable neighbours she'd always envisioned, when the wife murders the husband after years of withstanding his incessant physical and sexual abuse, which included keeping her on a collar and leash: "It turns out that Mister led her a dog's life...literally." (Meanwhile, there is no sex life to speak of between Rosemary and her own husband, Henry, but it is suggested that he's abused her on a much more emotional level.) Marjorie's distaste at Tina's boot-licking (literal and figurative) stems from her understanding that she is basically no different - or rather, that Tina leads the type of dog's life she can only aspire toward. Both she and Tina are at Stuart's beck and call, yet Tina is regarded with tremendous favouritism by Stuart, while Marjorie is excluded from his confidence and affections. Stuart privileges Tina by allowing her to come with him and share in his nocturnal predation, while Marjorie is simply a chew toy for him to sink his teeth into afterwards. Tina may be the one who is forced out into the yard, yet it is Marjorie who is effectively left out in the cold.
The viewer is given no reason to doubt Stuart's guilt in the killings, but the nagging question hanging all throughout "The Outside Dog" is just how much does Marjorie know? She blatantly has her concerns about the situation, and some of Stuart's behaviours certainly invite suspicion, but it is not altogether clear at what point Marjorie crosses over from casual wariness to full-on complicity. At the beginning of the monologue, she indicates that she has suspicions as to the truthfulness of what Stuart tells her, even before the killings get underway ("He took the van over to Rawdon last night. Said it was Rawdon, anyway..."). Later, when Stuart is arrested and the house ransacked for evidence, Marjorie is slightly dishonest with the police officer who asks her if Stuart has any additional items of clothing outside of the property. She doesn't exactly lie, for she is specifically asked if Stuart has anything at the dry cleaners. But she does not mention that Stuart has a pair of slacks that she has not seen for some time, and which he claims to be keeping at work. Marjorie's hostility toward police intervention entails the warning that she is in a precarious position, as if she is discovered to have colluded with Stuart in any way then she could end up being tried herself; Marjorie responds, as if by reflex, by diverting matters to her cleanliness regime ("I said, don't put those sheets back, I shall have them all to wash now you've been handling them"). Cleanliness matters to Marjorie because it is her only means of asserting control, hence why this is her go-to retort on being threatened by the police. This line is particularly revealing of her vulnerability, for not only is her response painfully ineffectual, it also suggests that, on another, far deeper level, her desire for physical purity is reflective of her need to purge herself of her own guilt in knowing far more about Stuart's activities than she cares to acknowledge. We suspect that, even early on in the monologue, when Marjorie notices that Stuart has become much more thorough in swilling off his boots and comments only, "I don't know what's gotten into him", that she is nowhere near naive as she lets on. Her feigned naivety, like her excessive cleanliness, is a defense mechanism. Clearly, Marjorie does know, by intuition, that Stuart is the killer, but to act on that knowledge goes against her conditioning to never make a muff when he is around (and also when he isn't).
Nevertheless, Marjorie is very nearly spurred into action toward the end of the monologue, when she happens upon evidence so incriminating that not even she can turn a blind eye. In spite of her misgivings around Stuart's slovenliness outside of the home, it seems that he has been very, very clean and meticulous in how he goes about his business. The evidence presented against him in court is largely circumstantial, with no traces of blood being located on his tools or clothing. The only hard forensic evidence appearing to link him directly to the murders is discovered on Tina's fur, which his defense successfully argues could have been accumulated when Tina was let of her leash and allowed to run around the wasteland. (Marjorie confides to the camera that she knows this to be untrue, as Tina has not been spayed and Stuart would never allow her to run free, which further echoes the extreme control he has over Marjorie.) Marjorie, however, is in the process of cleaning Tina's kennel when she discovers that something is clogging up the flow of water from underneath, and pulls out Stuart's missing slacks, which are heavily soiled (presumably with blood). Marjorie finally considers reaching out to the outside world, only to discover that it is already too late; the jury has returned with a verdict, and Stuart has been acquitted. The monologue ends with Marjorie enduring another night of abuse from Stuart, after which she sneaks outside into the yard and returns the slacks to where she found them. The kennel itself is now vacant, for Tina has finally gained entry to the house, thus eradicating the one advantage that Marjorie ever truly held over her four-legged rival. Significantly, when Marjorie comments on the media's joyous coverage of Stuart's acquittal, she focuses with particular disdain on Tina's appearance in the press photo ("dog licking his face, ears up, paws on his shoulder, loving every minute of it"). Stuart and Tina are indeed the very epitome of a close-knit, loving couple and, terrified though Marjorie is of the prospect of having to resume her everyday life with Stuart, her long-standing jealousy at not getting to share all the same privileges as Tina cannot help but rear its head. Perhaps she would feel more comfortable with the arrangement if her murderous husband were as doting toward her as he is to his dog.
At the very end, we find Marjorie gazing longingly into the outside world for the first time, having spent the entirety of the monologue attempting to shut it out in all its assorted intrusions. Early on, she has to contend with encroachers in the form of a neighbour who repeatedly complains to her about Tina's barking and Stuart's mother, whom Marjorie suspects deliberately scatters cigarette ash all over the shop just to annoy her. Later, as Stuart becomes the focus of police and media attention, Marjorie likewise finds her own personal space under constant siege. We end up questioning what Marjorie's reluctance to speak out reveals more of - her being cowed by Stuart, or her distrust of the outside world. Marjorie, it seems, does not have much of a life outside of the house. She mentions, briefly, that she used to work as a teacher, and at one point expresses a desire to visit the local library, but there are apparently no friends or social activities to speak of (the closest she comes is in recounting the experience of being spat at by a member of the public while grocery shopping after Stuart's arrest). Perhaps this is indicative of the level of control that Stuart exerts over her, or alternatively of Marjorie's naive assumption that she is ultimately safer in sticking with what is familiar, an assumption that leaves her susceptible to self-willed entrapment (it is notable that, whereas Wilfred and Rosemary moved through a variety of different locations in their respective monologues, Marjorie is never seen outside her kitchen or living room). At one point, reflecting on one of Stuart's particularly loud and aggressive sexual outbursts, Marjorie thinks of the neighbours and observes, "It's a blessing we're detached." The double entendre is unmissable, but this is also reflective of Marjorie's preference for isolation. (The notion of a detached house signifying an indifferent community is evoked again in "Nights In The Gardens of Spain" in one of Rosemary's opening comments: "They're mostly detached houses, and you never even hear shouting.") She wishes to keep the world and its associated filth, literal and figurative, at bay, but by the end of the monologue seems ready to accept that dark unknown as her means of salvation, only to find that it has turned its back on her. The press have disappeared, leaving only a broken chair in the middle of the street. Returning the slacks to the kennel is of course a futile attempt to restore everything to its perceived proper place, not least her own willful ignorance, but it is here that Marjorie momentarily regards the outside world in more picturesque terms than before ("It's a bit moonlighty"). It's as if she feels a newfound affinity for the outside world, now that her eyes are finally wide open to the horrors that await her back inside the house. The very first time I saw "The Outside Dog", I was half-expecting Marjorie to crawl inside Tina's kennel and assume her new place there, having decided that she's better off leaving Stuart and Tina to their domestic wilderness, but nothing quite so ludicrous occurs. Instead, Marjorie seems to accept her complete powerlessness in the matter - she retreats back into the house and receives another outburst from Stuart.
The lingering question at the end of the monologue concerns what life will look like for Marjorie and Stuart going forward. Will things carry on much as they did before, the only alteration being that Tina now gets to reside inside the house? Will Stuart go out and kill again, or will he decide against running the risk of being recaptured, and instead direct all of his bestial energies at Marjorie every night? Is there the possibility that Stuart might even slaughter Marjorie in order to ensure her silence? (Marjorie has, perhaps unwisely, revealed to Stuart that she cleaned Tina's kennel in his absence.) The suggestion is teased at the beginning of the final sequence, when Marjorie recounts being informed by a member of the press that, "The paper's got a lot of money invested in you," to which she responds, forebodingly, "That's your funeral". And Stuart certainly isn't fooled by Marjorie's insistence that she wasn't surprised by the verdict. When quizzed by Stuart as to what she thinks, she gives only the non-committal answer of, "I don't know, do I?", to which Stuart responds, "You bloody better know." I suspect, though, that the moment in which Stuart was most tempted to kill Marjorie had already occurred much earlier on in the monologue, when Marjorie mentions that Stuart took her out in the van to an unknown location (identified, ominously, as "somewhere") and asked her point blank if she suspected him of being the killer. Marjorie's reasonably casual recollection suggests that not even she was fully aware of the danger she was in at the time. This is echoed in their exchange at the end of the monologue, when Stuart mocks the likening of Marjorie to his mother (who, unlike Marjorie, did not conceal her suspicions from the police). Stuart has, I suspect, known all along that Marjorie is attuned to what's going on, but is confident that he has her under his complete control. Life for himself and Marjorie will be defined by the sordid business of knowing, and knowing that the other knows, with Stuart, if not actually killing Marjorie, then certainly stifling the last remaining vitality from her. (Rosemary ends up in a very similar position at the end of "Nights In The Gardens of Spain"; in her case, I do not believe that Henry presents any risk of physical harm to her, but she nevertheless has to live with the knowledge that he too has a few disturbing secrets in his own history, and Henry, we suspect, is not oblivious to Rosemary's knowing.) It is a terribly unsettling point at which to leave our character. But you can always remedy by following it up with a viewing of "Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet". That one should cheer you right up.
* Although what the joke is anybody's guess.