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Talking to a Stranger (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Talking to a Stranger (1966)
For Theatre 625, BBC2, tx. 2-23/10/1966
4 x 90/95 minutes, black & white
DirectorChristopher Morahan
ProducerMichael Bakewell
ScriptJohn Hopkins
Film CameramanMark McDonald

Cast: Judi Dench (Terry Stevens); Margery Mason (Sarah Stevens); Michael Bryant (Alan Stevens); Maurice Denham (Edward 'Ted' Stevens)

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The tragic events of a single weekend in the lives of the Stephens family.

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The Stephens must be one of TV drama's most miserable and dysfunctional families. Over four plays, the events of one tragic weekend are told from the point of view of each member of an ordinary suburban family. Nothing like it had been attempted on television before and the drama was a big critical and popular success, screening an exceptional three times in eighteen months. George Melly felt that "on the evidence of this work alone, the medium can be considered to have come of age."

Writer John Hopkins juggled three time-lines - the present, the recent past and the long past - to produce a gradual accumulation of information about the characters, building to a shattering climax.

The first play shows Terry (Judi Dench) in her flat (where she remembers scenes from her past) and the family reunion on Sunday. The second play, which tells the father's story, shows the family reunion but adds Ted's (Maurice Denham) memories of his early life. Play three focuses on Alan (Michael Bryant), but omits the family Sunday, instead exploring the aftermath of the mother's suicide. It does not repeat material, but examines the themes of the first two plays. The fourth and final play revisits the family Sunday, repeats material from the first two plays and explores more fully the relationship between Sarah (Margery Mason) and Alan. Thus, the audience is presented with all the information it needs to understand Sarah's despair and suicide, as more family history is revealed play by play.

Audiences might, however, have been forgiven for their surprise that it should be the mother who takes her life, when all of the other family members appear to have equal cause. Terry, separated from her black husband and pregnant with another man's child, hides her deep insecurity and fear behind a veneer of cynical flippancy. Alan is weak, resentful, jealous and unloved. Father achieved little in his professional life and is disappointed in his marriage; he has now largely withdrawn into the past. None of them is able to communicate with each other; they are indeed strangers talking.

Critic Sylvia Clayton wrote that "the one trait which the Stephens family had in common was a profound sense of self-pity. Their misery was contagious and unrelieved; they were alive only when hurting other people." Their descendants can be found in every current soap opera, from Eastenders (BBC, 1985-) to Emmerdale (ITV, 1972-).

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. A bit of a rest (4:33)
2. Surprise visit (2:46)
3. A feast fit for a king (3:28)
4. Home truths (4:23)
Complete episode: 'The Innocent Must Suffer' (1:31:35)
Davies, Windsor (1930-)
Dench, Judi (1934-)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Hopkins, John (1931-98)
Morahan, Christopher (1929-)