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Afternoon Off (1979)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Afternoon Off (1979)
For Six Plays by Alan Bennett, ITV, tx. 3/2/1979, 64 mins
DirectorStephen Frears
Production CompanyLondon Weekend Television
ProducerStephen Frears
ScriptAlan Bennett
PhotographyCharles Stewart
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Henry Man (Lee); Harold Innocent (Marjory); Peter Postlethwaite (gallery attendant); Alan Bennett (Stanley); Richard Griffiths (Mr Turnbull); Thora Hird (Mrs Beevers)

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Asian waiter Lee spends an afternoon off in Hartlepool in search of sexual fulfilment, but instead finds a town full of eccentrics bearing petty prejudices.

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Afternoon Off (tx. 3/2/1979) was the fifth of six television plays by Alan Bennett commissioned by LWT and subsequently published under the revealing title The Writer In Disguise - establishing the Asian waiter Lee (Henry Man) as a kindred spirit to both Hopkins (the hapless protagonist of Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and Bennett himself, a famously shy man who has often commented on how he feels like a fish out of water in both his native Leeds and adopted London literary circles.

Lee's quest for the mysterious Iris, a woman he regards from his colleague Bernard's somewhat exaggerated description as the very embodiment of sexual allure, lets him see a great deal of Hartlepool, and it's not especially edifying.

Petty prejudice is rife, and by no means all of it racial - Bernard (Philip Jackson) openly loathes the pompous diner (Benjamin Whitrow), the gallery attendant (Peter Postlethwaite) disparages everyone from the art historian Kenneth Clark to the 'riff-raff' more interested in heating and urinals than in culture (though his own philistinism is made clear by his preference for a criminal's death mask over a Turner painting), while factory boss Mr Turnbull (Richard Griffiths) makes no distinction between foreign spies and union activists.

But Lee's indeterminate origins (he is widely assumed to be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan or even Mongolian, if his nickname 'Genghis' is taken literally - and the script muddies the waters further by describing him as "Cambodian or North Vietnamese") make him an obvious target.

Little of the near-constant barrage of racial prejudice is aimed at him specifically, and hardly any of it is meant maliciously, though the extent of the problem is shown by the way even kindly people like the café manageress (Anna Massey) come out with "I didn't think they did cry; I thought that was the point of them" and Mrs Beevers (Thora Hird) concludes that although he's a "nice-looking young feller", "it'll take more than Dairy Box to erase the memory of Pearl Harbor".

But Bennett also challenges our own prejudices - it's easy to imagine a (non-Northern) viewer deploring the instinctive racism while simultaneously feeling superior to these insular people and their peculiar dialect ("Get this down your guzzle-holes"/"What do you know about it, you soft article?"). Although there are many priceless one-liners, the laughter is distinctly uneasy at times - as so often in Bennett's work.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Buying favours (2:13)
2. Local attractions (2:43)
3. Giving directions (3:13)
4. Dairy Box (3:58)
Production stills
Alan Bennett: The Guardian Interview (1984)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
Griffiths, Richard (1947-2013)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Massey, Anna (1937-2011)
Postlethwaite, Pete (1945-2011)
Smith, Neville (1940-)
Thora Hird and Alan Bennett