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Woman of No Importance, A (1982)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Woman of No Importance, A (1982)
DirectorGiles Foster
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerInnes Lloyd
ScriptAlan Bennett

Cast: Patricia Routledge (Miss Schofield)

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Miss Schofield is admitted to hospital with stomach pains, and worries about her life, her future and how the office will cope in her absence.

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A Woman of No Importance (BBC, tx. 19/11/1982) is a work of immense importance, as it is the first television monologue by Alan Bennett, the man now recognised as the master of the form.

Although it could fit seamlessly with the better-known Talking Heads series (something Bennett acknowledged when the script was included with the later monologues in the published edition), it was originally one of six plays commissioned by the BBC in 1982 as part of a calculated strategy to offset the artistic threat of Channel Four. Intensive Care (tx. 9/11/1982) was the first, followed by a five-play cycle, Objects of Affection, the rest of which comprised Our Winnie, Rolling Home, Marks and Say Something Happened.

A Woman of No Importance was broadcast in the middle of the run and not given any additional promotion, but in retrospect it stands out thanks to what appeared to be a radical new technique for mainstream television drama. Of course, the monologue is hardly a new form in itself, being a staple of radio and the theatre (Bennett himself wrote monologues for Beyond the Fringe over two decades earlier), but television had tended to shy away from it, as though its minimal nature was somehow unworthy of a medium that prided itself on being able to show as well as tell.

Indeed, Giles Foster, the play's director, worried that it might be dismissed as "talking heads", the standard shorthand for televisual boredom, though in the event his direction is subtler than his misgivings implied, especially in the understated use of props to illustrate Miss Schofield's current physical and mental state.

Routledge was already a Bennett veteran, having played title roles in A Visit From Miss Prothero (LWT, 1978) and Doris and Doreen (LWT, 1978), both of which featured similar characters: fussy middle-aged spinsters obsessed with order, preferably reinforced by arcane bureaucratic regulations.

Peggy Schofield is cut from the same cloth, a woman so well organised that when things start to slip (even momentarily) they have a catastrophic effect on her health. In hospital, she keeps her spirits up by devising new structures and routines and even idols (Mr Penry-Jones the consultant replacing her boss Mr Skidmore), but nothing can halt her illness's impending march, and the final shot, of a hospital bed stripped bare, sums up her fate in a disconcertingly simple image.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Dr Copeland (3:31)
2. I do my bit (1:30)
3. Mr Skidmore (2:52)
4. Suffering (3:02)
Doris and Doreen (1978)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Fenton, George (1950-)