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Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978)
For Six Plays by Alan Bennett, ITV, tx. 2/12/1978, 65 mins
DirectorStephen Frears
Production CompanyLWT
ProducerStephen Frears
ScreenplayAlan Bennett
PhotographyBarry Noakes
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Neville Smith (Hopkins); Thora Hird (Mrs Hopkins); Julie Walters (woman in waiting room); Frank Middlemass (doctor); Derek Thompson (Skinner)

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Trevor Hopkins is a painfully shy English lecturer at the local polytechnic, equally uncomfortable with real people and literature. But a chance encounter with one of his students makes him think that his life is about to turn a corner.

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The first of a London Weekend Television series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett, Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (tx. 2/12/1978) is about a painfully shy, almost literally self-effacing man - he tries to make himself invisible on buses, he tells his mother "Mam, I'm nothing", and considers that his clothes are the sole indicators of who he is.

Although Bennett's own narration is delivered in the third person, anyone familiar with his other works will recognise Trevor Hopkins (Neville Smith) as a kindred spirit. They will also recognise his constant dilemma - the way doing nothing can be just as meaningful as doing something, and that self-consciousness creates a constant fear of misinterpretation.

He is particularly awkward with other men, from the doctor's student Willard (Robert Longden) to the black maths student Boswell (Alan Igbon), whose opinion that Virginia Woolf was "a gormless-looking cow" goes unanswered. Above all, he is challenged by Skinner (Derek Thompson), whose earring (unusual for the time) symbolises his willingness to flout convention.

But it's clear that the only way Hopkins can truly move forward is by developing male friendships, since his relationships with women are so unsatisfactory. His mother (Thora Hird), his girlfriend Wendy (Carol MacReady), the woman in the surgery (Julie Walters) and the bus conductress (Olga Grahame) all appear essentially the same to him, which suggests that the problem lies within himself and that he needs intimacy with someone dangerous and adventurous like Skinner to turn a corner.

Despite his dreary sex life with Wendy, Hopkins is clearly not homosexual - the male friendships he desires match his mother's "lesbian" ones, which are nothing of the kind. But he recognises that she is far happier than him, because she knows that the most meaningful relationships are emotionally, rather than physically, intimate - something the cyclists in Bennett's earlier A Day Out (BBC, 1972) have also grasped.

But they are simpler people, less prone to agonising about themselves and their place in society - and in this respect Hopkins is a true Bennett hero. Bennett's mother apparently once met T.S.Eliot, but instead of being tongue-tied in awe, she complimented him on his coat. In his diaries, Bennett both deplores his mother's philistinism (she had no idea who Eliot was) while wishing he was similarly unselfconscious, an attitude summed up in Virginia Woolf as: "Hopkins hated Skinner, and longed to be him".

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Lesbians in Halifax (3:44)
2. Horsewhipping (4:12)
3. Tonight's the night (3:45)
Alan Bennett: The Guardian Interview (1984)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Smith, Neville (1940-)
Walters, Julie (1950-)
London Weekend Television (LWT)
Thora Hird and Alan Bennett