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Doris and Doreen (1978)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Doris and Doreen (1978)
For Six Plays by Alan Bennett, ITV, tx. 16/12/1978, 73 mins
Directed byStephen Frears
Production CompanyLondon Weekend Television
Produced byStephen Frears
Written byAlan Bennett

Cast: Prunella Scales (Doris); Patricia Routledge (Doreen); Peter Postlethwaite (Lomax); Joan Sanderson (Dorothy Binns)

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Doris and Doreen work in a small office within a vast bureaucratic organisation, with their paperwork filling the gaps in their lengthy conversations. But who is to occupy the third desk in their office and how will this affect their lives?

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The second in LWT's series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett, Doris and Doreen (tx.16/12/1978) is the most traditionally 'theatrical', taking place on a single studio set and with just three main roles (plus a tiny cameo at the end). Indeed, Bennett later adapted it for the stage as Green Forms, which toured theatres in 2003 in a double bill with A Visit From Miss Prothero (BBC, tx. 11/1/1978) under the collective title Office Suite.

It was originally broadcast during the dying days of James Callaghan's Labour Government, where the 1978-79 "winter of discontent" saw Britain facing economic collapse in the face of increasingly bitter stand-offs between management and workers. A few months later, Margaret Thatcher would be Prime Minister, and the almost-immediate upshot of her ideological emphasis on efficiency and productivity would be to send unemployment soaring. Doris (Prunella Scales) and Doreen (Patricia Routledge) are right to be scared - hindsight reveals all too clearly what was about to hit them.

A social conservative who famously loathed Thatcher, Bennett nonetheless gives the women more than enough verbal rope to hang themselves - even the most neutral observer would have to conclude that their office is hopelessly overstaffed, with paperwork constantly losing out to gossip ("You have to be in the mood for pink forms", says Doris, justifying missing deadlines by a week). But Bennett also strongly hints that their failure to join a union may seal their doom more effectively than their lack of output. "Remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs!", cries newly-unionised messenger Lomax (Peter Postlethwaite). "What grade were they?" asks a despairing Doreen.

Bennett beautifully captures the tone of casual office chit-chat, whether it's Doreen's telegrammatic portraits of colleagues ("Thin-faced woman, blondish, daughter got run over, lived in Whingate") or Doris' greater grasp of the heavily nuanced language of internal politics, and Routledge and Scales inhabit the parts so totally that Bennett later said he couldn't re-read the script without hearing their voices. Similarly, Joan Sanderson's brief but potent appearance as the dreaded Dorothy Binns can't help but recall her other no-nonsense matriarchs - two months later, she would play the deaf Mrs Richards alongside Scales in a memorable episode of Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975/79).

Patricia Routledge's next collaboration with Bennett would be A Woman of No Importance (BBC, tx. 19/11/1982), another portrait of a lowly office worker whose meticulous routine is disrupted by unwelcome surprises.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Scheduled redevelopments (1:34)
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3. A nick in the plug (3:19)
4. Plastic hips (3:06)
Production stills
Office, The (2001-03)
Woman of No Importance, A (1982)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)
Postlethwaite, Pete (1945-2011)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)