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Thora Hird and Alan Bennett

A great actress and writer scaled career peaks in their work together

Main image of Thora Hird and Alan Bennett

Despite a nine-decade career and a range of roles to match, it is generally acknowledged (not least by the actress herself) that Thora Hird's finest achievements can be found in her half-dozen collaborations with the playwright Alan Bennett. It was a creative marriage made in heaven: they shared Northern roots (Leeds in his case, Morecambe in hers), a nostalgia for a fast-vanishing world, and a sense of humour that revelled in the pitch-perfect use of brand names for comic effect ("It'll take more than Dairy Box to banish memories of Pearl Harbor").

Her first appearances for Bennett were in Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (ITV, tx. 2/12/1978) and Afternoon Off (ITV, 3/2/1979), two of the plays he wrote for London Weekend Television in a cycle later published as The Writer in Disguise. Although both parts were essentially cameos (she has one scene in each), she made an unforgettable impression, and would later cite the scene in Virginia Woolf in which she plays the loving but slightly confused mother of the self-loathing Trevor (Neville Smith), caught up in a conversation about lesbianism (of which she knows nothing) as being the funniest she ever filmed. The part in Afternoon Off was slighter but still hilarious, as the kindly Mrs Beevers cheerfully lets slip all kinds of stereotypical anti-Japanese prejudices in front of Asian waiter Lee (Henry Man), who might not even be Japanese in the first place.

Bennett wrote two more substantial roles for her in his 1982 series of plays for the BBC, later published as Objects of Affection. In Intensive Care (BBC, tx. 9/11/1982) she acted opposite Bennett himself for the first time, reluctantly waiting in hospital for news of her brother's imminent demise (Bennett later said that he based much of her dialogue on his own family memories), while in the three-hander Say Something Happened (BBC, tx. 17/12/1982), she and Hugh Lloyd play an elderly couple visited by a young and inexperienced social worker (Julie Walters, another Bennett regular), who inadvertently uncovers things that they might have preferred to remain buried.

This last theme was developed further in Bennett's final pieces for Hird, this time placing her centre stage in the two monologues that closed each series of Talking Heads (BBC, 1988/98), each of which won richly-deserved BAFTAs for Best Actress. Both A Cream Cracker under the Settee (BBC, tx. 24/5/1988) and Waiting for the Telegram (BBC, tx. 11/11/1998) are about present-day events unlocking painful memories for elderly women: in Cream Cracker it's a fall at home, in Telegram it's an encounter with a flasher.

More than anything else that Bennett wrote for her, these are genuinely virtuoso pieces, with Telegram in particular proving that, even at nearly ninety, Hird's exceptional technical skills remained unimpaired as she switched from amiable befuddlement to heart-rending tragedy and back again, sometimes in the same sentence. It's a devastating performance that alone would give the lie to any attempt at pigeonholing her as a light comedienne.

After her death, Bennett said of her:

"Thora was a writer's dream, an actor who took the text seriously, never paraphrasing or diverging from it in the slightest degree. She said what you had written, trusting you as the author to know what you were doing, her reference for the text nurtured in her early days watching and working on the plays of Harold Brighouse and Walter Greenwood. I am proud to have been of that company."

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Afternoon Off (1979)

Afternoon Off (1979)

Tragicomedy about an Asian waiter on a blind date in Hartlepool.

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

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

Mournfully funny Alan Bennett play about a cripplingly shy English lecturer

Thumbnail image of Say Something Happened (1982)

Say Something Happened (1982)

Bittersweet play about an elderly couple and a naive social worker

Thumbnail image of Waiting for the Telegram (1998)

Waiting for the Telegram (1998)

Devastating monologue about lost loves and fading memories

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Thumbnail image of Bennett, Alan (1934-)

Bennett, Alan (1934-)

Writer, Actor, Presenter

Thumbnail image of Hird, Thora (1911-2003)

Hird, Thora (1911-2003)