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Lost For Words (1999)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Lost For Words (1999)
Yorkshire Television for ITV, tx. 3/1/1999, 75 mins, colour
Directed byAlan J.W. Bell
Production CompanyYorkshire Television
ProducerSita Williams
Screenplay byDeric Longden
PhotographyAllan Pyrah
MusicJim Parker

Cast: Thora Hird (Mrs Longden); Pete Postlethwaite (Deric); Penny Downie (Aileen); Anne Reid (Gloria); Keith Clifford (Fred); Tom Higgins (doctor)

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A middle-aged man is alarmed by the physical and mental deterioration of his elderly, eccentric mother, though she remains in good spirits. But after she suffers a series of strokes, can he still cope with looking after her?

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The casting is so perfect that it's initially hard to believe that Lost for Words (ITV, tx. 3/1/1999) wasn't written from the outset as a fictional vehicle for Thora Hird - but in fact it's an adaptation of the second volume of Deric Longden's autobiography. The first, Diana's Story (1985), about his first wife's death from ME, was adapted for television as Wide-Eyed and Legless (BBC, tx. 5/9/1993).

That also featured Hird as Longden's mother Annie, but Lost for Words brings her centre stage, dominating every scene she's in and quite a few others, most memorably when the long-suffering Deric (Pete Postlethwaite) visits the chemist and is asked about his various medical ailments, his mother having divulged numerous intimate details on previous visits.

It's touches like these that keep Lost for Words from being unbearably mawkish, despite the grim subject-matter. Throughout, Longden leavens the story of his mother's decline from chatty old busybody to barely coherent wreck with irresistible anecdotes: washing the cat in the sink prior to receiving visitors, showing prospective buyers round her house while highlighting every conceivable defect, and replying "Oh, I don't know, love - surprise me" when asked if she wants to be buried or cremated.

But, laugh-out-loud funny though much of this is, Longden and Hird don't hold back when it comes to the traumatic material. The side-effects of Mrs Longden's strokes are shown in pitiless detail, her paranoia over imaginary gremlins invading her home through the taps initially depicted as more amusingly dotty ramblings until their underlying seriousness becomes all too clear.

Similarly, the central tragedy, whereby a supremely talkative woman ("we once went eight miles past our bus stop because she was chatting to a complete stranger and she'd reached an interesting bit") gradually loses the power of speech, isn't remotely soft-pedalled. Anyone who's known an elderly relative in a similar situation will find this uncannily convincing, with Hird meticulously reproducing not just Mrs Longden's incomprehensible though strangely logical gibberish but also her all too evident frustration that people can't understand what to her is patently obvious.

Her performance won her a third BAFTA, as well as the Royal Television Society's Best Actress award, and the production as a whole won an International Emmy. The following year, Longden published A Play on Words, a first-person account of the filming, and a simultaneous tribute to both Thora Hird and his real-life mother.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Selling houses (3:01)
2. Memories of Dad (2:39)
3. Gremlin invasion (2:54)
4. Dogs and Spongo (3:35)
Malcolm and Barbara - A Love Story (1999)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Postlethwaite, Pete (1945-2011)