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Waiting for the Telegram (1998)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Waiting for the Telegram (1998)
DirectorStuart Burge
Production CompanySlow Motion Limited for BBC
ProducerMark Shivas
Written byAlan Bennett
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Thora Hird (Violet)

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Violet, an elderly resident in a care home, discusses the present and reminisces about the past, but ends up recalling events she'd rather have forgotten.

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The sixth and final collaboration between Alan Bennett and Thora Hird was originally broadcast as the last instalment of the six-part Talking Heads 2 (BBC, tx. 11/11/1998). Like the previous Hird/Bennett monologue, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee (BBC, tx. 24/5/1988), it was almost universally acclaimed, and it too won Hird a supremely well-deserved Best Actress BAFTA (her second of three).

A significantly more complex piece of work than its predecessor - narratively, technically, above all emotionally - Waiting for the Telegram present's Violet's fragmented memories in such a way that despite her forgetfulness (of small words and larger events) we can gradually piece together key elements of her immensely long but largely unhappy life, much of it seemingly spent ruing her decision not to give herself to her first boyfriend before he went off to his death in the First World War.

Now in a nursing home, the staff excitedly tell her that she's expecting a telegram from the Queen to congratulate her on reaching her centenary, but telegrams from royalty have an altogether different meaning for her: they were sent to families whose sons, brothers and husbands weren't coming back. Lest this come across as merely a wallow in the long-buried past, Bennett parallels these memories with the story of her favourite male nurse, Francis, whose death from pneumonia (typically, Violet doesn't spell it out, but his predilection for "lads, not lasses" clearly makes it AIDS-related) emphasises that it's not just wars that cut the young down in swathes.

Both Hird and Bennett had suffered similar pigeonholing to some extent: their undoubted genius for light comedy (and their unofficial "national treasure" status) suggesting that this was the furthest extent of their range. If any single piece gives the lie to this stereotype, it's this astonishing tour de force of writing and acting, with Hird's formidable technical skills (switching seamlessly from amiable befuddlement to heart-rending anguish and back again in the same sentence) doing Bennett's meticulously-composed verbal music full justice: by all accounts, hers weren't the only tears in the studio during production.

Her performance recalls Patrick Magee in Krapp's Last Tape (1957) or Billie Whitelaw in Not I (1972) or Rockaby (1980), to cite three works by another very great playwright with whom Bennett has rather more in common than his cuddly public image might suggest. After all, Samuel Beckett also wrote some very fine jokes.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The flag of gender (1:34)
2. A taxi to Arnley (4:42)
3. Kissing and whatnot (4:33)
4. He was a love (2:16)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Thora Hird and Alan Bennett