Talking to a Stranger
Part of The Judi Dench Collection
Review by Philip Fisher
John Hopkins' TV series, directed by Christopher Morahan, is the longest and oldest film in the Judi Dench Collection, comprising four collected 90 minute plays first seen in 1966.
It is a tremendous, psychological kitchen sink drama, centred on Terry Stevens, an independent 30-year-old woman played by the future Dame and then, covering the same experiences, her parents and brother.
The style of Talking to a Stranger is fascinating, with Hopkins entering his character's minds, using flashback liberally and jumping through time to give an impressionistic view of their lives and mental states.
Any Time You're Ready, I'll Sparkle
Terry is certainly a handful. In the opening play, she rules her sweet-natured flatmate, Pinkie Johnston's Jess, as Cleopatra might have a handmaiden; riles Margery Mason playing her mother; and brother Alan, a very young looking Michael Bryant; and has little patience with her doddery, retired father, Maurice Denham.
This woman would be typical today but in 1966 must have seemed thoroughly modern and disreputable. She may liberally quote from the Bible but Terri sleeps around, drinks to excess, and, by halfway through the first of the four plays, it is apparent that her weight gain and dizziness will soon result in the arrival of a baby.
Despite her constant rudeness and ability to offend at will, there is something about this young woman that is both sympathetic and likeable, not to mention recognisable. She spends much of her life shouting loudly in an effort to forget her escalating problems but has the courage to make her own decisions, first to have the baby and then to ditch the married man who got her pregnant.
As if that were not enough, we are then introduced to a black man, Leonard played by Calvin Lockhart, who is none other than the protagonist's estranged husband and assuredly not the prospective father.
Dame Judi's performance is magnificent and it is not surprising that it was rewarded with her first BAFTA.
No Skill or Special Knowledge Is Required
In the second part, the focus shifts so that we now enter the head of Terry's ageing father, retired in a run-of-the-mill, suburban semi-detached house. This is an unambitious man, expertly played by Maurice Denham, who has spent his life trying to be nice and balance the demands of his difficult female relatives.
This decent old duffer now lives almost entirely in the past, replaying significant sequences from his life in his head over and over again. He harks back to wartime years, his daughter's childhood and then the tricky moments following her violation as a 17-year-old with the terrifying fear that she might have been pregnant.
The majority of this episode, though, focuses on two different relationships. Despite decades of marriage, Ted or Father, as he is known to all, still struggles to make his far from easy wife happy. Even though he is more comfortable with his son Alan, the real crisis comes when the young man, a father of two, reveals that he is contemplating a career move that will take the family to Australia.
This ultimately leads Father to confront both his own mortality and his wife, to great dramatic effect, as becomes apparent in the following episodes.
Gladly, My Cross-Eyed Bear
Alan's hour and a half in the limelight commences in tragic circumstances, following the death of his mother, who finally, towards the end of the previous episod,e began to show signs of melting into a humanity that had until that point seemed beyond her.
Alan is supportive of his grieving father, while they await Terry's arrival. The action becomes far more dramatic and Michael Bryant's performance superlative, when he moves into a kitchen confrontation with the policeman who has come to investigate what appears to be a suicide.
This role is played by a very young looking Windsor Davies, who shows far more sympathy and diplomacy than was to become the norm in the many of the parts that he played in subsequent years.
The plot just keeps thickening without ever really tipping over into melodrama. The naturalistic treatment of the family, with constant falling out and making up, even before Mother's body has been buried, seems all too realistic. Then, Alan reveals the reason why he must go to Australia, offering to take his reluctant but weak and helpless father along with the family.
The Innocent Must Suffer
The scope of John Hopkins' remarkable achievement only becomes completely apparent as we move towards the end. Even though he is raking over the same coals for the fourth time, when the story is seen from the mother's point of view, it takes on a whole new aspect.
Up to this point, she had seemed an ogre who made life impossible not only for her callow husband but also the two grown-up children. Now, when she is able to put her own suffering into view, it is possible to understand why she behaved as she did.
Like the other three main actors, Margery Mason gives an outstanding performance as the kind of housewife who cooks a roast and two veg and bakes a cake every Sunday, even though the only person who will eat them is her ungrateful husband.
This final episode owes much to An Inspector Calls. As in Priestley's play, the family members, not to mention the next-door neighbour from hell played by Mariann Turner, each inexorably implicate themselves in the suicide of a woman who was finally driven over the edge by an accumulation of small unkindnesses.
By the end of this gripping drama, viewers may have watched much of the same action four times over but it seems as fresh and moving the last time as it had the first. This slice of life is tragically believable and the only sadness is that four decades on, today's equivalents to the Stevens are probably just as unhappy.
The writer has been blessed with a talented director, Christopher Morahan and a quartet of perfectly cast actors who give their all in portrayals that both singly and collectively are 100% convincing throughout.
Sadly, this searing drama must also now be regarded as a historical anomaly, in that it is hard to believe that any television producer today could sell a cheerless drama for broadcast, let alone one in four parts that together last for six hours.
We must be grateful to the BBC and Dame Judi Dench's reputation for enabling Talking to a Stranger to be reproduced on DVD. Seeing these films also raises the thought as to what other black and white gems are hidden in the archives, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation.