Tuesday, 27 October 2015
Me! I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1978)
"Hopkins hated Skinner, and longed to be him"
It is that line that is probably key to Me! I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, the first in the LWT series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett from 1978, as it neatly describes the issue at the heart of its hero, the painfully shy English lecturer Trevor Hopkins.
This terribly self conscious 35 year old bachelor, played by Neville Smith, finds himself in an almost constant state of ennui and uncomfortable awkwardness with his fellow man. Like Virginia Woolf, whom he teaches at the local Polytechnic, he seems to be blindly questioning what life is (indeed he gets student Janine Duvitski - whom Bennett's third person narration describes as "a refugee from life" - to read out the dictionary definition of 'life' at one point) and has a repression that stifles and prevents him from actually feeling anything, as we witness in his unnecessary lies to a young Julie Walters in a GP's waiting room at the start of the film and, at the end in a neat example bookmarking, his entranced staring at the crying old lady in the hospital corridor. Unsatisfied and with a sense that he does not belong to the human race, that he is merely an observer as witnessed by his lack of interest in romance and his doomed relationship with yoga teacher Wendy (Carol MacReady) Hopkins is challenged by his most lively of students, the confident Dave Skinner (played by a young Derek Thompson, now familiar to TV audiences as Charlie Fairhead in Casualty; a role he has played for the past 30 years), whose intelligence and macho working class credentials, combined with his earring and trendy sheepskin, marks him out as someone radically different to Hopkins in that he can easily flout convention and feel comfortable and cocksure in his own skin.
It becomes apparent that the only way Hopkins can truly move forward and turn the corner is by developing male friendships, since his relationships with women - notably his mother, superbly played by Thora Hird, and the aforementioned Wendy - are so spectacularly ineffectual. As the title implies, he seems afraid of women in general and doesn't possess the ability or inclination to communicate effectively with them. However, as much as his envious and awestruck relationship with Skinner mirrors that of the relationship Bennett explores between equally hesitant teacher Irkin and the swaggering sixth former Dakin later in The History Boys, it isn't necessarily a clear cut homosexual one - indeed, though Bennett and Frears muddy the waters of this claim by having South Pacific's I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy play over the credits of Smith and Thompson's smiling soft focus faces, one can draw a comparison here with Thora Hird's mother character and her inability to grasp the true meaning of a lesbian relationship. Despite the cheeky concluding soundtrack and Bennett's narration revealing Hopkins feels love for Skinner, it's open ended to consider that his fixation is purely emotional or the desire for physical intimacy. It's not intrinsically as simple as homoerotic longing; for Hopkins, Skinner represents the ability to naturally experience, feel and enjoy life - which is something that does not come easily to him at all. He wants to be him, wants to have such a seemingly carefree existence.
Repeated once in the 80s on Channel 4 (along with the other plays in the Six Plays series) this Benett piece, directed by Stephen Frears, remains unreleased to DVD. It is available to view in instalments on YouTube and it's worth it - especially for Hird and a lovely little cameo from Lancashire legend Bernard Wrigley.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here