In 1966, BBC-2 premiered the television drama “Talking to a Stranger.” Shown in four roughly 90-minute weekly installments in October of that year, the program was part of the BBC’s “Theatre 625” series, which aired from 1964 to 1968 and featured titles such as “1984,” “She Stoops to Conquer,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
Many of the “Theatre 625” recordings have been lost, but “Talking to a Stranger” — which placed 78th in a 2000 British Film Institute ranking of the 100 greatest television programs in British history — is available for streaming on YouTube as well as in a boxed Judi Dench collection. Dench, who won the 1967 British Television Academy Best Actress Award for her role as the main character, Terry, is reason alone to watch “Talking to a Stranger,” but here are a few more.
As Relevant Today as in 1966
You might think a 55-year-old black-and-white British television show set in London, about an aging, middle-class married couple and their two adult children, would have nothing to say to contemporary Americans dealing with 21st-century problems. You would be wrong.
Indeed, “Talking to a Stranger” is about the things humans across the centuries have grappled with: dysfunctional relationships, mental health issues, poor life decisions, and the consequences of those decisions. The main characters struggle with fear, anger, resentment, guilt, and regret. There isn’t a clear-cut hero or villain.
And, much as we do in our own lives, the players in “Talking to a Stranger” each take turns at being both the victim and the perpetrator of hurt. At times, it’s almost painful to watch. Why? Because it’s all too real.
A Reminder We Often Miss the Complete Picture
As sociologists and doctors around the world worry about the psychological effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns, stories like “Talking to a Stranger” remind us that it’s not always easy to tell, on the surface, who may be struggling. The “stranger” in the title refers, in turn, to all four main characters, who, despite being family, in many ways hardly know each other. The clever narrative framework of the miniseries drives home this point effectively, with each of the four episodes relating the same basic story from the vantage point of a different character.
As the plot plays out four different times through four different sets of eyes (Terry; her father, Ted; her brother, Alan; and her mother, Sarah), the overarching story is slowly filled in. Conversations held offscreen in one episode are held onscreen in another. Events unknown to the viewer when one character’s perspective is provided are revealed when another character’s viewpoint holds sway.
As more narrative layers are added, the depth of misunderstanding, hurt, and loss is slowly revealed. Finally, when the tragedy strikes, there is no turning back.
Masterfully Told with Intelligence, Pathos, and Depth
I’m not sure “Talking to a Stranger” could be made today, particularly not for television. The dialogue is complex and rich with biblical allusions that would probably go over the heads of most modern viewers. The approach of telling the same story four different times in slightly different ways requires the viewer to care about more than mere plot.
With little action and lots of dialogue, the pace is slow by today’s standards. Even though the subject matter is mature, there are no sex scenes, scantily clad females, drug use (unless you count chain-smoking), or foul language (at least, not by American standards). Furthermore, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what is going on, especially in the beginning of the narrative, and at other times when there are flashbacks and unchronological storytelling.
Yet these characteristics are what make “Talking to a Stranger” such a worthwhile theatrical experience. Just as a fine novel calls for multiple readings, the show definitely lends itself to repeated viewings. I’ve intentionally shared very few plot points or character details so as not to ruin it for you. What could be more perfect for passing the time during stay-at-home orders?
YouTube links to all four episodes are listed below.
Episode 1: “Anytime You’re Ready I’ll Sparkle”
Episode 2: “No Skill or Special Knowledge Is Required”
Episode 3: “Gladly, My Cross-Eyed Bear”
Episode 4: “The Innocent Must Suffer”