Queer Talk: Alan Bennett and BBC TV in the 1980s

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Amy Villarejo, Cornell University
Alan Bennett, one of Britain’s most highly regarded and prolific authors and playwrights, conducted a number of experiments with cultural forms of television for the BBC beginning in the 1980s.  Television is a cultural institution that itself was undergoing its most profound changes in Britain during the decade of the 1980s, with the introduction of a new channel, Channel 4, and with new structures of financing and production to support programming.  Displaying a lively interest in aesthetic innovation, combining wry sociological observation with tender autobiography, Bennett’s 1988 series of television monologues called Talking Headsconcentrate not on “class” itself, as he says, but on “classes, types.”  They adapt the theatrical monologue for the small screen in order to paint small portraits of middle-class and aging queer lives and desires that have been largely forgotten in the wake of more defiant programming targeted toward younger viewers on Channel 4.

These monologues offer some resources for reflection on the capacity of media to refract political and social relations in multiple registers.  While media historiography has focused on continuist models of progress for gay and lesbian representation, the archive from the 1980s presents a moment of co-existing and competing versions of British queer life not reducible to Thatcherism or its resistance.  Undertaking a more extensive study of the industrial capacities and limits of television in Britain in the period, this paper correlates those capacities with formal experiments such as Bennett’s Talking Heads.

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