The Last Obituary by Peter Tinniswood

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BBC Radio 7, 19 October 2008

Peter Tinniswood was a prolific writer for radio and television, whose major successes included Tales from a Long Room for the radio, and I Didn’t Know You Cared for television. Although praised to the heavens as a natural writer for radio, with a great love of language, I have to admit that I remained impervious to his abilities. I always found him to be someone obsessed with the idea of the professional Yorksherman; like others of his kind, such as the cricketer Geoff Boycott, he believed they were somehow different – more humorous, more down-to-earth, perhaps – compared to so-called ‘soft Sootherners.’


The Last Obituary went some way towards revising my opinion. Written as a monologue in 1998 for the actress Billie Whitelaw, it told the story of Millicent, a middle-aged spinster who spent her life writing obituaries for a regional newspaper, but who was about to be replaced by a computer. Her ‘last obituary’ was due to be that of Dame Nora Plunkett, a once-famous person who passed away at the age of 90. As she wrote, however, she began to reflect on the way she had become involved with her subjects, speculating on what they did in their private lives. She also speculated on the relationship between fact and fiction: did an obituary have to be true, or could it be pure fabrication? This was frequently and humorously demonstrated as Millicent kept inventing new details for Dame Nora; she imagined her as an aviator, a biological scientist, and a cricket selector for the England team.


What rendered the play most interesting, however, was Tinniswood’s style, juxtaposing the banal with the momentous as he depicted Millicent’s state of mind. Here was an ordinary woman trying to find something meaningful in her life, but seldom able to find it. With no by-line in the newspaper, she remained one of those journalistic also-rans who strive to please their readers but never receive any acknowledgment for it. Millicent’s yearnings were ably communicated through the repetition of certain key words, frequently combined in alliterative phrases – “wanting,” “writing,” “waiting.”


As the monologue unfolded, it became evident that the title – The Last Obituary – referred not to Dame Nora but to Millicent herself. The play might have been reasonably subtitled “The Recollections of a Nobody.” This was skilfully underlined through a recollection of a recent Christmas party, where one of her colleagues finally addressed her by her Christian name; until that moment, she had always been known as ‘the obituarist.’ The final indignity for her was to learn that after her retirement, the newspaper obituaries would not be written by a person at all, but rather compiled by a computer. She would always remain a nonentity.


The Last Obituary turned out to be a compelling play; this was chiefly due to Whitelaw herself, who employed all the vocal resources at her disposal to portray a woman who needed love and/or public adulation, but never found it. The director was Enyd Williams.