18 November 2009

Hypnotic eyes

After thanking Tony Benn earlier today for his lifetime contribution to my career, I was not intending to post anything more about him for quite a while.

But, having invited comments about the yesterday’s video clip on Twitter, replies came in from a number of people who had noticed something about his eyes and/or eye movements (for which, thanks to Olivia Mitchell, Marion Chapsal and Martin Shovel).

I was fascinated by this, because I’d originally thought of adding a note about his eyes to my comments on yesterday's video clip - pointing out that, in the parts of it where we can actually see his eyes, he doesn’t blink at all.

I didn’t mention it because I thought the post was already quite long enough. But the reason it had crossed my mind was because of of something else I’d written about Mr Benn 25 years ago.

Mad staring eyes?

‘… his more vindictive critics sometimes claim he has ‘mad staring eyes’, a point he has occasionally even joked about in some of his own speeches. In fact his eyes are rather large, and this may actually be a much more important communicative asset than he or his critics realize. It presumably means that more people will be able to track more of his eye movements over a greater distance than is possible in the case of speakers with less prominent eyes. The rate at which Mr Benn blinks his eyes while making a speech is much lower than is the case with most other orators, and this may further contribute to visibility of his eyes … which has probably contributed to his gaze being described as ‘staring’ ('Our Masters’ Voices', pp. 91-92).

Spellbound?

Some years after that, I met someone whose wife worked as a nurse in a mental hospital, where there was a locked ward for severely disturbed patients. Bolted into the ceiling was a TV set that was kept switched on more or less continuously, even though it seldom attracted much attention from residents who spent much of their time wandering around the room in different directions.

According to the nurse, there had only ever been one occasion when she’d seen all of them gather together as a group and gaze up at the the TV on the ceiling at the same time. It was during a live broadcast from a Labour Party conference, where there was one, and only one, speaker who seemed to hold them ‘spellbound’ for quite long periods and in a way that nothing else on television ever did.

By now, of course, you'll obviously know exactly who it was. But at the time, I remember being totally amazed, flabbergasted and almost a little stunned to hear that even this audience was held in thrall by the power of Tony Benn's oratory.

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