Tonight at 8:30 – Still Life (26th May 1991)

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Dr. Alec Harvey (John Alderton) and Laura Jesson (Jane Asher) meet by happenstance in a railway station café. An instant attraction blossoms between them and they begin to conduct a highly clandestine affair (both are already married).  As the seasons click by, their railway rendezvous continue – but the tone of their later meetings dissolve into anguish as both realise that their affair has to end ….

Still Life is, of course, Brief Encounter in miniature. What’s interesting about this adaptation is that Joan Collins elected not to play Laura, instead she tackled the role of Myrtle Bagot, the railway café proprietress.  That’s a little surprising since Laura is by far the best female role.  Collins could have done it – and it would have been interesting to see – but maybe she was more content with the comic role of Myrtle.

Myrtle has her own love affair to negotiate – with the cheerful ticket collector Albert Godby (Norman Rossington).  Comedy veteran Rossington was a safe pair of hands and builds up a nice rapport with Collins – who, complete with her dyed hair piled up and a pair of glasses, negotiates the role of Myrtle with a sure touch. I like the way Myrtle attempts (and fails!) to add a touch of refinement to her voice when talking to customers.

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Two relationships clearly weren’t enough, as a third is added for good measure between Myrtle’s assistant, Beryl (Diane Langton), and cheeky young Stanley (Steve Nicholson).  With only thirty minutes to play with, this partnership has the least amount of attention devoted to it – consisting mainly of giggles and pinched bottoms.

Langton had been playing busty sexpots since the mid seventies, so the part was hardly a stretch for her. She might have been nearly twenty years Nicholson’s senior but give her a blonde wig and she could play pretty much the same age as Nicholson quite easily.

Whilst Beryl and Stanley and Myrtle and Albert are able to be quite open about their love, poor Alec and Laura are required to be much more furtive. Their whispered conversations in the corner of the café, oblivious to the hubbub around them, are perfectly pitched though – with both Alderton and Asher managing to take the familiar material and still make it resonate.

Coward later said that Still Life was “well written, economical and well constructed. The characters, I think, are true, and I can say now, reading it with detachment after so many years, that I am proud to have written it.”

I’d agree with his assessment. Unlike the previous play, Ways and Means, in this one you do feel for the central characters, which means that their final, wretched separation comes as a sudden jolt. This is no mean feat when you consider that their whole relationship has taken probably no longer than five minutes, spread across a handful of scenes, to develop.

The way that Laura is denied a final farewell with Alec – due the arrival of her insensitive and oblivious friend, Dolly Messiter (Moyra Fraser) – is the cruelest blow of all and concludes a memorable production.

Sydney Lotterby, who recently passed away at the age of 93, was the director (his sole credit on the series). Lotterby always yearned to direct more drama and based on this example you have to say that it’s a shame that he didn’t.

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