Do Not Adjust Your Set – BFI DVD Review

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Background

Like its Rediffusion stablemate At Last The 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set was an important building block which paved the way for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And despite its status as a children’s show, DNAYS quickly gathered an appreciative adult audience as well  (John Cleese, for one, was especially captivated).

Running for two series – the first on Rediffusion, the second on Thames – DNAYS was the brainchild of Humphrey Barclay. Barclay was a Cambridge Footlights contemporary of John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor and would continue to work with Cleese and Brooke-Taylor on the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.

Michael Palin and Terry Jones had first met as students in Oxford and continued their writing partnership following their graduation (joining a roster of very familiar names penning material for The Frost Report).  They also worked as BBC writers for hire, with Billy Cotton and Roy Hudd amongst their clients. Although the pair had appeared on television prior to DNAYS, it was this series which allowed them to blossom as performers (something which Palin remains grateful for to this day).

Eric Idle, a Cambridge Footlights old boy, was (like seemingly everybody else in the comedy world during the mid sixties) a writer on The Frost Report and also co-wrote (along with Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman) the first series of the Ronnie Corbett sitcom No, That’s Me Over Here! (the series which replaced At Last The 1948 Show in the schedules).

Another future Python connection was put into place with the arrival of Terry Gilliam. His animations, similar in style to his Python work, would appear in some of the later episodes.

The roster of regulars was completed with Denise Coffey and David Jason. Both were hired as performers rather than performer/writers (as Palin, Jones and Idle were) but Coffey and Jason did eventually contribute material to the show. Captain Fantastic (a regular filmed insert featuring Jason as a bowler-hatted superhero and Coffey as his evil nemesis) was originally written by Palin, but he found it increasingly tough going (as he wasn’t performing the material) so Coffey and Jason took up the challenge. It proved to have a brief life outside of the series – the shorts continued for a short while as an insert in the magazine programme Magpie.

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Regular musical interludes (and occasional sketch walk-on roles) came courtesty of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who are always nothing less than a total delight. Their antics are especially noteworthy when you consider that they had to fit these spots in-between their busy gigging schedule which regularly took them up and down the country. So that helps to explain why sometimes everything looks rather thrown together ….

Archive Status

Out of the 27 episodes made and broadcast, today 14 exist. The Thames series is especially hard hit – with only two (the 1968 Christmas special and episode two) now remaining from the thirteen broadcast.

There has been some positive news in recent years though. Episode four of series one was recovered back in 2015 (which does give one hope that more material might still be out there somewhere) whilst there’s nearly an hours worth of audio clips from selected missing Thames episodes on this DVD, which helps to fill in some of the gaps.

The Series

The first show should have been the Boxing Day special. Alas, due to a mix-up this wasn’t transmitted until January.

The Boxing Day theme might have been out of date by the time it was finally broadcast but there’s plenty of interest – Eric Idle as a slick quizmaster catches the eye as does the very lithe David Jason (in the boxing sketch). The Bonzo’s first contribution to the series is Jolitty Farm. It’s odd stuff, but when compared to some of their later offerings you have to say that it’s positively restrained ….

As with At Last The 1948 Show, it’s fascinating to see proto-Python moments pop up in DNAYS. The first show proper has an early outing for Michael Palin’s recalcitrant shop-keeper (today he’s annoying the unfortunate David Jason). Interesting to see the sketch play out to virtual silence – another early Python trait.

As the series progresses, a more adult and unconventional tone creeps in. This helps to explain why some sketches don’t get much of a reaction – at times the juvenile audience seems to be more comfortable with visual slapstick rather than intricate wordplay.

Travelling Kettle, How To Eat, Insurance Salesman and Art Gallery are all series one sketch highlights. The unexpected appearance of the keen-as-mustard Tim Brooke-Taylor (deputising for the ill Michael Palin) in episode nine is something else to look out for. And the increasingly demented Bonzos (blacked up when performing Look Out There’s A Monster Coming,  playing football during  Equestrian Statue) continue to be excellent value for money.

It’s a shame that so little material from the Thames era exists as what we do have is top notch (Palin and Jones continue to work excellently together). The audience sounds different in episode two (the laughter is deeper than the high-pitched chuckles from the first series, suggesting that the young audience has been supplanted by older types) and it would be interesting to know if this was a regular occurrence or just a one-off.

Picture Quality

Generally the episodes are in good shape – certainly overall the picture quality is more consistent and better than At Last The 1948 Show. Even episode four of series one, sourced from a Phillips 1500 cassette rather than a telerecording, is very watchable.

Special Features

Michael Palin (33 minutes) and Humphrey Barclay (34 minutes)  both contribute new  in-depth interviews whilst there are shorter contributions from Tim Brooke-Taylor and John Cleese. Three Terry Gilliam animations, remastered from his original 35mm elements, are another treat.

Pride of place on the extras disc has to go to the The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band documentary.  Running for sixty minutes and featuring contributions from Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin-Spear and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith it’s an absorbing watch.

Conclusion

Do Not Adjust Your Set obviously showcases Palin, Jones and Idle but this time round I’ve been especially impressed with David Jason, who throws himself into every sketch with gusto.  Denise Coffey might have slightly less to do than the others (Palin, Jones and Idle have acknowledged that writing for women – unless they were actually playing them – was not their forte at this time) but having a regular female performer does add an extra dimension to the series.

As with At Last The 1948 ShowDo Not Adjust Your Set is an excellent package – the episodes bolstered by a plentiful helping of extras which help to set the programme firmly in context.  The series’ hit rate was higher than I’d remembered from previous viewings and I’m sure that this is a DVD that I’ll come back to again and again in the future. Highly recommended.

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At Last The 1948 Show – BFI DVD Review

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Background

Broadcast in 1967 on ITV (Rediffusion London) At Last The 1948 Show is one of a handful of shows which laid the groundwork for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Do Not Adjust Your Set is another key pre-Python programme which I’ll be taking a look at next week).

Earlier in the sixties, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor had been part of the Cambridge Footlights team who took the revue A Clump of Plinths/Cambridge Circus first to the Edinburgh Festival and then onto the West End, Broadway and a tour of New Zealand.  Some of the best of their revue material would later be pressed into service in At Last The 1948 Show.

Cleese and Brooke-Taylor were also integral members of the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again from 1964 whilst Cleese and Chapman also kept busy writing for The Frost Report.  Feldman was another key Frost Report contributor (he co-wrote the Class sketch which featured Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett). And like the others, Feldman was also enjoying considerable radio success (co-writing Round The Horne with Barry Took).

David Frost was something of a television powerhouse during this period. Although he would be the subject of harsh (but loving?) ridicule in both At Last The 1948 Show and Python, there’s no denying that he pushed the careers of many of his contemporaries forward (something which both Cleese and Brooke-Taylor are happy to acknowledge today).

Produced by Frost’s company Paradine Productions, At Last The 1948 Show ran for two series in 1967 (six episodes during February and March with a further seven following between September and November). Joining the four writers and performers was the lovely Aimi MacDonald who managed to wring the absolute maximum out of the small amount of material she was given.

Although At Last The 1948 Show had a more convential format than Python (sketches with punch-lines for instance) MacDonald’s fractured linking material does echo the way that Terry Gilliam’s animations would later be used in Python to provide a brief interlude between the sketches.

The likes of Bill Oddie, Barry Cryer and Eric Idle also pop up from time to time (Cryer having the smallest of small parts in probably the most famous sketch the series produced – Four Yorkshiremen).

Archive Status

Like a great many shows made during the sixties and early seventies, most of At Last The 1948 Show was wiped during periodic archive purges.  By the time that the remaining Rediffusion archive was donated to the BFI, it was found that only two episodes (four and six from series one) remained.  That most of the series now exists is testament to the tenacity of several key people (notably Steve Bryant and Dick Fiddy).

The first breakthrough was the return in 1990 of five compilation programmes broadcast in Sweden (these were issued on DVD in 2007).  Over time, several other shows were also located whilst fragments of footage have been obtained from disparate sources which include the Australian censor and Marty Feldman’s widow, Lauretta.

Most recently, two virtually complete editions (including series one, show one) were donated from Sir David Frost’s archive. For this release, where no video footage exists (the second episode of series one is the most incomplete) off-air audio has been synchronised to the camera script in order to fill the gaps.

The Series

Right from the off, the comic personas of the four main players are deftly established. John Cleese displays the type of manic intensity which would be his signature performance style for the next decade or more. Graham Chapman has a nice line in authority figures (albeit ones who have some fatal flaw – such as the Minister who literally falls to pieces). It also has to be said that he gives good yokel.

Tim Brooke-Taylor is always perfect as the hapless sufferer but also, like Cleese, does manic intensity very well. His clockwork hospital visitor (attempting to comfort a bed-bound Bill Oddie) is a wonderfully energetic spot of nonsense.

And although Marty Feldman had far less performing experience than the others, he impresses right from the off.  His boggle-eyed stare (something which David Frost thought would be offputing for the viewers) means that he’s perfect casting as the more eccentric characters, although he’s equally able to play the straight man when required.

Series one is stuffed with memorable sketches, a number of which were later recycled by the Pythons. For example, in the first show we see Graham Chapman’s solo wrestler in addition to the Secret Service sketch (which later appeared on the Python’s Live at Drury Lane album).

The Undercover Policeman sketch in show four is a delightfully ramshackle piece which saw all four struggle (and fail) to keep a straight face. In his interview on the third disc, Brooke-Taylor fills in some of the background – what was transmitted appears to be a second take and the others, for whatever reason, decided to devitaite from the script the second time around. This initially leaves Tim a little at sea ….

Several of the Cleese/Feldman two-handers, especially the bookshop sketch (Feldman as a customer requesting more and more unlikely books, Cleese as the increasingly ticked off proprtieter) are top notch. This one was recycled several times, both by Feldman and the Pythons, but the original is hard to beat.  The Wonderful World of the Ant is another which gets the thumbs up from me.

I also like the way that the hostesses increase by one each week, meaning that by the sixth and final show there are half a dozen glamourous girls all vying for attention. The lovely Aimi always comes out on top though.

She has a slightly increased role in the second series, which continued very much in the vein of the first.   Highlights include the period drama The Willets of Littlehampton and Tim Brooke-Taylor’s fairly savage parody of David Frost (The Marvin Bint Programme). The Four Yorkshiremen sketch is the undoubted jewel of show six, but Tim Brooke-Taylor’s chartered accountant dance is also worthy of a mention.

The seventh and final show has another classic Cleese/Feldman sketch and whilst it’s a shame that this edition isn’t quite complete (the final skit – a performance of The Rhubarb Tart Song – is missing) at least the end credits (which feature Ronnie Corbett gatecrashing proceedings to trail his new show) do still exist.

Special Features

The three disc set contains a generous amount of supplementary content.  Copies of the two scripts which feature the most missing material are included on the first two discs, along with a handful of other brief features.(such as photo galleries and John Cleese’s 2003 introduction from the BFI Missing Believed Wiped event).

The bulk of the special features are on the third disc.  Two newly shot interviews with John Cleese (31 minutes) and Tim Brooke-Taylor (38 minutes) are both of interest.

Cleese’s comments on his increasingly distant relationship with Feldman and his fondness for performing with Brooke-Taylor (who he likens, in performance style, to Michael Palin) were a few highlights from his interview whilst it’s hard not to love the all-round good egg that is Tim Brooke-Taylor. Indeed, rather like Michael Palin it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever having a bad word to say about him.

Also included is a 2006 interview with Cleese at the BFI (36 minutes) and 25 minutes of rushes from a 1969 interview with Marty Feldman which was never broadcast. Several audio features – Reconstructing At Last The 1948 Show (44 minutes) and a chaotic Dee Time interview (12 minutes) are also worthy of investigation.

Picture Quality

The previous DVD release (of the Swedish compilations) was incredibly grotty so any upgrade would have been welcome. The picture quality is certainly much improved, although given that several episodes were patched together from various sources it’s not surprising that some sections look better than others.

Given the age and condition of the telerecordngs, there may have only been a finite amount of restoration work which could have been carried out. So you can expect to see tramlining and other picture defects from time to time. But these are only intermittent issues, so in general the picture quality is quite acceptable.

Conclusion

Whilst At Last The 1948 Show will probably always be viewed as a son of Monty Python, it’s a series that really deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. Like every sketch show it doesn’t have a 100% strike rate, but when it clicks (as it so often does) the results are simply glorious.

It’s also very pleasing that after a great deal of hard work by the BFI, we have the series reconstructed in as complete a form as possible. Together with a raft of impressive contextual extras, it results in a very impressive package which comes highly recommended.

Do Not Adjust Your Set to be released by the BFI (16th September 2019)

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Also released by the BFI on the same day as At Last The 1948 Show is Do Not Adjust Your Set, which looks to be equally as essential. The press release is below –

Do Not Adjust Your Set
Collector’s Edition

3-DVD set released on 16 September 2019

Do Not Adjust Your Set, a madcap sketch show with a cult following, was a huge influence on television comedy. Written by and starring Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, with performances and additional material by David Jason and Denise Coffey, it also provided a showcase for Terry Gilliam’s animations and the musical antics of art-school jazz-anarchists The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

This collection brings together all the existing shows from the Rediffusion and Thames series for the first time. Among the five episodes entirely new to DVD, two were previously thought lost entirely. The research, reconstruction and restoration involved in creating this 3-DVD set and its companion, At Last The 1948 Show, both released on 16 September 2019, is the biggest TV project ever undertaken by the BFI National Archive. Both represent huge cross BFI projects with extensive work done by the Video Publishing and Technical departments, to ensure the best releases possible.

Do Not Adjust Your Set will be launched during a month-long season at BFI Southbank, It’s… Monty Python at 50, running 1 September – 1 October 2019, celebrating Monty Python – their roots, influences and subsequent work both as a group, and as individuals. The season forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the beloved comedy group, whose seminal series Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on 5 October 1969. It will include all the Monty Python feature films; oddities and unseen curios from the depths of the BFI National Archive and from Michael Palin’s personal collection of super 8mm films; back-to-back screenings of the entire series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a unique big-screen outing; and screenings of post-Python TV (Fawlty Towers, Out of the Trees, Ripping Yarns) and films (Jabberwocky, A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, Wind in the Willows and more). There will be a free exhibition of Python-related material from the BFI National Archive and The Monty Python Archive, and a Python takeover in the BFI Shop.

On Sunday 8 September at 17:40 in NFT1, there will be a special screening of two episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set (one newly recovered). After the screening, a fully illustrated panel discussion will look back at the series and assess its importance within the Monty Python canon.

Special features
• Putting Strange Things Together (2019, 33 mins); Michael Palin recalls his early TV days, including Do Not Adjust Your Set;
• We Just Want You to Invent the Show (2019, 34 mins): Humphrey Barclay on his comedy career from Footlights to Rediffusion;
• The Uninvited Guest Star (2019, 5 mins): Tim Brooke-Taylor on his Do Not Adjust Your Set appearance;
• The Funniest Thing on English Television (2019, 7 mins): John Cleese reflects on the show’s impact;
• Bonzos on the Box (2019, 60 mins): new feature-length documentary on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band featuring Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin-Spear and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith;
• The Doo-Dah Discotheque (2019): a Bonzo video jukebox;
• The Intro and the Outro (2018, 2 mins): a newly filmed introduction by Neil Innes;
• The Christmas Card (1968, 3 mins); Beware of the Elephants (1968, 3 mins); Learning to Live With an Elephant (1968, 4 mins): animations by Terry Gilliam, newly scanned from his own 35mm film masters;
• Lost Listens (1969, audio): rare sound-only excerpts from missing Thames episodes;
• Do Not Adjust Your Scripts: reproductions of scripts from missing Rediffusion episodes;
• The Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook: photos, cuttings and drawings from the legendary producer’s personal archive;
• Illustrated booklet with an introduction by Michael Palin, an exclusive interview with David Jason, new contributions from Humphrey Barclay, Neil Innes, ‘Legs’ Larry Smith and Kaleidoscope’s Chris Perry, plus essay and episode guide by the BFI’s Vic Pratt, comedy context by the BFI’s Dick Fiddy and musical notes by The Doo-Dah Diaries’ David Christie.

Product details
RRP: £29.99/ Cat. no. BFIV2120/ Cert PG
UK / 1967-1969 / black and white / 361 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 4:3 / DVD9 x 3: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192kbps)

At Last The 1948 Show to be released by the BFI (16th September 2019)

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A three-DVD deluxe set of At Last The 1948 Show is due to be released by the BFI on 16/9/18. The press release, detailing the mouth-watering collection of extras, is reproduced below.

At Last The 1948 Show
Collector’s Edition

3-DVD set released on 16 September 2019

At Last The 1948 Show debuted in 1967: the silly, cerebral team effort of future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Goodie-to-be Tim Brooke-Taylor and the marvellously fizzogged Marty Feldman. With laconic links by The Lovely Aimi MacDonald and set-pieces including the debut of the landmark ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, this pioneering comedy series is now ready to be enjoyed by a new generation of fans (or by old ones all over again). The research, reconstruction and restoration involved in creating this 3-DVD set and its companion, Do Not Adjust Your Set, both released on 16 September 2019, is the biggest TV project ever undertaken by the BFI National Archive.

Initially beginning work six years ago, a team of the BFI’s specialist TV curators gathered every episode known to exist. Further down the line, the Video Publishing and Technical Delivery teams work tirelessly to reconstruct missing episodes, using audio recordings and shooting scripts, to create the most complete collection ever assembled of this series.

This Collector’s Edition includes all 10 surviving shows, plus two near-complete reconstructions and a partially complete episode with full-length audio: all presented with an array of archive gems and newly filmed extras. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by curator Steve Bryant detailing the research and technical work that was carried out.

At Last The 1948 Show will be launched during a month-long season at BFI Southbank, It’s… Monty Python at 50, running 1 September – 1 October 2019, celebrating Monty Python – their roots, influences and subsequent work both as a group, and as individuals. The season forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the beloved comedy group, whose seminal series Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on 5 October 1969. It will include all the Monty Python feature films; oddities and unseen curios from the depths of the BFI National Archive and from Michael Palin’s personal collection of super 8mm films; back-to-back screenings of the entire series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a unique big-screen outing; and screenings of post-Python TV (Fawlty Towers, Out of the Trees, Ripping Yarns) and films (Jabberwocky, A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, Wind in the Willows and more). There will be a free exhibition of Python-related material from the BFI National Archive and The Monty Python Archive, and a Python takeover in the BFI Shop.

On Sunday 8 September at 15:00 in NFT1, there will be a special screening of At Last The 1948 Show (two recovered editions from the series plus an exclusive preview of some of the extra material from this DVD release) followed by a Q&A with Tim Brooke-Taylor.

Special features
• Something About the Year 1948 (2019, 31 mins): John Cleese on working with Humphrey Barclay, David Frost and Graham Chapman, At Last The 1948 Show and the path to Python;
• We Just Wanted to Be Silly (2019, 38 mins): Tim Brooke-Taylor recalls his comedy influences and the making of At Last The 1948 Show;
• John Cleese in Conversation (2006, 36 mins): John Cleese joins comedy historian Dick Fiddy at BFI Southbank to reflect on At Last The 1948 Show;
• Reconstructing At Last The 1948 Show (2000, 44 mins, audio): the BFI’s Steve Bryant in discussion with Aimi MacDonald, Tim Brooke-Taylor and audiophile Ray Frensham;
• John Cleese Introduces At Last The 1948 Show (2003, 2 mins): an introduction recorded for the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped event;
• At Last It’s Dee Time (1967, 12 mins audio): the At Last The 1948 Show team’s unruly guest appearance on the BBC chat show;
• Now and Then: Marty Feldman (1968, 25 mins): Feldman discusses the nature of comedy in this unedited interview, shot for a never-broadcast Bernard Braden documentary series;
• The Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook: rare photos and drawings from the legendary TV producer’s personal archive;
• At Last Some Pictures: image gallery of promotional material;
• Reproductions of two scripts for the incomplete episodes;
• Illustrated booklet with Not Quite 500 Words by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Steve Bryant’s account of recovering and restoring the programmes and a look at the show’s place in comedy history by the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, plus episode notes with transmission dates and credits.

Product details
RRP: £29.99/ Cat. no. BFIV2121/ Cert 12
UK / 1967-1968 / black and white / 320 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 4:3 / DVD9 x 3: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192kbps)

A Choice of Coward – Blithe Spirit

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Charles Condomine (Griffiths Jones), a successful novelist in the process of writing a new book about the occult, is keen to experience some authentic colour.  To this end he invites the eccentric medium Madame Acarti (Hattie Jacques) to hold a séance at his house.  Madam Acarti is so obviously a fake that nobody – not Charles, nor his second wife Ruth (Helen Cherry) or their friends – expect the evening to generate anything more than a little light mockery at Madame Acarti’s expense.

So when the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Joanna Durham) is conjured up from the other side, he’s more than a little taken aback.  Especially as he’s the only one who can see or hear her …..

Coward had been mulling over writing a play featuring ghosts for a little while, but it wasn’t until his flat was destroyed during the Blitz that he decided to turn these vague notions into reality.  Holidaying with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmerion (later immortalised in The Prisoner) he rapidly churned out the play in a mere six days and afterwards would comment that with “disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success”.

Premiering in mid 1941, with Cecil Parker as Charles and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Acarti, the play was an immediate success (until the juggernaut run of The Mousetrap, Blithe Spirit was the longest-running non musical West End production).  Rather wonderfully, a few years ago a telegram from Coward to Christie, congratulating her on beating his record, was discovered.

Coward was aware that some people might find the notion of a play revolving around ghosts to be a slightly distasteful subject to pitch during wartime, but he had a ready reply.  Although a comedy, it was deliberately written as a heartless piece.  “You can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story”.

This is certainly true.  Neither Charles, Ruth or Elvira are in any way admirable characters.  We open with Charles and Ruth discussing his first wife.  Charles, a befits a professional writer, is smooth with his compliments (and able to not commit himself when Ruth asks him if Elvira was prettier than her) but there’s a brittleness to this conversation.

When Elvira unexpectedly pops up the cracks begin to get bigger.  Although it takes a little while for Ruth to believe the truth of the situation, once she realises that Charles isn’t mad or drunk she becomes rather jealous of her dead rival.  After the initial shock, Charles adjusts relatively quickly to Elvira’s presence, but it’s hard to argue that the ghostly Elvira is a symbol of an idyllic past marriage.  Evidence is provided that their relationship was somewhat rocky.  Elvira reminds him that he hit her with a billiard cue (only gently, he says) whilst neither seems to have been totally faithful.

But in her own way she still loves him and so decides to kill him, as that way they’ll both be spirits and together once more.  But it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that her plans backfire and, after tampering with Charles’ car, she ends up killing Ruth instead (quite how a non-corporeal spirit could do such a thing is a question which the play quite rightly ignores).

This then sets up the denouement, which sees Charles haunted by both of his wives (in mounting desperation he requests that Madame Acarti’s perform an exorcism).  Jacques may not have the largest role, but she’s wonderful comic value whenever she’s on the screen.  With a boundless enthusiasm (Madame Acarti is almost beside herself when she learns that her séance actually conjured a manifestation) Jacques wrings every last comic moment from the script.

Joan Kemp-Welch (who directed all four plays in this short season) appears to have given Jacques her head.  It’s not a subtle performance – Madame Acarti leaps about like a giddy schoolgirl as well as being prone to sudden dramatic swoons – but it’s certainly an eye-catching one.  Coward himself approved, commenting that it was the first time someone had done something with the role that could bear comparison to Margaret Rutherford’s imposing stage and film performances (she reprised the part of Madame Acarti in David Lean’s 1945 movie).

The ending of this adaptation stays true to the original play (unlike Lean’s film, which Coward disliked) and sees a carefree Charles – once Elvira and Ruth have been reduced to silent, invisible spirits – head out for a lengthy holiday aboard, happy in the knowledge that his ghostly ex-wives won’t be able to follow him.  It’s not exactly what you could call a happy ending, but it fits in with the general tone of the piece.

As acknowledged by Coward, it’s hard to warm to any of the characters (apart from the deliciously dippy Madame Acarti) which is probably the reason why Blithe Spirit never quite engages as fully as it could have done.  Amusing, but icy.

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A Choice Of Coward – Present Laughter

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Like many of his contemporaries, Noël Coward found the 1950’s to be a critically lean period.  He may have created a string of hit plays during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, but in the brave new world of the angry young men his style seemed to be hopelessly dated.

But everything comes round again eventually and by the mid sixties the Coward revival was in full swing.  His new plays continued to attract only polite interest, but revivals of his classics tended to garner both popular and critical acclaim.

Therefore 1964 was the ideal time for Granada to turn their Play of the Week strand over to Coward for four weeks.  Featuring introductions from the Master himself before each of the four plays, A Choice of Coward kicked off with Present Laughter.

Written in 1939 and first staged in 1942, Coward’s introduction makes it clear that the play was written with a single thought in mind – to provide him with a star vehicle.  The character originally played by Coward – Garry Essendine – is the centre of the play and the recipient of most of the best lines.  There’s obviously a strong sense of autobiography at play (which wouldn’t have been lost on the audience at the time) as Garry is a fortyish, elegant, dressing-gown clad figure, who continues to deliver bon mots with practised ease even as his world descends into chaos.

Garry isn’t the only character to have a clear real-life counterpart.  Garry’s loyal and long-suffering secretary Monica is a straightforward analogue of Coward’s equally devoted secretary, Lorne Lorraine, whilst Garry’s almost ex-wife, Liz, is said to be partly modelled on Joyce Carey, who played Liz in the original production.

Garry Essendine (Peter Wyngarde) is the bright star around which his devoted satellites – Liz (Ursula Howells), Monica (Joan Benham), manager Morris (Danvers Walker) and producer Henry (Edwin Apps) orbit.  But it would be wrong to call Garry a despot, he appears to be much more affable than that.  Although as he’s an actor it’s difficult to know whether any of the emotions he exhibits are genuine.  This might have been a fruitful area for the play to examine, but as this is a lightweight confection (albeit with the odd barb) it tends to steer clear of psychological analysis.

The play opens with Daphne Stillington (Jennie Linden) exploring Garry’s flat.  A would-be actress and a devoted admirer of Garry, she has stayed the night (albeit in the spare room).  When Garry eventually rises, he firmly, but charmingly dispatches her (an early sign of how he tends, almost absent-mindedly, to pick up and then discard people at will).  Linden is very appealing as the naïve and fresh-faced young woman besotted with the stylish Garry.  Daphne exits but returns later, when she helps to raise the comic tempo.

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Daphne’s presence doesn’t faze Monica, no doubt it’s something of a regular occurrence.  Coward may have given Garry most of the best lines, but he didn’t forget his co-stars completely and Monica is the recipient of some good lines, as is Liz.  Liz and Garry may be separated but she’s still part of his inner circle and very much involved in every part of his life.  That she too regards Daphne will cool disinterest speaks volumes about her husband and their strange relationship.

James Bolam is great fun as Roland Maule.  Maule is an earnest young playwright, entranced and repulsed by Garry’s star quality in equal measure.  Maule is flattered to be in Garry’s presence but is forthright in explaining how Garry’s work in the commercial theatre is totally without artistic merit.  Coward, who always valued popular success over critical acclaim, plainly uses Maule to take a not-terribly subtle dig at his detractors.

By the time Barbara Murray appeared here as Joanna (Henry’s wife) she was a familiar television face thanks to her role in The Plane Makers as Pamela Wilder.  Joanna wouldn’t really have been too much of a stretch for her, since both characters share similar traits – not least a desire for male conquests.  Joanna is already conducing an affair with Morris and now she sets her sights on Garry.  Wyngarde and Murray both cross verbal swords in a very appealing manner with Garry eventually forced to succumb to the inevitable ….

By now the plot is simmering away nicely and this leads into the frantic conclusion which sees Garry – about to set off for a theatrical tour of Africa – learn to his horror that Daphne, Morris and Joanna have independently bought tickets for Africa as well and are all dead-set on accompanying him.

Eventually matters are resolved, although those expecting the characters – especially Garry – to have learnt anything will be disappointed.  As touched upon earlier, this an exercise in farce, not realism.

Adapted by Peter Wildeblood, it runs to just over seventy minutes, so a certain amount of filleting had to be done in order to bring it down to the required length.  This means dropping some characters, such as Garry’s valet Fred, and cutting some decent lines, but on the plus side this editing means that it zips along at a fine pace.

Peter Wyngarde dominates of course.  He would later become well-known for playing a similar womanizing character, Jason King, so Garry Essendine could almost be said to be a dry run.  Clearly relishing Coward’s dialogue, Wyngarde’s a treat from beginning to end.

One of Coward’s evergreen classics (over the years it’s been revived numerous times, with Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Rik Mayall and Albert Finney amongst those taking on the role of Garry) this cut-down version of Present Laughter is an impressive production.

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Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Four – The Creature

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By this point the narrative has split four ways.  Geoff is alone in the jungle, Mary and Margaret are trapped in the rocket (whilst something large and unfriendly appears to be attempting to force its way in), Conway has disappeared whilst Brown and Wilson are making their way to what Brown believes is a Venusian city.

Mary eventually twigs the way that Brown deceived them – chopping a few words out of Wilson’s tape recording – whilst the tension of Geoff, Mary and Margaret’s predicament quickly dissipates.  Geoff returns to the rocket and the mysterious creature disappears.

The logical Professor Mary Meadows believes that the creature only appears when they’re alone, so Geoff decides they should rope themselves together and that’ll deal with it.  Eh? I’m not entirely convinced about this statement.

Brown and Wilson continue their slow trek to the city.  They find a cave which displays evidence that the Venusians have discovered fire (and presumably are flesh eaters).  This doesn’t chime with Brown’s assertion that the Venusians are harmless and friendly, but he’s not downhearted and quickly bounces back.  At this point poor George Coulouris suffers a line fumble worthy of William Hartnell.  “Three thousand miles, err three thousand, three hundred years ago …”

The point about fire is an interesting one – in the previous scene Mary was confident that they could use it as a weapon, since she thought it was unlikely the Venusians would have discovered it. Although as no-one ever mention fire again it turns out to be a totally redundant plot-point.

A few clips of stock footage are used throughout the serial.  This episode is slightly more low-rent though – as we hear the sound effect of thunder followed by a picture of lightening.  It’s only on the screen for a second so they just about get away with it.

Gerald Flood’s had an easy episode so far.  We don’t see him until we’re about half way through when Conway promptly wakes up, calls for Geoff and the others – who just happen to be close by – and they’re all happily reunited.

Brown and Wilson debate the ethics of technology.  Brown despairs about the way that scientific progress has ravaged the Earth and fears that the same thing will happen one day to Venus.  Wilson makes the logical point that without science they’d never have reached here in the first place.  Then Wilson reaches for a cigarette.  It’s somewhat jarring to see an astronaut having a quick puff (unless they were special space cigarettes) but then it was the early 1960’s.

The most entertaining part of the episode is poor Hamlet’s plight.  Trapped inside a flesh eating plant, it looks like curtains for the space-faring guinea pig.  Margaret doesn’t take this trauma at all well –  she’s frantic with worry as Conway manfully attempts to rescue Hamlet from within the flappy plant. Don’t worry, Hamlet fans, he eventually escapes unharmed.

The last few seconds give us our first sighting of a Venusian.  He’s lurking in the shadows somewhat, but think cave-man and you’ll be on the right track.