Danger Man – The Sisters

Nadia Sandor (Mai Zetterling), an East European scientist, has defected to the British. The authorities are having trouble establishing her identity though and ask Drake to travel to Slavosk in order to free Nadia’s sister, Gerda (Barbara Murray), from prison and bring her back to England. But after he does, the problems aren’t over ….

Once again Drake is summoned to the presence of Hardy (Richard Wattis). Nattily attired in a three-piece suit (Drake’s English-wear?) our Secret Agent is still a little frazzled after his plane trip from America and (as is his wont) begins to rile the straight-laced Hardy. At one point Drake reveals that his friends call him “the man with the built in crystal ball”, which is something of a conversation stopper.

Drake’s voice over makes a comeback in this episode. It’s easy to see why, as it papers over the cracks when the narrative is forced to take a sudden jump forward. As touched upon before, that’s a curse of the 25 minute format – time is always of the essence.

With the assistance of Mikhail Radek (Sydney Tafler), Drake breaks Gerda out of prison. Radek is quickly established (via Drake’s voice over) as an amusing, if cold-hearted, mercenary – someone whose only loyalty is to money. To be honest, Drake lays this character profile on so thick that when Radek disappears from the story after a few minutes it’s hard not to imagine he’ll reappear towards the end. Guess what ….

The prison break could have easily lasted a whole act, but instead it’s done and dusted in a matter of minutes. Drake and Radek waylay the guards sent to escort Gerda to another prison and steal their authorisation documents. The hapless guards are dealt with in an amusing way though – lured by the prospect of girls and all-night jiving (the party they stumble into looks endearingly innocent) they instead find Drake and Radek waiting for them behind the bedroom door.

Given that the episode is now whipping along at a rate of knots, we never see the scene where Gerda realises that Drake is her saviour rather than another jailor. Instead, we have to be content with a single scene (on a studio-bound grassy knoll) which shows the pair leaving the country (thanks to Drake clipping through a barbed wire fence and having an energetic punch up with a guard).

This scene is notable for the way that Gerda, inching along the ground to the fence, stops to have a cup of tea from a flask whilst Drake is attempting to break through. Now I like a cup of tea as much as the next man or woman, but surely there’s a time and a place to take your beverages.

Is Nadia an imposter? The arrival of Gerda should hopefully answer this question, but since the sisters haven’t seen each other since childhood that won’t be so easy. Plus there’s the very real possibility Gerda could be a spy sent to discredit Nadia and force the British to deport her.

This is a decent puzzler and both Zetterling and Murray play the scenes they share together well – the sister’s reactions abruptly changing from delight as they’re reunited after many years apart to suspicion as each apparently begins to mistrust the other.

If one were in nit-picking mode, then it’s slightly hard to believe that no-one has been able to vouch for Nadia Sandor. No doubt she’s rarely travelled abroad, but given that she’s fairly eminent in her field, would she never have been photographed in the newspapers or met any Western scientists?

As it turns out, Gerda is revealed to be a spy which secures Nadia’s place in Britain. But maybe a more devious writer would have ensured they were both imposters, with the exposure of one as a spy helping to strengthen the identity of the other.

The ‘shock’ late return of Radek, working with Gerda, helps to wrap things up. Gerda pleads with Drake not to send her back home, but Drake is implacable. We never learn her fate (or that of Radek) but Drake tells her that “when you play this sort of game, you must expect to pay the consequences”. Ouch.

In addition to Zetterling, Murray and Tafler, the always reliable Anthony Dawson makes a brief appearance, meaning that The Sisters doesn’t skimp on acting talent. It might be another of those episodes that really could have breathed had it had double the running time, but it’s still an above average effort.

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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