Tonight at 8:30 – Shadow Play (2nd June 1991)

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Vicky Gayforth’s (Joan Collins) life is collapsing around her.  Following an evening at the theatre, she elects not to go on to a late party as she’s convinced that her husband – Simon (Simon Williams) – will be there with another woman.  Taking three strong sleeping pills, Vicky is settling down for a peaceful night’s sleep when Simon enters her bedroom and requests a divorce.

As the pills begin to take effect, Vicky experiences multiple hallucinations as she relives her life with Simon in a series of highly theatrical vignettes ….

Described by Coward as “a musical fantasy”, Shadow Play is a very pleasing mix of reality and fantasy. It begins in the real world, with Vicky receiving sage advice from Aunt Martha (Jean Anderson). Anderson was the sort of actress who seemed to spend her career playing characters who dished out sage advice (whether the recipients wanted it or not).  Seven years as the matriarch of the Hammond family in The Brothers for example.

Given how perfectly Simon Williams fits into the Tonight at 8:30 world, it’s a little surprising that this was his only role – but he certainly makes the most of it. When we first meet Simon Gayforth he’s behaving in a rather beastly fashion towards the somewhat helpless Vicky (who is one of those characters rather buffeted about by events). But once the fantasies begin and he turns on the charm it’s easy to understand why Vicky fell in love with him in the first place.

I like the way that the sets become very stagey and unreal once we join Vicky in her dream world (this distinction probably would have been harder to draw on stage). Presumably Coward and Gertrude Lawrence handled several of the songs themselves – but Collins and Williams don’t get involved in the singing (I can’t recall either of them warbling in the past, so this was probably a wise move).

As Vicky dreams on, she’s not above re-editing events to make them even better than the real thing.

Vicky: You’re nice and slim. Your eyes smile and you move easily. I’m afraid you’re terribly attractive.
Simon: You never said that!
Vicky: No, but I thought it.
Simon: Stick to the script.

This happens on a number of occasions – characters breaking the reality of the fantasy (if you see what I mean) to pass an ironic commentary on what we’re seeing. This would hardly have been original even back in the 1930’s, but it’s still amusing and effective.

Several Tonight at 8:30 stalwarts turn up for one final bow. Edward Jewesbury is the perplexed Uncle George, unwillingly dragged into Vicky’s dreamworld, whilst Edward Duke plays a silly young ass (something of his signature role).

Even when Vicky returns to reality, there’s still a tinge of fantasy in the air as Simon has banished all thoughts of divorce, meaning he and Vicky will live happily ever after. Is she still dreaming? Maybe, or maybe Coward was simply content to send the theatregoers home in a good mood.

Tonight at 8:30 is a fascinating series. Happy to faithfully adapt the original plays (if the action took place in a single room, then the productions would remain in a single room) it’s the sort of VT show which belongs to a vanished television age. It’s a pity that three episodes are rather marred by the addition of laugh tracks, but that quibble apart it’s been something that I’ve enjoyed revisiting.  Certainly worth a look if you have the Noel Coward DVD boxset on your shelf.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Ways and Means (19th May 1991)

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Stella and Toby Cartwright (Joan Collins and John Standing), living a comfortable life on the Côte d’Azur, appear to have everything – but appearances can be deceptive. Despite their outward elegance and poise, the pair are flat broke (following Toby’s disastrous misadventures at the casino) and face shame and scandal unless they can find a considerable sum of money very, very quickly ….

Ways and Means is a gossamer thin piece.  The Cartwrights give off an air of innocent decadence, which is best summed up by this comment from Toby. “We were brought up merely to be amiable and pleasant and socially attractive, and we have no ambition and no talent”.

Standing has something of Noel Coward’s delivery, so it’s easy to see how the Master would have tackled the part. Collins, once again cast in the Gertrude Lawrence role, also clicks into gear nicely and the pair (who dominate proceedings) are never less than totally watchable.

Four actors are each given a brief minute to shine. Edward Duke, as the ingenious Lord Chapworth, is first up (not much of a role, but he does his best). Siân Phillips has a little more to work with as Olive Lloyd-Ransome whilst Kate O’Sullivan sports the most outrageous Russian accent as the Princess Elena Krassiloff.

By far the most entertaining of these little cameo performances comes from Miriam Margolyes as Nanny.  Sounding not unlike Nursie from Blackadder II, Margoyles lights up the screen for the short time she’s on.  Harold Innocent, as the imperturbable servant Gaston, also deserves a tip of the hat.

There’s plenty of interest to be found on the acting front then, and there’s one more turn to come – Tony Slattery as Stevens, an ex-chauffer turned armed robber. His misfortune was to attempt to burgle the Cartwrights – who don’t have a bean – but he quickly becomes the object of their salvation.  Stevens readily agrees to rob the other house guests and pass all the loot onto Stella and Toby (taking care to tie them up so they look like victims too).

There seems to be little point in complaining about just how contrived the whole thing feels, as no doubt that was precisely the tone Coward was aiming for.  None of the characters really stir any feelings or emotions (such as whether the Cartwrights sink or swim, for example).  This air of unreality wouldn’t matter so much if the play was a little wittier or had some decent bedroom farce action, but there’s not a great deal to latch onto here.

You can’t fault the acting talent, but Ways and Means doesn’t really click for me. The return of the laugh track (for the first time since Red Peppers) is also a slight disappointment as the laughs still don’t feel totally natural (and they’re often on lines that aren’t really that funny).  This one’s not a total disaster, but it’s something of a dip in form after the last few episodes.

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