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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Tonight at 8:30 – Family Album (5th May 1991)

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Family Album was described by Coward as “a sly satire on Victorian hypocrisy”. It’s set in the comfortable drawing room of the Featherways family, who have just returned from their father’s funeral. The atmosphere is decidedly formal to begin with, but when the new head of the household, Jasper (Denis Quilley), suddenly breaks into song for no particular reason it triggers a rapid lightening of mood ….

This one has quite the cast. I never knew that Denis Quilley could sing, but sing he does (as do several other cast members – which explains, in part, why the likes of Bonnie Langford and Jessica Martin appear today). It’s a slight pity that all the songs were clearly pre-recorded (when Jasper launches into the first song, Quilley’s voice suddenly gains a large dollop of recording studio echo) but since this isn’t the sort of playlet where realism is key, let’s not quibble.

Joan Collins has undergone yet another transformation. Sporting a rather uncomfortable set of teeth, I doubt she’s ever looked quite as unglamorous as she does here. She’s cast as Lavinia, the eldest daughter of the family, and the one who – initially at least – is by far the most prim and proper. A spinster, and likely to remain so, she begins by casting a disapproving eye when the others begin to make slightly merry, but after swigging some wine she soon gets into the spirit of things.

This isn’t the play with Collins’ largest role, but Lavinia still manages to make the most important story contribution.

She reveals towards the end that their father had made a new will just before he died, leaving some of his money to his several mistresses and the rest to a new church, which was due to contain a gaudy memorial to himself. Lavinia – with the assistance of Burrows, the butler – destroyed the will, thereby ensuring that the family would all receive their inheritances.

Although it was broadcast nearly thirty years ago, it still slightly takes the breath away to remember this was transmitted on BBC1. It’s hard to imagine such a piece, even with this sort of top quality cast, slotting into the schedule today. Goodness knows what the audience watching at the time made of it – personally I love it, but the way the characters continually break into song with no warning would probably have taken most people by surprise. And maybe it wouldn’t have been a pleasant surprise …

Especially since the opening few minutes would have primed them to expect something quite different – a bleak(ish) drawing room playlet.  The way the rug is pulled from beneath the audience’s feet by the reveal that not only was the late head of the household an incurable letch but also that his children (all seemingly stolid and staid citizens) find it very easy to revert to the innocence of childhood at the drop of a hat, is a little stroke of genius.

Dominic Jephcott and Charles Collingwood are further strong additions to the cast whilst John Alderton seems to having a whale of a time as Burrows, the ancient family retainer. Sporting reasonably convincing old-age make up, Alderton manages to milk each comic moment for everything it’s worth.

I’m happy to report there was no laugh track on this one, so hopefully the remainder of the series will be equally unaffected.

Family Album is an odd treat from a series that continues to surprise and entertain.

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Tonight at 8:30 – The Astonished Heart (28th April 1991)

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Two old school friends – Leonora Vail (Collins) and Barbara Faber (Siân Phillips) meet for the first time in many years. Their lives have followed very different paths – Leonara’s brief marriage ended in divorce whilst Barbara lives in blissful contentment with her husband Christian (John Alderton), an eminent psychiatrist.

The playful Leonora teases Barbara that, sight unseen, she plans to seduce Christian. But after this actually comes to pass, their torrid affair ends in bitter tragedy ….

After two comedies we move into more serious territory. That’s good news in one respect as it means there’s no laugh track (the peace and quiet comes as a blessed relief).

The Astonished Heart makes for an odd half hour. It certainly packs a lot into its brief running time (Coward described it as “a tragedy in six scenes” which gives you an idea about how quickly it moves). The play begins at the end of the story – it’s teased out that something terrible has happened, but we don’t know quite what – before rewinding back twelve months to start the tale properly.

Joan Collins is operating well within her comfort zone. Leonora could have slotted into several soap operas as she’s a man-eater with a seemingly impervious shell (although it is suggested several times that beneath her brash exterior lives a lonely and unfulfilled woman).

John Alderton is required to run the emotional gamut today. Christian goes from a gently amused individual, considering that a dalliance with Leonora will be something of an intellectual exercise, to a rampaging monster who’s consumed with jealousy when his mistress dares to even look at another man.  The climatic scene between Leonora and Christian has some powerful moments – but there’s also some rather ripe acting choices from both Collins and Alderton which are hard to take seriously.

That’s one of the drawbacks with The Astonished Heart. It’s always something of a balancing act, with the danger that any moment it could easily tumble over into melodrama.

Siân Phillips emerges with honour though. Whilst Leonora and Christian are called upon to ramp up the histrionics, Barbara is much more self contained (even when calmly deciding that her husband should enjoy a few months holiday with Leonora). Phillips’ skillful underplaying makes the occasional moment when Barbara shows a flash of anger all the more compelling.

Edward Duke, Jessica Martin and Edward Jewesbury fill out the minor roles with Martin catching the eye as Susan Birch, Christian’s dowdy but devoted secretary.

The Astonished Heart is somewhat hit and miss but it’s nice to have a pretty faithful version of the original one-act play to compare to Coward’s expanded 1950 film adaptation (directed by Terence Fisher, which saw Coward play the leading role of Christian with Margaret Leighton and Ceila Johnson as Leonora and Barbara).

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