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.