Tonight at 8:30 – Hands Across The Sea (14th April 1991)

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Tonight at 8:30 was the umbrella title for a series of ten one-act plays written by Noël Coward and performed in London and New York during 1936 and 1937.  One of the plays (Star Chamber) was quickly dropped but the other nine were performed regularly in various permutations of three per evening.

In 1991, eight of the ten plays (excluding Star Chamber and We Were Dancing) were adapted for this BBC series starring Joan Collins. Given that all the plays had originally been written as vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence, there was clearly plenty of good material here for a versatile leading actress.

However, whether that actress was Joan Collins was a topic somewhat debated at the time. Although Collins’ career received a massive boost thanks to her role in Dynasty between 1981 and 1989, she was still viewed by some critics with a degree of suspicion (who presumably didn’t consider a decade or so performing in Dynasty to be real acting).

Having not rewatched the series for a while, I’ve found it refreshing to come back to the episodes with few preconceptions, except a general anticipation about the first rate casts ….

The first thing to note is that the series has an opening title sequence to die for. Set in London’s glittering West End, we see a number of stars – led by Joanie of course – making their way to the theatre for tonight’s performance.  It helps to highlight Tonight at 8:30‘s rep-like nature – there’s ex-husband Anthony Newley all smiles, Denis Quilley on his bike, a dapper John Alderton taking time to sign an autograph, Reg Varney getting out of a taxi, Joan Sims walking to the stage door ….

None of them appear with Joan Collins in tonight’s production, but we don’t do badly for performers. John Nettles (complete with a ferocious looking beard) is Peter Gilpin, married to Collins’ Piggie. Nettles delivers all of his dialogue in a rather clipped fashion – it’s quite the turn.

Siân Phillips and Nickolas Grace are spot on as two of Piggie and Peter’s best pals – Clare Wedderburn and Bogey Gosling. Phillips is the recipient of some of the best lines (Clare’s description of a nightmare night out at the Cafe De Paris – all thanks to a performer whose duck quacks out Land of Hope and Glory once its bottom has been pinched – for example).

Piggie, Peter, Clare and Bogey are a perfect interlocking quartet (with a few other minor players added to the mix). So the introduction of Mr and Mrs Wadham (Bernard Cribbins and Miriam Margoyles) helps to shake things up a little.  They’re colonials (he’s in rubber) who Piggie met once and, hospitable to a fault, decides to invite round for drinks.

But as the conversation continues it becomes clear that they’re not the people Piggie believed them to be. This leads to a frantic barrage of subtle (and not so subtle) questioning to discover their true identities.  To be honest there’s no real mystery or sense of achievement once this question has been answered – with only thirty minutes to play with, the whole setup is simply an excuse for a large dollop of Coward wit (I daresay we’ll be saying that again as the series proceeds).

Poor Mr and Mrs Wadham are somewhat mistreated but always with the upmost courtesy, which means that both sides part with total equanimity. Margoyles tackles her role – a somewhat pushy social climber – perfectly whilst Cribbins is content to sit back and react with resignation to the chaos unfolding around him.

Despite the opening West End flavour, the series was recorded in the studio rather than on location at a theatre. It would have been interesting to have had the feel of a theatrical night out, as what we end up with here slightly misfires.

The direction is fine – multi-camera VT, largely concentrating on a single set (the drawing room). It’s the laugh track which rather disconcerts me.  I find it hard to believe that canned laughter was used, but it certainly doesn’t feel natural. Possibly the completed recording was shown to a studio audience (a not uncommon sitcom practice) but something odd seems to have happened somewhere down the line.  I’d like to hear Hands Across The Sea without the laughter, I certainly think the production would benefit.

A decent opener then (even allowing for the strange audience participation) with Joan Collins in her element as the distracted, but always unfailingly polite, society hostess.

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Tonight at 8:30 – Red Peppers (21st April 1991)

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The first of Anthony Newley’s two appearances, Red Peppers is a delight from start to finish (my continuing grumbles about the odd audience laughter notwithstanding). There’s obviously considerable curiosity value in seeing Joan Collins teamed up with one of her ex-husbands (especially since Collins and Newley play a bickering married couple).

George and Lily Pepper are a middling music hall act, currently stuck in a nondescript provincial town in the middle of a fairly uninspiring (if varied) bill. They open the show on stage, dressed as sailors, with a saucy, innuendo laden song that I found to be great fun. How you could not love the sight of Newley and Collins bedecked in shocking orange wigs giving it everything they’ve got?

The one slight problem with this is they’re not supposed to be very good. Like Archie Rice in The Entertainer, the act should fall a little flat (which explains why the theatre audience react throughout with pained expressions). This doesn’t really come off though, since the studio audience are much more receptive, laughing regularly and applauding at the end.

Yet again this studio laughter doesn’t feel totally natural, although I didn’t find it as distracting as it was during Hands Across The Sea (maybe I’m just getting used to it). Mins you. if the studio audience did applaud warmly at the end of the song then I don’t know why it wasn’t removed, as it rather ruins the intention of the scene.

Post performance, the pair have a lengthy dressing room discussion about what went wrong. The barbs between George and Lily come flying thick and fast, with Collins and Newley both on very decent form.

Today’s playlet has a great deal of incidental colour. We never see any of the other acts perform – and only meet one of them, the tragedian Mabel Grace (Moyra Fraser), backstage – but enough comments about their fellow pros are slipped into the dialogue to build up an intriguing picture. The seediness of their current surroundings (at one point Lily laments that they don’t play the number one halls) also adds something – the production certainly benefited from location shooting in a real theatre.

Although Lily and George seem to loathe each other, they clearly despise everybody else even more. So when they’re attacked on several fronts – firstly by the alcoholically refreshed conductor Bert Bentley (Reg Varney) and then by the theatre manager Mr Edwards (Henry McGee) – they forget their differences and display an imposing united front. Watching Collins and Newley bickering is good fun, but it’s equally entertaining when they become a solid unit.

Reg Varney has the pick of the remaining roles. Bert is initially on affable terms with George but eventually they fall out when he dares to criticise George and Lily’s act. Varney looks to have been retired at the time (his previous television credit to this was a brief cameo in the Thames remake of The Plank back in 1979) but presumably the lure of acting with Collins and Newley was too intriguing a prospect to resist.

As for Joan, she’s good fun as a fast-talking, thoroughly working class turn. Quite a change from the previous week, but then that was the point of the series (and the original playlets too of course).

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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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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 – Fumed Oak (12th May 1991)

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Henry Gow (Anthony Newley) lives a life of stifling suburban respectability. The household consists of his nagging wife Doris (Joan Collins), his equally nagging mother-in-law Mrs Rockett (Joan Sims) and his adenoidal daughter Elsie (Prudence Olivier).  It would seem that the elder women rule the roost over the hen-pecked Henry, but initial appearances can be deceptive ….

Described by Coward as an “unpleasant comedy in two acts”, Fumed Oak provides Joan Collins with another opportunity to play very anti-glam. Starting the play with no make up and her hair in a scarf, she makes all the early running – effectively the first act is a two-hander between her and Sims.

It’s hard to know who Doris despises the most, as each member of the family receives a lashing from her caustic tongue in turn. The early conversations between Doris and her mother are incredibly inconsequential, which builds up a feeling of ever-increasing oppression. This is also helped by the way that Henry simply sits and eats his breakfast without speaking at all, seemingly resigned to having little say in the way the house is run.

The second act is where the comedy (and the unpleasantness) really begins, as we see a slightly alcoholically refreshed Henry returning home from work to drop the bombshell that he’s leaving them all for a new life abroad (complete with a small fortune he’s been secretly saving for a number of years).

But before he departs, Henry makes sure to insult them all thoroughly, which is where the cruel comedy is generated. Beginning reasonably gently (telling Doris that her hat is common) his abuse gradually starts to ramp up (when Doris counters that she’ll give him a piece of her mind, Henry responds that “it’ll have to be a small piece, Dorrie, I don’t think you can afford much”)

Several of Henry’s choicest insults (“this old bitch of a mother of yours”) are reserved for Mrs Rockett. Joan Sims reacts beautifully to these verbal volleys whilst Newley seems to be relishing every line.

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Henry then rounds on Doris again, delighted to finally have the opportunity to speak his mind after years of silence.

What right have you got to nag at me and boss me? No right at all. I’m the one that pays the rent and works for you and keeps you. What do you give me in return, I’d like to know! Nothing! I sit through breakfast while you and mother wrangle. You’re too busy being snarly and bad-tempered even to say good morning. I come home tired after working all day and ten to one there isn’t even a hot dinner for me.

Coward rarely dipped his toe into the travails of suburban life. This – along with the more substantial This Happy Breed – are rare examples, and it’s intriguing to consider Fumed Oak as the dark inverse of the later play and film.

Doris, like Ethel Gibbons, lives her life by behaving as respectably as possible. Frank Gibbons responds to Ethel’s chiding and ministering with good humour, but it’s all too much for Henry who has to break free (there’s shades in this piece of the much later exploits of Reginald Perrin).

“You’re mean, you’re cold and you’re respectable”. Henry’s parting shot to Doris is a three pronged attack. I wonder which he deems to be the worst sin? Judging by the tone of the play I’d guess the latter.

The most effective drama of the series to date, Anthony Newley is top notch, but then so are the others (even Prudence Olivier, who doesn’t have a great deal to do except complain and sniffle).

Whilst some of the other plays in the cycle might come across today as rather twee period pieces, Fumed Oak still manages to be rather discomforting (and presumably was even more so back in 1935 when it was first performed). Another definite success.

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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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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 – 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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