Design for Living

The Noël Coward Collection
BBC Video

This review is the beginning of what is not so much a marathon as a biathlon. At almost exactly the same time as the BBC has released this collection, there are also letting loose one based on the Dame Helen Mirren's work for the Corporation.

It is hoped that we will be able to complete the two series at some point in the next few months, although this will represent pretty hard work since Noël Coward consists of 19 hours of main recordings with another 12 of bonus material and the rather more modest Dame clocks in at a mere 17 hours.

This first review is of a Play of the Month from 1979, based on a stage play first produced with husband and wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (as Otto and Gilda) joining the playwright (Leo) in the central roles.

Design for Living is a play that, had its subtext being understood at the time of its writing, might have been buried for ever. An excellent Rula Lenska playing the attractive Gilda might look like a flame-haired Tamara de Lempicka femme fatale, especially when dressed in a gorgeous green gown. However, it is obvious that in the eyes of Noël Coward his heroine represented a man, a subtext that would have created an unlawful liaison in 1933 when he wrote the script.

One might think that there were enough of them already, as Gilda toys with the affections of two of the prettiest men imaginable, Otto and Leo played by Clive Arindell and John Steiner respectively, a pair of perfectly capable actors who subsequently pretty much disappeared from view.

This gay (in every sense of the word) delight, directed by Philip Saville, is set amongst the Bohemian high-livers of the 1930s. It thus gives designer Colin Shaw an opportunity that wasn't usually available to those working with the BBC at this time. His sets are artistic in the best sense of the word, with art deco flights of fancy presented from Gilda's homes on either side of the Atlantic. This seems reasonable, since the play is very much about love amongst artists, with Otto a painter, Leo a playwright and Gilda some kind of upmarket dealer.

The pattern of sexual relationships develops relatively quickly. Gilda is happily living with either Otto or Leo and all is right with the world until the other unexpectedly arrives from overseas. Immediately, the beauty switches from one man to the other, leaving the first devastated. Her callousness is buried beneath light heartedness as in those heady days of the 30s, she puts fun above every other consideration.

The model is repeated three times, with the only variation being that the last time the man jilted is John Bluthal's Ernest, an older man who by then is married to Gilda and is deeply shocked at the beastly behaviour that she demonstrates with her two pals.

By this stage, after each of the younger men has been jilted, they have apparently become lovers over brandy and under a shower. All that is required for complete happiness is to fill the hole in their lives by setting up a permanent ménage à trois with beautiful Gilda.

As a little bonus, Dandy Nichols, who will forever be known as the Silly Moo from Till Death Us Do Part, gives a delightful, if very brief, performance as a shocked landlady.

This BBC production is a feast for the eyes, as well as an interesting insight into the murky world of homosexuality before it became legal. The text is often witty and very characteristically Coward. As such, Design for Living is a good lift off for this excess of DVD reviewing.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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