Tonight at 8.30

Noël Coward
The Noël Coward Collection

This famous series of plays was a tremendous hit in its time and is still revived, although rarely complete. It started out consisting of ten plays, one of which, Star Chamber, was dropped almost immediately. In this TV adaptation of a Joan Collins star vehicle, there were only eight, as the BBC chose to neglect We Were Dancing.

The plays were apparently recorded at the Ambassadors Theatre seventeen years ago, but feeling almost like today, with The Mousetrap playing next door and The Ivy available for custom in the opening shots.

The eight half-hour plays had been deliberately written to include many different genres and styles. Two or three are blighted by overly-loud laugh tracks and there might be a question as to whether Joan Collins is the perfect choice for all of the Gertrude Lawrence roles. Even so, it is great to have almost the whole of Tonight at 8.30 available on DVD, as the plays are not regularly performed and, inevitably, the film version could not do justice to the full set.

Hands Across the Sea

The first play in the sequence is an undemanding comedy of mistaken identity and upper-class carelessness. It is set in 1940 during the phoney war but from the behaviour of this household, you would never know that any problems or restrictions existed.

Joan Collins plays Piggie, the hostess of a small party that includes a couple from "out East", Malaya to be exact. Bernard Cribbins is the weak, silent type, while the rubber planter's wife, played by Miriam Margolyes, does enough talking for both.

The light sitcom gets its laughs from digs at the social norms of the time and leads to an extremely humorous revelation which justifies what had up to that point been a relatively limp comedy.

The cast also includes John Nettles wryly playing Piggie's husband, a self-important naval type, as well as the piano à la Coward, while Siân Phillips is her dotty friend Claire.

The Red Peppers

The Red Peppers, played by Miss Collins and Anthony Newley, are a husband and wife variety act. They are well past their sell by date, although the highlights of this piece are their two song and dance numbers.

Coward manages to convey the desperation of a pair who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are on the slide but still have pride, not to mention the need to make ends meet.

While playing a Medway town, they clashed twice with the locals. First, they have a barny with the conductor, played by Reg Varney. He is a man with ideas above his station who eventually brings the play to a humorous two-fingered finale.

His support comes from Henry McGee playing the theatre's manager. He is believably unctuous before the big names but supercilious when it comes to the likes of the Red Peppers. Like The Entertainer, this is a bittersweet comedy about the decline of variety and its former stars.

The Astonished Heart

This story of a love triangle in the early 1950s has something in common with Hands Across the Sea but also Blithe Spirit. It starts with the visit of an old school pal returning from overseas, Miss Collins as Leonora, to the comfortable flat of Barbara (Siân Phillips).

As well as catching up on old times, Barbara insists that Leonora meet her husband, the eminent psychiatrist Christian Faber played by John Alderton. He is inevitably smitten by this glamorous temptress, despite his unemotional facade and professional training.

Over the course of the year, an affair commences, is practically blessed by the unfortunate, deserted wife and reaches a melodramatic ending.

This is all the stuff of stiff upper lip soap opera but provides a complete contrast with the comedy of the first two pieces.

Family Album

Continuing to ring the changes, Coward offers a musical spoof on archetypal Victorian family values amongst people of "quality".

Gathered after the funeral of their father, a family of five siblings, three in-laws and their faithful butler, Alderton as the elderly Burrows, they mourn the past, think of the deceased's money and do their best to drink the cellar dry.

Throughout, led by Dennis Quilley's Jasper, they run through a series of period songs commemorating lives of the wealthy during that period.

At last, in this play the barely recognisable Joan Collins is on really good form in the role of toothy spinster, Lavvy. She gleefully spends a great deal of time talking about what father would not have wanted his children to do and then reluctantly joining them in spiting the old man by doing them.

Family Album builds to a witty final speech from Lavvy, in which a happy ending is not only guaranteed but fully justified.

This good-natured musical comedy features impressively straight-faced performances and/or attractive singing from an array of stars including those named as well as Bonnie Langford, Jessica Martin and Lisa Sadovy.

Fumed Oak

Fumed Oak is a family drama, accurately subtitled "an unpleasant comedy", centring on Anthony Newley's henpecked Henry Gow. You would not think so to start with, as for around ten minutes he utters not a word.

However, when your mother-in-law is Joan Sims in a hat adorned with half a pound of cherries; and your nagging wife is played by Miss Collins doing a splendid bit of character acting, it may not be so easy to get a word in edgeways.

The family is completed by a spotty, snivelling daughter, Prudence Oliver playing the part of adenoidal Elsie, so that poor Henry is sadly beaten down by three generations of feminine disrespect.

Finally, this wormy cross between a bank clerk and Neville Chamberlain turns, to great dramatic and comic effect.

His speech of denunciation might well act as a model for any man who has never had the courage to tell a house full of women what he feels about them.

By the end, despite their dreadfulness, one almost feels sorry for the trio that have persecuted the poor bloke for the last fifteen years - but not quite.

Ways and Means

This silly comedy set in Cannes just after the war features Toby and Stella Cartwright played by John Standing and Miss Collins. They personify the idle rich, billeted on their wealthy but generous friend Olive (Siân Phillips) and frittering away money as if it was going out of fashion.

They spend practically the whole play lying in bed saying "what are we going to do?" rather than actually doing anything. Their financial position is dire, with a significant negative balance owed to a collection of friends idiotic enough to make advances to them.

Their first solution of asking Nanny (Miriam Margolyes) to pawn their last assets for a couple of darts at the roulette table has the most predictable of outcomes.

It is only when Tony Slattery, playing a Romeo chauffeur-turned-burglar, bursts into their bedroom that a resolution offers itself. This is reasonably ingenious and allows a trussed up Miss Collins, financially solvent once again, to flash her eyes at the handsome young man with tedious regularity.

With dreadfully unsubtle acting and intrusive canned laughter that might even be genuine, apart from the twist in the tale, this half hour is far from a highlight of the series.

Still Life

This is the playlet that made Tonight at 8.30 famous. It eventually became extended on the silver screen as Brief Encounter.

In this version, directed immaculately by Sydney Lotterby, the tales of the three sets of lovers are well balanced to create a bittersweet mixture of comedy and unbearable pathos.

The parts of Laura Jesson and Dr Alec Harvey, played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the movie, are created here by Jane Asher and John Alderton, both of whom acquit themselves very well.

Their poignant tale of forbidden love is counterpointed by two comic gems. Joan Collins and Norman Rossington play the fifty-something manageress of the station cafeteria in which the stories are played out and the station porter who takes a shine to her. Myrtle is unjustifiably proud, while on this occasion, Albert does a fine impression of Bill Owen in Last of the Summer Wine.

The final pairing, representing unbridled young love, are portrayed by Diane Langton and Steve Nicolson as something out of a saucy, seaside postcard.

If there are questions over the quality of some of the pieces in this series, this Still Life is so good that it should make viewers forgive other excesses.

Shadow Play

The last play in the sequence features Simon Williams and Miss Collins as Simon and Vicky Goforth. After five years of marriage, it looks as if their relationship is on the rocks, thanks to the husband's relationship with Carrie Ellis' Sybil and his wife's more innocent liaison with Michael (Robert Meadmore).

After a sad discussion with Jean Anderson (playing her Aunt Martha) and a large dose of sleeping tablets, Simon suggests divorce and Vicky falls into a troubled sleep.

What had appeared a soapy melodrama suddenly transforms into a frenetic dream sequence with musical accompaniment to the attractive singing of Carrie Ellis and Robert Meadmore.

Inevitably, and appropriately for the ending to this eclectic mix, once Vicky awakes, the couple is reconciled and will inevitably live happily ever after.

Philip Fisher

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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