A Choice of Coward – Blithe Spirit

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Charles Condomine (Griffiths Jones), a successful novelist in the process of writing a new book about the occult, is keen to experience some authentic colour.  To this end he invites the eccentric medium Madame Acarti (Hattie Jacques) to hold a séance at his house.  Madam Acarti is so obviously a fake that nobody – not Charles, nor his second wife Ruth (Helen Cherry) or their friends – expect the evening to generate anything more than a little light mockery at Madame Acarti’s expense.

So when the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Joanna Durham) is conjured up from the other side, he’s more than a little taken aback.  Especially as he’s the only one who can see or hear her …..

Coward had been mulling over writing a play featuring ghosts for a little while, but it wasn’t until his flat was destroyed during the Blitz that he decided to turn these vague notions into reality.  Holidaying with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmerion (later immortalised in The Prisoner) he rapidly churned out the play in a mere six days and afterwards would comment that with “disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success”.

Premiering in mid 1941, with Cecil Parker as Charles and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Acarti, the play was an immediate success (until the juggernaut run of The Mousetrap, Blithe Spirit was the longest-running non musical West End production).  Rather wonderfully, a few years ago a telegram from Coward to Christie, congratulating her on beating his record, was discovered.

Coward was aware that some people might find the notion of a play revolving around ghosts to be a slightly distasteful subject to pitch during wartime, but he had a ready reply.  Although a comedy, it was deliberately written as a heartless piece.  “You can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story”.

This is certainly true.  Neither Charles, Ruth or Elvira are in any way admirable characters.  We open with Charles and Ruth discussing his first wife.  Charles, a befits a professional writer, is smooth with his compliments (and able to not commit himself when Ruth asks him if Elvira was prettier than her) but there’s a brittleness to this conversation.

When Elvira unexpectedly pops up the cracks begin to get bigger.  Although it takes a little while for Ruth to believe the truth of the situation, once she realises that Charles isn’t mad or drunk she becomes rather jealous of her dead rival.  After the initial shock, Charles adjusts relatively quickly to Elvira’s presence, but it’s hard to argue that the ghostly Elvira is a symbol of an idyllic past marriage.  Evidence is provided that their relationship was somewhat rocky.  Elvira reminds him that he hit her with a billiard cue (only gently, he says) whilst neither seems to have been totally faithful.

But in her own way she still loves him and so decides to kill him, as that way they’ll both be spirits and together once more.  But it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that her plans backfire and, after tampering with Charles’ car, she ends up killing Ruth instead (quite how a non-corporeal spirit could do such a thing is a question which the play quite rightly ignores).

This then sets up the denouement, which sees Charles haunted by both of his wives (in mounting desperation he requests that Madame Acarti’s perform an exorcism).  Jacques may not have the largest role, but she’s wonderful comic value whenever she’s on the screen.  With a boundless enthusiasm (Madame Acarti is almost beside herself when she learns that her séance actually conjured a manifestation) Jacques wrings every last comic moment from the script.

Joan Kemp-Welch (who directed all four plays in this short season) appears to have given Jacques her head.  It’s not a subtle performance – Madame Acarti leaps about like a giddy schoolgirl as well as being prone to sudden dramatic swoons – but it’s certainly an eye-catching one.  Coward himself approved, commenting that it was the first time someone had done something with the role that could bear comparison to Margaret Rutherford’s imposing stage and film performances (she reprised the part of Madame Acarti in David Lean’s 1945 movie).

The ending of this adaptation stays true to the original play (unlike Lean’s film, which Coward disliked) and sees a carefree Charles – once Elvira and Ruth have been reduced to silent, invisible spirits – head out for a lengthy holiday aboard, happy in the knowledge that his ghostly ex-wives won’t be able to follow him.  It’s not exactly what you could call a happy ending, but it fits in with the general tone of the piece.

As acknowledged by Coward, it’s hard to warm to any of the characters (apart from the deliciously dippy Madame Acarti) which is probably the reason why Blithe Spirit never quite engages as fully as it could have done.  Amusing, but icy.

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A Choice Of Coward – Present Laughter

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Like many of his contemporaries, Noël Coward found the 1950’s to be a critically lean period.  He may have created a string of hit plays during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, but in the brave new world of the angry young men his style seemed to be hopelessly dated.

But everything comes round again eventually and by the mid sixties the Coward revival was in full swing.  His new plays continued to attract only polite interest, but revivals of his classics tended to garner both popular and critical acclaim.

Therefore 1964 was the ideal time for Granada to turn their Play of the Week strand over to Coward for four weeks.  Featuring introductions from the Master himself before each of the four plays, A Choice of Coward kicked off with Present Laughter.

Written in 1939 and first staged in 1942, Coward’s introduction makes it clear that the play was written with a single thought in mind – to provide him with a star vehicle.  The character originally played by Coward – Garry Essendine – is the centre of the play and the recipient of most of the best lines.  There’s obviously a strong sense of autobiography at play (which wouldn’t have been lost on the audience at the time) as Garry is a fortyish, elegant, dressing-gown clad figure, who continues to deliver bon mots with practised ease even as his world descends into chaos.

Garry isn’t the only character to have a clear real-life counterpart.  Garry’s loyal and long-suffering secretary Monica is a straightforward analogue of Coward’s equally devoted secretary, Lorne Lorraine, whilst Garry’s almost ex-wife, Liz, is said to be partly modelled on Joyce Carey, who played Liz in the original production.

Garry Essendine (Peter Wyngarde) is the bright star around which his devoted satellites – Liz (Ursula Howells), Monica (Joan Benham), manager Morris (Danvers Walker) and producer Henry (Edwin Apps) orbit.  But it would be wrong to call Garry a despot, he appears to be much more affable than that.  Although as he’s an actor it’s difficult to know whether any of the emotions he exhibits are genuine.  This might have been a fruitful area for the play to examine, but as this is a lightweight confection (albeit with the odd barb) it tends to steer clear of psychological analysis.

The play opens with Daphne Stillington (Jennie Linden) exploring Garry’s flat.  A would-be actress and a devoted admirer of Garry, she has stayed the night (albeit in the spare room).  When Garry eventually rises, he firmly, but charmingly dispatches her (an early sign of how he tends, almost absent-mindedly, to pick up and then discard people at will).  Linden is very appealing as the naïve and fresh-faced young woman besotted with the stylish Garry.  Daphne exits but returns later, when she helps to raise the comic tempo.

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Daphne’s presence doesn’t faze Monica, no doubt it’s something of a regular occurrence.  Coward may have given Garry most of the best lines, but he didn’t forget his co-stars completely and Monica is the recipient of some good lines, as is Liz.  Liz and Garry may be separated but she’s still part of his inner circle and very much involved in every part of his life.  That she too regards Daphne will cool disinterest speaks volumes about her husband and their strange relationship.

James Bolam is great fun as Roland Maule.  Maule is an earnest young playwright, entranced and repulsed by Garry’s star quality in equal measure.  Maule is flattered to be in Garry’s presence but is forthright in explaining how Garry’s work in the commercial theatre is totally without artistic merit.  Coward, who always valued popular success over critical acclaim, plainly uses Maule to take a not-terribly subtle dig at his detractors.

By the time Barbara Murray appeared here as Joanna (Henry’s wife) she was a familiar television face thanks to her role in The Plane Makers as Pamela Wilder.  Joanna wouldn’t really have been too much of a stretch for her, since both characters share similar traits – not least a desire for male conquests.  Joanna is already conducing an affair with Morris and now she sets her sights on Garry.  Wyngarde and Murray both cross verbal swords in a very appealing manner with Garry eventually forced to succumb to the inevitable ….

By now the plot is simmering away nicely and this leads into the frantic conclusion which sees Garry – about to set off for a theatrical tour of Africa – learn to his horror that Daphne, Morris and Joanna have independently bought tickets for Africa as well and are all dead-set on accompanying him.

Eventually matters are resolved, although those expecting the characters – especially Garry – to have learnt anything will be disappointed.  As touched upon earlier, this an exercise in farce, not realism.

Adapted by Peter Wildeblood, it runs to just over seventy minutes, so a certain amount of filleting had to be done in order to bring it down to the required length.  This means dropping some characters, such as Garry’s valet Fred, and cutting some decent lines, but on the plus side this editing means that it zips along at a fine pace.

Peter Wyngarde dominates of course.  He would later become well-known for playing a similar womanizing character, Jason King, so Garry Essendine could almost be said to be a dry run.  Clearly relishing Coward’s dialogue, Wyngarde’s a treat from beginning to end.

One of Coward’s evergreen classics (over the years it’s been revived numerous times, with Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Rik Mayall and Albert Finney amongst those taking on the role of Garry) this cut-down version of Present Laughter is an impressive production.

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Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Four – The Creature

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By this point the narrative has split four ways.  Geoff is alone in the jungle, Mary and Margaret are trapped in the rocket (whilst something large and unfriendly appears to be attempting to force its way in), Conway has disappeared whilst Brown and Wilson are making their way to what Brown believes is a Venusian city.

Mary eventually twigs the way that Brown deceived them – chopping a few words out of Wilson’s tape recording – whilst the tension of Geoff, Mary and Margaret’s predicament quickly dissipates.  Geoff returns to the rocket and the mysterious creature disappears.

The logical Professor Mary Meadows believes that the creature only appears when they’re alone, so Geoff decides they should rope themselves together and that’ll deal with it.  Eh? I’m not entirely convinced about this statement.

Brown and Wilson continue their slow trek to the city.  They find a cave which displays evidence that the Venusians have discovered fire (and presumably are flesh eaters).  This doesn’t chime with Brown’s assertion that the Venusians are harmless and friendly, but he’s not downhearted and quickly bounces back.  At this point poor George Coulouris suffers a line fumble worthy of William Hartnell.  “Three thousand miles, err three thousand, three hundred years ago …”

The point about fire is an interesting one – in the previous scene Mary was confident that they could use it as a weapon, since she thought it was unlikely the Venusians would have discovered it. Although as no-one ever mention fire again it turns out to be a totally redundant plot-point.

A few clips of stock footage are used throughout the serial.  This episode is slightly more low-rent though – as we hear the sound effect of thunder followed by a picture of lightening.  It’s only on the screen for a second so they just about get away with it.

Gerald Flood’s had an easy episode so far.  We don’t see him until we’re about half way through when Conway promptly wakes up, calls for Geoff and the others – who just happen to be close by – and they’re all happily reunited.

Brown and Wilson debate the ethics of technology.  Brown despairs about the way that scientific progress has ravaged the Earth and fears that the same thing will happen one day to Venus.  Wilson makes the logical point that without science they’d never have reached here in the first place.  Then Wilson reaches for a cigarette.  It’s somewhat jarring to see an astronaut having a quick puff (unless they were special space cigarettes) but then it was the early 1960’s.

The most entertaining part of the episode is poor Hamlet’s plight.  Trapped inside a flesh eating plant, it looks like curtains for the space-faring guinea pig.  Margaret doesn’t take this trauma at all well –  she’s frantic with worry as Conway manfully attempts to rescue Hamlet from within the flappy plant. Don’t worry, Hamlet fans, he eventually escapes unharmed.

The last few seconds give us our first sighting of a Venusian.  He’s lurking in the shadows somewhat, but think cave-man and you’ll be on the right track.

Morecambe & Wise: Two of a Kind to be released by Network – 5th December 2016

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Morecambe & Wise: Two of a Kind  will be released by Network in December.

Morecambe and Wise, undoubtedly the best-loved double act that Britain has ever produced, first achieved their phenomenal television success in the early 1960s with this long-running hit series for ATV. Showcasing their mildly anarchic humour, impeccable sense of timing and keen eye for the absurd in a feast of uproarious sketches, onstage antics and musical entertainment, Two of a Kind propelled Morecambe and Wise towards superstardom in no uncertain terms.

Each show features fast-moving skits and musical parodies, with Eric and Ernie giving us their inimitable versions of television favourites Supercar, Face to Face and Candid Camera – in addition to memorable interpretations of key scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet, Eric’s ongoing battle to get his lines right in Samson and Delilah, and undoubtedly the most ambitious attempt ever seen to recreate the ‘fight sequence’ in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! Among the many guest stars are Roy Castle, Joe Brown, Kathy Kirby, Susan Maughan, The Bachelors and Acker Bilk.

This eight disc set contains all 48 editions of Two of a Kind (aka The Morecambe and Wise Show) alongside a wealth of special features – including an exceptionally rare early performance from 1957, several appearances on Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectacular and the two surviving editions of Piccadilly Palace.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Six

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If the whole series of Gurney Slade has offered a sly meta-textual commentary on the artifice of television, then this is taken to its logical conclusion in the sixth and final episode.

A group of executives pay a visit to the studio to observe the recording of an episode of Gurney Slade.  The recursive show-withina-show nature of the series is once again highlighted, as we then meet all of the characters from previous episodes.  They aren’t actors though – they’ve been created by Gurney’s imagination and now protest that due to his lack of thought they’re unable to live full lives.

The only character traits they have are the ones provided by Gurney – their other likes and dislikes are unknown and unknowable.  The prosecutor (Douglas Wilmer) makes this clear when he tells him that “I submit, Gurney Slade that you are guilty of providing us with inadequate lives.”

Gurney doesn’t believe it’s his fault though.  “All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the bit that the author gave them. They’re not like real people.”  This is a nod to Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which depicted a group of characters who complain that their author hasn’t provided them with sufficiently rounded personalities and motivations.

But can Gurney help them?  There’s a sense that his time is coming to an end.  As the arguments between the characters are played out, a shadowy man in the production gallery notes that Gurney only has twenty minutes left (as the episode time counts down).  The same man is also able to control Gurney (without, it appears, Gurney being aware of this).

But Gurney does seem to understand that he’s as artifical as the rest.  He knows he was born in the studio six weeks ago and he also knows that someone’s coming to take him away.  The floor manager and the executives regard Gurney with the same dispassionate interest as the cameras and lights – to them, he’s just another piece of machinery.  Are they right?

As with previous episodes, there are sly comments about the television industry in general and this programme in particular.  Gurney is described to the executives as someone who “has a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand. You pay it about five hundred a week and it’ll do practically anything.”

There are also moments that seem designed to touch upon Newley’s public and private personas.  For example, when he re-encounters the young girl (Anneke Wills) who fell in love with him in episode two, initially she’s still blindly in love with him.  But this is only because she (like the others) is a character defined by the character traits she’s been given by him.

When Gurney tells her that he pictured her aged eighteen or nineteen, she reacts to this by telling him that, in that case, he’s a little too old for her.  “Just think, when I’m thirty you’ll be forty. An old man!”  Newley and Wills would enjoy a relationship for several years following the recording of the series, but was there already something of a feeling of mid-life crisis in Newley’s psyche?  That sometime soon he’d find himself rejected by the younger women he desired?

Luckily for everybody (apart from Gurney) they’re offered new jobs by a gentleman from the Character Bureau.  The prosecutor, for example, lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at having to take her clothes off in a French film.  Therefore every character seems to have been pigeonholed as archetypes, or stereotypes, depending on your point of view.

“Cue Anthony Newley”

With those words, the programme enters its final moments with an ending that’s as memorable and as weird as the final episode of The Prisoner (Fall Out).  But as touched upon before, when The Prisoner was transmitted (some seven years later) the sixties were well and truly swinging – back in 1960 it certainly wasn’t.  This makes Gurney Slade’s wild flights of fancy even more remarkable.

Although doomed to be a noble, but flawed, experiment, thanks to the 2011 Network DVD release The Strange World of Gurney Slade has gained something of a new audience.  It’s also probably the best visual showcase for the talents of Anthony Newley, whose later career was notable for its peaks and troughs.

Below is one of the trailers for the series, which is as idiosyncratic as you’d expect and offers a final, mocking, commentary on a short, but exceptional, series.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Five

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Gurney is entertaining a group of children with a tale about a magic tinker.  If they’re very good, he tells them, the tinker may visit and grant them a wish.  When they ask him exactly when the tinker will appear, Gurney is forced to admit that he may not arrive today – since Gurneyland (where he lives) is a long way, away.  Gurney then tells them that “the tinker is really symbolic. He’s an allegorical figure, who represents our innermost thoughts.”

He then explains a little more about Gurneyland.  It’s a place where any of your dreams can become true.  You want to be a great footballer, better than Stanley Matthews?  Or maybe the best singer in the world?  In Gurneyland, you can.

The recursive nature of the series is once more highlighted when Gurney asks one of the children why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television.  He’s told that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.”  Shortly afterwards, two partygoers Albert (Bernie Winters) and Veronica (Coral Fairweather) arrive.  And then a few minutes later, Gurney and the children are excited to see the tinker (Charles Lloyd-Pack).

Earlier, we saw Gurney explaining to the children that the tinker wasn’t real – but once he arrives (or at least someone who could be the magic tinker) Gurney is keen to see him demonstrate some of his magic.  Was he actually the magic tinker or just an ordinary tramp?  You’ll need to make your own minds up about that – although it’s not a vitally important point.

What is important is that everybody (the children, the tinker, plus Albert and Veronica) have taken a trip to Gurneyland – quite literally, as they all find themselves transported inside Gurney’s mind.  This is frustrating for Gurney, the point of his story was that Gurneyland is inside everybody (their own personal imagination).  So he’s a little upset to find so many people running amok inside his.

How to get them out?  Once he goes into his mind, he meets his dark side – a horned version of himself.  The bad Gurney suggests drinking and visits to scurrilous French films will instantly make the children want to leave.  Our Gurney is shocked by this and refuses (although at the end of the episode he realises it’s the only way to sort things out).

Gurney’s subconscious is divided into various rooms, such as the Depression Room, the Memory Room and the Common-Sense Room (the last one, he admits, isn’t used very often).  Wandering around his own psyche allows Green & Hills (and maybe Newley himself) to poke some fun at Newley’s public persona.  He admits he has “quite a big mind, but then they always said I had a big head.”

Later on, after he finds that many of the children have invited their parents to join them, he follows them and finds them all watching a version of himself.  He’s singing Strawberry Fair (which was a hit for Newley that year).  After the performance, “our” Gurney reflects that “I should have thought that would have driven them out” and critiquing his own performance he decides that ” I always had the impression I sang better than that.”

Like the previous episode, this is a very theatrical production.  Although the first half is meant to be set outside, it feels stagey and unrealistic (this is a clear production choice, had they wished to shoot on location there’s no reason why they couldn’t have done so).  Newley excels with his multiple personalities and he also plays well off the children.

Although there’s plenty of jokes along the way (such as an invisible elephant that takes a liking to Gurney) it also has some interesting things to say about good and evil, as well as the borderline between fantasy and reality.  It’s another deep and rich episode that covers a lot of ground during its twenty five minutes.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Four

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Gurney Slade is on trial.  “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”  Given that by this time the series had been moved to a late-night slot (due to an alarming slump in viewing figures between the first and second episodes) this was a canny piece of prediction by Green, Hills and Newley.

Unlike the first three episodes, which were location based, this is shot entirely in the studio – which means that visually it obviously feels very different.  The courtroom set is quite basic – black drapes form the background, for example (giving a theatrical feel to proceedings).

When Gurney learns that the judge is the fairy-tale figure Princess Eleanor (who’s never laughed) he knows he’s got his work cut out.  Can he rely on his defending counsel, Archie?  Archie is a old-style music-hall comedian – modelled on the likes of Max Miller.  Possibly there’s something of Archie Rice (from John Osborne’s 1957 play, The Entertainer) in his style as well.  He offers a series of painfully unfunny jokes as part of Gurney’s defence, which makes Gurney believe he’d be better off defending himself.

The prosecuting counsel (a typically effective turn from Douglas Wilmer) is convinced of Gurney’s guilt and attempts to prove it by showing the jury a clip from one of his previous shows.  This is another self-reflective moment, as the clip is new – though it could have easily featured in one of the previous episodes.  We see Gurney sitting on a bus, musing about an advertisement showing a man who appears to be delighted about a new countersunk screw.

There then follows a series of arguments and counter-arguments about whether countersunk screws are funny or not.  An average family (the ones we saw in episode two) are called to the witness box.  The father says that the clip was clever.  Not funny, but clever.  The mother was less impressed.  “I didn’t understand what it was all about. Besides that, I don’t think it ought to be allowed. Bad for kids.”  As it turns out, that possibly wasn’t too far removed from the actual response of a good proportion of the audience.

With the jury being made up of twelve men dressed identically (in cloth caps and scarfs) it’s possible to sense a little contempt for the viewing audience.  This is a potentially difficult line to tread, but they seem to have got away with it (possibly because by this time, the people left watching had invested in the programme and its worldview).

Gurney interacts briefly with the jury – and they appear not to realise that he’s the one on trial.  When the foreman asks for a show of hands, Gurney is the only one who says not guilty.  He suggests they talk about it for a while (a clear nod to Twelve Angry Men).

If television is the main target in this episode, then the press aren’t immune either.  Before the jury come back with their verdict, Gurney is offered twenty thousand pounds for his life story.  He refuses, so the press turn to Leolia Plinge (“I will reveal everything.  I first met Gurney Slade at a beauty competition at Tufnell Park.”)

Gurney is found guilty – but he’s unable to be executed due to a problem with the axe.  It needs a countersunk screw to repair it, which makes the Princess laugh (and thereby gets Gurney off the hook).  It’s an ironic ending to an episode that, whilst it’s concerned with humour, isn’t particularly funny.

That’s not a criticism though.  There’s few laughs here, but it does have plenty of well-timed swipes at television makers, audiences, advertising and the media.  The stark setting and the minimal use of music helps to create a sense of tension and unease – which is unusual for a programme that’s supposed to be a comedy.  But by now it should be clear that Gurney Slade is a very unusual programme.