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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The Likely Lads – The Other Side of the Fence

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The Likely Lads (1964 – 1966) was something of a ground-breaking series.  Fifty years on, its impact may have dulled, but back then a sitcom that revolved around two men who were not only young and working-class but also came from the North was decidedly unusual.

Dick Clement (born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex) and Ian La Frenais (born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear) were two writers with different outlooks and temperaments.  But something about their partnership simply clicked (it’s still going strong today).

Despite the fact that the show was recorded in London, the scripts seemed to catch the authentic feel of working-class life and the show ran for three years.  That it was later rather overshadowed by the sequel series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is easy to understand. The Likely Lads was made in black and white, so repeats have been more infrequent (plus quite a few of the episodes were wiped and no longer exist).  And to be honest, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is just a better show – the scripting and performances are sharper and the fact that Bob and Terry are a little older is also important.  They’re far from middle-aged, but they’re also no longer the “lads” from the original series.

The Likely Lads seems to take its cue from films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).  Like the central character in that film, Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam) work in a factory and live for the weekends, where they can spend their weekly wages on beer, football and girls.

Even in the early episodes, Bob and Terry are very different characters.  Terry never really changes (not even when we meet him again in the 1970’s) but Bob is always keen to “get on”.  This is made plain in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – Bob has a fiancé, a nice new council house and enjoys foreign holidays (a rarity at this time).

But even as early as The Other Side of the Fence (series one, episode four, original tx 6th January 1965) Bob’s desire to better himself comes to the surface.  He has a chance to leave the factory for a job in the office.  It offers better pay and prospects, plus the females are rather nice as well ….

The class/social divide between the factory and office workers is sharply defined.  Terry, waiting for Bob to leave the office for the day, spies the departing office ladies.  They’re a clear class apart from the sort of women he’s used to, but that doesn’t stop him chancing his arm.  Sally Anne (Didi Sullivan), who works in personnel, seems quite responsive whilst Bob has already fallen for Judith (Anneke Wills) who’s the secretary to Bob’s new boss.  The problem is that Judith is in a relationship with the oily rep Nesbit (Michael Sheard).

Despite being born in Aberdeen, Sheard manages a credible Northern accent and is suitably nasty as Bob’s rival in love.  Judith is friendly and helpful to Bob and as played by the lovely Anneke Wills certainly catches the eye.  Is this the reason why Bob attempts to make a go of his office job?

Although you might have expected Terry to be more cynical about Bob’s social climbing, that’s not really the case.  Although it is true that after Bob invites Terry to be his guest at the plush office social he can’t help but stifle a grin at the sight of Bob dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie.  The fact that most of the other men are similarly attired cuts no ice with Terry, it’s just not the sort of thing that they do.

The evening turns sour when Nesbit gleefully tells Terry that he won’t be able to attend the dance – the function is for office staff only, so Terry (as factory fodder) doesn’t qualify.  Terry doesn’t seem terribly put out, but this slight upsets Bob so much that he jacks in the office job there and then and decides to go back to the factory.

In a way this is rather depressing, the class barrier seems to be still firmly in place as we see the working-class interloper (Bob) returned to where he came from.  But this blow is softened when Bob says he never wanted the job in the drawing office anyway because he’s no good at drawing (the truth or a lie to make Terry feel better?)  The real result occurs just after this, when Sally Anne and Judith decide to go for a drink with Bob and Terry.

Helped by the appearances by Michael Sheard and Anneke Wills, The Other Side of the Fence is entertaining enough.  Bob’s misadventures in the office could be seen as a warning that it’s a good idea to know your place, suggesting that his attempts to better himself were always doomed to failure.  This may be too critical a reading though and since they end up with the girls, everything in the Likely Lads’ world comes right in the end.

The Missing Postman – Simply Media DVD Review

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Clive Peacock (James Bolam) has been a postman for thirty five years.  He loves his job and is shattered to be forced into early retirement by the heartless personnel manager Peter Robson (Robert Daws).  So on his final day he decides to take all the post he’s collected and, rather than drop it off at the sorting office, sets off around the country to deliver each letter by hand.  But stealing the Royal Mail is a criminal offence and he soon finds himself pursued by DS Lawrence Pitman (Jim Carter) as well as a pack of hungry journalists, led by Sarah Seymour (Rebecca Front).

The Missing Postman is, at heart, a simple story.  It features one man (Clive) who appears to take a stand against the new, faceless technological systems that will allegedly make all our lives easier.  Peter Robson is keen to tell Clive all about OCR. “Optical character recognition. A sorting machine that actually reads the addresses. I mean can you believe that? Doing the work of eight people?”  This is clearly meant to be a bad thing – the machine lacks the human touch of Clive and, worse, it’s maintained by a surly computer expert who spends most of his time with his feet up, reading the paper.  Just to hammer the point home, this “progress” is flawed anyway, as OCR doesn’t like letters with paperclips or stamps affixed the wrong way round, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be any place for Clive in this technological new world.  He’s the last remaining postie to ride a bike and Robson is adamant that bikes are old hat – they just don’t fit into the new, upmarket Royal Mail.  It’s undeniably implausible that they couldn’t have just reassigned Clive to be a walking postman (he’s told that they’ve got all the walkers they need) but you have to accept this, otherwise there’d be no story.

Clive’s friend Ralph (Stephen Moore) suggests he comes and works with him at the local burger bar.  They’d have to work in the back of course – only young people are allowed to serve out front – and this gives us another fairly broad dollop of satire.  The kitchens are manned by old people who complain about their fungal infections whilst impossibly young managers boss them around.

The unsubtle nature of these early scenes (and the jaunty music which is clearly designed to be quirky and charming) does mean that the opening fifteen minutes or so do feel rather forced.  The humour and drama needs to come from the characters, rather than the viewers being bludgeoned by the script, but things then settle down and the first-rate cast can begin to enjoy themselves.

James Bolam is The Missing Postman‘s trump card.  It’s not the easiest role to play, since Clive is a rather diffident and undemonstrative character, but Bolam is gradually able to winkle out some genuine moments of pathos as his odyssey around Britain continues.  Alison Steadman, as Clive’s wife Christine, also gives a very decent performance, managing to rise above the cliche of the woman waiting tearfully at home for news.

It seems rather strange that Clive only makes a cursory attempt to contact Christine. He does call her again later, but by then she’s decided to move on with her own life. She’ll have him back, if and when he returns, but she won’t spend her time pining for him. At this point in the story Bolam cuts a very folorn figure, as we see Clive wrapped in a sleeping blanket and stuck a phone box somewhere in the the Scottish countryside, miles from anywhere.

Jim Carter as DS Lawrence Pitman and Gwyneth Strong as WPC McMahon make an amusing double act.  Carter spends his time with a permanent long suffering, hangdog expression on his face whilst Strong has a teasing, playful nature which obviously makes her superior officer feel somewhat uncomfortable.

One of The Missing Postman‘s strengths is that it features a series of character vignettes, as Clive moves from place to place delivering his letters.  Roger Lloyd-Pack (as Ken Thompson) is a good example.  Clive stops off for a few minutes to repair his bike and falls into conversation with Ken.  Ken asks Clive who he’d like to play him in a film, Clive suggests Dustin Hoffman(!) but Ken has other ideas.  He tells Clive that Ronnie Corbett or Michael Fish would be perfect casting.  Bolam’s expression is priceless!

Considering his job, you’d assume that Clive would be an experienced bike rider, but he does seem to spend a great deal of time falling off it, gradually becoming more and more battered. This leads to a moment where he exchanges his broken glasses for a new pair that belonged to a man who’s recently died. True, he won’t need them anymore but it does feel a little off that he’d take them from the man’s still warm body.

A meeting with Linda Taylor (Barbara Dickson) offers Clive a chance to stop and reflect. Her husband was a Scottish trawlerman who was lost at sea two years ago. Clive and Linda are drawn together and he quickly makes himself at home in her guest house. Romance blossoms (pity poor Christine) although Clive remains unrepentant. He tells Linda the story of Christine’s miscarriage, which he offers as the justification for his unfaithfulness. Bolam’s never better than during this monologue and Dickson, although she has little to do except react, also commands the screen.

The conclusion is interesting.  Clive returns home to find himself accosted by a barrage of reporters – his travels were widely reported and he’s become something of a celebrity.  But he finds it impossible to articulate the reasons for his flight, denying that it was any strike against the system, and then seems more than a little hurt when the press quickly lose interest in him.  They’re much more intrigued with Christine’s skills as an interior designer, which suggests that although Clive’s trip might have been a somewhat selfish one, it’s allowed her the space to express herself and begin a new and more fulfilling career

Transmitted in two parts (72 minutes for episode one, 80 minutes for episode two) The Missing Postman provides the viewer with an entertaining travelogue around the British Isles as well as some decently observed character comedy/drama.  It may sometimes overdose on its own charm and quirkiness, but the cast always ensure that it’s worth watching.

The Missing Postman is released by Simply Media on the 28th of March 2016.  RRP £19.99.

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – 1974 Christmas Special

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The Likely Lads, broadcast in the mid 1960’s, was the first sitcom success for Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.  They then revived the series in the 1970’s as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

The revival was even better than the original, thanks to the wa the characters of Terry Collier (James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes) had developed.  In the original series they were unattached men in their twenties, but by the revival they were a decade older and, in Bob’s case at least, men with commitments (Bob had married his long-time fiance Thelma).

This was unusual for a sitcom, as normally they tend to remain static, unchanging affairs.  Think, for example, of Dad’s Army, Porridge or Fawlty Towers.  In those cases, characters are trapped together (because of the war, prison, the job they do).  The format of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was much looser as it revolved around Bob’s eternal dilemma – he loves his wife, but he doesn’t want to lose contact with his best friend.

Over the years Bob and Terry have changed from the people we met in the sixties.  Then, they were equal – both working in the same factory and sharing a similar outlook on life.  But in WHTTLL, Bob is married, holds down a responsible job, has a nice house on a new estate and is thoroughly middle-class.  Terry is quite different – after a spell in the army he’s content to drift along, with no particular direction in mind.  What keeps them together is their vague sense that things were better when they were younger (as the theme song says “is the only thing to look forward to, the past?”).

This melancholic longing for a simpler time is one of the reasons why the series was so good.  And had Bolam and Bewes not fallen out dramatically (it’s reputed they’ve not spoken for nearly forty years) then it wouldn’t have been surprising if Clement and La Frenais had chosen to revisit the characters every decade or so (in a sort of 7 Up way it would have been fascinating to see how Bob and Terry fared through the eighties, nineties and into the twenty first century).

Broadcast on the 24th of December 1974, this Christmas Special was the final television episode – although Bolam and Bewes would re-record the series one shows for radio in 1975 and shoot a film version in 1976.

We open with Bob feeling trapped.  Thelma (Brigit Forsyth) is in Christmas planning mode – a sight which remains familiar today.  She’s fretting about the cards she needs to write, the presents she has to buy and their social engagements.  Bob isn’t thrilled to learn that he’ll be spending Christmas with his mother-in-law or that Thelma has committed them to a number of parties (when he’d much rather be relaxing at home, watching The Great Escape).  His lack of success at charades last year still rankles – as he reminds Thelma, she had an easy one – Great Expectations –  whilst he had to struggle with The AA Continental Handbook!  The pay-off to the scene is that it’s only late September, another nod to those people who need to get everything organised for Christmas months in advance.

Terry’s spent the duration of WHTTLL content to be unemployed.  There’s a change here, as Bob and Thelma spy him taking his driving test (and of course they manage to put him off).  Despite this he still passes and he later tells Bob that he’s planning to become a long-distance lorry driver.  He has to settle for a job driving a fork-lift truck though, and it’s clear that he’s disappointed.  Terry had assumed that once he had his driving licence it would be his passport to better things – he really wanted a job where he could take his vehicle home during the evening and impress the girls.  But the only job he found like that involved an ice-cream van!  As Bob says, his chance of pulling birds in that would have been wafer-thin.

Another sign of the timeless nature of the episode is Terry’s complaint that Christmas is just too commercialised these days.  Bob doesn’t agree, he loves every aspect of Christmas (another way in which he hankers for earlier, simpler times?).  Over a pint in the pub, Terry reminds Bob that he was the last person in school to believe in Santa Claus.

I remember the day vividly. Christmas Eve afternoon it was, sitting in our back kitchen in front of the fire, reading Lord Snooty in that years Beano annual. I’d got it early, because the week before I’d been crying a lot with a boil on me neck. Anyhow, there I was, couldn’t have been happier, not a worry in the world except how Santa was gonna get a fire engine down our chimney. Then you show up with an evil, malicious grin on your face and said, ‘Santa Claus is dead.’

Bob goes on to remember that Terry had told him that Santa had been gored to death by his reindeer!

If the pub scene is the heart of the episode, there’s more traditional sitcom fare as Bob and Terry make their way home, very drunk, from the pub.  Bob’s lost his car keys, so Terry elects to drive him home in his fork-lift truck.  And since he doesn’t have his front door key either, he uses the fork-lift to raise him up to the bedroom window.

On Christmas Eve, Bob and Thelma are on their way to a fancy dress party – Bob as Captain Hook and Thelma as Peter Pan (Terry’s got the job of driving their mincab).  Judging by the reaction of the studio audience they hadn’t seen Bewes’ costume before he entered the living room, since it draws an audible ripple of appreciation.  Once they get to the party, Thelma is appalled at the goings on – it seems that all their married friends have paired off with other people.  Bob’s not immune – he has his eye on Sylvia Braithwaite.

There’s more traditional sitcom hi-jinks when Thelma asks Terry to drive her home, with neither realising that Bob and Sylvia are in the back of the cab.  Thelma invites Terry in for a drink and Sylvia insists that Bob drive her home in Terry’s cab.  This he does, but Terry sees the cab driving off and reports it stolen.

Running for just under forty-five minutes rather than the usual thirty, it’s tempting to wonder if it was originally planned as a half hour episode – if so, it would have ended with the fork-lift truck scene.  Was the fancy-dress party scene bolted on later?  However it was written, the final moment (when both Thelma and Terry realise Bob stole the cab) is a great beat to end the series on.