It's time for our regular look at the TV that the BFI is showing, this time in May 2015. The entire BFI TV output this month is dedicated to Noël Coward, with a season of his plays and music, including several Q&As with the likes of Keith Barron, Dame Penelope Keith, Barry Day and Kit Hesketh-Harvey all turning up to talk about the man himself.
Among the plays is Private Lives. Guess what? It’s this week’s Wednesday Play (on Tuesday) – you can read all about it after the jump or simply watch it below.
Friday 1 May
Noël Coward on TV: An illustrated talk by Barry Day
Aided by rare footage, Barry Day, renowned Coward expert and editor of The Letters of Noël Coward, discusses how Coward used the medium of TV in the USA to reinvigorate his fading career in the mid-50s, and reinvent himself as a sophisticated cabaret artist and household name.
+ Ford Star Jubilee: Blithe Spirit
1956 CBS. Dir Noël Coward. With Noël Coward, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert. 75min
One of the live US TV productions that changed Coward’s fortunes, and a very rare opportunity to see ‘The Master’ in action. Bacall is superb as a deceased wife summoned by a séance, and Coward’s direction ensures the action fizzes along with sophisticated élan.
Tuesday 5 May
BBC 1976. Dir John Gorrie. With Penelope Keith, Alec McCowen, Polly Adams, Donald Pickering. 90min
In this stylish production of perhaps Coward’s most popular play, McCowen and Keith give highly nuanced performances that capture the witty eloquence of Elyot and Amanda – a couple who have divorced and remarried – to perfection. Gorrie’s direction ensures that the heart of the play is never lost as we share the couple’s realisation that they cannot live without each other, yet are doomed to go on tormenting themselves.
Thursday 7 May
Jazz Age: Post Mortem + discussion with Keith Barron, Maria Aitken, Dame Penlope Keith and John Gorrie, director of ‘Private Lives’, hosted by comedian, actor and writer Alistair McGowan
BBC 1968. Dir John MacKenzie. With Keith Barron, Moira Redmond, Bernard Lee, Nora Swinburne. 55min
Not seen since its original transmission in 1968, this play challenges all our preconceptions about Coward’s work, being both radical in subject and structure; it’s Coward’s ‘angry young man’ play. As a soldier lies delirious and dying in the trenches of WWI he imagines returning to those he loves 12 years after the Great War has ended, only to be confronted by their platitudes and indifference. Coward rails against the futility of dying for king and country, and there’s something highly contemporary about the alienation the soldier feels on returning to civilian life.
After the screening, our special guests will discuss this important play and the wider subject of adapting Coward’s works for television. Please check bfi.org.uk for final panel confirmation
Friday 15 May
Anglia TV 1974. Dir Donald McWhinnie. With Susannah York, Joan Collins, Sacha Distel, Lally Bowers. 52min
This perfectly constructed comedy of manners, a TV adaptation of Coward’s play by William Fairchild, provided the perfect star vehicle for Susannah York and Joan Collins. Sacha Distel gives a surprisingly good cameo as the dashing Frenchman with whom both women are infatuated, while Lally Bowers’ servant is a miracle of comic timing, undercutting her mistress at every turn.
+ Playhouse: The Kindness of Mrs Radcliffe
BBC 1981. Dir Chris Menaul. With Elizabeth Spriggs, Annie Leon, Leon Sinden 55min
Dramatised by Stanley Price from a short story by Coward, this fascinating morality tale sees Coward holding up what he considers to be the vices of the age to scrutiny. Elizabeth Spriggs perfectly captures the terrifying self righteousness of Mrs Radcliffe, a pillar of the community whose utter insensitivity sows discord and misery in her wake.
Saturday 16 May
Choice of Coward: The Vortex
Granada TV 1964. Dir Joan Kemp-Welch. With Margaret Johnston, Faith Brook, Nicholas Pennell. 70min
This was the play that launched Coward’s career amid a blaze of controversy in 1924, and with its open discussion of sexual permissiveness and drug taking it branded him a hedonistic, immoral young aesthete – a reputation he later regarded as a creative millstone. This fine TV production, with an introduction by Coward himself, shows how the play trumpeted the arrival of a major new talent: after The Vortex, the English stage would never quite be the same.
+ Noël Coward: A Private Life
BBC 1983. Dir Laurence Rees. 65min
This documentary, written and narrated by Michael Dean, uses Coward’s work as the way in to examine the man himself. With contributions from friends and colleagues such as Maggie Smith, John Mills, Joyce Carey, Graham Payn, Harold Pinter and Sheridan Morley, Coward’s whole career is put into perspective and his attitudes to life revealed.
Friday 22 May
Play of the Month: Design for Living
BBC 1979. Dir Philip Saville. With Rula Lenska, Clive Arindell, John Steiner, Dandy Nichols. 100min
Probably the finest of all the TV adaptations of Coward’s work, this production boasts fantastic designs by Colin Shaw and a sublime performance from Rula Lenska. Saville’s direction ensures that the play’s full power to shock us (even today) is revealed. Underneath the glittering allure to the ménage-a-trois, we gradually begin to see the cruelty of the trio’s hedonistic actions as they bring hurt and confusion to all who stand in their way. One of Coward’s most morally complex plays, Design for Living continues to delight and intrigue with its surprisingly modern sensibility.
Wednesday 27 May
The Music of Noël Coward + intro by composer and performer Kit Hesketh-Harvey
Coward was more than just a playwright. When he began writing for musical revue his talent for composition resulted in some of the finest standards of 20th-century popular music, famed for their perfect synthesis of lyric and tune. Kit Hesketh-Harvey provides his personal views on Coward’s musical legacy, followed by a collection of clips that demonstrate his prowess as a cabaret performer, and the enduring popularity of his compositions. Clips include: Together with Music (CBS 1955), Song by Song: Noël Coward (1980), Let’s Face the Music: Noël Coward (1989) and The Songwriters: Noël Coward (1978).
Champions' priority booking: April 6 11.30am
Members' priority booking opens: April 7 11.30am
Public booking opens: April 14
Prices (excluding gift aid)
£6.65 (member concs)
£8.15 (non-members concs)
Under 16s £6.00
Prices (including gift aid and voluntary contribution)
£7.50 (member concs)
£9 (non-members concs)
All shows are £6 on Tuesdays. Conc prices are available to senior citizens, students, unwaged and disability visitors. Proof of eligibility may be required.
As always, visit the BFI web site for more details.
- April 15, 2015: The Wednesday Play: Noël Coward's Present Laughter (1981)
The Wednesday Play is Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, starring Donald Sinden