The Wednesday Play: William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1976)

It has to be said that as a rule, even when broadcasters had regular TV slots dedicated to plays, they had their biases: modern plays, often by ‘angry young men’ or left-wing progressives; Shakespeare; the occasional bit of Ibsen or Greek tragedy – these were all grist to the mill. Anything else? Somewhere between nothing and ‘once in a blue moon’. 

Restoration comedy falls into the last category. Although it did pop up once in a while – as a recent season at the BFI showed – the most people usually saw of it on TV was whenever John Sessions got asked to do it on Whose Line Is It Anyway? 

All the same, if you look hard enough, you’ll find the occasional example. In 1976, the BBC Play of the Month slot aired a production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. As you can probably guess from the slightly dodgy title – it’s a pun… – the original play was quite a lewd affair based on several plays by Molière, but adapted for London audiences. So outrageous did later generations find it that other than a later, 18th century sanitised version, it was kept off stage and out of print between 1753 and 1924.

The story has two main plot strands: a rake, who pretends to be impotent so he can have clandestine affairs with married women; and the arrival in London of an inexperienced young ‘country wife’, who discovers the joys of town life, especially the fascinating London men. The 1976 version starred Helen Mirren, Anthony Andrews, Bernard Cribbins, Amanda Barrie, Ciaran Madden, Michael Cochrane, Jeremy Clyde, John Nettleton, Ann Beach and Sarah Porter – quite a cast for quite a play, and you can watch it below. Trivia fans might like to know that the play was also the inspiration for the movie Shampoo – bet you never knew that.