A Choice of Coward is a mini-season of works by Noel Coward within the ITV Play of the Week strand, made at Granada under the steely eye of one of British television's most formidable directors, Joan Kemp-Welch. The plays are introduced by the author in as suave a manner as one could hope for - cravat, cigarette and all (he's not seen to actually smoke the cigarette, of course - that would impede the flow of his monologue). Coward cheerfully admits to have written tonight's play purely to give himself a meaty starring role, and professes (with a roguish twinkle) to have been horrified when it received excellent critical notices.
Jennie Linden's bouffant tips us off straight away that the play's been updated to a 1960s setting, but all the changes are equally cosmetic. She plays Daphne Stillington, a dizzy debutante who can't wait to tell all her friends that she's spent the night with her idol, actor Gary Essendine (they were at a party together and she conveniently realised she'd lost her latchkey).
Gary Essendine is the star part Coward wrote for himself, and Peter Wyngarde makes an ideal substitute, rehearsing the screaming-queen-as-ladies'-man routine that would make him a household name. Suffering the after-effects of the party, he recoils from a mirror like an especially camp Dracula: "Good God, I look 98! In a few years time I'll be bald as a coot!" (He wasn't far wrong, as it happened). Holding up the mirror to the ravages of time is Gary's long-suffering secretary (is there any other kind?) Monica (future Upstairs Downstairs star Joan Benham).
Gary and Monica are in the midst of preparing for his departure to Africa, where he'll be touring with a repertory of six plays, but their immediate concern is to get rid of the smitten Daphne, whose obsession with the actor becomes worryingly violent as soon as she begins to suspect he may not love her.
Fortunately Gary's estranged wife Liz (Ursula Howells) chooses this moment to sweep in and gently force Daphne into making herself scarce. Actually they're not that estranged - Liz left Gary because she couldn't put up with his philandering, but they're still good friends and she continues to write plays for him (she and Monica, used to peccadilloes such as Daphne, now refer to them as "it"). Liz has just returned with Paris with a present for Gary - it's a dressing gown of course (the part was written by Noel Coward for Noel Coward).
Gary's scandalised by the news that Maurice has fallen in love with Henry's wife Joanna (note that at this stage of proceedings we've no idea who any of these people are).
But there's no time for outrage, as Gary now has to see Francis Maule, a young would-be playwright who he's been vaguely encouraging by post. Unfortunately Maule (played with tremendous energy by James Bolam, looking remarkably like late 50s literary flavour-of-the-month Colin Wilson) doesn't take Gary's criticism well, and lambasts the actor for appearing in moribund, old-fashioned material that will see him forgotten after his death. "Why should I care what people think of me when I'm dead?" Gary responds. "My worst defect is that I worry too much what people think of me when I'm alive!"
There's no peace for Gary: no sooner has he packed off Maule (though not before James Bolam's had a chance to spout a great deal of psychobabble and climb all over the set) than the fabled Maurice and Henry turn up. They're Gary's director and producer, played by Danvers Walker and Edwin Apps respectively. They've come with the news that one of the leading actresses on Gary's tour has dropped out.
When Henry departs, Maurice reveals all to Gary about his affair with Joanna. Gary implores him to be careful. So of course it's no surprise when...
...Joanna turns up that evening, having "lost her latchkey", and in search of a spare bed (or preferably Gary's). She's played by firm TV Minus 50 fave Barbara Murray, who sadly died earlier this year (I mean 2014). Gary likes to think himself immune to Joanna's wiles ("I've always found you rather tiresome. You're lovely looking, of course")...
...but Joanna claims to have been in love with Gary for the past seven years, and doesn't intend to take no for an answer. In the end, she's not disappointed.
The next morning Liz and Monica are appalled to find this jezebel strutting around Gary's flat. After a few bitchy exchanges, Liz threatens to tell all to everyone about everything unless Joanna leaves Gary alone.
Joanna's forced to hide in the spare room when first Maurice and then Lady Saltburn (Jane Eccles), a wealthy patron of Gary's theatrical ventures, pay a visit. Lady Saltburn's brought her niece along to show off her acting skills. With grim inevitability, the young lady turns out to be Daphne.
When an impatient Joanna bursts out of the spare room, Daphne, taking her for a prostitute, is so distraught that she faints. And Francis Maule (who's also popped in) becomes more excitable than ever.
The final act involves most of the play's other characters approaching Gary in succession and announcing that they're going to Africa with him: first Daphne, then Maule (who's decided to appoint himself the guardian of Gary's career - "I'm absolutely devoted to your face in every mood," he tells him), and then Joanna. Daphne and Maule find themselves hidden away in different rooms while Joanna is eventually forced to depart with the arrival of Liz, Henry and Maurice...
...who all tell Gary exactly what they think of him and his childish behaviour. He's not quite thrilled to hear it.
The play ends with Liz and Gary impulsively deciding to get back together, and deciding to sneak off to her flat, leaving Daphne and Maule to sort themselves out.
The combination of author, leading man and the camp appeal of the female cast make this production of Present Laughter probably the gayest thing I've yet viewed for TV Minus 50, but there's also the matter of the man who adapted it for television, Peter Wildeblood. Unlike Coward or Wyngarde, Wildeblood was openly gay (that's what we'd call it now, at the time he was more likely to be referred to as a self-acknowledged homosexual), having written Against the Law, a bestselling book about his experiences of being arrested and imprisoned on charges of homosexuality, in 1955.
Next week, Blithe Spirit, with Hattie Jacques as Madame Arcati.