Book Review: Spoken Word

Noel Coward: an audio biography

Presented by Sheridan Morley

BBC, c.3hrs, pounds 8.99

THERE COULD be few more richly endowed subjects for an "audio biography" than Sir Noel Coward. This excellent production, a centenary tribute to "the Master", has been edited down from A Talent to Amuse, a series first broadcast in 1975. Besides being an extraordinary story, it is an unparalleled gallery of theatrical talents. Celia Johnson, Edith Evans, John Mills, Terence Rattigan and Sybil Thorndike are among interviewees. Jessie Matthews's contribution touchingly points out how full of love Coward's plays are, for all that he felt incapable of any such emotion. But it is Coward himself who steals the show. You too will be Mad about the Boy.

Private Lives & Hay Fever

dramatised

BBC, c.3hrs, pounds 8.99

AN APPROPRIATE accompaniment to Sheridan Morley's audio-biography is this pairing of Coward's best known and most tantrum-filled plays. Private Lives, the story of a divorced couple who meet again while each are on honeymoon with a new partner, was Coward and Gertie Lawrence's most famous theatrical vehicle. As such, it has always proved a challenge for other actors. Stephen Fry and Imogen Stubbs cope better than most could have done with their ultimately thankless parts. Hay Fever, with its timeless theme of family in-fighting, works much better. Judi Dench is magnificent as the ludicrously theatrical Judith Bliss, and Michael Williams plays up to her with imperturbable resilience.

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