IS THIS OUR JOANIE?
From ghastly spinster to sex siren, Joan Collins takes centre stage as Noel Coward's leading ladies. By Mike Bygrave
Watching Joan Collins play an elderly Victorian spinster, with a false nose, false teeth and a grey wig (right), must be like watching Mrs Thatcher do a striptease: you won’t believe your eyes, but you can’t tear them away.
At least, that’s how Collins, who has been the epitome of showbiz sex and glamour for over 30 years, hopes viewers will react to Tonight at 8.30, in which she plays eight different women in
a series of one-act plays written by Noel Coward in the 30s.
‘Four of the plays are glamorous,’ Collins hastens to add,
though it’s not the
kind of glitzy 80s
glamour you saw in Alexis in
Dynasty. Coward’s glamour
has more to do with
elegance, with tinkling
cocktail-party chat and
the wonderful clothes
that women wore in
In the other four shows,
I play quite ordinary people
like Myrtle Bagot, who works in a
railway refreshment room, and Lavinia
Featherways, the spinster.
To me, doing this series is what
acting’s all about. It’s what I first
started out to do in the theatre,
learning a new play each week, being
part of a repertory company. We even
caIl ourselves the Joan Collins
Tonight at 8.30 is a personal
Project for Collins. She is
associate producer of the series and had ‘a tremendous amount of influence’ in picking her supporting casts, which include such wellknown names as John Alderton, Dennis Quilley, Reg Varney and Joan Sims. Miriam Margolyes, Sian Phillips and Bergerac’s John Nettles star in this Sunday’s Hands across the Sea.
• Tonight at 8.30 is also the latest evidence of Collins’s passion for Coward. Last year, she had a West End hit in Private Lives and this autumn she takes it on a tour of America before opening the show on Broadway.
Collins likes to present herself as a Coward-style woman of the world. In fact,she’s spent her whole life cocooned in showbusiness, emerging from her Beverly Hills mansion only for the star’s obligatory round of champagne parties, holidays in the sun and affairs and marriages with various, unreliable men.
In person, Joan Collins is a slight woman, which makes her celebrated bosom all the more emphatic. One of her undoubted achievements is still being considered a sex -goddess at the age of 57. She has been called ‘the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor’ but she’s really more like the rich man’s Barbara Windsor. She’s direct, straightforward and very English. She plays a cartoon of sex, rather than a studied sexual icon, and she knows it. Though she’s not witty in the Coward manner, she likes to laugh and doesn’t take herself too seriously.
‘There are some actors who are known for themselves as much as for the characters they play and I’d say I fall into that category. My public know me as Joan or “good old Joanie” and right after that as Alexis.’
Indeed, it was Alexis, the soap opera super-bitch, who revived Collins’s career. After an early stint as a Rank starlet, followed by a few good years as an international glamour girl, Collins hit a bad patch in the 1970s. She was reduced to poor roles in worse films and finally to so-called ‘guest shots’ on American TV series like Starsky and Hutch and Fantasy Island. Alexis rescued her from all that and made her a glamour queen once again. The character became a media sensation in America and Collins went on to play her for seven and a half years before Dynasty ended abruptly in 1989.
‘You can’t get a bitch to play a bitch,’ Collins believes. ‘You have to have someone who’s basically an all-right human being, or it doesn’t work.’
Collins got the role of Alexis, in part, because she had starred in two glossy soft-core sex films, The Stud and The Bitch, based on bestselling novels by her sister, Jackie. The sisters are amicable but not close, not helped by comments like Jackie’s that Joan ‘lived her life like a man‘. Jackie has a habit of making these remarks which sound good but don’t mean very much. I suppose it’s true I've done what I wanted to do, taken up challenges, been independent. It comes with the realisation that the only person who can look after you is yourself. I had some unfortunate experiences with a husband or two in terms of financial matters, so I realised it was time to take charge of my own life.’
Her ‘unfortunate experiences’ are as famous as her acting. She’s had four husbands actually, none of them a winner. Husband number two was Anthony Newley and they get on well enough these days for Collins to have Newley co-star with her as a fading husband and wife music hall act in Red Peppers, the second in the series (far right). Husband number four was Peter Holm, who sued her for money and made her, Collins feels, ‘a object of ridicule’. Her current beau is a handsome art dealer in his 30s, Robin Hurlstone, who was with her in Los Angeles and is described in the press as an ‘Old Etonian’.
But there are other sides to Collins. She has worked extremely hard most of her life and takes a justified and realistic pride in having made ‘a good living out of acting when 85 per cent of actors are unemployed’.
She has been a skilful and protective mother of three children, now all adults, all kept out of the public eye, but above all she’s a survivor. When Dynasty ended, she turned herself into a best selling novelist, publishing a suitably fat tome, Prime Time. A second, Love and Desire and Hate, followed, and she intends to write her third blockbuster this year.
‘I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Writing gives me control over my own time and my own life,’ she affirms.
Control is much on Collins’s mind these days. She has her three homes, one in LA, one in London and one near St Tropez. She has her novels. She has her Coward series to do, and also a four-hour mini-series, which promises to tie up all Dynasty’s loose ends, to film this summer. Surprising people, like Sir John Gielgud, are her friends, perhaps recognising in her a consuming love of the theatrical life which matches their own. She likes to describe herself in dramatic terms, saying that now she is starting her third, and best, act. The curtain goes up Tonight at 8.30.• RT