It’s been 79 years since Noël Coward’s comic play, Blithe Spirit, debuted in West End theatres, and 75 years since he adapted it for the big screen with his friend and revered director David Lean. The supernatural classic starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Margaret Rutherford won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects; its depiction of a luminous green ghost, a memorable marvel.
Since then, multiple versions of Blithe Spirit have played on Broadway, in London’s theatres, and on radio and television. Former artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall’s spirited adaptation marks the 75th anniversary of Lean’s comedy and shows that Coward’s ghost story about death has lots of life left in it still. Fleshing out characters’ backstories and taking the narrative in a new and timely direction, with undercurrents of feminism, Hall creates a fresh slant on Coward’s play for a modern audience.
“On the shoulders of giants, I wouldn’t try to ape [Lean’s film], which is extraordinary,” exclaims Hall over the telephone. “We’re all in debt to that piece of filmmaking, that of course, is a more faithful rendition of the play. I hope this film is significantly different! When we started talking about [it], I thought it would be fun to do a more contemporary adaptation, in terms of the casting and the storylines, and have a little bit of fun expanding all the characters for a 21st-century cinema experience.”
The 2020 version of Blithe Spirit keeps the ‘30s setting, and stars Dan Stevens as the crime novelist with writer’s block, Charles Condomine, Isla Fisher as his long-suffering wife, Ruth, Leslie Mann as Elvira, his late wife who reappears as a spectre, and Judi Dench as Madame Arcati, the spiritualist who sets the ghostly farce in motion. The key differences that come in to play are that Charles is now adapting his first novel for the big screen, and it is Ruth’s wealthy father Henry (Simon Kunz), who is financing the production.
Hall had always thought that Dench was the only person who could take on the role of Madame Arcati, and first spotted Dan Stevens in 2006 when he was playing opposite the actress in Hay Fever at the Haymarket Theatre – coincidentally another Coward production. “We needed someone with great comic timing, who also had a lot of experience in front of the camera of expressing things without words and Dan fit the bill,” Hall says. “I’d never worked with Judi before. The great actors work the hardest but make it look easy. She’s such an extraordinary example to everybody on a film set. She’s hard-working and brilliantly instinctive in her choices. Working with Judi is like working with a Rolls Royce, she’s just wonderful!”
Originally depicted as the spiritualist fraud by the superb Rutherford in both play and film, Dench’s version of Arcati has a tad more gravitas, as a woman grieving for a love stolen away from her prematurely. “I love Noël Coward’s wit, his social commentary, his ability to sniff out charlatans,” Hall says. “He’s always poking fun at people who are pretending to be more than they are. Though I always thought that people may get bored of that portrayal of the batty woman from the village after a while. You need to know why she’s doing it and what’s behind it all. Hence, the backstory in our heads is that she couldn’t quite say goodbye to the fiancé she lost so young, so she started dabbling as a way to deal with her grief, and it just kind of evolved.”
The writing team also had fun toying with the central trio of characters, and their turbulent love triangle. Mann plays Elvira like a ‘20s Manhattan wild child; Fisher plays it straight as the prim wife and devoted royalist who prunes her bushes into the shape of a crown. Stevens’ makes the humour about an unsatisfying sex life sing, through double-entendres galore, and heaps of physical comedy.
“I was of the thinking that Elvira was a tempestuous woman that Charles had an incredible affair with and Ruth is actually the woman he should have married the first time,” Hall says. “With Charles, Dan and I talked about what it would be like to be a writer who had a very dark secret – that he wasn’t actually any good. The character has to be in a state of denial about that. He’s got to a point where he’s feeling kind of depressed. It’s a little illustration of celebrity, when somebody becomes very well-known and successful – the moment they start caring about the awards they get and the plaudits, that’s the moment things go horribly wrong. He’s charming and gregarious, he’s a witty man, but underneath it all, he’s feckless and spineless.”
A significant chunk of Blithe Spirit was filmed at Joldwynds House in Surrey. From the outside, a magnificent piece of Art Deco architecture, a white structure with open decks, that has also appeared in the Poirot TV series.
The interiors were a different story, packed full of bric-à-brac, the production and design team completely overhauled the inside of the building for their shoot. “I wanted it to be lived in and run by the kind of woman who had created a perfect life of fashion and architecture, who would be the envy of all her friends. I never thought I would find that in Surrey, but I did!”
On what he hopes a modern audience will take from this version, Hall concludes by saying: “Overall, you should feel happier when you walk out of the cinema, than when you walk in! If we do nothing else that’s what the film should do. The story was originally designed to make people feel better and hopefully, that’s what it will do… it will transport them somewhere else.”
Blithe Spirit will be released on Sky Cinema from 15 January.