‘Blithe Spirit’: The Coward’s Way Out


Like many other prolific 20th century writers, Noel Coward – if not entirely forgotten – has now been abbreviated to a handful of clichés; dressing gown, cigarette holder, clipped speech, epigrams. In the same way that Agatha Christie is defined by the drearily rote ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ rather than the far better ‘Endless Night’, Coward’s most famous piece is probably ‘Blithe Spirit’ when it should be ‘Design for Living’.

‘Blithe Spirit’ was filmed to perfection by David Lean with Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond, so why remake it? Well, Coward is a brand now and Englishness is a saleable commodity, from the mediocre film version of ‘The Dig’ to an execrably bad remake of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

Coward deserves more. The enfant terrible whose hit play ‘Vortex’ tackled drug addiction when he was 25, daringly sexualised his work, subverting norms. ‘Blithe Spirit’ was short, dry, sharp and rather deliciously cruel. One minor exchange runs (from memory of the original):

‘Isn’t it funny that your maid and cook should both suffer accidents on the same day?’

‘Yes, if that sort of thing amuses you.’

Forgive the mansplaining but one has to be awake to the class layer in that. The questioner’s social position is a tad lower than the answerer, so that the inappropriate use of ‘funny’ does not go unnoticed by the latter.

Lean’s version (complete with terrific special effects) had a green-tinged Elvira as an amused sexual tease, watching on and causing chaos. She doesn’t care about the consequences because she’s no longer involved with human follies.

But in the new version such subtleties can be thrown out, along with Coward’s script, the baby and the bathwater. In comes slapstick and old-fashioned smutty jokes.

Charles Condomine’s first wife, now deceased, is accidentally brought back by a medium, and has fun unpicking her husband’s present marriage. The role of the medium is traditionally a star cameo cameo – Angela Lansbury was still trolling around the London stage as Madame Arcati in recent memory. 

The plot is a reworking of the theme Coward returns to again and again; sexual hypocrisy. His joke is that Charles Condomine’s first wife can still awaken him sexually even though she’s dead, and his living wife can’t compete.

Not here, though, as two equally annoying wives shriek and gurn their way through the plot. Dan Stevens as Condomine throws himself across rooms like Buster Keaton with St Vitus’ Dance. I fear Mr Stevens needs to find someone who can direct him very soon or his remaining credibility will vanish.

Of course everything has to be over-explained now, so everyone has backstories. Who thought it was a good idea to explain Madame Arcati’s motivation? Poor Judi Dench, failing to erase the memory of Margaret Rutherford, is introduced flying across a stage, from which she is dropped thirty feet into the orchestra pit. An old lady whose charm in the original begins with her pedalling a bicycle is now chucked from a great height. It doesn’t build credibility for what follows. But hey, it’s comedy and that means lots of people screaming and falling over. The result is a disastrous parody that exists to let the plebs see some nice Art Deco dresses and crockery.

The Merchant/Ivory films were once accused by hit-and-miss director Alan Parker of being from the ‘Laura Ashley school of filmmaking’, but thanks to Ruth Prawa Jhabvala’s intelligent, incisive scripts they were the exact opposite.’Blithe Spirit’ belongs to the ‘Carry on Camping’ school of filmmaking.

Director Edward Hall and writer Piers Ashworth (the names alone should give you a clue as to why they tackle English Heritage cinema) have committed the very sin that dooms most British films; they’ve failed to trust the audience. So they now have on their hands what is easily the worst film of the new year – and I suspect we’ll be saying the same at the year’s end.

Whenever I sell the Bryant & May series to yet another British production company my heart sinks as I listen to the producers tell me; ‘We need to appeal to the Americans.’ When I suggested Toby Jones for Arthur Bryant he was turned down with ‘He’s not big in America’. The Englishness of ‘Blithe Spirit’ aims for the Downton Abbey crowd, but even this low target is lowered. Yet it all could have been so easy if only they’d trusted the words.


35 comments on “‘Blithe Spirit’: The Coward’s Way Out”

  1. Anne Billson says:

    Angela Lansbury lives! She’s 95.

    This sounds like a must-watch, if only to see if it’s worse than Rancid Aluminium.

  2. Linda Evans says:

    Saw a rather splendid production of this at Richmond Theatre at the beginning of last year, with Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati. Was looking forward to the film, which was originally due for release not long after. What a shame it has been ruined.

  3. admin says:

    Crikey Anne, you’re right! Although TBF in Mary Poppins Returns she did look as if she’d been exhumed.

  4. Paul C says:

    I like the Margaret Rutherford film which includes the following exchange over breakfast : Wife : Anything interesting in The Times? Husband : ‘Don’t be silly, dear……..’

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Thank goodness Toby Jones was turned down to play Arthur. Totally wrong!

    It is nothing new, having to pander to US audiences.. The original stage production of “Blithe Spirit” had Cecil Parker as Charles, but he was turned down for the picture as not being a big enough film name, especially in US. David Lean was not happy as he wanted Parker. As we all know now, Lean was not an easy man to work with, and he really was difficult with Harrison out of spite.

    For the record, to my mind, Cecil Parker was one of the best comedy actors of all time. Nobody could “react” to such huge effect. As Charles is a “reactive” part, he would have been brilliant. Though, I admit to liking Harrison, and of course he was much sexier.

    Apparently, Coward was never happy with Kay Hammond. He thought she played Elvira as too common and tarty. I have seen lots of productions of the play, the most recent being a very good one with Penelope Keith as Madam Arcati. She played it dressed as Mrs Patrick Campbell which added a bit of extra fun. One of my favourite actresses was Dora Bryan and I saw her at Chichester and I was disappointed. For once, oddly, she underplayed and the character was therefore rather flat. By this stage, though, I think she was having difficulty with the lines. The production was not helped by Twiggy playing Elvira. How can I put it? er -let’s just say she lacked stage presence. This production did end with a bang, though, which was the best bit. The special effects of the haunting at the final scene were extremely well done, they were both clever and hilarious, having been worked out by a magician.

    After years of doing amateur dramatics, I bowed out 20 years ago by directing “Blithe Spirit” in a place called Maghull, a dormitory town north of Liverpool. It is amazing how the play still stands up so well. For the first time, though, I was struck by the witty dialogue. It is pure magic, but is just too clever. Most of the one-liners and put downs are just too quick-witted to come out spontaneously in real life. They are lines that are cleverly worked out in advance by a talented writer.

    In the mid 1950s the play was turned into a stage musical called “High Spirits” starring Cicely Courtneidge. Apparently it contained the same mistakes as this new film production. It was vulgarised and was too broadened out. It was not helped by Dame Cic as Madame Arcati, who was never known for subtle under-playing and she played it all-out for broad comedy.. It was not helped by the fact Cic and Coward never got on. And as a critic at the time said, it would have been much better if the lyrics had have been written by Coward, instead of someone else. Sorry, can’t remember who.

  6. Derek J Lewis says:

    Has anything with ‘a Sky original’ before the title ever possessed any merit? Everything they churn out drama, comedy TV or film you can guarantee it’ll be glossy, vacuous and unoriginal in every way.
    Toby Jones would have nailed Arthur but please not bloody Bill Nighy as John.
    I always think the most obvious pairing would be Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith

  7. Roger says:

    In Cookie’s Fortune Camille produces Oscar Wilde’s Salome, “in the original version, except for some improvements I’ve made.”
    That seems to be the motto of most contemporary directors of classic plays, especially comedies.
    Mind you, Salome could do with quite a few improvements, beginning with not putting it on.

    What were the American proposals for Bryant & May? Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise, perhaps?

  8. Diane Worth says:

    I think Toby Jones would be great as Arthur.

  9. brooke says:

    Just watched Rutherford, Harrison (1945?) version. What a hoot!

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    American version:

    Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau?

    Kelsey Grammer and George Segal?

  11. Peter Dixon says:

    Always loved Ian Dury’s ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’

    ‘Noel Coward was a charmer,
    Wrote some stories that were bramah’s,
    Velvet jacket and pyjamas,
    The Gay Divorce and other drama’s
    There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards
    lucky bleeders, lucky bleeders,
    There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bas –tards!’

  12. admin says:

    Oh Brooke, please don’t watch the remake – it’s shameful. It’s like comparing the two versions of The Ladykillers.

    I can’t see Cecil Parker getting steamed up by sexy Elvira.

    I still think Toby Jones would be great. I thought someone middle-aged but aged up for John May would be good. For a while I though Timothy Dalton but he’s just too wooden.

  13. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops. Penelope Keith’s Madam Arcati was modelled on Dame Edith Sitwell, not Mrs Patrick Campbell.

  14. Nick says:

    Is there a specific place to bandy about theoretical casting choices for B&M characters, or do we just do it ad hoc as the blog progresses?

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Nick, ad hoc and continuous. I don’t whether I am hopeful of a production or fearful. I remember seeing a local production of Blythe Spirit which left me giggling over the lines and not focussing on any business. Surely that must have been a good production.
    I was thinking local when I read Richmond Theatre and tried to remember when it was. Another example of N. American lack of imagination when naming a community.

  16. michaelpitcher says:

    Toby Jones as Arthur what a good idea

  17. Roger Allen says:

    You mentioned the Great Portland Street tea-tasters in the Xmas quiz, Admin. The tradition goes on: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jan/15/experience-i-drink-more-than-50-cups-of-tea-a-day

  18. Roger Allen says:

    Al Pacino in Wilde Salome tries to make it look good. The astonishing thing is, no-one suggests he plays Lady Bracknell instead. In fact, when we aren’t thinking up the least (or most, but least is more fun) appropriate actors for M&B, we could dream of the Lady Bracknels we missed.

  19. John Griffin says:

    Toby Jones would be fine. Eccentricity is his forte and he’s the right relative size. I always saw John May as a sort of Bill Nighy role, with dyed hair and a stiff, repressed emotional mien. Funny how we envision characters differently. Now Janice, there’s a challenge with so many actors who could have done it sadly expired…….I always see her as a young Pat Phoenix made up as Diana Dors. Having said that, Colman could give it a shot.

  20. brooke says:

    Re: Rutherford as Madame Arcati–what acting! Marvelous comic timing, conveying much using subtle facial expressions and moving the body just so–nothing overdone. Why the hell do we need any explanation of her motivation?
    Watching Rutherford I thought, “she’s a close relative of Arthur Bryant.”

  21. admin says:

    Rutherford was to be ‘Mrs Hargreaves’ in the film version of Frank Baker’s delightful novel, but the war happened.

  22. Brian Evans says:

    Brooke, Coward was once directing a play, and one of the actors questioned a move that Coward asked him to do ie, walk cross the stage: “But Mr Coward, what is my motivation for doing that” Coward: “Your pay cheque at the end of the week, dear boy. Now, dear, just walk from one side of the f***ing stage to the other, and try not to bump into the furniture”

    No, try as I can, and I have tried, I just cannot see dear old Toby Jones as Arthur. He is too much of pixie/gnome type and I just don’t see Arthur that way. Michael Gambon would be my choice, and Ian Ogilvy (he took over “The Saint” from Roger Moore) or Michael Yorke (perhaps best known for “Cabaret”) for May.

  23. Peter T says:

    Gambon and Ogilvy would be good, though the relative heights may possibly be wrong. The B&M compromise for the USA could be Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. However, the networks might insist on Whoopi Goldberg and Meryl Streep.

  24. Helen Martin says:

    I usually have to look up the actors suggested but it is fun when you can see them – as I can with Peter T’s suggestions. I’m voting for the Whoopi Goldberg/Meryl Streep version. It would be interesting (I won’t say funny and reveal my class) if there were actors following this blog and reacting to our suggestions.

  25. Jonah says:

    Despite Judi Dench in the cast, the new film sounds ghastly.
    Videos of 3 short scenes and a one-minute trailer of the 2014-15 “Blithe Spirit” North American tour starring now top-billed Angela Lansbury can be seen on YouTube. The videos are professionally produced with multiple cameras making me wonder if the full production will be available for viewing at some time. Madame Arcati’s entrance scene can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94ug-qgIhJc&list=PLmfwoKtiV6AnhUjHpP0Uz8xPwQsmW6OK-
    To hear Madame Arcati sing, as embodied by Beatrice Lillie (of whom there are too few recordings and films), there’s the original Broadway cast album of the musical adaptation “High Spirits” co-starring Tammy Grimes and Edward Woodward (of all people). The later less well-received London production with Cicely Courtneidge was also recorded, and both albums were released on CD. Although Coward directed both productions, he didn’t write the songs. However he recorded 4 of them, and his recordings are also available on CD. The score by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray is spotty but has some winners – the ballad “If I Gave You” and the comic “list song” “Home Sweet Heaven”, especially wonderful in Coward’s version. “Blithe Spirit” being practically perfect, it’s debatable if the musical was really necessary, but Coward’s and the Broadway cast recordings are worth checking out. (I can’t speak of the London cast album as I haven’t heard it in years.)

  26. SteveB says:

    I thought David Mamet’s remake of the Winslow Boy was great. The original is one of my favourite films and I thought the remake equalled it.
    btw if you’re into twisty turny stuff David Mamet’s also your man
    And that reminds me I hear the Last of Sheila is coming on nluray

  27. Ian Luck says:

    I’ve never thought of Toby Jones as a ‘pixie’, ever. Just watch his performance in the ‘Sherlock’ episode ‘The Lying Detective’, where he plays a much loved by the public celebrity, who gives vast amounts of money to hospitals, and spends time with dying patients… It’s Jimmy Savile, basically, and Jones is loathsome, creepy, and basically an utter psychopath. A ‘pixie’ he is not. As neither was his father. Nobody played dishevelled nutters as well as Freddie Jones.

  28. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, I have just googled Toby Jones, there are loads of pictures of him, and to me he looks like a pixie. Very much so. He is a brilliant actor but he has a face befitting his name-like a Toby Jugg. He also makes me think of an elderly Billy Bunter. I have seen him in lots of films etc and he is a very very good actor. Though I do think John Sessions and Kevin McNally were both better at portraying Captain Mainwaring than Jones was in the sorry remake of “Dad’s Army”

    As for Dad Freddie Jones, years ago he was good actor, but descended into self-parody, and became an appalling ham in some dreadful car crash performances. His later acting efforts would have been better left on the stage.

    I watched one episode of “Sherlock” and couldn’t stick it. I admit to being old fashioned, but I found the plot impenetrable (thank goodness for spell-check), and like a lot of “seniors” will not watch anything were the dialogue is just mumbled and thrown away so one has to put the sub-titles on. A lot of actors today should be taught elocution and projection. What is the point of learning the lines if so many people can’t hear them? I am with Dame Sheila Hancock on that one who decries so much of younger actors inability to be heard.

    I think I got out of bed the wrong side this morning. It’s just moan moan moan!

  29. Martin Tolley says:

    I understand the increasing number of complaints about sound levels in TV productions. Some of it may be down to modern recording techniques and the conversion output on TVs rather than wholly bad acting, although actors today seem to be encouraged to talk “more realistically” without the oratorical flourishes of yesteryear. We watch programmes via a computer which has a separate sound output to a couple of mini-speakers which enables us to alter the sound profile – decrease base and increase treble to make spoken dialogue more distinct. Lots of modern TVs have built in sound profiles which can be altered or accessed, but most folk just use the generic auto set up without experimenting. People often tinker with brightness and colour etc for TV vision, but don’t touch the sound.

  30. Peter T says:

    TV: why is the audio so much better in adverts than in the drama that they interrupt?

  31. Martin Tolley says:

    Just found this advice on sound settings https://www.freeview.co.uk/blogs/improve-your-tvs-sound

    Peter – there are standards set out which adverts on TV should follow wrt sound.Quote: “The relevant International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recommendations are ITU-R BS1770, Algorithms to measure audio programme loudness and true-peak audio level, and ITU-R BS1771, Requirements for loudness and true-peak indicating meters. The standards in these recommendations should form the technical basis of approaches to complying with rule 4.7 when using subjective loudness metering.” Which just about explains it! I don’t think other broadcast stuff is regulated, but I don’t know.

  32. Peter T says:

    Martin – Thank you for the link. It reminds me of the exchange between FE Smith and a judge. Like the judge, I am certainty better informed.

  33. Helen Martin says:

    I will make sure my husband reads this information. He knew his hearing was deteriorating and now has wonderful hearing aids but he has always claimed that tv ads have louder volume than programs. If you combine “realistic” speech with a different sound profile that could well be the problem. He also claims that British programs are particularly difficult and blames it partly on the old buildings so many are filmed in. (not going to restructure that sentence.)

  34. Helen Martin says:

    He read it, murmured, and went off muttering. I haven’t heard him investigating further so he’s not allowed to complain until I know he’s tried to do something about it.

  35. Joel says:

    Appeasing the Yanks spoiled the otherwise excellent (original) ‘Italian Job’ – not exactly tasteful but enduringly amusing. It was never intended to be anything else. Leaving the coach overhanging the cliff was demanded by American exhibitors to show that ‘crime does not pay’. That and their appalling promotional material which had no connection with the film…

    Troy Kennedy Martin’s original script (he also wrote the magnificent [real] ‘Edge of Darkness’, so his early passing was a great loss to us) has a very different ‘Mexican stand-off’ ending, in Switzerland – funnier, more plausible and still leaving unanswered questions. Given CGI now, could the ending be re-shot to finally deliver the proper ending?

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