Charles Condomine (Griffiths Jones), a successful novelist in the process of writing a new book about the occult, is keen to experience some authentic colour. To this end he invites the eccentric medium Madame Acarti (Hattie Jacques) to hold a séance at his house. Madam Acarti is so obviously a fake that nobody – not Charles, nor his second wife Ruth (Helen Cherry) or their friends – expect the evening to generate anything more than a little light mockery at Madame Acarti’s expense.
So when the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Joanna Durham) is conjured up from the other side, he’s more than a little taken aback. Especially as he’s the only one who can see or hear her …..
Coward had been mulling over writing a play featuring ghosts for a little while, but it wasn’t until his flat was destroyed during the Blitz that he decided to turn these vague notions into reality. Holidaying with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmerion (later immortalised in The Prisoner) he rapidly churned out the play in a mere six days and afterwards would comment that with “disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success”.
Premiering in mid 1941, with Cecil Parker as Charles and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Acarti, the play was an immediate success (until the juggernaut run of The Mousetrap, Blithe Spirit was the longest-running non musical West End production). Rather wonderfully, a few years ago a telegram from Coward to Christie, congratulating her on beating his record, was discovered.
Coward was aware that some people might find the notion of a play revolving around ghosts to be a slightly distasteful subject to pitch during wartime, but he had a ready reply. Although a comedy, it was deliberately written as a heartless piece. “You can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story”.
This is certainly true. Neither Charles, Ruth or Elvira are in any way admirable characters. We open with Charles and Ruth discussing his first wife. Charles, a befits a professional writer, is smooth with his compliments (and able to not commit himself when Ruth asks him if Elvira was prettier than her) but there’s a brittleness to this conversation.
When Elvira unexpectedly pops up the cracks begin to get bigger. Although it takes a little while for Ruth to believe the truth of the situation, once she realises that Charles isn’t mad or drunk she becomes rather jealous of her dead rival. After the initial shock, Charles adjusts relatively quickly to Elvira’s presence, but it’s hard to argue that the ghostly Elvira is a symbol of an idyllic past marriage. Evidence is provided that their relationship was somewhat rocky. Elvira reminds him that he hit her with a billiard cue (only gently, he says) whilst neither seems to have been totally faithful.
But in her own way she still loves him and so decides to kill him, as that way they’ll both be spirits and together once more. But it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that her plans backfire and, after tampering with Charles’ car, she ends up killing Ruth instead (quite how a non-corporeal spirit could do such a thing is a question which the play quite rightly ignores).
This then sets up the denouement, which sees Charles haunted by both of his wives (in mounting desperation he requests that Madame Acarti’s perform an exorcism). Jacques may not have the largest role, but she’s wonderful comic value whenever she’s on the screen. With a boundless enthusiasm (Madame Acarti is almost beside herself when she learns that her séance actually conjured a manifestation) Jacques wrings every last comic moment from the script.
Joan Kemp-Welch (who directed all four plays in this short season) appears to have given Jacques her head. It’s not a subtle performance – Madame Acarti leaps about like a giddy schoolgirl as well as being prone to sudden dramatic swoons – but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. Coward himself approved, commenting that it was the first time someone had done something with the role that could bear comparison to Margaret Rutherford’s imposing stage and film performances (she reprised the part of Madame Acarti in David Lean’s 1945 movie).
The ending of this adaptation stays true to the original play (unlike Lean’s film, which Coward disliked) and sees a carefree Charles – once Elvira and Ruth have been reduced to silent, invisible spirits – head out for a lengthy holiday aboard, happy in the knowledge that his ghostly ex-wives won’t be able to follow him. It’s not exactly what you could call a happy ending, but it fits in with the general tone of the piece.
As acknowledged by Coward, it’s hard to warm to any of the characters (apart from the deliciously dippy Madame Acarti) which is probably the reason why Blithe Spirit never quite engages as fully as it could have done. Amusing, but icy.