A Choice of Coward – Blithe Spirit

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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.

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Sykes – Christmas Party

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Running during the sixties and seventies, Sykes starred Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques as identical(!) twins Eric and Hattie.  This episode, Christmas Party, was broadcast in December 1975 and finds them enjoying a touch of Christmas hospitality at Corky’s house (the wonderful Deryck Guyler, on fine form as ever).

The way that Eric and Hattie behave to their host highlights how different they are.  Eric, once they’ve finished eating, is keen to make their excuses and leave but Hattie, knowing how this would hurt Corky’s feelings, insists they stay for a while.  It’s clear that Eric’s more than a little cheesed off and Corky’s relatives don’t help to lighten his mood.  There’s the distinctly odd Clara (Sheila Steafel), who never seems to speak, as well as an annoying child, Marlon (Nicholas Drake), who delights in taunting Eric.

Eric Sykes’ writing style has always intrigued me.  Although he had a long association with Spike Milligan (Sykes pitched in during the 1950’s with Goon Show scripts to help ease Milligan’s workload) his own shows were always quite conventional in their tone and outlook.

So Sykes, unlike Milligan, was never an experimental comedian, which means that his work can sometimes be predictable, although – as with Christmas Party – there’s often a twist or two.  One example of using a well-worn gag can be seen when Marlon offers Eric his telescope.  You know (and the studio audience seem clued in as well) that in a minute his eye is going to be covered in black bootpolish – and so it is.  Was it the sheer predictability which appealed to Sykes?  Although his double-take means that he makes the most of it.

With most of the “action” taking place in Corky’s sitting room, there’s a definite feeling of being trapped – certainly most of the audience would probably sympathise with Eric’s sense of despair (he’d much sooner be back at home with his feet up, rather than listening to Clara plonk away on the piano).

Later, there’s a nice reversal of our expectations after Corky demonstrates his favourite card trick.  Eric doesn’t want to play along (he complains that Corky does the same one every year) and explains to Hattie that it’s just so obvious – every card in the deck is the Ace of Spades, so it’s no surprise when Corky’s confederate displays the same card.  Although he, yet again, picks the Ace of Spades he mischievously tells Corky that it was the Ten of Hearts, only for Clara to show him the Ten of Hearts!  Possibly this was the reason why Sykes had crafted the earlier, obvious, gags like the telescope – that way it makes the unbelievable card reveal more of a surprise.

The quick arrival and departure of Jimmy (Jeremy Gagan), a personable pickpocket, seems to provide an explanation as to where all their personal belongings (watches, wallets, etc) have gone, but once again there’s a twist in the tale.

Christmas Party chugs along very nicely thanks to the talents of Sykes, Jacques, Guyler and the guest cast, especially Steafel.