Monday, February 22, 2021

Blithe Spirit (2020)

Every other year the staff at Colet Court used to put on a play. I say every other year as I can only remember two of them. Agatha Christie's Ten Little N Words and Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit. 

Our first form mistress Jane Addis (a wonderful woman) played Elvira in Coward's comedy and I can clearly remember the way she wafted around the stage in a shimmering dress. 

One of my classmates in Mrs Addis's 1B (by dint of surnames in the same section of the alphabet) was Edward Hall, son of Sir Peter, half-brother of Rebecca and all round popular kid, captain of just about every team and so on. 

So, I ask myself, does he too have a fond memory of that quite lavish mid-70s production, and for that reason has chosen it for his first feature after work on Spooks (not that sort) and Downton Abbey?

It's a bit of a re-conjuring. I'm not sure how much of Coward's original dialogue has been exorcised. I suspect quite a lot. Apart from one great line about billiards, much of it seemed a tad bland. 

There was definitely a point quite early on when I realised that the thing I was most gripped by was the furniture. And its vessel, that extraordinary Art Deco villa in Surrey called Joldwynds

There are also some grass tennis courts and a river boat to drool over. Nothing to be ashamed of. 

And then there is the odd pleasure of seeing Michele Dotrice — oooh Betty — again, who would have been playing the long-suffering wife of Frank Spencer around the time I first came across Blithe Spirit at school.  

Coward wrote the play in Snowdonia after his London office and attached apartment were destroyed in the Blitz. It was first performed in the West End during 1941 as the war was about to reach its turning point. 

Edward Hall has shifted things back a bit, to 1937, perhaps because these days it would be harder to place a comedic situation in the middle of that conflict without somehow referencing it. (Though when one is smack in the middle of a world war, not mentioning it may be just what you want to do.) 

Yet in a roundabout sort of way, this story is situated in wartime Britain. 

Back in 2001 Hillary Mantel wrote a fascinating piece in the London Review of Books entitled The Dead Are Among Us, which tells the story of Helen Duncan, aka Hellish Nell, a Scottish medium who became the last woman convicted in the UK using the 1735 Witchcraft Act. In a 1941 séance, she had 'materialised' a sailor from HMS Barham, a warship that at the time the Admiralty had not admitted to having lost.

Mediums like Duncan were then flourishing again as the number of separations and personal griefs expanded. And in 1941, again, the Royal Navy recognised spiritualism as a religion and permitted its sailors to perform spiritualist ceremonies at sea. 

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