by director Edward Hall
Having escaped London during the Blitz, Noël Coward famously wrote Blithe Spirit in six intense days on a beach in Snowdonia. Coward’s London Office and flat had been bombed into rubble and so it was, that in the midst of this darkness, he set about writing a comedy about loss. I first saw the play as an angst-ridden teenager finding some kind of relief at the idea that death was just a change of state, the end of the beginning if you like and like all good farcical comedies, the construction was simple but the dramatic action infinitely complex. In the midst of the turmoil of a World War, Blithe Spirit somehow struck a chord, playing for nearly two thousand performances in the West End. When I came back to the play and considered how it might be expressed in a new adaptation on screen, I knew that I wanted to give the cinemagoer an escape into a fantasy world where for one brief moment, grief could become something to laugh at and not to shun. To me, it was the ultimate expression of finding ‘laughter in the tears.’
By Coward’s own admission, Ruth, Charles and Elvira are perfect narcissists, self-obsessed and blinkered, but to make them otherwise would be to make the story sad, and that was not the author’s intention. This adaptation keeps the DNA of Coward’s original but expands the visual palate and some of the principal characters' stories. Ruth’s house is a model of Art Deco perfection, Elvira is a child of the roaring twenties and Madame Arcati has a secret that gives her more of a personal part to play beyond her usual English eccentricities. Charles himself is elevated onto a more international platform as a failing screenwriter and fading novelist. A man so desperate for movie fame that he would do anything to have Greta Garbo whisper one of his lines.
Shot in the rolling Surrey hills of Southern England and at Twickenham Studios, the whole experience was almost like stepping back in time. We recreated a 1930s film set inside a studio that had produced The Italian Job in 1969 featuring Noël himself. It was sometimes like filming a ghost story surrounded by ghosts....
It was important for me that the end of our film gave the women an equal voice and it was fun to consider what they might do once they had both found out the true depths to which Charles had sunk. And of course, there is Madame Arcati, presented as a fraud but revealed as perhaps the only beacon of truth.
We were blessed when we shot this by day after day of glorious sunshine, even being buzzed by a spitfire one morning when standing on the Sussex cliffs above a sparkling sea, and I hope the result gives you a moment of colour, relief, fantasy and joy. You may even spot the anagram of Noël's name....