Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

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BBC Radio 4, 13 December 2008
Noel Coward's enduring 1941 comedy seems like ideal radio material. The basic premise, in which Charles Condomine (Roger Allam) is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife Elvira (Zoe Waites) calls for Elvira to appear as a spirit. In David Lean's famous film version Kay Hammond appeared clothed from head to foot in a mysterious grey-green outfit. Radio has no need for this; it can successfully blur the distinctions between the living and the dead, making it seem as if Elvira is a living presence in Charles's life. His second wife Ruth (Hermione Gulliford) bears the brunt of his abuse, but eventually gets her revenge on him when she is accidentally killed in a road accident and reappears in ghostly form. The play subsequently becomes a comic battle of wits between the two spirits - Elvira and Ruth - who compete for Charles's soul. But Noel Coward is no Bram Stoker; he does not allow his male central character to be corrupted. Charles banishes the ghosts from his life by quitting the country cottage where they all live for ever.
Perhaps the most lovable character in Blithe Spirit is the dotty medium Madame Arcati. Lovers of the Lean film well remember Margaret Rutherford, with her long scarf and jolly hockey-sticks manner, calling forth the 'control' on the other side - an adenoidal little girl. In Philip Franks's radio production Maggie Steed approached the part very differently. Here was a woman totally aware of what she was doing, who stood no nonsense from those - like Charles - trying to make fun of her. Even though Madame Arcati had no idea of how to return Elvira to the world of the dead, she remained convinced of her own abilities.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this revival was the way in which director Franks showed how Coward seems fundamentally scared of women. 'The Master' might have assembled a close circle of female friends during his lifetime; but it is evident in Blithe Spirit that he regards Elvira as a potential threat to masculine certainties. Hitherto Charles has enjoyed a successful life as a writer with a passing interest in the occult, but that security is cast aside once Elvira reappears. When Ruth comes back from the dead later on, Charles faces double trouble; and it is clear that he cannot escape simply by shutting the door on his wives. Ghosts can easily pass through solid wood and continue to haunt their victims. David Lean dealt with this difficulty by creating a new ending in which Charles jumped into his car and drove off, only to crash to his death on a small bridge. He subsequently reappeared as a ghost, doomed to share his life with his wives. Franks omitted this sequence, but gave no indication that Charles would enjoy a quiet life.
The cast was uniformly good - I especially liked Natalie Cassidy (late of EastEnders) as the simple maid Edith, who unwittingly aids the process of Elvira's return to earth simply by being in the same room as Madame Arcati.