Blithe Spirit: Dame Judi to raise Britain’s spirits as Coward’s mystic madame

<span>Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

In 1941 when Britain was at the mercy of the Blitz, the staging of Noël Coward’s classic play Blithe Spirit, a comedy about death, was considered a risk. But it turned out to be a big hit, with a record run in the West End and then Broadway before being turned into a film four years later starring Rex Harrison.

Now the director of a new version of the film and one of its lead actors, Dame Judi Dench, feel that the “dark space” we are currently in provides another fittingly gloomy backdrop for the release of a production that they hope will lift people’s spirits.

The Oscar-winning actress plays the eccentric mystic, Madame Arcati, who inadvertently conjures up the ghost of a jealous first wife, who is unaware that she is dead when she returns to haunt her scoundrel husband and his new partner.

“When the play opened in the West End in 1941, its subject-matter was, on some levels, quite dark because it was about ghosts, death and losing people,” said Edward Hall, the director of the latest incarnation of Blithe Spirit, which begins filming this week. “But actually Coward wrote this wonderful comedy and it struck a vein. I feel that the time is right to tell that story again to a broad audience because we’re in quite a dark space at the moment.”

Judi Dench will play Madame Arcati in the remake of Blithe Spirit.
Judi Dench will play Madame Arcati in the remake of Blithe Spirit. Photograph: Mark Thomas/REX/Shutterstock

Dench is one of Britain’s foremost actresses, whose roles have ranged from monarchs to M in the Bond films. Hall said: “She loves the story, the character and Coward. Like us, she feels it is a great moment to cheer people up. I said to her, ‘when you come out of the cinema, you should feel like you’ve drunk a glass of cold champagne a little too quickly’.” The film marks Hall’s directorial debut in films. He has just stepped down as artistic director of the Hampstead theatre, London,where stage hits include Sunny Afternoon, the Kinks musical that transferred to Broadway, winning Olivier awards. His television productions have included William Boyd’s Restless.

Working with Dench is “extra special”, he said. His late father, the director Sir Peter Hall, cast Dench in landmark productions such as Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as another Coward classic, Hay Fever.

Blithe Spirit, set in 1937, is one of Coward’s most-loved plays. Hollywood studios competed to adapt it but Coward took the project instead to his friend David Lean. The new film will be released next year, marking the 75th anniversary of the original, which starred Margaret Rutherford alongside Rex Harrison.

The shoot will take place at various UK locations, including a private art deco house and Cliveden, the National Trust’s Buckinghamshire estate. Dench’s character, Madame Arcati, is described by Coward as “a striking woman, dressed not too extravagantly but with a decided bias towards the barbaric”. Hall said: “I always felt there was only one person in the world who could ever play her and that was Judi. Fortunately, she felt the same.”

Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens, who appeared with Dench in Hay Fever, is cast as bestselling crime novelist Charles who suffers from terrible writer’s block in struggling with his first screenplay. His picture-perfect new wife Ruth dreams of leaving London for Hollywood. Seeking inspiration, he invites Madame Arcati to perform a séance in his home, only to realise that she has inadvertently summoned the spirit of his deceased first wife – the fiery Elvira, who tries to win back his affections, leading to an increasingly complex love triangle.

The writer-producers, Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard, have adapted Blithe Spirit with Piers Ashworth. Moorcroft said: “It is one of Coward’s most famous comedies and, right now, everybody needs a reason to laugh.”