I find the 1945 film ‘Blithe Spirit’ to be a most soothing film. Like ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (see Death and the Duke) it could be a peculiar choice of subject matter to be showing people just after a murderous world war – and apparently there were some complaints. But I can understand why there would be increased interest in spiritualism at this time and this is the theme of ‘Blithe Spirit’.
An impeccable cast of Rex Harrison, Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings (Charles Condomine and his two wives) are completely and delightfully upstaged by Margaret Rutherford in her finest role as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. She plays this part so well that her appearance on screen surpasses everything else that is excellent about the film; from Noel Coward’s droll story to Kay Hammond’s acerbic ghost to the backdrop of a perfect English summer. This latter point is the main reason why I find the film so soothing – what could possibly be evil or frightening about being haunted in an English country house where the garden is full of flowers and birdsong? Perhaps the afterlife is nothing to be worried about after all. Indeed in Coward’s version of heaven, there are endless parties where Merlin does tiresome tricks, and all those we have known are there in their youthful splendour with all their personality traits in tact. But it is fascinating to be able to observe this idyllic way of life, where the husband and wife dress for dinner, even if they are dining alone, and sit at the properly set dining table, the room decorated with vases of homegrown flowers. If only we took eating this seriously now. But is it a historically accurate depiction of a mid 20th century household? If it is, then only a small group of people would have been able to afford this kind of lifestyle. It cannot be taken as representative and could almost be fantasy.
Really, only two almost inconsequential scenes give us some genuine history. Firstly, a glimpse of how traffic was controlled at road junctions before the widespread adoption of traffic lights and roundabouts. When ghostly Elvira drives into Folkestone, we see an incredulous RAC patrolman on point duty. But the other historical aspect that interests me can be seen in the opening scenes. Ruth is seen instructing the new maid Edith, who is obviously not used to being in service. This is possibly her first post. The household staff is small and when the cook later leaves it is disasterous. Where period dramas are concerned, we have perhaps become used to seeing rich households being full of experienced and long serving servants. Jeeves and Wooster and the like give no indication of how difficult it was to recruit and retain household staff as the 20th century drew on. Although most of ‘Blithe Spirit’ is fantasy, Coward neatly captures what many of his friends must have moaned to him about in the Condomines’ servants.
This is a subject that I explored in more detail in my article on Sutton Scarsdale Hall, published in The Historian magazine (No 108, Winter 2010). But in summary, as industry took hold, jobs in factories became much more attractive to a life in service, where your life was never truly your own. Factory work may have been hard, but it did not dictate how you spent your time off – unlike many Lords and Ladies. As the Condomines live in Kent, they would have found it hard to find a maid who wouldn’t rather live in her own home and travel up to London for work.
So full marks to Noel Coward for a play that is at once soothing and hilariously funny, that draws out everything that is marvellous about Margaret – and is also historically instructive.