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Greetings to Barbara Siek and everyone else in the Dirk Bogarde chat group. The 1966 television production of 'Blithe Spirit' suffers in comparison to David Lean's film version, but on its own merits it's an enjoyable drawing-room comedy with a supernatural theme.
During World War Two, there was an increase in plays and films dealing with life after death, and ghosts; these tended to be comedies or light dramas with happy endings, rather than spooky horror stories. As the war's death tolls rose, audiences wanted to be assured that there is indeed an afterlife, and that it's a nice place to go.
Noël Coward wrote 'Blithe Spirit' in a single week(!) while staying in one of the guest cottages at the Hotel Portmeirion, a remarkable seaside resort in Gwynedd, North Wales. Portmeirion is now well-known as the resort which was used as the Village in the 1960s tv series 'The Prisoner'. But for many decades, Portmeirion attracted prominent authors and intellectuals from Britain and America, who wrote some of their best works in the bracing air and enchanting vistas of this unusual village.
In this tv production, Dirk Bogarde stars as Charles Condomine, a successful novelist now married to sensible Ruth following the death of his headstrong and eccentric first wife Elvira. Charles has no truck with any supernatural nonsense, but he's currently working on a novel that has supernatural themes. Accordingly, he's decided to engage a medium to hold a seance in his drawing-room ... strictly as research for his novel, of course.
SPOILERS COMING. The seance has unexpected results, when clairvoyant Madame Arcati manages to summon the ghost of Elvira ... who straight away begins taunting, daunting and haunting her husband Charles as if she had never left. Things are made worse for Charles (and funnier for us) because he's the only one who can see and hear Elvira. Eventually, Elvira nobbles the brakes on Charles's car, hoping to kill him so they can be reunited in the afterworld. But Elvira's scheme kills Ruth instead ... and now Charles has *two* ghostly wives tormenting him!
Although filmed on a low budget with static camera work, this production of 'Blithe Spirit' is a delight, featuring some deft performances and (with one exception) some splendid casting. In the central role, Dirk Bogarde is properly dashing and urbane. He's quite funny as he betrays his helpless bafflement at being haunted by one ghostly wife, and then two. In a couple of scenes, Bogarde seems just slightly effeminate ... but he can't possibly be any worse in this respect than Clifton Webb, who played the same role when 'Blithe Spirit' ran on Broadway.
Rosemary Harris usually strikes me as colourless, but in this case it's intentional and she turns it to her advantage. As the ghostly Elvira, Ms Harris plays her role in grey sackcloth and sandals. She's quite convincingly inhuman, a spectre who clearly relishes her unearthliness. Ms Harris is a delight as she casually drops the names of several famous dead people who are now her ghostly neighbours.
Second wife Ruth is played by Rachel Roberts: an odd casting choice, as Roberts was at this time married to Rex Harrison, who played Charles Condomine in the earlier (and much better) film of 'Blithe Spirit'. Roberts's presence here only calls attention to the previous film. I've never been impressed with Rachel Roberts as an actress. Here, however, her mannered tics and crotchets are less obtrusive than usual ... and Ms Roberts looks slightly more attractive than usual, so long as she keeps her face towards the camera. When she turns in profile, we see that bizarrely upturned nose of hers, which looks as if it's been caught in a skyhook. Interestingly, Roberts gives a much better performance in the third act (as the ghostly Ruth, taunting her husband after her death) than she does in the first act, as the live Ruth who can't figure out why her husband is acting so strangely.
The only fly in the ectoplasm is the utterly untalented Ruth Gordon as the medium who causes all the problems. I have never found Ruth Gordon remotely funny in any of her roles. (I especially loathed her in 'Harold and Maude'.) As the flamboyant Madame Arcati here, Gordon is aware that she is giving a 'performance' as a 'character', and so she's mannered accordingly. Gordon does that annoying little mouth twitch of hers, that she seems to feel is an adequate substitute for constructing a plausible characterisation. Mme Arcati commutes to her seances via bicycle: I shouldn't mind getting a glimpse of Ruth Gordon riding a bike (especially if she falls off), but here she makes her exits and entrances on foot, trundling the bicycle alongside while she speaks a few lines about riding through the forest. The bike is nothing more than an unwieldy prop, to match Ruth Gordon's unwieldy performance. I would like to have seen Bea Lillie's performance as Arcati in 'High Spirits', the Broadway musical version of this material. In fact, I vaguely recall another tv version of 'Blithe Spirit', in which Hattie Jacques was hilarious in the same role that Ruth Gordon handles so badly here. Just the idea of Hattie Jacques on a bicycle gets me laughing.
This tv version of 'Blithe Spirit' is enjoyable, but it's a pale wraith alongside the film version starring Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. Also, Coward's script has been somewhat truncated in order to fit into the television format. I'll rate this tv production 6 out of 10, and I recommend that you get a video of the Rex Harrison movie instead.
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