Kay Hammond appears as a ghost eavesdropping on Rex Harrison's conversation with his new wife, Ruth Condomine, in a scene from David Lean's 1944 adaptation of "Blithe Spirit", adapted from a play by Noel Coward. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why can’t we have a good film of Noël Coward’s plays?

If one judged the playwright solely on the film versions of his work, one might be forgiven for believing that he had never been particularly accomplished

Recently, the new film of Noël Coward’s masterly play Blithe Spirit was released on various streaming services, after its cinematic release was cancelled due to the irritating absence of open cinemas to show it. I had been looking forward to it for some time. It had a fine cast of hugely talented comic actors, led by Dan Stevens and including Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and, in the great role of the fraudulent medium Madame Arcati, none other than Judi Dench. It was directed by Peter Hall’s talented son Edward, and its inspiration remains one of the most uproariously entertaining plays of the twentieth century, complete with some of Coward’s finest dialogue. It would be hard to mess it up.

The ensuring film has all the light charm and witty élan of a documentary about slaughterhouses

Alas, “messed up” is an understatement when it comes to describe what has happened to the film. A clue comes in the credit: “adapted by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft”. The three of them were previously responsible for the mediocre sea-shanty comedy (not words one often writes) Fishermen’s Friends, and Ashworth and Moorcroft should be prosecuted at the cinematic equivalent of the Hague for their shameful bastardisation of Ronald Searle’s St Trinian’s series into two terrible films that bear as much relation to Searle’s illustrations as they do to Noël Coward. So it is little surprise that they have decided to “improve” on the original play. The writers throw out most of the original dialogue, retain only the bare bones of the storyline, introduce an irrelevant and mawkish subplot for Madame Arcati (who is now bewilderingly played mostly straight) and generally commit artistic vandalism.

The ensuring film has all the light charm and witty élan of a documentary about slaughterhouses. The cast do their best with the terrible material, but as Stevens manfully tries to make lines about erectile dysfunction amusing – “Mr Peasbody’s got stage fright” – the look of deep shame that occasionally comes over their faces cannot be disguised by the over-bright lighting and incongruously jaunty music. Had it been given a cinematic release, there may well have been indignant walkouts and outraged complaints at the box office. As is, I doubt that many disappointed viewers, expecting a more enjoyable film, will bother watching this travesty to the end.

It represents the third unsuccessful attempt at filming a Coward play in the past two decades. The other two, Easy Virtue and Relative Values, were both similarly cavalier adaptations of the original plays and essentially trivialised them into culture-clash romantic comedies involving a young American woman causing havoc in an aristocratic English family. Given that neither play is as accomplished as Blithe Spirit, their liberties with the source material are more forgivable, and they each have fleeting incidental pleasures, including – coincidentally – enjoyable Colin Firth performances in both. Yet they sacrifice Coward’s acerbic wit for broad farce and even their star-studded casts could not make either a success at the box office. Given the failure of the latest Coward adaptation, there seems unlikely to be another one soon.

It seems as if staging one of his Coward’s plays with great actors is an all but guaranteed hit

If one judged the playwright solely on the film versions of his work, one might be forgiven for believing that he had never been particularly accomplished, and that his once immensely popular plays were museum pieces, best left behind in the Twenties and Thirties. However, this is at odds with the continued popularity of the theatrical revivals of his work. This has included recent acclaimed productions of Present Laughter with award-winning performances in both London and New York from Andrew Scott and Kevin Kline as Coward’s alter-ego, the vain actor Garry Essendine, a riotous Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens and a far superior Blithe Spirit with none other than Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati and the great Charles Edwards in imperious form as Charles Condomine, the suave novelist who finds his life interrupted by the unanticipated return of his first wife Elvira in spectral form.

Indeed, like Coward’s contemporary and friend Terence Rattigan, it seems as if staging one of his plays with great actors is an all but guaranteed hit, if it is done the right way. Tellingly, the major exception to this recently was a poorly received 2018 Chichester Festival Theatre production of Present Laughter starring Rufus Hound as Essendine. Michael Billington, usually a generous critic, dismissed it in The Guardian as “an orgy of exaggeration” and railed against its “measureless vulgarity” and “belligerent coarseness”. It is impossible to know exactly what the director Sean Foley intended, but one suspects that he, like the makers of Blithe Spirit, felt that audiences might not find Coward’s play sufficiently funny on its own and that it needed some sort of over-emphasis in order to get the laughs that it deserved.

This is a deep misunderstanding both of Coward’s work, and who he was. He began his playwrighting career in earnest in 1924 with The Vortex, in which he also starred as a cocaine-addicted playboy with a nymphomaniac socialite mother. Now, it seems like a reasonably quaint period piece with some witty lines, but back then it was deeply shocking and an instant talking-point, which of course guaranteed box office success and established Coward as a brilliant, enormously popular playwright. Thereafter he wrote a vast number of light comedies, some of which are regarded as classics and others which are seldom, if ever, revived. There are unlikely to be any film adaptations of Point Valaine or Quadrille, for instance.

Cinema has not been kind to Coward’s style of understatement and subtext

Yet Coward, although he enjoyed playing the part of the velvet-jacketed lounge lizard at first nights when he wasn’t appearing in the plays, was not simply a lightweight farceur, but a remarkably talented Renaissance man who wrote, acted, directed, sang and composed music. He transferred his considerable talents from the stage to the cinema with 1942’s patriotic film In Which We Serve, in which he played a character closely based on his friend Louis Mountbatten, and successfully shifted his persona from cigarette-smoking dandy to convincingly hard-bitten naval captain. He co-directed the film with David Lean and this led to a successful collaboration between the two men over the next few years, producing films of Coward’s plays This Happy Breed and a rather more successful Blithe Spirit (starring Rex Harrison as Condomine and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati), before their greatest and most enduring film together, 1945’s Brief Encounter.

If an alien came to earth and wished to understand exactly what English stiff-upper-lip repression is, in all its pain and suppressed emotion, it should be shown Brief Encounter, and 90 minutes later, it will have all the information that it needs to relay to its superiors. Based on Coward’s 1936 one-act play Still Life, it revolves around the tender relationship that develops between Laura Jesson, an unfulfilled middle-class mother and housewife, and Alec Harvey, a doctor who finds himself frustrated by the unadventurous milieu that he inhabits.

Lean and Coward make the brilliant artistic decision to have the lead actors Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard underplay their turbulent passions for one another to a point where you want to yell at the screen, while the emotions that they feel are expressed by the soundtrack’s use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. It is heartbreakingly sad, as well as a brilliant insight into a certain kind of English psyche, and should have proved – if In Which We Serve had not already – that Coward’s considerable skills extended far beyond witty drawing-room comedies.

Regardless of what is revealed about Coward, the excellence of much of his work will last forever

Yet cinema has not been kind to Coward’s style of understatement and subtext. A dire Seventies remake of Brief Encounter with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton was deservedly pilloried, but it is perfectly possible to imagine a new version of it being made today, with, say, Olivia Colman and Ralph Fiennes in the lead roles. However, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of filmmakers to revisit Coward except in the broadest, most “accessible” terms, hence the decision made to scrap most of the original plays when they are adapted in favour of anachronistic lowbrow humour and laboured culture-clash jokes to make them more “relevant”. One wonders what this would mean for a 2022 version of Brief Encounter; perhaps there would now have to be a subplot involving Laura going on Black Lives Matter marches, or Alec dealing with trans patients.

Coward himself remains a slightly shadowy figure, whose estate and executors have assiduously sought to present him as “The Master” without any of the rumoured darkness that has sometimes been attached to him. A forthcoming biography by Oliver Soden, who previously wrote an acclaimed book about Michael Tippett, might clarify matters about his personal life, for good or ill. Regardless of what is revealed about him, the excellence of much of his work will last forever.

And even if his witty, surprisingly profound plays apparently defeat contemporary filmmakers, he will always remain The Italian Job’s Mr Bridger, the charming but ruthless criminal mastermind who runs the titular heist from his prison cell, for an entire generation. The ending, in which he regally acknowledges the applause of the entire jail, inmates and officers included, remains an iconic scene in British cinema, and itself tacitly acknowledges that Coward himself will always remain a peerless figure, whatever abominations are committed to his work.

One can only imagine that if he returned from the grave to watch the film, a not-so-blithe spirit, he would take a long drag on a spectral cigarette and quip, with long-won wisdom, “Television is for appearing on, not for looking at.”

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