Judi Dench takes centre stage in Blithe Spirit

Transforming a classic piece of theatre into a contemporary on-screen adaptation without losing the charm that made it so unique will always be an undertaking.

Dappled with sentiments from a bygone era, it’s precisely the situation in which Noel Coward’s classic comedy Blithe Spirit finds itself.

Directed by Edward Hall, whose previous credits include hit ITV series Downton Abbey and acclaimed BBC drama Spooks, the script centres on wildly successful yet assuredly unhinged crime novelist Charles Condomine, played by fellow Downton Abbey alumnus Dan Stevens.

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Set in 1937, the light-hearted tale unravels within the Art Deco confines of the writer’s sprawling Surrey home which he shares with current wife Ruth, played by Now You See Me star Isla Fisher.

Edging towards insanity, a tweed-clad Charles desperately searches for the inspiration that has been absent since the passing of his first wife, Elvira, played by Knocked Up’s Leslie Mann.

That is until an enthralling evening at the theatre captures Charles’ imagination, resulting in the show’s star – a famous medium named Madame Arcati, brought to life by Skyfall’s Dame Judi Dench – travelling to conduct a private seance in their home.

“I think it’s interesting to remember that this play was written in 1941, where Britain was facing a pretty bleak time and Coward had a peculiarly British ability to find comedy and wit and humour and levity in some pretty bleak subject matter,” notes Stevens, 38.

“Essentially, my character is a grieving alcoholic at the end of his tether, struggling with writer’s block and, you know, he’s not in a great way.

“Yet, Coward finds this absolutely mad triangle and, you know, it’s just glorious chaos really. I think, you know, it’s quite nice to remember that in the midst of all the bleakness.”

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A combination of physical comedy and an altogether softer approach to Coward’s original sharp, quick-witted exchanges, the film sees Madame Arcati conjure the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, resulting in an ensuing love triangle from beyond the grave.

“You’ve got a group of us really sat around essentially watching Judi do her thing – we have a couple of interjections, but it’s really the Madame Arcati show at that moment, quite literally,” adds Stevens of shooting the film’s seance scenes.

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“There are all sorts of effects going on and it’s a long old scene.

“But great fun, you know. Just a very silly gang, sat around a table with Judi Dench doing her incredible work, it’s a pretty great day at the office.”

First opening in the West End in 1941, the original production was subsequently transferred to the big screen courtesy of David Lean and his 1945 adaptation.

By today’s standards, the premise of two wives quarrelling over their husband might be considered a little outdated as a concept.

However, the script boasts a warm and nostalgic undercurrent which, paired with the film’s period setting, provides some suitably comedic respite in the midst of an otherwise bleak January.

“It had all the right notes that made me want to do it, really,” says Stevens.

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“And also, it was my first time trying to do Coward on screen, which not a lot of people have tried to do to be honest and it hasn’t always been done successfully.

“There was a lovely circularity to this project, in that my first West End job was in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever with Judi Dench, directed by Sir Peter Hall.

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“I started out in his theatre company and it’s his son, Ed Hall, who came to me with this really lovely adaptation.”

As the tit-for-tat storyline unravels, Charles’ current wife, Ruth, finds herself increasingly jealous of Elvira, a woman only her husband can see.

Equal parts talented and manipulative, Mann’s ghostly character is something of a wind-up merchant when it comes to subtly taunting her living counterpart – a trait that captured the attention of Mann from the outset.

“I was thrilled to be asked to join in – I was asked kind of late in the game, I think someone else dropped out,” laughs Mann, 48.

“To be able to completely let loose and be this big character – I’ve never done that before.

“To just carry myself the way that she carries herself. Ed Hall had the whole movie in his head, exactly how he wanted to shoot it and wanted it to be and I just kind of followed what his vision was.”

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Stepping into the role alongside acting icon Dame Judi, Mann admits to being a little intimidated by the whole endeavour.

“She’s a national treasure,” declares Mann, “she’s the funniest, she’s the warmest, she’s the best.

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“I shared a dressing room with her – well, it was one room separated by this paper partition thing, so I can hear everything – [and] because I was alone in my room and she was always with someone talking, I guess I was eavesdropping on what she was saying.

“She would have been more than happy to talk about things, I’m sure. But I was so intimidated by her, I didn’t feel – I didn’t want to bother her. I don’t know why she would want to waste her time talking to me? So that’s why I eavesdrop.

“I would just lay on my couch and listen, listen to her beautiful, melodic voice.

“Not in a creepy way! I just couldn’t not hear because I was alone and so, I guess I was listening in on everything Judi Dench was talking about.

“She’s going to think I’m such a creep!”

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