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CBS Television Programme of Blithe Spirit (1955)

Philip Hoare describes the making of the 1955 CBS Television production of Blithe Spirit, in his biography of Coward (page 419). Here together with an extract are four photographs provided by Philip from his archive collection.
"Christmas 1955 found Coward back in Hollywood, to rehearse Blithe Spirit for CBS. New York was rapidly losing its position as a centre for television; not only was land cheaper in Hollywood, but most of the stars lived there.

CBS 1
Copyright Philip Hoare Archive

Lauren Bacall had been chosen to play Elvira, and Claudette Colbert, Ruth. Neither woman was easy to work with; Colbert was 'extremely tiresome', and Bacall was 'no comedienne'. Colbert recalled that Coward was 'unremittingly difficult'. When she apologised for fluffing her lines - 'I knew them backwards last night' ~ Noël retorted, 'Yes, and that's the way you're saying them this morning.' Colbert had always regretted the fact that the distance between her nape and shoulders was short: 'The thing Noël said that hurt me most - but funny it was - he said, "If she had a neck, I'd wring it."'


CBS 2
Copyright Philip Hoare Archive

Russell and Hamilton were dismayed that Coward wanted Graham Payn in Blithe Spirit. 'We thought Graham was safely in London but Coward said, "Oh, Graham's here, he can play Dr Bradman. Russell reminded him that 'three years before he'd had Graham on Broadway, and brought him to the front instead of Gertie Lawrence. Hedda Hopper had attacked him in the press for it ... With Hopper and Louella Parsons watching a live TV show, it would be disastrous ... We just said no.'

CBS 3
Copyright Philip Hoare Archive

Preparations followed the usual precise requirements: Coward demanded a month of rehearsals on a fully furnished set (in the poltergeist scenes of the play, even the furniture had to be rehearsed), and all but essential personnel were barred ('That's so the men spending their money won't bother their ulcers', Noël told a journalist). He also requested a studio audience for an early rehearsal, to judge reactions.

CBS 4
Copyright Philip Hoare Archive

These were unprecedented demands for a medium used to casual drama production methods. But just as camera rehearsals began, an abscess was discovered on Coward's sciatic nerve in his right leg. A doctor sent for, 'and injected the damn thing eight times with the thickest needle I have ever seen'. Numbed with novocaine, he continued, although he seemed bad-tempered for much of the rehearsals. But the ninety-minute show was 'played without nerves and on nerves ... the result was that the performance went like a bomb'. The invited audience were described as 'very hep' by the New York Herald-Tribune, who likened it to 'a smart Broadway opening with a terribly fashionable cast, in front of an upper-drawer audience.'

Critics judged the show 'light as thistledown and merry as an epigram tossed off in a glittering drawing room'. One paper remarked on the dialogue, just. about the most emancipated we've heard in a television comedy .. uproarious boudoir innuendo; several well-placed hells and damns; and one of the funniest rebukes of all time ... Noël Coward tells his purring, ectoplasmic wife, "Don't call me 'lover boy'. It's vulgar and inaccurate."

 

Philip Hoare - 'Noël Coward A Biography'