Noel Coward’s perennially popular comedy
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Noel Coward considered Blithe Spirit – penned in seven days in 1941, on the West End stage just two months later and to run for an incredible 1,997 performances – the most successful of all his plays and it is still enjoyed by capacity audiences in the provinces.
A new production of this much-loved comedy has been wooing audiences at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, with Alison Steadman cast as the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati.
With its witty themes of drawing room manners and restless, meddling spirits, Blithe Spirit represents Coward at the top of his game. Who else could invent a scene where a ghost is given a lift into Folkestone? The play also includes references to Hythe, and the film version, starring Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, shows a signpost with ‘Ashford 8 miles’ on it.
The camera also picks out the telephone at the home of celebrated writer Charles Condomine, played by Rex Harrison. It is an old three-figure Ashford number. These are some of the clues that point to Coward’s long association with Kent, a county he loved dearly. From 1926-1956 he lived at Goldenhurst, a 17th-century farmhouse on the edge of Romney Marsh and almost certainly the model for Condomine’s country home in Blithe Spirit. The idea for the play may have come from visits Coward made to Slaybrook Hall at Saltwood, which has long reputed to be haunted.
Romney Marsh is where Noel Coward fell in love with the English countryside and Kent in particular. In the early 1920s he and a friend, Gladys Calthrop, stayed at Dymchurch for several weeks, exploring Romney Marsh on bicycles in an effort to find
a cottage to rent for his mother.
Coward also needed a place to stay where he could write. Family finances were tight and he had yet to forge his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest playwrights and composers.
A small cottage next to the Star Inn at St Mary-in-the-Marsh seemed the obvious solution. The rent was ten shillings a week. In the churchyard opposite he would lie down with his back against a gravestone and write.
While at St Mary-in-the-Marsh he got to know Edith Nesbit, who was a neighbour. Best known for The Railway Children, published in 1906, she was one of Coward’s literary idols.
It was while living on Romney Marsh that his attention was drawn to Goldenhurst, the house that was to become his much-loved home for 30 years. He and his mother first caught sight of it from nearby Aldington Knoll. Coward began by renting Goldenhurst for £50 a year, then bought it for £500.
The move signalled the start of a long and happy association with Goldenhurst. There were productive periods of writing and composing, improvised duets round one of two grand pianos, croquet on the lawn and visits from some of Hollywood’s most glamorous figures, including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn.
But war interrupted. The Army requisitioned Goldenhurst and Coward moved to White Cliffs at St Margaret’s Bay, near Dover. Beneath a steep cliff, looking out to sea and the coast of France, the house occupied a stunning position right on the edge of England.
Coward wanted to acquire the
three villas next door but was unable to do so because of a national housing shortage following the war.
Refusing to be beaten, he simply bought the houses in other people’s names – friends and family – so that this remote seaside enclave became an exclusive Coward community.
He loved White Cliffs. “An evening
of enchantment,” he wrote after moving in. He loved the light, the atmosphere
of the place and the shifting mood of
the sea. In the evenings he and friends would play canasta or scrabble, on other occasions they would venture to the cinema at Dover or support amateur dramatics at Deal. The place was always full of guests – Daphne du Maurier, Gertrude Lawrence, Ian Fleming, John Mills, Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn among others.
“Another perfect day at White Cliffs. I don’t think I could fail to be happy here,’ Coward wrote in 1945. But the magic eventually began to fade, the changing seascape became too distracting: it was time to return to Goldenhurst. The war had been over six years but, unbeknown to Coward, the Army had continued to keep hold of the farmhouse. He wrote: “I shall miss the sea and the ships but I shall have the marsh and the trees, the orchard and the croquet lawn.”
But in the years that followed his return to Goldenhurst the taxman dealt a heavy blow and in 1956, to escape the crippling effects of high taxation, he sold both Goldenhurst and his London home and moved to Jamaica for the rest of his life.
By his bed when he died in 1973 at 73 was a much-loved copy of The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit, his literary heroine. Noel Coward’s extraordinary life had come full circle. n
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