The long-running British radio soap opera The Archers indulges its hyperdramatic side once once a year with an upbeat storyline about the travails of mounting the annual village Christmas play. In the past, the bucolic hamlet of Ambridge has mainly staged traditional pantomime entertainments, though a couple of years ago there was a revue of scenes from Shakespeare. Once there was a complex set design that was almost scuttled by the fire marshall.
This year the village theatrical society has opted to present Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by and starring the town’s pushy cultural standard-bearer, Lynda Snell.
Another change is that, for the first time, the entire Ambridge-based wintertime show will be broadcast separately on the BBC in its entirety.
According to this announcement on the Archers web pages, the new full-length radio adaptation of Blithe Spirit will feature backstage Ambridge moments but also be a credible production of Coward’s play. It airs on Boxing Day, Dec. 26. Easiest way to catch it is on the BBC Radio 4 site here. BBC Radio streams shows online for a week after they’ve broadcast, so this one will be available until Jan. 2.
There’s a backstory to this Blithe Spirit. Lynda Snell had wanted to do a dark modern interpretation of Rumplestiltskin but nobody was interested. Now that she has chosen Blithe Spirit, she wants to make it a somber commentary on British life during the Blitz. A frustrated assistant director (who was added to the troupe over Snell’s objections), not to mention the cast, wish she would lighten up a bit. The supernatural elements of Coward’s play (an allegory for how married couples can be haunted by previous romantic relationships, using actual spectres) have been mirrored by recent subplots involving Carol Tregorran, who has recently returned to Ambridge following the death of her husband John, and who has been holding seances and other spirit-welcoming rituals in her home. (John had been rumored, in Archers episodes aired around 35 years ago, to have been having an affair with stuck-up Jennifer Aldridge, but that’s another story.)
For weeks, Lynda Snell’s problems staging Blithe Spirit have been getting mentions amid much direr Archers plot points, such as the sale of Home Farm, the impending motorway which would destroy the town, Tony Archer’s health after saving his grandson from a rampaging bull.
Tony’s daughter Helen has just announced she is leaving the cast of Blithe Spirit, though it seems likely she’ll be talked back into it. While the set is apparently unusually lavish for an Ambridge production, there has been no progress in finding a vintage victrola which Snell keeps reminding us is essential to the show’s plot. Lynda Snell has already had to enlist a leading man from a competing local drama group, the Felpersham Light Operatic Society (disdainfully known as FLOPS). That interloper, Douglas Herrington, is portrayed by Julian Rhind-Tutt of the TV hospital sitcom Green Wing (which ran on the BBC from 2004-07) and the American cult comedy/adventure series Keen Eddie (which aired on Fox and Bravo from 2003-04). Rhind-Tutt’s character is playing Charles Condomine in Coward’s play, while the other roles are scheduled to be played by Ambridge residents Fallon Rogers (Joanna Van Kampen, as Elvira), Helen Archer (Louiza Patikas, as Ruth), Susan Carter (Charlotte Martin, as Edith), Oliver Sterling (Michael Cochrane, as Dr. Bradman), Carol Tregorran (the great Eleanor Bron, as Mrs. Bradman) and of course Carole Boyd as Lynda Snell as Madame Arcati. The 90-minute radio presentation is credited as “adapted and directed by Sean O’Connor.”
A rare example of a play-within-a-play that overwhelms and stands apart from the play it’s within, this Blithe Spirit is an unexpected Christmas treat for diehard Archers listeners such as myself. (I’ve followed the show faithfully since 1999 or so, which still makes me a newbie since the serial began broadcasting in 1951.) Many of us, I suspect, would rather have liked to have heard full-length renditions of that Shakespearean revue (upended by the impatient host Kenton Archer) or last year’s Robin Hood (cast with elderly actors, allegedly in the spirit of the Sean Connery/Audrey Hepburn film Robin & Marian) as Blithe Spirit. But this whole business about Lynda Snell wanting Blithe Spirit to be some trenchant reminder of wartime horrors will definitely add some Archers-style emotional tension to this year’s production.
The spirit of Noel Coward will flit here to Connecticut next month when Dark Tresnjak directs Private Lives at Hartford Stage. The Long Wharf Theatre did Blithe Spirit back in the spring of 1998, directed by John Tillinger and starring Michel Gill as Charles, Jayne Atkinson as Ruth, Margaret Welsh as Elvira and Pamela Payton-Wright as Madame Arcati.