How Nichola channelled the spirit of her auntie to create comedy classic

Nichola McAuliffe as Madame Arcat in Blithe Spirit at York Theatre Royal. Photograph: Anthony Robling / York Theatre Royal
22 May 2014 @ 1.21 pm
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Nichola McAuliffe as Madame Arcati. Or is it Auntie Bessie? Photograph: Anthony Robling / York Theatre Royal
Nichola McAuliffe as Madame Arcati. Or is it Auntie Bessie? Photograph: Anthony Robling / York Theatre Royal

When you go to see Blithe Spirit – and you must go, it’s a great night out – you will witness Nichola McAuliffe steal every scene she’s in.

Except it’s not Nichola McAuliffe, it’s Madame Arcati: the eccentric medium who summons up the ghost of writer Charles Condomine’s first wife (much to the annoyance of his second) in this Noel Coward classic comedy.

Except it’s not Madame Arcati – not according to Nichola herself.

“It’s Auntie Bessie. Auntie Bessie lives!” she said.

Nichola based her portrayal of Madame Arcati on her Welsh aunt. “Auntie Bessie was extraordinary. The important thing about Madame Arcati is that people make an assumption about her, and they’re wrong.

“I used to watch people do it time and time again with my Auntie Bessie.”

She recalled the time when Bessie, then in her 80s, rang her sister. “She said ‘I have just been to the hairdressers, and there was a magazine there, Cosmopolitan.

“She said, ‘I’ve been a nurse for 35 years and there are parts of the human anatomy in there I didn’t know existed’.”

At the other end of the phone her sister tut-tutted and said it was disgraceful. “And Auntie Bessie said, ‘I didn’t finish the article I was reading – do you know where I can get a copy?’”

The doctor returns

Among the sophisticated dinner party quartet who dismiss Madame Arcati’s spiritualism in Blithe Spirit is Dr Bradman, played by Blair Plant.

“What occurs in and after the seance, he thinks he can sort out as a doctor. He’s very sceptical,” said Blair.

For him, a show at York Theatre Royal is like a homecoming.

“My first contact with the theatre was when it was a producing house and had a carpentry workshop here – that was in 1984, and I was studying at St John’s College.

“I applied for a job as stage crew, always knowing that I wanted to be an actor.”

It was a lot of fun, especially at a time “when health and safety wasn’t an enormous issue”.

“There’s a Roman well under the stage that we used to lower each other down with ropes round our waist and splash around in the water down there.”

Sceptical: Dr Bradman, as played by Blair Plant
Sceptical: Dr Bradman, as played by Blair Plant

Blair never forgets his time behind the scenes even after many years of appearing in the spotlight.

“You have a greater respect for the stage management and the stage crew. A lot of actors who I’ve come across don’t have that, and treat them very badly – which is completely disrespectful.”

York Theatre Royal artistic director Damian Cruden has abolished the demarcation between front and backstage to create a greater sense of teamwork, Blair says.

“It’s like being a partner in John Lewis – you’re going to care a lot more because you have a shared interest.”

“And we are never knowingly underacted, are we?” Nichola chimes in, laughing.

Chewing pins, drinking champagne

Some modern critics complain Blithe Spirit is sexist – after all, the man of the house, Charles, seems only to happy to rid himself of both his wives.

Nichola disagrees. “It’s like Shakespeare, all these great playwrights, they’re not xenophobic, they’re not misanthropic, they just write the play as they see it.

“Noel Coward loved Gertie Lawrence beyond belief.”

An accomplished novelist and playwright herself, Nichola knows good writing when she reads it.

“The difference between a bad writer and a good writer is a bad writer’s words is like chewing drawing pins.

“It is physically painful to say a badly written script – and very difficult to learn. Good scripts, it’s like the best champagne – the bubbles just tickle the tongue.”

Do they believe in ghosts? Blair shakes his head. He’s never even seen the Grey Lady, the Theatre Royal’s famous apparition.

“Me neither,” Nichola agrees. “Henry VIII and his six wives could be sitting on my lap now and I wouldn’t know it. I’m like a badly tuned radio.”

‘We had a riot’

With Duncan Preston in the sitcom Surgical Spirit
With Duncan Preston in the sitcom Surgical Spirit

She is perhaps best known for playing Sheila Sabatini in the sitcom Surgical Sprit, which ran on ITV for six years in the Nineties.

“We had a laugh, we had a riot,” she says, adding: “I discourage discussion of the past.”

So instead we look to the future. Maurice’s Jubilee, Nichola’s hit play, is about to open at Moscow Arts Theatre.

“And I’ve got a new situation comedy I’ve written – I don’t know what’s happening to that. But anyway it’s been bought.”

She remains tight lipped about what the sitcom will be about.

But Blair is happy to talk about the past and future of one of his recent hits, The Railway Children.

Adapted by York writer Mike Kenny and, like Blithe Spirit, directed by Damian Cruden, it was first performed to great acclaim at the National Railway Museum – and may soon be back there.

“We planted a thousand seat theatre on top of the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station which isn’t used any more,” Blair said.

“Anyone who saw the York railway museum version, it’s almost exactly the same. We won our Olivier award and I believe it’s coming back to the railway museum again, this year or next for a year.”