Peter Cotes, author of “Trial of Elvira Barney”, was at the time of the events in question acting in Noel Coward’s “Cavalcade”. Such was the size of the cast that it often seems that about half of the aspiring or stage-struck young thespians of the period were in the show. Barbara Waring, a possible cocktail party attendee and late night guest of Arthur Jeffress was, and Sylvia Coke and Irene Potter may well have been.
First nighters at Cavalcade
Anyhow, Cotes reports that the Barney trial was quite a sensation and a nightly talking point for the cast and suggests that Coward may have stored away the name to bestow upon one of the most endearingly mischievous female figures in British theatre – Elvira in “Blithe Spirit” (Stage 41-44, Film 1945). In fact, Cotes’ book is prefaced with Elvira’s lines from the play – “Why shouldn’t I have fun? I died young, didn’t I?”
Kay Hammond (1909-1980), who played Elvira in the stage and film versions was another late 20s’ RADA graduate on the West End scene in the early 1930s.The daughter of Sir Guy Standing, she married the 3rd Baronet Leon – an Old Etonian and an Oxford contemporary of Evelyn Waugh – and got her major acting break in Rattigan’s “French Without Tears”.
It is certainly the case that, in Popular Culture, the hitherto rather obscure Christian name, Elvira, has become a shorthand-code for wickedness and/or general waywardness . In the world of z-grade horror films, Elvira crops up with monotonous regularity – usually as an excessively sexualised but essentially comic vampire.
Agatha Christie borrows the name for her murderess in “At Bertram’s Hotel” – although it is Elvira Blake’s mother who more properly belongs to the “fast set” of the 1930s. The 1965 novel is redolent with nostalgia for a privileged -if not always entirely respectable – world that had by then almost completely vanished.