BBC Radio 7, 13 December 2009
How do you adapt a classic film, whose story, performances and direction are so etched in the public consciousness that it becomes difficult to imagine anyone else doing it? This kind of question is clearly pertinent to the Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1955) was badly remade recently with Tom Hanks in the lead, proving beyond doubt that writers cannot simply update the plot and expect to create an entertaining piece. The same difficulties could also apply to Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Robert Hamer's black comedy in which Alec Guinness played multiple roles, and Dennis Price played the multiple murderer.
Adapter Gilbert Travers-Thomas and director Andy Jordan understood the difficulties involved in creating a radio version, and wisely decided to stay close to the original script, even using some of the film's original music to recreate a period feel. Great care was taken in casting: Michael Kitchen played the Dennis Price role of Louis Mazzini as an innocent driven to commit murder by the indifference of his aristocratic family. As he gradually worked hjis way through the D'Ascoynes, he never lost his sang-froid: everything was done in a gentlemanly manner. The D'Ascoyne family was played by Harry Enfield, who obviously thoroughly enjoyed playing multiple roles. Enfield is not a chameleon like Guinness (i.e. someone who so thoroughly absorbs himself in specific roles that it is difficult to identify the 'real' person underneath); rather he is a talented actor/impressionist blessed with a considerable vocal range. To give the production a 1950s feel, Jordan cast David Lodge, veteran of the Rank Organization as well as the Carry On films as Inspector Burgoyne, and the late Michael Denison as the prosecuting counsel charged with cross-examining Louis Mazzini in court.
Given the attention paid to the casting, was this production actually entertaining to listen to? I have to say yes: Hamer and Dighton's script is so good, so literate that it could work in any medium, while Jordan's direction - dividing the action into short scenes linked with snatches of music and appropriately macabre sound effects (a sinking ship, a burning shed\ a bullet fired from a pistol) - ensured that the pace never flagged. Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of those wish-fulfilling comedies, enabling Mazzini to do the kinds of things to his relatives that many of us have no doubt wished to do ourselves. Although the play (and film) has Mazzini brought to justice in the end (due no doubt to the censorship restrictions placed on British films in the late 1940s), we nonetheless admire his sheer gall in overcoming all obstacles in his dream to acceed to the dukedom.