BBC Radio 4, 27 December 2008
The Hollywood of the so-called 'Golden Age' between 1920 and 1950 was a haven for image-makers. Stars with unprepossessing names - Frances Gumm, Fred Austerlitz and Spangler Arlington Brough - were transformed into screen icons Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Robert Taylor. The studios turned out reams of copy portraying their contract players as happily married or eligibly single - even if their sexualities were somewhat dubious. If a star went off the rails, their misdemeanours were carefully concealed; if not, how could someone like Errol Flynn have survived so long? The fanzines helped to reinforce the stars' images through carefully written articles designed to appeal to a mass readership.
Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One offers a gleeful satire of this process of image-making. The central character Dennis (Julian Rhind-Tutt), a Brit trying to make a go of it in 1930s Hollywood, writes verse for a living but falls on hard times. He takes a job in a pet cemetery, preparing the corpses of dead animals for elegant funerals. Dennis spends much of his leisure time amongst the British community, which is mostly comprised of clapped-out writers making a fast buck writing dross for the studios (rather like the novelist Edgar Wallace, whose chief contribution to Hollywood was co-writing the screenplay for the first King Kong (1933)). One such writer, Sir Francis (Clive Swift) has his contract abruptly terminated; and rather than face a life of abject destitution, he hangs himself. Given the responsibility of arranging Sir Francis' funeral, Dennis visits the Whispering Glades Cemetery, where he encounters the lovely Aimée (Jennifer Lee Jellicorse) and the sinister owner Joyboy (Mark Gatiss), an oleaginous character with a voice strongly redolent of Liberace. His idea of creating images is to ensure that all corpses are placed in coffins with smiles on their faces, to create the (false) illusion that they died happily.
The story subsequently embarks on a series of absurd twists and turns, designed to prove that the idea of a "loved one" is nothing more than a fiction. Joyboy works hard to embalm his corpses in a particular way, because that's what "a loved one" might want. Dennis looks for a "loved one," and thinks he has found her, when he is betrothed to Aimée. However he is exposed as a fraud - someone who pretends to write poetry but plagiarizes from Keats. Distraught at the break-up of her affair, Aimée takes her own life, believing that she will never find a "loved one." Meanwhile Dennis threatens to implicate the unfortunate Joyboy in Aimée's death unless the cemetery owner gives him $5000 and a free ticket to England.
The production emphasized the story's darkly comic aspects. Rhind-Tutt's Dennis started as an innocent, almost Bertie Wooster-esque personality, but experience soon taught him to change his character. By the end his voice had acquired an unpleasant sneer as he promised to send Joyboy a postcard every year, showing how "little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven and thinking of you." Joyboy's carefully contrived Liberace impersonation soon altered; once his pretensions had been exposed he began to speak in a high-pitched whine. I felt most sorry for Aimée - a genuine innocent who like most aspiring starlets had come to Hollywood in search of glory, but was eventually destroyed as a result of her naiveté. The director of this Friday Play was Tim Dee.