Kind Hearts by Andy Rashleigh

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Kind Hearts by Andy Rashleigh. Dir. Clive Brill. Perf. Anton Lesser, Adam Godley, Rebecca Saire. BBC Radio 4, 15 Sep. 2006. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 23 Jun. 2015. BBCiPlayer

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949) remains one of the best-loved of the postwar Ealing comedies. A blacker-than-black comedy scripted by Robert Hamer and John Dighton, it is chiefly remembered for Alec Guinness"s virtuoso performance in eight different roles, complemented by Dennis Price's drily comic turn as the murderer. The film was adapted into a radio play with Robert Powell and Harry Enfield.

Andy Rashleigh's play, re-broadcast to mark the hundredth anniversary of Price's birth, reveals that the experience of the film's creation was a melancholy one for the director and one of the stars. Recounted in flashback by director Hamer (Anton Lesser), it recounts the difficulties he experienced with producer Michael Balcon (Nick Sampson), a paternal studio boss who believed in the team ethic reminiscent of the old-style public school, with everyone pulling together to create a specifically Ealing-style product. Hamer was never going to fit into this culture; he was an individualist perpetually concerned with pushing the borders of acceptability in his scripts. The subject-matter of "Kind Hearts and Coronets" was just too strong for Balcon; throughout the filming, he tried to soften it, or at least unravel its ambiguous morality. Hamer managed to preserve the script as originally written, but at considerable personal cost.

The nominal star of the film was Price (Adam Godley), but to his chagrin he discovered that Guinness (Jo Stone-Fewlings) received all the plaudits for his virtuoso characterizations. The play depicted Guinness as something of an egotist; convinced of his own abilities, he regaled his fellow-actors with hackneyed jokes, most of which they had heard several times before. By contrast Price, for all his undoubted talent, was doomed to failure, both personally as well as professionally; the strain of concealing his homosexuality beneath a heterosexual fašade proving too great for him.

In the end both the star and the director met the kind of grisly fates that the D'Ascoyne family met in the film. Hamer ended up a hopeless alcoholic, imagining that a giant lobster had come to get him; while Price was so hard up that he had to take any role, even in trashy Spanish horror films. The play's title proved ironic; in the cut-throat film business presided over by benevolent tyrants like Balcon, there were no "kind hearts" who could save the two protagonists' careers.