Friday, 9 September 2011

Kind Hearts and Coronations

The celebrated 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts And Coronets is not the only great British post-war comedy of manners. Benjamin Britten's third opera Albert Herring (1947) has the same tonal core as the film; the lampooning of stereotypes and class heightened by the melodramatisation of death. No doubt this cocktail of morbidity and parochial/familial relationships was part of a general stock-taking, if not exactly soul-searching, with respect to national identity following the war. I've no idea whether the economic downturn and political shift in this country is responsible but this year we have been able to see a new print of the film and no fewer than five productions of the opera nationally (The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Shadwell Opera have given theirs, with Surrey Opera, Aldeburgh and the Royal Northern College of Music yet to come).

Alec Guinness as Agatha D'Ascoyne
What did it mean to be English? What was it that we were fighting for? These are the questions posed by - and answered obliquely - in both film and opera. It's the self-deprecation of the humour combined with the sharp sketching of the characters that provide not so much answers as reassurance. Britons in the last years of the 1940s didn't want to be told something new but rather have sturdy truths freshly articulated. At the centre of this is this peculiar relationship with the establishment. Louis Mazzini/D'Ascoyne cannot seem to reclaim his rightful place in the aristocracy, for all his felonious efforts; the grudging Albert has his ersatz title thrust upon him. What's interesting is that though Louis wants the title and Albert does not, both stories treat the idea of title as immaterial. In trying to ingratiate himself as an aristocrat, Louis proves himself the ideal meritocrat. Albert's act of social rebellion concludes with his wanting to 'get on' at the shop.

Of course, there's a little more flavour to the story. Sex (inevitably, in these baby-boomer years) is an important ingredient in both, albeit buried in the thematic periphery. The catalyst for Louis' execution of his murderous plan comes with the realisation that his sweetheart has chosen status over him. Albert first gives voice to frustration at his own personal stagnation when he sees his contemporaries pawing each other in the shop. The denouement of either has the possibility of the (anti-)hero muscling in on the established sexual twinning: Albert's kissed by a relieved Nancy, hey, that's my girl! complains Sid; and Louis finds he can choose between two women he has made widows.

Rita Cullis as Lady Billows
Above all Kind Hearts And Coronets and Albert Herring provide impeccable caricatures of indelibly British types. The dozen or so adults of Albert Herring are gifted idiosyncratic music by the composer and, of course, the one constant of the D'Ascoyne clan is the splendid malleability of Alec Guinness, even undertaking to play the fearsome matriarch of Kind Hearts, Agatha. More than the fine observation in these sketches though is the compassion they are accorded by both Guinness and Britten (not to mention director Robert Hamer and Britten's librettist, Eric Crozier). These puffed-up bulwarks of society are ridiculous but not by any means evil. They may be lampooned but not detested or dismissed.

The unifying and distinguishing element of both opera and film is the scrupulous detail given over to drafting and rendering language. As the English film director Terence Davies has recently identified, one of the great delights of the film is Denis Price's voiceover, a masterpiece of the barest form of narration that is as perfectly formed and focused as any camera shot. One absorbs the wry and even nonsensical things he has to say about murder because of the crisp manner in which his conscience is delivered.

Similarly Crozier's text works hand in glove with the warp and weft of Britten's music. Surely, many of the lines are local in-jokes, possibly even veiled references to real people within the composer's circle. On their own these are obscure allusions. It's the phonetic substance of the words and their setting which contain the humour even if the actual place or person remains oblique. Even more than this, both film and book contain a vital central scene (the only ensemble scene in both) in which the cast is united in finding the liberties taken in speech - the long-winded eulogy of the first funeral or the interminable speeches at Albert's May Day coronation - intolerable.

So then, in either case the humour is not a series of jokes, nor in its stuffy figures of speech but rather in the language itself and what the screen actors and opera singers are able to do with it. For all the caricature and farce of these great post-war comedies the sparkling comic diamond at their heart is the language.

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