Sunday, August 12, 2007
Dennis Price: British film's brightest light
As the BBC and the British Film Council celebrate a Summer of British Film, here's my piece from today's Sunday Express, telling the sad story of the late, great Dennis Price (above), star of one of the greatest British films of all time, Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Mention 'Classic British films' and its a fair bet that Kind Hearts and Coronets will feature highly on many people's lists. The superb black comedy, in which Dennis Price, playing the black sheep of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family, murders his way to the family title has been enjoyed by generations since it was first released almost sixty years ago.
At the time Dennis Price was the one of the biggest stars of the British film industry. With his Byronic good looks, charm and intelligence, the young actor was in demand not just by film studios but by London society generally. Popular with the British film-going public and all who knew him, Price looked to have the world at his feet. Why, then, did it all go wrong?
While Price’s post-war contemporaries Alec Guinness, James Mason and John Mills went on to achieve honours and international acclaim, the man who at one time seemed set to fly higher than them all, and who was regarded by John Gielgud, Noel Coward and the film director Michael Powell as one of Britain’s finest acting talents, died penniless after a fall at his home in the Channel Islands at the age of 58.
Dennis Price's later years were ones of a sad, alcohol-fuelled decline. One of my earliest memories is of sitting with my parents on the terrace of the Hermitage Hotel, St Peter Port, Guernsey in the late 1960s. A few yards away at the foot of the steps leading into the bar stood a man: tall and rather distinguished looking, very smartly dressed, with a friendly, worn face and sad grey eyes. The man tottered down the steps and swaying as though he were on a cross channel ferry, greeted the guests, us included, before making his way out. The man, my father whispered to us, was "a very famous actor" called Dennis Price. A few years later, in 1973, the very famous actor was dead. Taken to hospital with a broken hip, Price died there from a heart attack a few days later.
Things could- and should- have turned out very differently.
The youngest son of a long-established upper-class family (father a Brigadier-General, mother a daughter of a High Court Judge), Dennistoun John Franklin Rose-Price was born on 23rd June 1915 at Ruscombe in Berkshire. Educated at Radley (where he shared a room with Desmond Llewellyn, later to be famous as ‘Q’ in the James Bond films) and Worcester College Oxford, Price left university without taking his degree and in the face of strong parental opposition, went to study for the stage at the Embassy Theatre School in London. The problem was one of family expectation: Rose-Prices were meant to serve the British Empire, as colonial governors, military bigwigs or leading judges- and not train to be actors. Undaunted, Price got his first professional break exactly seventy years ago this summer, making his London stage debut in John Gielgud’s 1937 production of Richard II. The outbreak of war halted his fledgling career but in 1942, after being invalided out of the Army, he returned to acting, and appeared in the lead role in Noel Coward’s 1943 production of Blithe Spirit. The launch of Price's film career was soon to follow. Director Michael Powell, who was looking to cast ‘A Canterbury Tale’ saw Price on stage and became determined to give the "impudently well-mannered" young actor his chance in movies.
After an impressive film debut further roles swiftly followed. Price’s career in the movies seemed set fair: in 1944 ‘Picturegoer’ magazine named him as one of its ‘three men to watch’. The immediate post-war years saw Price star in a series of Gainsborough Studio dramas, and Price’s performances, especially when playing elegant cads, were invariably full of panache.
In 1949, he landed his most memorable screen role, that of Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Today, the enormity of Price’s contribution to the film, for his superbly measured portrayal of the most elegant, articulate and well-mannered serial killer in cinematic history, has at last been properly recognised. But at the time, and for long afterwards, it was Price’s co-star Alec Guinness, for his playing of the eight members of the ill-fated D’Ascoyne family who earned the plaudits. Whether or not it was "mythology", as Guinness claimed, that Price was depressed at the way a performance of a lifetime had been overshadowed; Kind Hearts and Coronets, which should have been the springboard for even greater things from Price, only marked the beginning of his decline. Other worries too were pushing him to despair.
Price had married in 1939 the actress Joan Schofield and had two young daughters. But although film annuals of the day painted a picture of domestic bliss, the reality was somewhat different. Price was bisexual and in addition to having an affair with actress Margaret Lockwood, he also found it hard to resist the attractions of other men. By 1950 Schofield had had enough and a messy and acrimonious divorce action followed. The possibility of being outed as a bisexual would have given Price plenty of reasons to worry : in those days homosexual activity could be punishable by imprisonment and exposure would almost certainly have meant the end of his career.
The ever-sensitive actor increasingly sought refuge in alcohol. "He lived on Guinness" recalls fellow actor John Fraser. "About a crate of Guinness a day was his consumption, starting at breakfast. He was always drunk, but he never fell over and could, with occasional lapses, and in a general sort of way, stick to the script".
The nadir was reached on Easter Monday 1954, when Price was dragged unconscious out of the gas-filled kitchen of a Kensington guest house.
The publicity generated by his suicide attempt ironically helped restart Price’s career. Over the next decade, although rarely seen in leading roles, Price was nevertheless to put in some sterling performances. In Ronald Neame’s ‘Tunes of Glory’ (1960), he was superb as the cowardly Major Charlie Scott. A year later, in Basil Dearden’s ground breaking ‘Victim’, Price played a blackmailed homosexual actor. If Price was indeed being blackmailed in real life, as was rumoured at the time of his death, it makes his performance even more courageous.
From the late 50s onwards Price was also seen to increasing effect in light comedy roles.
In ‘Private’s Progress’ (1957) and its famous sequel ‘I’m All Right Jack’(1959), Price is magnificent as Bertram (later Sir Bertram) Tracepurcel, the snooty officer turned corrupt industrialist- a man "so wrapped up in the Union Jack no one can see what he’s up to behind it". In ‘The Naked Truth ’(1957), he excels as the editor of a society scandal sheet, and in ‘School for Scoundrels(1960)’ he is the slimiest of second-hand car salesmen. Price’s comedy performances, even if they were just the briefest of cameos, such as a fish-tank dwelling beatnik in Tony Hancock‘s ‘The Rebel’(1961), or a gentleman confidence trickster in the Peter Sellers vehicle ‘The Wrong Arm of the Law’ (1962) were always memorable.
"In whatever role he played he always carried with him a twinkle" recalls Richard Attenborough, Price’s co-conspirator in both Private’s Progress and I’m All Right Jack. "He was the most delicate and subtle of actors with a complete understanding of what acting for the cinema entailed. He was wonderful to act with".
In addition to his film career, Price also kept busy with stage, radio and television work. In 1965 Frank Muir was looking for an actor with "an air of reticence and mystery" to play Jeeves in the new BBC tv series ‘World of Wooster’. He enlisted Price, and was rewarded with a portrayal of the eponymous butler which P.G. Wodehouse himself considered the best he had ever seen.
In 1967 however, Price’s fortunes dipped again. Ian Carmichael, who played Bertie Wooster in 'World of Wooster', remembers going to the pub with Price during a break from rehearsals. "Dennis was sitting there rather quietly and looking very sad. I asked him what the matter was and he said he had had to pawn his wrist-watch". Owing £20,000 to the Inland Revenue, Price was declared bankrupt. Citing "extravagant living and most inadequate gambling" for his predicament, he beat, in his own words a "strategic retreat" to the Channel Island of Sark. A series of cameos in low grade horror films followed: although Price himself wrote of the "challenges" of the genre, his appearances in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ and ‘Erotic Rites of Frankenstein’ were to many a sign of a career in terminal decline. His last film, the comedy-horror Theatre of Blood was at least a good one, though Price’s on screen demise, speared to death in an empty theatre by his wildly homicidal namesake Vincent, was probably not the cinematic farewell he would have wished for.
On the face of it, it is hard to regard a career that starts alongside Gielgud in Richard II and ends in drunken performances in dubbed Spanish horror films as anything other than a failure. Had Price managed to kick the booze and lived at least into the 1980s, he could well have seen a revival in his fortunes, a knighthood and perhaps, like his early mentor, even a belated call from Hollywood.
But despite his sad and premature demise, Price still leaves a rich legacy. He starred in what is now rightly regarded by many as Britain’s greatest ever film, and it is his performance which more than any other, makes it such. He was the best Jeeves there ever was and is ever likely to be and over 100 films are enlightened by his presence.
Furthermore, there is Price the human being to consider. Whatever his inner torment, Price, in his conduct towards his fellow man, rang true every time. Alec Guinness "revered" him. Ian Carmichael remembers "a perfect gentleman"; Richard Attenborough, a "gracious man", with "a total absence of pretensions", while Avengers star Patrick Macnee, who once rented a room from Price, along with the chickens, ducks and assorted wildfowl he shared his flat with, regarded Price as "one of the sweetest men who ever lived". Price once modestly remarked: "I am not a star. I lack the essential spark. I am a second rate feature actor".. But what Price lacked was not "spark", which he had in abundance, but the assertiveness and aptitude for self promotion necessary to survive in the hurly-burly world of film-making. Dirk Bogarde, a contemporary of Price, and a man who was also forced to conceal his true sexuality, promoted himself so well that he ended up knighted and a very wealthy man. Price, easily as good an actor, died without so much as a C.B.E.
With the renewed interest in classic British films, let us hope that one of post-war cinema's finest talents- and undoubtedly one of its kindest hearts- finally receives the acclaim he so richly deserves.