BBC4: Wednesday 25 November, 8pm
The most famous Ealing comedy of them all. It’s a heartless black farce with Dennis Price, ninth in line to a dukedom, eliminating the other eight – all played by Alec Guinness. An inspirational casting coup and Sir Alec creates a priceless cameo out of each role. Yet still he’s upstaged by the supremely poised Price, delivering one of cinema’s most precisely judged voiceover narrations.
It was adapted by John Dighton and director Robert Hamer from an obscure 1907 novel called Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman (founder of the museum still standing at Forest Hill in southeast London). A somewhat laboured Edwardian satire on antisemitism, the book has been transformed into a genuine classic, illuminated not only by Guinness’ goodness as the victims but also by Price’s divine rightness as the villain (behind an ornate moustache, he plays his own father, too).
The title, by the way, comes from Tennyson’s Lady Clara Vere de Vere: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood.” Quite coincidentally, the right of peers to be tried in the House of Lords was abolished the year the film came out, although Ealing supremo Michael Balcon probably tried to take credit for that, too.