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I n the vaulting back room of a church off Islington's Upper Street in north London, five bad bogus men are plotting to bump off a little old lady. It is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Not only is The Ladykillers one of Britain's best-loved films, but the cast of the production — Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers , Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Danny Green — did include one or two actors that modern film programmes like to wrongly refer to as "legends", even if pedantry aside you know what they mean.
But this won't be a film; it's a stage version. And it's far from a knock-off of the film. The story's pretty much the same, of course — criminals posing as musicians in a little old lady's guesthouse, as they plot a bank job; little old lady finds the loot; duplicity and betrayals and deaths ensue, just not in the way you'd think. It says a lot for their belief in the project when I learn they're all now committed to it until April — it opens in Liverpool and moves to London in November — because these are not people lacking current job offers.
But it is not, repeat not, a simple rehashing of the film, love the original though they all do. That was the mistaken assumption made by the Today programme, which asked Linehan if he had "changed it much". Linehan, bridling at the suggestion he'd simply transcribed it, and realising he was being set up for one of those confected cultural "arguments" not unknown to our beloved Today , refused to play along. He is charming, but rather an imposing, and deeply principled, man. He began to answer in dry and deliberately unhelpful monosyllables, denied the chance to talk about his own creation for the sake of a shanghaied un-debate on originality.
Radio gold it was. Actually, it sounds different enough already to stifle the purists, though doubtless there will be rumbles. Until they see it. It's very different now; there's a lot of very, very physical stuff. And it's been a joy to do, if new territory for me, and hard work. Sean is quite a… stickler. Miller, like all the others, can easily separate this work from the original, keeping a clear linked duality: they seem in love with Linehan's script, but can't help making reference to the film, which they also loved.
This is comedy without template, which you don't see these days. Maybe the Coen brothers. That's it. And now Graham, and this. Clive Rowe, who plays One-Round, is one cast member who hasn't seen the film — deliberately so. Apart from anything else, I don't look much like him [Danny Green]. There's isn't a person of my, um, hue in the film. He's a character of that era, the 50s, when there was quite a lot of… moral duplicity.
It's a fascinating time, isn't it, but we do have rose-tinted specs about it, particularly in cockney world. Wight is not the first to tell me that he "can't wait to get on to the real set". It is, apparently, extraordinary, one of the stars of the show: a warped, sliding, lame, crooked house in which all the action occurs. The real challenge for him, he says, was "getting to grips with some of the technical physical stuff, props and timing and the rest.
There's a rhythm to this physical comedy, it's almost like a dance troupe, and you have to get it spot-on — everyone, say, putting their hats on at exactly the same time — and these are tricks and skills, which I at least have had to learn.
They really are a terribly nice bunch, this lot, but perhaps the nicest and most self-effacing is James Fleet, who in real life still seems to be channelling his character, nice Tom, from Four Weddings. Fleet is Major Courtney, and I've just watched him rehearse, with breathy stammering, his introduction by the professor to Mrs Wilberforce. It's in the writing, of course, but also the set, props, music. We have that authenticity of the age, the way that their cuffs and trousers were always a little threadbare.
I am bizarrely glad that, when Peter Capaldi comes offstage for his chat with me, he's removed the long scarf in which he'd been bedecked in the manner of a criminal professor. On stage, it had added significantly to his air of menace and deceit; he was treating the beaming Mrs W with wheedling charm while another side of his face was twitching with twisted insincerity.
He is, of course, all real Scots charm in person, and happy to admit that he's still learning. Learning about the super-clarity that is needed on stage to bring about thatslight sidetracking of reality. And balancing doing justice to Graham's script with a consciousness of what the original film seems to mean to the people of Britain.
It was, surely, a film that could only have been made back then? There was a chaotic fallout from the war. A sense of a change of class barriers, of government, of expectations, of certainties, that was probably, at times, brutal. And I think there was a potential or even need for reinvention; of identities, status, personae.
So you got quite a few bogus gentlemen around the land. Gloriously captured in the film. We all want to do it justice, but also remember that we're putting on a theatrical experience, a live show. With just a fabulous list of people; I knew from the off that I wanted to be part of this.
It would have been daft not to get on board. Graham Linehan , when we meet as the others grab sandwiches, is flustered from traffic but more so, I suspect, from, at the moment, being the ghost at the feast.
I find it very, very hard to take myself away from things, to relinquish any amount of control. But this time I had to step away. I needed someone who understood the language of the theatre.
I've seen almost everything he's done, and do trust him. But it's still hard not to interfere. I really wish I could get my hands on certain bits I'd written. Maybe later, once we're there. The more we talk the more I realise he loves the original film with a passion. He has read Mackendrick's book on film craft and thinks it's "genius". I just noticed the other day the doorbell ringing. It's such a horrible grinding chime. Says it all.
It's a glorious film, but when the pitch was made to me by the producers, to rewrite — well, it was a really good pitch. So I thought, yes, I'll take that on. Yes, a little ambitious. But I could expand the other characters, give them more space and time, find reasons , and bring some things, later things, to it — oddly, I thought quite a bit of Reservoir Dogs , another great film where the robbery sits mainly in the back story, and it's all about the personalities afterwards.
Your best writing partner is yourself, three weeks down the line. You put your work away for a while, take it out and see if it's any good. Then the bad shouldn't get through. Lunchtime cups of tea are being brewed on a trestle table before resumption, and I finally grab the nicely frantic director, Sean Foley.
He doesn't look like he's having fun, but he is. He's about the 18th person to tell me about the "phenomenal" real set, currently being built up in Liverpool. Back then people didn't know quite what to make of the trailers for the film; it wasn't a thriller, or a comedy, or a drama; none of them, quite.
It was, in the end, billed as a 'delightfully different entertainment'. And I've tried to keep that phrase in my head. At the end, our purpose is to give people an entertainingly good night. If we get this right, that'll be exactly it. Ealing Studios' two great directors each peaked with a classic black comedy starring Alec Guinness. Both are outrageous tales of multiple murder, allegories about a troubled Britain in transition. In Mackendrick's film, Guinness heads a gang disguised as a string quintet planning a heist from the home of an innocent old lady.
She represents a fading tradition of gentility, the bizarre criminals are a cross-section of a nation in decline. Guinness's sinister Professor Marcus modelled on cadaverous Observer theatre critic Ken Tynan is a cut-price Moriarty. The one true professional is Herbert Lom as ruthless central European Louis.
It was Ealing's final triumph. And… "Hi, I'm Ben," says a softly spoken, softly bearded man, offering his hand. Topics Graham Linehan The Observer. Reuse this content. Most popular.
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Ladykillers, The (2004)
It stars Tom Hanks , Irma P. Hall , Marlon Wayans , J. The Ladykillers received mixed reviews upon release, and several critics consider it one of the Coen brothers' weaker efforts, negatively comparing it to the English classic. Marva Munson, a strict, religious and elderly widow, meets "Professor" Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, a southern classicist and Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast who expresses interest in the room she has for rent and asks to use her root cellar for rehearsals of an early music ensemble he directs, to which she agrees. The fellow musicians in the pretend ensemble are actually a gang of criminals. The band are composed of a dim football player named Lump as the "muscle", the overconfident movie effects technician Garth Pancake as the "jack of all trades" who suffers from IBS , the crass and sloppy Gawain McSam as their "inside man", and the Vietnamese, tough-as-nails General as their "tunneling expert" who hides his chain smoking from the disapproving Mrs. Munson by concealing his cigarette in his mouth.
Join StageAgent today and unlock amazing theatre resources and opportunities. Research Playwrights, Librettists, Composers and Lyricists. Browse Theatre Writers. The Ladykillers is a classic black comedy. Mrs Wilberforce, a sweet little old lady, rents out a room in her lopsided house to Marcus, a professor of music. She is blissfully unaware that he is actually a maniacal criminal who is putting together against a gang of misfits who will stop at nothing to commit the heist of their careers.