The Ladykillers: Linehan’s dream play

Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Alex Guinness, Danny Green and Katie Johnson in The Ladykillers
Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Alex Guinness, Danny Green and Katie Johnson in The Ladykillers
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Liam Rudden discovers the origins of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers

PASSPORT To Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets and Whisky Galore! Just three of the classic comedies that made Ealing Studios a household name back in the 40s and 50s.

All had dark undertones of one sort or another. However, it was William Rose’s The Ladykillers that can perhaps lay claim to being the blackest of all the Ealing comedies.

In it, a dear little old lady, alone in her house, is pitted against a gang of ruthless criminal misfits who will stop at nothing... including murder. Posing as amateur musicians, Professor Marcus and his gang rent rooms in the lopsided house of Mrs Wilberforce.

The villains plot to involve her unwittingly in Marcus’ brilliantly conceived heist job. The police are left stumped but Mrs Wilberforce becomes wise to their ruse and Marcus concludes that there is only one way to keep the old lady quiet.

With only her parrot, General Gordon, to help her, Mrs W is alone with five desperate men. But who will be forced to face the music first?

Next week, at the King’s Theatre, the hit West End comedy finds Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em star Michele Dotrice, ex-EastEnder Shaun Williamson and Casualty’s Clive Mantle heading up Graham Linehan’s hilarious stage adaptation.

Earlier this year I met Kindred Rose, son of William Rose, who revealed that The Ladykillers was very nearly a story that was never told.

He explained, “My dad’s first wife, Tania, told me that one night, in the summer of 1954, he had woken her up and told her of this strange dream he’d had about five criminals who knew that, to get away with their last robbery, they had to kill this lovely old lady. However, the more they tried, the more difficult it became, until only she was left.

“He told Tania all this in the middle of the night and then promptly went back to sleep. The next morning at breakfast she asked if he remembered his dream and he had no recollection of it whatsoever.

“She then told him his dream... so he first heard his story of The Ladykillers from her.”

That story was quickly embraced by the studio with The Ladykillers released very soon after.

Rose adds, “With almost all his other films, my father would talk about them for years before they would be developed. This was the fastest turn around of them all - just a matter of months from having the dream to it being in the cinema. Ealing fast-tracked it because everyone loved it but even so, that’s quite impressive.”

The Ladykillers is also the only one of Rose’s films in which everyone dies.

“From day one he insisted that the characters shouldn’t be too real. They had to be caricatures because if the audience empathises too much, then having them all die at the end would be too dark and wouldn’t be funny. So they are meant to be cartoon-like, the opposite of the characters in his other films.”

That larger-than-life quality is also captured in the new stage production which Rose junior believes his father would have admired.

“Other play adaptations have been straight forward copies of the film dialogue and they did well, but when I first read the Graham Lineham script he had clearly reworked it into a new style.

“It’s lighter and there’s much more comedy. I think my father would have admired the structure of the piece and the way the is told, although he was very hard to please so I can’t say for sure.”

The Ladykillers, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm (mats 2.30pm), £14-£27.50, 0131-529 6000