Monday, 26 October 2015

White Mischief (1987)



In reality, cliques are the most insufferable tedious bore. However, on screen or on the printed page there's a fascination to be had for them, and none more so than the Happy Valley set of British aristocrats and adventurers in the Wanjohi Valley region of colonial Kenya from the 1920s to the 1940s. While the dark clouds of war gathered in Europe and the bombs began to drop on London, this notorious clique continued their hedonistic existence of wife swapping, adultery and excessive drinking and drug taking.


White Mischief tells the true and scandalous story of Sir 'Jock' Delves Broughton, who left the UK in 1940 to take up residence in Kenya with his new wife, Diana who was thirty years his junior. Soon after their arrival, Diana met and fell in love with Josslyn Victor Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll; a serial womaniser and gambler, who specialised in seducing rich married women and was feared by husbands as a result. Broughton appeared sanguine about his wife's affair with this predatory charmer and even dined out with them on the night of January 24 1941 - the night Erroll was subsequently found shot dead in his car.


An obvious suspect, Delves Broughton was brought to trial for the murder and the media coverage cast a devastating spotlight on the extravagant lifestyles and social mores of the idle rich in Africa while Britain suffered at the height of the blitz and endured harsh rationing. 


In what was considered a blatant miscarriage of justice, Delves Broughton was found not guilty, as there was no proof to convict him. Disgraced, he left his wife in Kenya and sailed home to England where he committed suicide by a lethal overdose of morphine in a bedroom at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool.


Michael Radford's film, based on the book by James Fox (not to be confused with the actor of the same name), has long been a favourite of mine. It's not a classic by any means and has received over the years some distinctly unfair criticism but I have always found it extremely watchable and make a point of catching it every few years, often on one of its many screenings on TV. I first became aware of it in the early '90s thanks to my sister's then boyfriend who loved the salaciousness of it and the fact that it featured its star Greta Scacchi - who played the role of Diana - in the nude. He had a thing for Scacchi, and who could blame him: she's gorgeous.


Whenever White Mischief appears on the BBC the Radio Times reviews it in the poorest terms describing Joss Ackland's performance as Delves Broughton as one that is 'overacting terribly' - it's a damning verdict I have never seen any truth in. I think he's perfectly fine in the role, delivering an austere, bloodless turn as the cuckolded husband who exacts his revenge upon the Valley's number one lothario, played with an impeccably sensuous magnetism by Charles Dance, and he of course makes a beautiful, chemistry-fuelled couple with Scacchi. Radford assembles a great supporting cast to play 'the set' of expats; Murray Head, Jacqueline Pearce, Susan Fleetwood, Trevor Howard, Geraldine Chaplin, Catherine Neilson, John Hurt and a compellingly oddball turn from a wraith-like Sarah Miles as the infamous Alice de Janzé, a ukulele playing, morphine injecting, emotionally unstable 'casualty' of hedonism. There's also Ray McAnally as a barrister in the trial and, in an early London scene, a young Hugh Grant.


The screenplay by Radford and Jonathan Gems may take some liberties with the facts (specifically in Delves Broughton's suicide) but it positively crackles with some wonderful dialogue; "Oh, God. Not another fucking beautiful day" Miles mutters with weary contempt as she opens up the shutters upon the Kenyan morning; "She shot her husband," Neilson gossips to Scacchi about Miles. "In Kenya?", "No, in the balls"; "Every time I see his fingernails," Fleetwood confides to Scacchi in reference to the approaching 'gone native' monosyllabic eccentric Gilbert Colville played by John Hurt, "I thank God I don't have to look at his feet" ; "The more I see of men, the more I like dogs" she later glumly remarks; and in one wife-swapping scene, Dance demurs the advances of a naked Pearce, explaining, "Don't be ridiculous Idina, you were my wife" and, when there seems to be no takers, she is left to bemusedly announce "This is frightfully unsettling. Doesn't anyone want to fuck me?"


In short, if you see White Mischief pop up as it often does late at night on the BBC, ignore the naysayers and give it a whirl.

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