|Alec Guinness as Agatha D'Ascoyne|
Of course, there's a little more flavour to the story. Sex (inevitably, in these baby-boomer years) is an important ingredient in both, albeit buried in the thematic periphery. The catalyst for Louis' execution of his murderous plan comes with the realisation that his sweetheart has chosen status over him. Albert first gives voice to frustration at his own personal stagnation when he sees his contemporaries pawing each other in the shop. The denouement of either has the possibility of the (anti-)hero muscling in on the established sexual twinning: Albert's kissed by a relieved Nancy, hey, that's my girl! complains Sid; and Louis finds he can choose between two women he has made widows.
|Rita Cullis as Lady Billows|
The unifying and distinguishing element of both opera and film is the scrupulous detail given over to drafting and rendering language. As the English film director Terence Davies has recently identified, one of the great delights of the film is Denis Price's voiceover, a masterpiece of the barest form of narration that is as perfectly formed and focused as any camera shot. One absorbs the wry and even nonsensical things he has to say about murder because of the crisp manner in which his conscience is delivered.
Similarly Crozier's text works hand in glove with the warp and weft of Britten's music. Surely, many of the lines are local in-jokes, possibly even veiled references to real people within the composer's circle. On their own these are obscure allusions. It's the phonetic substance of the words and their setting which contain the humour even if the actual place or person remains oblique. Even more than this, both film and book contain a vital central scene (the only ensemble scene in both) in which the cast is united in finding the liberties taken in speech - the long-winded eulogy of the first funeral or the interminable speeches at Albert's May Day coronation - intolerable.
So then, in either case the humour is not a series of jokes, nor in its stuffy figures of speech but rather in the language itself and what the screen actors and opera singers are able to do with it. For all the caricature and farce of these great post-war comedies the sparkling comic diamond at their heart is the language.