This week sees the centenaries of novelist Daphne du Maurier (May 13) and Laurence Olivier (May 22). There will be events celebrating the former across Cornwall (see www.dumaurier.org) and on the BBC, but sadly the latter looks to be left uncelebrated. Even the Old Vic and the National Theatre for which he did so much work have no plans to commemorate his life or work this year.
Into this breach steps the BBC: happily the talents of both can be appreciated in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca, which the beeb is showing on Saturday (BBC2, 5.15pm). The director’s first Hollywood film, it garnered two Oscars, one for Best Picture, and was one of only two adaptations of her work that du Maurier approved of. The book was carried by Chamberlain on the way to negotiate peace with Hitler and begins with one of the most evocative phrases in literature: ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley…’
And neither the book nor the film lets you down after that, all the way to an end that is genuinely shocking no matter how often you see it. All the stars put in career-defining performances: Olivier at his haughtiest; Joan Fontaine (90 this year) who looks genuinely haunted throughout (Olivier wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the role and didn’t like Fontaine. Hitchcock told her everyone on the set hated her); and George Sanders at his most louche.
But the creepy heart of the film is Judith Anderson (who would be 110 this year) as Mrs Danvers. Hitchcock wanted to enhance her menace by having her seem to float (you rarely see her feet). She’s scary enough when you’re young, but with adult eyes, you finally appreciate just how unsettling and inappropriate her relationship with Rebecca was.
This film is definitely one of my guilty pleasures and really stands up to repeat viewings. If you haven’t seen it, I beg of you to treat yourself – you won’t regret it.
Also on Saturday is Rick Stein in du Maurier Country (BBC2, 8.10pm) and Daphne (BBC2, 9pm), starring Geraldine Somerville, Elizabeth McGovern and Janet McTeer, which explores the novelist’s unrequited love for American heiress Ellen Doubleday and her relationship with Gertrude Lawrence.
By the way, if you’re a classic film fan, you might want to settle in for BBC2’s triple bill of The Philadelphia Story (1.40pm), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (3.30pm) and Rebecca. Bliss, sheer bliss…