Guest Actor Biography
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Dennis Price

Jason, Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40?

by Pete Stampede

One day, someone will write a biography of Dennis Price, who was, in his own words (in a 1969 interview in the TV Times), "very nearly Britain's biggest film star." Born into an upper-class family who expected him to enter either the army or the church, he broke away in the mid-30's, getting himself sent down (that's "thrown out" to you and me) from Worcester College, Oxford, and getting into films as an extra. After an early star role for the visionary director Michael Powell in A Canterbury Tale (1944), he starred in several of the soppy, overblown but popular Gainsborough melodramas—but unlike James Mason and Stewart Granger, they did not lead him to Hollywood, and The Bad Lord Byron (1948), in which he starred as the scandalous poet and had high hopes for, was a critical and commercial disaster.

His greatest achievement was as the elegant killer in Ealing Studios' Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). His portayal of Louis Mazzini, murdering his way through the upper-class twit family the d'Ascoynes (all played by Alec Guinness), was all the more effective because under the wit and charm, you felt he really meant it. It's the film he'll always be remembered for, but he was depressed and felt overshadowed by the attention given to Guinness' eight-role display in it. By the mid-50's, Price was drinking heavily, had been messily divorced, declared bankrupt and was largely starring in B features; it all led to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He turned to comedy to revive his career, becoming a member of the Boulting Brothers' company (Private's Progress, I'm All Right Jack) and turning up on radio, such as guest spots on The Goon Show and a sitcom, It's A Deal, in which he contrastingly teamed with Sid James. He was wonderful as a dodgy car salesman in School for Scoundrels (1960), and the following year was in Tony Hancock's best film, The Rebel, as an artistic loon. (A fellow beatnik in that, in an early small role, was Oliver Reed: the parallels between Reed and Price hardly need underlining.)

In 1966, Price's fortunes seemed to be restored when he starred as Jeeves in the BBC's The World of Wooster, even though he needed cue cards for the end-of-episode explanations of how Jeeves had got his master out of trouble (and, compared to the later Fry and Laurie series, it suffered from being all done in the studio with an audience). But then Price went bankrupt again, and left Britain to live in tax exile on the tiny Channel Island of Sark; this limited his later appearances, which from now on were mainly cameos, and must be the main reason for his making five films for barmy, technically incompetent Spanish director Jesus Franco, whose horror efforts often hover on the brink of porn. No wonder Price's daily consumption of Guinness increased, affecting his once dark good looks (not helped by his receding hair) and causing him to gain weight drastically, while his performances, though always done with style, became increasingly camp.

At a time when Price's contemporaries were variously enjoying major film roles, well-paid theatre engagements, long-running TV series and, in some cases, knighthoods, he was making dubbed, befuddled-looking appearances in Vampyros Lesbos (1970), Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein/The Screaming Dead (1972), The Lovers of Devil's Island and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973); the latter was actually X-rated in America, and not shown in Britain. Possibly his appearance in the Australian comedy The Adventures of Barry KcKenzie (1972) was even more embarrassing, the sight of him and Peter Cook in this was a sad example of what talented people are made to do for their beer money. He was also increasingly in low-grade British horrors, like The Haunted House of Horror (1969), Tower of Evil (1972) and Horror Hospital (1973); at least Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Twins of Evil (1971) and That's Your Funeral (1972) were for Hammer, the last being a botched attempt at black comedy. There was a last good role as a bitchy critic called Hector Snipe in the splendid Theatre of Blood (1973), led on by Diana Rigg to being butchered by Vincent Price; but that year, he died in a public ward in a Guernsey hospital from cirrhosis of the liver. His casting in this episode obviously hinged on his Jeeves role; other TV guest spots included The Invisible Man, "Behind the Mask" (1958), The Sentimental Agent, "The Height of Fashion" (1964), Sherlock Holmes with Peter Cushing and Peter Bowles, "The Naval Treaty" (1968), The Golden Shot (1971), Callan, "Charlie Says It's Goodbye" (1972), The Adventurer, "Nearly The End of the Picture" (1972), and a semi-regular role as a senior civil servant trying to keep Jason King (Peter Wyngarde) in check.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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