Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably the best and blackest of the British 1950s comedies written for the screen. The film tells the story of an illegitimate boy who grows up determined to become a Duke, because his biological father is an aristocrat who refuses to help or even recognise the boy’s poor mother. And become a Duke Dennis Price does, by killing off eight members of a ducal family (all played by a spectacular Alec Guinness) who must be dispatched for him to acquire the title. Each of his victims is called ‘Gascoyne’. It is very likely that the film’s screenwriter was thinking of a certain marquesate when he wrote this name, precisely the Gascoigne-Cecils, one of whom was called Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoigne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury.
Robert was Prime Minister three times: 1885 – 86, 1886 – 92 & 1895 – 1902. He was an aristocratic landowner and direct descendent of Queen Elizabeth the First’s chief minister Burghley. He kept himself to himself, remained aloof from ordinary mortals, was neurotic and difficult and deeply intellectual. He became a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, which as the Reader will know is the only university in the world with no pupils, just professors, who think and write a great deal and enjoy the best cooking in Oxford. Best wines too.
Robert did not really believe in democracy or progress and decided early on that his job in this world was to defend the interests of the landed, educated and cultured, which meant a small, a very small minority in late Victorian England. He was against any kind of radical change, and became a Member of Parliament for the family borough of Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1853, when he was just twenty-three. He had to move to the House of Lords in 1868 because of the inheritance laws dealing with titles.
He was Secretary of State for India in Lord Derby’s administration, a post in which he showed that he couldn’t care less about Indians’ wish to have more involvement in the government of their country. He disapproved of the Reform Act (1867), because it doubled the size of the electorate, bringing in many more middle class voters and was likely to embrace the working class too, in the not distant future.
He got back into power with Disraeli, becoming Foreign Minister and went with him to the Berlin Congress (q.v.) Disraeli died in 1881 and the Conservative Party became divided – Northcote in the Commons and Salisbury in the Lords. In 1885 Robert was the undisputed leader of the Party however, and when Northcote showed himself incapable of opposing Gladstone (q.v.) Robert became Prime Minister for the first time.
As PM he naturally opposed Home Rule for Ireland, and said that he was also opposed to any kind of Tory Democracy, fearing that it would lead to dispossession of the rich, but astonishingly did support what was nicknamed ‘Villa Toryism’ (support of suburban and middle-class interests). He glued business interests firmly to the Conservative Party by handing out peerages to industrialists such as brewers of beer.
Never changing his attitudes for a second, Salisbury was much more interested in foreign policy than anything at home, and was his own foreign secretary from 1886 – 92 and then again from 1895 -1900. He had no wish to add any more colonies to the already overburdened Empire but was well prepared to act to prevent other countries taking territory which might threaten British interests. He was very much involved therefore in what was called ‘The Scramble for Africa’, and under Salisbury Britain acquired Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Rhodesia, made Egypt a Protectorate, ordered the conquest of the Sudan by Lord Kitchener and just managed to avoid war with France over Fashoda on the Nile. The Anglo-German Agreement of 1890 (q.v.) gave Britain control over Zanzibar, making Britain’s combined African winnings slightly larger than Europe.
Robert the Marquess saw France and Russia only as rivals, which is why he favoured the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy (q.v.). It was only when Tirpitz’ naval race with Britain began that he realised the Royal Navy could not in practie control the world’s oceans and he made the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, so that the Fleet could be brought back to defend home waters if need be. He then died.
At the beginning of this article I told of the success Dennis Price had in bumping off eight members of the ‘Gascoyne’ family in order to be made a Duke. I shall not reveal the ending of Kind Hearts and Coronets because it is a perfectly brilliant coup de theatre hardly equalled in any film made since. The other stars are Joan Greenwood, who owned the sexiest and most inviting voice in the cinema, and Valerie Hobson, who was married, and stayed married, to an MP and Minister for War called John Profumo. The latter became embroiled with gels like Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, gels who were, as they used to say, ‘no better than they should be’.