Roman Holiday: Meeting Audrey Hepburn for the very first time

William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday introduced Audrey Hepburn to the world. With the film's re-issue, the power of her first leading role hasn't diminished one bit.

William Wyler’s 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, which has just been re-released, concerns a dissatisfied young princess (Audrey Hepburn) who chooses while on tour with an unidentified European royal family to go rogue in Rome; there she meets and falls for a dashing journalist (Gregory Peck). Neither cottons on to the other’s identity, at least at first. Much of the jaunty humour arises from our omniscient awareness of who knows what, and at which point. The film never gets tangled up in its complications. Lightness of touch and deftness of plotting are the key.

I went to see Roman Holiday one evening recently, not only because it’s a charming and playful picture but also because the air conditioning at BFI Southbank, where the film is playing, is second to none. I emerged from the cinema after two hours with icicles on my cinephilia. And if you think there is a whiff of philistinism about harbouring such priorities then you have demonstrably not been in the business of trying to keep cool in London during the past three weeks or so.

My fellow audience members were a delight. Had I taken down their names in a notepad I could give them their due credit here, much as one might celebrate Wyler’s unwaveringly interested direction (how he loves his characters!) or Frank Planer and Henri Alakan’s graceful cinematography or Georges Auric’s fond score. I’d love to include the audience in my praise: “Brenda Ferguson and her fiancé Raymond are to be commended for calibrating precisely a reaction to the slapstick scenes which was two parts carefree laughter to two parts knowing groans”—that kind of thing. But I didn’t, so I can say only that I knew it was going to be the perfect audience with which to watch Roman Holiday from the moment a ripple of amused excitement spread through the auditorium at the sight of the following title card in the opening credits: “Introducing Audrey Hepburn.”

Introducing. Can you imagine what it must feel like to be unfamiliar with Audrey Hepburn? Like never having tasted ice-cream or made a snowball or felt the crunch of frost under your feet. (No, you’re not imagining it: all similes, analogies and metaphors will have refreshing properties until the hot weather abates.) Seeing her again here in her first leading role (at the age of 24) has only reinforced my determination not to buy anything from the company which is now using Hepburn’s digitally reanimated body to flog chocolate bars on the say-so of her sons, who maintain that their mother “often spoke about her love of chocolate and how it lifted her spirit.” Rationalising a highly suspect decision after the fact? That’s not for me to say.

The story of Hepburn’s casting in Roman Holiday has passed into legend. Here is the critic Stanley Kaufmann recounting the tale of her screen test in American Film magazine:

Hepburn played a scene from the script, then [Thorold Dickinson, who directed the screen test in London] called ‘Cut!’ but, by prearrangement with the crew, the camera and sound track kept rolling. Hepburn relaxed and spoke conversationally; then saw that everyone was quiet and surmised what was happening, and they caught that reaction, too. (Masquerade, plus two unmaskings.) Wyler saw the test in Rome, and didn’t hesitate.

So you have to use manipulation to get something that natural. By 1964, Kaufmann was judging Hepburn more harshly, accusing her of undervaluing her own freshness, or losing access to it. In his review of My Fair Lady, he wrote:

She has long been accustomed to tailor-made roles and she tries to tailor Liza to herself as she goes. It is one thing for an actress to infuse a role with her personality, quite another to make the role a showcase for a personality. Miss Hepburn often tries to supply what her fans expect.

If Hepburn had few such fans before Roman Holiday, she had plenty after it (not to mention a Best Actress Oscar—her only one, though she was nominated a further four times). No wonder. She has such openness in Roman Holiday. Near the start of the film, she says to a servant who is overseeing her buttoned-up bedtime routine: “Do you know I’ve heard that there are people who sleep with nothing on?” It’s not a chaste remark, exactly, but nor is it a fully sexualised one. It’s somewhere in between. The naughtiness comes not from the image (though there is that) but from her speculative delight. From this seed sprouts the exquisite relish and abandon in her character’s subsequent detour from humdrum reality.

Here’s Kaufmann again:

[O]nce in a rare while our discovery of a star is part of a film’s power: Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Liv Ullmann in Persona, Hepburn here. (And in almost every such case, re-seeing the film brings a paradoxical double pleasure: familiarity and remembrance of the discovery.) Most of the world’s filmgoers met Hepburn just about when Peck did in the film, the men in the audience tumbling, the women delegating…

Roman Holiday is on release at selected cinemas nationwide.

Hepburn with Gregory Peck on the set of Roman Holiday in 1953. Photograph: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution