Radio play goes behind the scenes of 1967 dinner that challenged America

Funny but full of serious intent, the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring Sidney Poitier brought racial discrimination, an issue raging on the streets of America, right into a middle-class setting. As Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s last film together, it also marked the end of one of the most romantic of Hollywood love affairs.

Now the BBC will tell the story of the making of this cinema classic in a radio play for New Year’s Eve, revealing how the director Stanley Kramer put the production together against a background of race riots. Kenneth Branagh, Adrian Lester, David Morrissey and Daisy Ridley star in Tracy-Ann Oberman’s new play that recreates the behind-the-scenes drama.

“The play is a page turner, where an explosive moment in history resonates powerfully with our own,” Branagh told the Observer. “The surface is the off-screen drama of a famous film. What lies beneath is a more fundamental story of prejudice.”

Branagh plays Spencer Tracy, the double Oscar-winning actor who was in the final stages of terminal illness during filming and it had been touch and go throughout as to whether he would be able to complete the shoot.

“Wrapped around the last days of a cinema legend,” said Branagh, “it was sometimes hard to see what the ailing Spencer Tracy hated most; the discrimination that his character rails against, or himself.”

The actor died 17 days after filming finished at the age of 67. Alongside him was Hepburn, his great love for 26 years and one of the biggest names in cinema.

The question of “the colour bar” dividing America had prompted Kramer to attempt to make a contribution witty enough to become mainstream entertainment. At the time racial turbulence across the land was being mirrored in the supreme court, where judges were hearing the controversial “inter-racial marriage” case, Loving v Virginia.

Until the summer of 1967, six months before the film was released, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in many American states. The events leading to the court’s landmark ruling that outlawed bans on mixed marriages were portrayed to critical acclaim in the 2016 film, Loving.

Oberman, who plays Hepburn, wrote That Dinner of 67 in collaboration with comedy writer David Spicer, to pay tribute to a moment of cultural solidarity that she now sees as highly pertinent again, given the demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd.

The stage and film actor Lester plays Poitier as Dr John Prentice, a young black bridegroom who is brought home to meet his white parents-in-law, the Draytons, as played originally by Tracy and Hepburn in William Rose’s screenplay.

“It was a pleasure getting the chance to play Sidney Poitier in a script that took a behind the scenes look at such an iconic film,” he said. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a reminder that the small commitments we make to accepting the truth is all the bravery we need to make change happen.”

Morrissey plays Kramer, while Ridley takes the role of Katharine Houghton, a young actress who, as Hepburn’s real life niece, was given the chance to play her on-screen daughter.

“Guilt and shame play into Spencer Tracy’s life and into the liberal position this would-be pioneering film occupies,” said Branagh. “There are no sugary resolutions despite what the movie script might tend to suggest. I think Tracy-Ann Oberman makes it complex, riveting radio.”

He added that the story was particularly suited to the medium. “Every time I’m lucky enough to be involved in a radio drama, or more regularly when I’m listening to one, I’m grateful for the concentration and focus that this medium delivers,” Branagh said.

The play airs on Radio 4 on 31 December at 2.13pm