`WHITE MISCHIEF'. In Kenya, a film crew stirs dark memories

THE sun is tacked onto a relentlessly blue sky that slides past jagged coral cliffs to meet the Indian Ocean. On a small patio fringed by bougainvillea, three sun-worshipping bodies are stretched out on chaise longues.The two women's skirted bathing suits and red lips evoke the mood of prewar C^ote d'Azur. But this is Africa, not the French Riviera. That much is clear from the scanty dress of the film crew who, for the most part, are wearing lengths of Swahili cloth draped around their waists and legs or wrapped about their heads as turbans. They look like extras in an Eastern pantomime.

An equatorial midday should be a filmmaker's nightmare, but it delights ``White Mischief'' director Michael Radford. The harsh lighting, he says from behind his pink-rimmed sunglasses, echoes the brittle quality of the characters depicted in this tale of love and death.

The film tells the story of a tempestuous romance that erupts into murder. ``Derived'' from the book of the same name by British journalist James Fox, the scenes that were recently shot here in Kenya have sparked particular interest among longtime European residents, for they are based on true events. The events involve a murder mystery that is now unlikely to be solved. But 46 years after the crime took place, the identity of the murderer still enlivens dinner party conversations in Nairobi's fashionable suburbs and in villas along the coast.

In what is widely expected to be the best film to come out of Britain this year, Mr. Radford and producer Simon Perry, acclaimed for their award-winning film ``1984,'' have strived to recreate the decadence of prewar Britain tacked onto an African landscape. The result is not so much a romance or a murder mystery as it is a tragedy of wasted lives dissipated in an unspoilt land.

Anxious not to be billed as the creator of another ``Out of Africa'' Radford stresses that he is dealing strictly with European notions of ethics and morality. ``Films of Africa should be made by Africans,'' he says. ``This is a film of melancholy about people who have everything and yet have nothing. It's about people who want to possess what they can't possess.''

The plot centers around a passionate love affair between Diana (Greta Scacchi, ``Heat and Dust''), an ambitious blonde beauty, and Josslyn Hay (Charles Dance, ``The Jewel in the Crown'' TV series), the 22nd Earl of Erroll and hereditary High Constable of Scotland.

The real Diana came to Kenya in 1940 with her newly acquired husband, Sir ``Jock'' Henry Delves Broughton (Joss Ackland), who at 57 was 30 years her senior. Within days of their arrival, Diana succumbed to an attraction for Erroll, 39, a dashing but impoverished Briton reknowned as a ferocious womanizer. Erroll was available as a result of the death of his second wife from a dedicated consumption of drugs and alcohol. But Diana was not available.

As the affair unfolded openly before the amused gaze of the members of the Muthaiga Country Club, the cuckolded husband reacted with extraordinary acceptance and even complicity. When the couple decided to elope, Broughton hosted a celebratory dinner at the club and proposed a toast to a future heir.

But the union never took place. In the early hours of the morning - after returning Diana to her house in Karen, a suburb named after Karen Blixen - Erroll was fatally shot in the head as he drove home. His body was found slumped in the well of the car the next day by an African milkman. Broughton, charged with the murder, was acquitted, then committed suicide.

The trial generated a blaze of publicity that eclipsed even news of the Second World War in British papers. It also marked a symbolic end of empire in Kenya.

In Kenya, hardworking settler farmers from Britain who lurched along between bankruptcies, were angered by the affair. They felt the colony's good name had been besmirched. As for the decadent, aristocratic ``Happy Valley'' crowd - Broughton's chums - the trial cemented its reputation for whiling away the years in a haze of cocaine, morphine, whiskey sours, and wife-swapping.

As one of the characters in the film explains it, ``they used to get up to the most exotic things ... usually in the rainy season when there wasn't much else on.''

Radford, who has a reputation for artistic and sensitive interpretation of his subject matter, has produced a highly original version of these events. He co-authored the script with British playwright Jonathon Gems, who had never worked on a film before.

The film includes subtly erotic and surrealistic scenes that may offend more sensitive viewers.

The recent filming here has held a particular poignancy for many Kenyans of British origin. It has jarred their sensibilities, provoking what producer Perry calls ``a white-settler frenzy.''

Behind the pink walls of the Muthaiga Club, still a watering hole for the remnants of a more leisurely age, elderly widows protest that fact has been distorted.

Phyllis Barkas played bridge with Broughton the night Erroll and Diana announced their intention to marry. ``He had a silver cigarette case with a picture of Diana in the lid. He kept it open in front of him all through the game and stared at it. He was obsessed by her. I'd seen him earlier when we came in from croquet and he looked very distracted. We were always so busy then.''

``There is a difference between fact and truth. You can be truthful without being factual,' explained Perry. ``It's inevitable there will be people who think Kenya was and still is a paradise of remittance men and black sheep of aristocratic families. Kenya was an exaggerated microcosm of society in Britain at that time, painted in primary colours with characters larger than life.'

The sole survivor of the affair is Diana, who remains glamorous and regal to this day. She emerged from the scandal unscathed and went on to marry two other aristocrats, inheriting their estates and in the process becoming one of the largest landowners (if not the largest) in Kenya.

While counterpart Greta Scacchi frolicked in the sea with Charles Dance, Diana was ensconced in her Kilifi House a few sandy miles down the beach. From there she pursues her lifelong devotion to deep-sea fishing. She has remained tantalizingly mute on the subject of the film, refusing all interview requests. -30-{et

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