Lighting Up the Screen

Radical changes may be on the way for the Post Office, but the idea of spending 400,000 euros on a set of stamps would make any of us gulp.

Yet this is how much a charity auction expects to raise when a rare sheet of 10 German stamps showing Audrey Hepburn smoking goes under the hammer.

The image of Ms Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is certainly iconic, but collectors covet this stamp because it is meant to no longer exist.

Her son, Sean Ferrer, refused copyright and suggested another image should be used. The German Government ordered that the stamps be destroyed but a precious few remained.

However, the extraordinary interest in these stamps suggests something more is at work than excitement among the philately-inclined.

It is as if possession of this image is a connection with a style and sensibility now all but absent from Hollywood. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released just less than half a century ago, in 1961, but the America it presents is a vanished civilisation.

Truman Capote’s earthy novel made it clear that the mid-20th century US was no age of innocence. Yet in the film version Ms Hepburn embodied a charm which contrasts with the abrasive bombast of present day popular culture; the movie and its Moon River soundtrack continue to enchant.

The same can be said of Katharine Hepburn movies and Marilyn Monroe’s best outings, but there is something else about her canon which goes beyond nostalgia.

In 1953’s Roman Holiday, she displayed wide-eyed wonder as a princess who discovers a world of glorious but scruffy romance. This was not a simple tale of naivety confronted with urban sophistication, but rather a story in which the inner strengths of Gregory Peck’s reporter and the princess are the secret of both their crackling chemistry and their true nobility; it is an egalitarian fairytale.

In her own life she was famed for treating stagehands and VIPs with the same unfaltering courtesy. But today’s celebrity culture is centred on gaining access behind red ropes at exclusive clubs, getting to ride in the limo with the darkened glass, and gaining the access-all-areas pass.

There were actresses who were more beautiful and funnier, but few combined a sense of free-spirited adventure with luminous goodness. The sight of the lit cigarette – now an icon of decay banned from public buildings – is a reminder that the world in which her stories are set has burned away. But the challenge for today’s storytellers is to re-light such timeless magic in these less smoky times.

A Saturday column