Oct 07

Just How Expensive Is the Tokay in Dean Spanley

Just How Expensive Is the Tokay in Dean SpanleyI am going to turn off comments on this article. This is because it will eventually be combined with my article, Dean Spanley: Film and Book Comparison. So if you wish to comment on this article, go to that article and comment there. Thanks! (Wondering where your comment went if you got it in before I turned off comments? Read above!) –FM

A big part of the film Dean Spanley is the difficulty that Henslowe Fisk has in acquiring Tokay — and just how expensive it is. When he finds his first bottle, he asks how much it is, and Wrather says to him, as though doing a favor, “Five guineas for you.” Fisk is shocked, “Five guineas?! That’s a bit bloody steep!” Wrather cheekily responds, “These little things were sent to try us, as the man said of the Pygmy judge.”

But Fisk, having no choice pays the five guineas. Now, as an American, I don’t know much about British currency. So I had no idea what they were talking about. What is a guinea? Is it like a pound? And just how much does five guineas represent.

How Much Would I Pay?

The more I thought about it, the more I approached the problem internally. How much money would make me react that way? I figured it couldn’t be as little as a couple hundred dollars. That’s a lot of money for a bottle of wine. But he’s got to understand that this isn’t going to be cheap. He’s only talking to Wrather because literally no one else has it for sale at any cost. So if I were in his situation, I would gladly pay several hundred bucks.

On the other hand, if it were $10,000, it would be a deal-breaker. At that price, I would simply go to the Dean and tell him I had heard from my source and that he wasn’t able to get me the Tokay. Given that the Dean was only going because of the Tokay, I’m sure he would respond with something like, “It is all for the best because I just found out I need to have dinner that night with the Bishop.” And that would be that.

As a result, I figured it had to be in the range of $1,000. Maybe it was just a bit less, or twice as much, but it had to be in that range. That is the amount of money I would pay to both do something I really wanted to and to save face. Given that Fisk and I are both roughly as rich as each other (at least until his father dies), I figure this would apply to Fisk as well as it does to me.

What Is a Guinea?

British currency — like most of its units of measure — is a mess. As All About Romance has noted, “The monetary system of Great Britain can be very confusing to the average American reader, especially since the system until fairly recently, was not a decimal one.” For an example, I wrote an article called Numeracy in Shakespeare in Love. I noted there that there were 240 Pennies in a Pound. Who but the British would come up with a system like that?

Well, a Guinea is worth one Pound and one Shilling. There were 20 Shillings in a Pound, so a Guinea is worth 1.05 Pounds. In other words, it really is a useless unit of measure. But there you have it. I’m only throwing it in for completeness, but for most purposes, a Guinea’s as good as a pound.

The Guinea Over Time

Concertina has a great webpage to help us answer this question, Calculate Modern Values of Historic Concertina Prices. It allows you to enter a year from 1830 through 2000 with an amount in Pounds, Shillings, and Pence. Then it spits back its year 2000 value in Pounds and decimal Pence.

Before we can use the calculator, however, we have to date the film. The book was published in 1936. But that doesn’t help us all that much. For one thing, the movie and book are quite different. And the Second Boer War plays a major role in the movie. It ended in 1902. Given that Jeremy Northam (who played Fisk) was only 47 at the time of the film, he would have been 13 at the end of the war and so his younger brother would not have been in it.

Overall, the feel of the film is that it exists in that time between the Boer War and World War I. For one thing, cars are brand new. The one in the film has a single headlight, and looks more typical of cars around 1910. This is certainly not the 1930s. But since the younger brother’s death seems to be something in the distant past, I will place it right before World War I: 1914.

5 Guineas in 1914

Assuming this, the calculator finds 5 1914 Guineas to be worth £1,385.11. That’s in the year 2000. According to Macro Trends, the exchange rate at that time was 1.65. In the year 2008 (when the film was made), the exchange rate was 1.98. So we can set the value to £1,662.13.

That gives us rather a larger number in dollars: $3,291.02. But it’s important to note that the exchange rate jumps around quite a lot. The rate is 1.31 right now, which brings the number to $1,814.49.


Although my gut feeling seems to have been a bit on the low side — about half what the Tokay actually cost, it was definitely in the ball park. It shows how well you can do with these kinds of calculations. And I, at least, think it’s pretty fun to play around with this kind of thing.

If you haven’t seen Dean Spanley, you really owe it to yourself to see it. It is filmmaking at its finest. It isn’t psychotronic at all. It’s just a good film, made for adults. If your parents are still alive, it’s a nice one to share with them.