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09 May 2013

Bryan Forbes (1926-2013)

Yesterday, 8 May, director, actor and writer Bryan Forbes died. He was one of the leading figures of British post-war cinema. Among his best films are Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and The Whisperers (1967). His Hollywood films include the horror classic The Stepford Wives (1974). In later life he turned to the writing of books, both fiction and memoirs. Forbes was 86.

Bryan Forbes (1926-2013), Eileen Moore
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 2621, 1966. retail price: 0,20 MDN. Photo: publicity still for An Inspector Calls (Guy Hamilton, 1954) with Eileen Moore.

Man Being Run Over By A Train
Bryan Forbes was born as John Theobald Clarke into a working-class home in West Ham, in east London in 1926. His cultural horizons were extended when he was evacuated during the second world war to the Truro home of Canon Gotto, a cultivated cleric with an enormous library and presence in local cultural life. Another mentor was the BBC radio producer Lionel Gamlin, who made him question master of the Junior Brains Trust. Though he got to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 17, he thought he was seen as too short and too ‘working-class’ to play the bland upper-class juvenile leads then popular. He did not complete his studies, but started to play in repertory theatre. He had just taken over a part in Terence Rattigan's Flare Path when he was called up for second world war service, first in the Intelligence Corps and then the Combined Services Entertainment Unit. He finished military service in 1948, and continued acting. He was obliged to change his name by British Equity to avoid confusion with the adolescent actor John Clark and so he adopted Bryan Forbes as his stage name. He made his screen acting debut in the thriller The Small Back Room (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948) starring David Farrar. A published collection of short stories, Truth Lies Sleeping (1951), pointed to his promise as a writer, but his initial course was to continue acting, and take supporting film roles when possible. In the early 1950s, he went to Hollywood with Irish actress Constance Smith who was briefly his first wife. He languished there while she worked. It was not long before he returned to Britain and undertook the rewriting of scripts as well as acting. He appeared on the stage and played numerous supporting roles in British films including the romantic comedy The Million Pound Note (Ronald Neame, 1954) starring Gregory Peck, the mystery An Inspector Calls (Guy Hamilton, 1954) featuring Alastair Sim, and the war drama The Colditz Story (Guy Hamilton, 1955) alongside John Mills. He met his second wife, Nanette Newman, while playing a man being run over by a train. They got married in 1955. The turning point for him in cinema was the formation of the independent company Beaver Films with his friend Richard Attenborough in 1958. For the screenplay of their first production, The Angry Silence (Guy Green, 1960), Forbes received an Oscar nomination and a Bafta award. Craig Butler at AllMovie: “Controversial upon its release and still likely to cause a good bit of discussion, The Angry Silence is a small gem of a film. It's not a great film; it is at times a bit sloppy in its construction, it wears its heart on its sleeve at times when it should be focusing on dramatic intent, and there's more than a hint of manipulation to it. But there's also a real power to it”.


Leader The Angry Silence (1960). Source: FilmNoir2019 (YouTube).

An Attempt To Revive The Ailing British Film Industry
During the 1960s, Bryan Forbes wrote and/or directed a string of notable British productions. He both wrote and took the part of one of the disaffected officers turning to crime in The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden, 1960) starring Jack Hawkins. His directorial debut was with Whistle Down the Wind (Bryan Forbes, 1961), about children (Among who Hayley Mills) who mistake a convict on the run (Alan Bates) for Jesus. Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “Though the material, based on a novel by Mary Hayley Bell (Hayley Mills's mother) could have been mawkish and obvious in other hands, Forbes handles the situation and the characters realistically; even the blatant New Testament symbolism is logically incorporated into the proceedings.” Forbes took a novel by Lynne Reid Banks as the basis for the L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962) starring Leslie Caron, and one by Kingsley Amis for Only Two Can Play (Sidney Gilliat, 1962) with Peter Sellers. He provided both the screenplay for and directed Seance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964), concerning the sinister abduction of a child by a psychic (Kim Stanley). In 1965 he went to Hollywood to make King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 1965), a thoughtful study of British and American soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp that concentrated more on character than gung-ho antics. It was a critical success and did well commercially – except in America. He followed this with the comedy The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966) with Ralph Richardson and John Mills, The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes, 1967), with Edith Evans as a lonely old woman, and the caper film Deadfall (Bryan Forbes, 1968) starring Michael Caine. In 1969 Forbes accepted the offer of the impresario Bernard Delfont, then with EMI, to run Elstree Film Studios, which the company had taken over. This amounted virtually to an attempt to revive the ailing British film industry by instituting a traditional studio system with a whole ‘slate’ of films in play. However, some EMI executives raised difficulties over Forbes both heading the studio and directing his own film, The Raging Moon (Bryan Forbes, 1971), starring his wife Nanette Newman as a woman paralysed from the waist down finding love with Malcolm McDowell. One success of the venture was the production of The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970), but most of the announced films were never made. Forbes, who had a three-year contract, left after two years.


Trailer Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Source: Our Man in Havanna (YouTube).

A Massive, Runaway Hit
During the 1970s, Bryan Forbes directed four more feature films. For The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1974), William Goldman provided a screenplay from the surreal novel by Ira Levin. Nanette Newman played the figure who became the computerized fantasy of boorish men in a small American town. The Stepford Wives became a massive, runaway hit, earning four million dollars domestically. His next film, The Slipper and the Rose (Bryan Forbes, 1976) was a version of the Cinderella story. International Velvet (Bryan Forbes, 1978) was intended as a continuation of National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944), starring Tatum O'Neal and with Nanette Newman in the same role as Elizabeth Taylor in the earlier film. In The Naked Face (Bryan Forbes, 1984), Roger Moore played a psychiatrist who gets caught up with the Chicago mafia. The latter three were unsuccessful, and The Naked Face was Forbes’ final film direction. His last film as an actor was the crime comedy Restless Natives (Michael Hoffman, 1985). His last screenwriting credit came with Attenborough's Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992). When he returned to producing books, it was with wry fiction about the tribulations suffered by the creative spirit in showbiz, The Distant Laughter (1972) and The Rewrite Man (1983). Ned's Girl (1977) was a biography of Dame Edith Evans, and That Despicable Race (1980) concerned actors as a breed. Later novels were mostly about spies, though sometimes embraced comedy, as with Partly Cloudy (1995), about domestic disasters brought about by the clash of the generations during one traumatic weekend. Forbes was a founder of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain; with Attenborough he helped form Capital Radio, the London station launched in 1973; and he served as president of the National Youth Theatre. He was to write with incomparable irony about the bizarre workings of the film industry, as in his two volumes of autobiography, Notes for a Life (1974) and A Divided Life (1992). In 2004 he was made CBE for his services to the arts and the National Youth Theatre. Forbes had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975 but doctors later admitted the diagnosis was wrong. On 8 May 2013, Forbes died at his home in Virginia Water at the age of 86. He is survived by his wife Nanette Newman and their two daughters, TV presenter Emma Forbes and journalist Sarah Standing.

Sources: Dennis Barker (The Guardian), Sanchez Manning (The Independent), Craig Butler (AllMovie), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), BBC, Wikipedia and IMDb.


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