Actor/Writer/Director/Producer Bryan Forbes (1926-2013 long illness) worked himself up the ladder in the British film industry from a bit part actor to become the studio head of EMI studios in the early 1970s. He is a name not many people recognise today, but his brief stint as head of a filmmaking asylum or factory, is only the tip of the iceberg of his achievements in movies.
His spell at the top was doomed to failure as his “factory” lacked the financial success he needed to continue. And although he would continue to direct, his heady days after EMI were past him.
But to look back to when he first started to produce films, after serving an apprenticeship as an actor and screenwriter – there was a revolution in the British film industry which had begun with the end of the Rank Studios “factory” period and the Ealing Studios “school” as it was described in film critic Alexander Walker’s (1930-2003) book Hollywood, England. This happened in the late 1950s.
The revolution for Forbes, after incredible artistic success ended with what he would have hated to call another factory, had the politically conservative producer/director rip out time clocks at EMI, something which needed government assistance to keep it afloat – and thus failing in almost socialist fashion.
Bryan Forbes directed a few masterpieces in his time including the films Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and This Whisperers (1967).
He also wrote The League of Gentlemen (1960) which was the film with the one line: “I’m sorry to say, the bitch is still going strong,” spoken by Jack Hawkins (1910-73 haemorrhage after surgery) which in a way almost spelt the end of old style stiff upper lip British scriptwriting and made way for the British New Wave and the kitchen sink which dominated the 1960s. Perhaps this too helped usher in the new permissive society as well which saw sex and violence further dominate the screen in the 1970s.
Forbes’ wild success in the 1960s some may have been called lucky while others would have called it opportunistic. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Forbes’ ‘part’ of the actor as studio head could only be compared to American former actor Robert Evans (1930-2019) who headed Paramount Studios in the early 1970s.
While it would take a relatively short time to reach the top – a decade after directing his first movie – it was the product he made which was so impressive. He was definitely one of the key filmmakers in Britain in the 1960s.
Forbes was born John Theobald Clarke in 1926. He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but didn’t finish the course and went into military service for four years where he began to write short stories. He changed his name to Bryan Forbes as there was already an actor named John Clarke and appeared in films such as An Inspector Calls (1954) and The Colditz Story (1955).
It was around this time that he wrote uncredited on one of Alan Ladd’s (1913-64 suicide by overdose) British tax exemption films The Black Knight (1954). His first writing credit was for the World War Two movie The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), which cast Jose Ferrer (1912-92 colorectal cancer) as a rather unlikely British officer, and he wrote the screenplay for I Was Monty’s Double (1958).
It was around 1959 that Forbes formed the production company Beaver Films with actor Richard Attenborough (1923-2014) for his screenplay The Angry Silence (1960). It was a case of the actors taking over artistic control. Forbes got 1000 pounds for his screenplay and seven percent of the net profit. Attenborough wasn’t paid as producer or actor and got nine percent of the profits.
It was an award winner for Forbes as he won a BAFTA Award for the screenplay as well as an Oscar nomination. But, strangely, he would not repeat the feat during the rest of the decade despite his fine work.
To look at the Angry Silence today and you would not think it a profitable venture as it tells a story of man vs. management and corruption within the unions. It is still relevant today and is more serious than the Peter Sellers union movie I’m All Right Jack (1959). Its stand was unpopular and the ending is kind of tragic. The faceless men who cause industrial strife behind the scenes wasn’t a subject that you’d take your girlfriend to see at the pictures.
Despite being a political movie of sorts, it eventually made a profit for its producers.
So, Forbes and Attenborough proved themselves to be a small force to be reckoned with and their next film, The League of Gentlemen, which opened a month later, further proved this and fulfilled their promise.
While The Angry Silence was being completed Forbes and Attenborough teamed up with director Basil Dearden (1911-71 car crash), producer Michael Relph (1915-2004), and actor Jack Hawkins and his brother to form what would become Allied Film Makers, with its ‘allied’ war theme which was central to the characters in The League of Gentlemen.
This partnership was backed by the distribution arm of the Rank Organisation who charged a fee – they owned theatres in Britain. Forbes put in 5000 pounds and in its wake the production company would also produce Whistle Down the Wind and Séance on a Wet Afternoon in its short lifetime. Victim (1961) was another artistic success.
The League of Gentlemen came first. It was originally written by Forbes as a vehicle for Cary Grant (1904-86 massive stroke) who passed on it. When it opened with Dearden directing and a cast of old pros including Hawkins, Nigel Patrick (1912-81 lung cancer), Roger Livesey (1906-76 colorectal cancer) as well as Attenborough and Forbes, it became one of the biggest hits in Britain that year as it eventually doubled its money back.
It tells the story of former army personnel with shady pasts who as amateurs use strict army regulations to pull off a heist and outsmart the authorities.
The book had been penned before the sea change in English cinema with Room at the Top (1959) with its working-class hero and sex which won a couple of Oscars. Forbes had obviously polished the script to add Hawkins’ line about his wife still being alive to give it a more permissive edge in terms of language. But its ending is definitely old school as the bad guys don’t get away with it. It’s still a good movie.
Next for Allied Film Makers came the flop of Man in the Moon (1960) which Forbes wrote with Relph as a vehicle for the then popular Kenneth More (1914-82 Parkinson’s Disease). Described as More’s first real flop, it had a Royal Charity Premiere with Queen Elizabeth II present. But the story about British men training to be astronauts failed to capture the public’s imagination.
Next came Forbes’ first directorial effort Whistle Down the Wind (1961) with child star Hayley Mills (1946-). It wasn’t a cakewalk for Forbes though, as after having bought the story, which had been written by Hayley’s mother Mary Hayley Bell (1911-2005 Alzheimer’s Disease), Forbes was at first vetoed as director by Hayley’s talent agent as untried nor tested. Guy Green (1913-2005 kidney and heart failure) who was also a late partner in Allied Film Makers was slated to direct but dropped out close to shooting.
Forbes, desperate to save his investment, ‘auditioned’ for the Mills family and got the ‘part’ as director. He was a good actor after all! He would soon prove to be an ace at directing.
Whistle Down the Wind tells of three North Country children who mistake a bearded figure hiding in their barn as Jesus Christ. He is in fact a murderer. The children are innocent enough to believe he is Christ and soon he is reading pulp stories about air hostesses to the kids as most of the neighbourhood children learn of his existence.
The oldest girl, played by Hayley, tries to protect ‘Jesus’ but eventually her enraged father finds out the truth. As the murderer, who is played by Alan Bates (1934-2003 pancreatic cancer) in an early role, is led away, two very young children ask Hayley to see Jesus. She tells them that they missed him but he will be back one day.
Mary Hayley Bell had based the story on her own children and the three of them are symbolic of the three wise men who ‘discovered’ Jesus in the Biblical story. There are other Biblical references, although the film isn’t overripe with them, with Bates being led away at the end in a crucifixion pose.
Whistle Down the Wind is a gentle and beautiful film and perfect for older children of the more thoughtful variety unspoilt by today’s movies. It would, however, be a stark contrast to Forbes’ later Séance on a Wet Afternoon in 1964.
In the meantime, there was The L-Shaped Room (1962) starred Leslie Caron (1931-), a film for which she would receive an Oscar nomination.
Caron plays a young woman who decides against having an abortion as she goes to live in a Notting Hill flat. It is a working class setting but Caron is not really working class and the film was criticised for bourgeoisie-ing its lead characters in what is basically a kitchen sink environment. This was especially after such films about angry young working-class men and the like in Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).
So, whereas Forbes got a BAFTA nomination for his screenplay for Whistle Down the Wind, his work as director on The L-Shaped Room went ignored. But he proved again that he could sure handle actresses.
Forbes would, unfortunately, often use his wife Nanette Newman (1934-) in roles in his movies beginning with The L-Shaped Room. Newman would often stand out like the sore thumb of nepotism in Forbes’ films although she’s effective in The Raging Moon (1971).
Caron’s pregnant girl goes to what looks like a Harley Street doctor played by Emlyn Williams (1905-87 cancer) who offers an abortion without even determining if Caron is pregnant. It’s surprising that the original novel of The L-Shaped Room was written by Lynne Reid Banks (1929-) who penned the children’s bestseller The Indian in the Cupboard which was turned into a motion picture in 1995.
Next came Forbes’ enduring masterpiece Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) which stars American actress Kim Stanley (1925-2001 uterine cancer) as a mentally unstable medium married to Richard Attenborough. They plan to kidnap a rich family’s young daughter so Stanley can help the police solve the crime and receive renown for her psychic ability. Of course, the pair of them and their plan are quite mad and doomed not to succeed.
Stanley received an Oscar nomination for her role as the strange woman who dominates her husband who is a man will do almost anything to keep her happy.
“Yes, dear,” he can be heard intoning throughout the movie.
Forbes helped to create some beautiful black and white images – he was still yet to use colour – with cinematographer Gerry Turpin (1925-97) and if you believe in awards and I’ve been laying them on thick in this article, Turpin got a BAFTA nomination for this one. He would go on to win two, including one for Forbes’ The Whisperers (1967).
There is no scene more beautiful than one toward the end of the film when Attenborough leaves the young girl’s body in a forest. He reaches out his hand to touch the lifeless body momentarily before he leaves it in the misty vista. It’s creepy and yet touching and is one of Attenborough’s finest performances – although certainly not as creepy as the one he gave in 10 Rillington Place (1971), where he played serial killer John Christie (1899-1953 hanged).
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is Stanley’s film though, as she turns off the gramophone only to ask who was it that turned it off to Attenborough. She is haunted and yet there are no ghosts despite her being a spiritualist. I guess Julie Andrews (1935-) deserved the Oscar for Mary Poppins (1964) that year! But this film makes you wonder.
There were a couple of other screenplays Forbes wrote around this period and they included the amusing Peter Sellers film Only Two Can Play (1962) and the melodrama Station Six Sahara (1963) which was set on a remote oil station where beautiful blond actress Carroll Baker (1931-) stirs up a group of isolated working men.
Forbes was forced to write Station Six Sahara because he owed British Lion one more job under an old contract. It is not regarded as a particularly special movie.
As writer and director, Forbes would make the epic black and white King Rat (1965) which was based on a James Clavell (1921-94 cancer) novel about the lives of Allied prisoners in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War Two. It stars George Segal (1934-) in a role which Marlon Brando turned down along with Tony Curtis.
When I say epic, the thing runs for two and a quarter hours and Forbes wasn’t producing this one, it was Columbia Pictures. The studio weren’t confident on spending too much money on a film without a female character, and it appears for the first time that Forbes went to the United States to film instead of the Far East with California sitting in for the tropic locale to save money.
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) it ain’t, and despite a cast which included Tom Courteney (1937-), James Fox (1939-), Patrick O’Neal (1927-94 tuberculosis and lung cancer) and real life POW Denholm Elliott (1922-92 AIDS), it is not one of my favourite Forbes films as there is no real plot to hang on to, something which is probably apt as it is set in a prison.
Even Clavell said: “My feeling the film failed because Forbes took away the story thread and made it a composite of character studies.”
There were no Oscar nominations for the acting and the black and white film probably didn’t excite many in America as it was released at the height of the Vietnam War. What it does show is how ruthless men rise to the top and how the class system means nothing in a POW camp where survival means all. Yes, the acting is good but I find the film a bit of a bummer. The selling of rat meat as squirrel meat is part of the fun.
Forbes would direct his first colour film The Wrong Box (1966) which is a comedy set in Victorian England based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94 cerebral haemorrhage) who wrote the famed Treasure Island.
The Wrong Box concerns how in the early 19th Century an investment was made of 20,000 pounds for a group of young boys and the accrued total of this investment would go to the last surviving boy. As it turns out, it is two elderly brothers who live next door to each other. Among those interested in the loot are honest and otherwise greedy grandchildren, nephews and cousins… Who will die first? Or last?
The cast is thick with British comedians from both the big screen and television. Forbes didn’t write the screenplay but with his cast of Michael Caine (1933-), Ralph Richardson (1902-83 stroke), John Mills (1908-2005 stroke), Peter Cook (1937-95 gastrointestinal haemorrhage) and Dudley Moore (1935-2002 pneumonia and progressive supranuclear palsy) among them, the director while hardly known as a comedy director, produced a film which is at least beautiful to look at.
Richardson’s character who drives people to distraction with his boring small talk is great and there is a truly epic head on crash between two locomotives… The film is a fairly successful blend of black humour, slapstick and the absurd. It captures the best of the British comics of the period and may have been funnier back when it was first released. Some people call it a masterpiece comparable to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) while others just call it overly silly and overrated.
It depends if you know the cast and like their heavy handed and sometimes forced delivery of the comedy under Forbes direction. I guess some people find certain actors hilarious while others find them excruciating. It did seem better the second time I watched it…
Forbes makes perhaps his best movie and rises to the top in PART TWO.