The Empress of Ireland by Christopher Robbins

Divided loyalties - the Rolls-Royce or the Bentley?
Click to follow

Today, the name Brian Desmond Hurst is almost unknown; largely because, although Hurst was Ireland's most prolific movie-maker during the 1940s and Fifties, his films were uneven and such a mixed bag: a lively adaptation of Synge's Playboy of the Western World followed on from rather stodgy war melodramas like Dangerous Moonlight or Malta Story, a quaint Tom Brown's Schooldays preceded the classic version of A Christmas Carol in 1951 with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Yet this inconsistent and overlooked movie-maker has now become the unlikely object of an exhaustive biography. And it's a very good choice.

For what becomes rapidly apparent in Christopher Robbins' memoir is that while his subject might have been a middling director, Hurst had a top-class personality, knew almost everybody of note in the first half of the 20th century and possessed a wry line in lacerating wit. Also, fortunately for Robbins, he met Hurst when the director still retained the ambition to make one "masterpiece", to deliver one last big hit, a Biblical blockbuster no less, recounting the events leading up to the birth of Christ, whose screenplay Robbins was hired to write in 1974.

As a destitute, callow freelancer Robbins is inevitably drawn to the words blockbuster and "big bucks" like a salmon to the sea, and Hurst is eager to proffer words of filmic advice as well as provide an education in the ways of the cultural world to his young amanuensis. Hurst's suggestions, however, are invariably outlandish and impractical: whether it's fiscal matters ("Don't be like me Christopher - 36 years old before I owned my first coachbuilt Rolls-Royce"); on the use of typewriters ("Good possibly for war reporting and American novels, but abrasive and harsh") or the essentials of scriptwriting ("Something everybody can understand, producers, financiers, gaffers and best boys... even the bloody actors").

As for the everyday rudiments of movie-making Robbins learns next to nothing. "What is a budget?" he innocently asks Hurst at one point. Not that their Biblical epic is ever likely to receive any backing. For the first rule Hurst imparts is to enjoy oneself, even at the expense of sponsorship. "Some of the people on the boards of the new film companies these days are not in the least suitable as partners. No fun. No fun at all," the Irishman declares. Robbins quickly discovers, moreover, that fun for the 77-year-old Hurst is combined with a relentless, indiscriminate sex life, preferably with servicemen "either with three children or three convictions", to which Robbins adds, "Brian also liked the occasional copper."

From this eclectic vantage point, Robbins travels through the director's past amongst cultural heavyweights, such as Joyce, Yeats, Coward and John Ford, all of whom Hurst knew well. Slowly, though, it dawns that the epic will never see the light of the screen and, as hope recedes, Robbins moves on to the "Big Bestseller", the writing of Hurst's "autobiography", and it is then we discover that the attributes of Hurst which could be seen as glib or supercilious were hard fought for, honestly held views.

Hurst, in fact, was a self-made man, the son of an alcoholic blacksmith who worked on the Titanic in the Belfast dockyards. He clawed his way out of poverty by being equally prepared to insult those both above and below him in the social hierarchy. He learnt from the first to disobey everybody's rules. Exasperated later on, for instance, by the lack of passion shown in take after take between Dirk Bogarde and Virginia McKenna during a love scene in Dangerous Moonlight he finally turned to the studio's biggest star at the box office and bellowed across the set: "Dirk, could you look at Miss McKenna just once as if you would like to fuck her."

As a homosexual, Anglophile Ulsterman, a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism, emotionally attached to the North but sympathetic to Irish Republicanism, Hurst personified divided loyalties. But he also had the courage of his convictions at a time when open homosexuality invited violence, blackmail and the threat of criminal prosecution. Yet, paradoxically, he refused to be bound by preconceived notions. Asked by Vanessa Redgrave what political causes he felt strongly enough to march for, Hurst replied, "That would depend on the weather," and when a studio undergoing labour unrest suggested it might be diplomatic if he stopped driving to the set in a Rolls-Royce he responded by showing up the next day in a Bentley.

In this affectionate memoir - which will outrage prudes but delight everybody else - Robbins has uncovered a lost gem, a film-maker whose contribution lay in his life rather than in his films. Hurst himself summed up what could have been lost without a record of his life when he was faced with dismissal in 1954 by Arthur Rank. The Yorkshire-born movie mogul and Methodist lay preacher admonished the director: "I've heard some peculiar things about you, lad," to which Hurst replied with outstretched arms: "Arthur, I am as God made me." And to which one could add, Thank God.