Confessions of a serial director

From Will Hay and Arthur Askey comedies, through nitty-gritty noir thrillers, to what-the-butler-saw soft-porn teasers, Val Guest's career made up in sheer variety for what it may, occasionally, have lacked in taste. By Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture
Just imagine Val Guest accepting one of those lifetime achievement awards that come the way of film directors in their dotage. While he is sitting in the front row, waiting to receive his gong, the organisers play clips from his best-known movies. What do we see?

The tribute might begin with the image of Will Hay in his railwayman's outfit, forlornly attempting to wave down a train in Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), one of the many Hay comedies that Guest helped write in the 1930s. There would doubtless be a shot of Cliff Richard gyrating in Guest's kitsch musical, Expresso Bongo (1959), followed, perhaps, by a sequence or two from his classic sci-fi pics, The Quatermass Experiment (1955) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and maybe one of Stanley Baker's scowling detective in the brilliant, Hammer-made thriller, Hell Is a City (1960). We'd be shown Woody Allen clowning around with an exploding cigar in the Bond-spoof, Casino Royale (1967), which Guest helped write and direct. Then, the little homage would begin to go awry. There'd have to be a close- up of Richard O'Sullivan leering at a half-naked Scandinavian nanny in Guest's egregious 1972 offering, Au Pair Girls, and afterward - even worse - one of Robin Askwith with his trousers down in Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1973).

"Was I proud of them?" The 86-year-old director contemplates his late foray into soft porn. "Not in the slightest. They were just something that happened in a long career. There are lots of other films I made that I wasn't proud of, and some of those are still making money too."

At least, Guest could argue, there is a certain thematic consistency between the knockabout comedies he wrote for Arthur Askey and The Crazy Gang in the 1930s and the equally ribald farces he directed 40 years later for the dirty-mac brigade. Both are characterised by their recognisably British, end-of-the-pier humour. Askey and Askwith even seem like distant cousins - a pair of diminutive, cheeky chancers or "funny little men", as Guest calls them without much evident affection.

Guest started out in the British film industry as a journalist. He was London editor of the trade paper The Hollywood Reporter in the early 1930s. "In the brashness of youth, I once reviewed one of the films that Marcel Varnel [the French-born director of Oh, Mr Porter! and other Will Hay comedies] had made in Hollywood. I said it was rubbish and that if I couldn't write a better film with one hand tied behind my back, I'd give up." Much to his embarrassment, Varnel took him at his word. "He told the Reporter that if I was so damn clever, I should write his next script."

That, Guest claims, was how he ended up at Elstree Studios, working on screenplays and acting bit parts in Lupino Lane vehicles. Not that he neglected his journalism. During the 1930s, he helped pen star "autobiographies" for Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, wrote for a New York trade paper, and contributed titbits to the legendary American columnist Walter Winchell. "I used to send him stuff from London. I was his leg-man. He used me a lot, especially during the Blitz."

Together with his co-writer at Gainsborough Studios, Marriott Edgar, Guest was later responsible for the inspired lunacy of such films as Gasbags, in which a British fish-and-chips van carrying the Crazy Gang floats into a German POW camp on the bottom of a barrage balloon, Ask a Policeman (Will Hay as an antic country cop), and Alf's Button Afloat.

"I much preferred writing for Will Hay," Guest remembers of his stint at Gainsborough. "He was a very firm character who didn't deviate from film to film. The Crazy Gang, though, were a handful. We had six people to deal with at any one time. We used to keep a chart in front of us while we were writing so we didn't leave one of them out for more than seven pages at a time."

Although still shown regularly on British TV, the Gainsborough comedies have never enjoyed much of a reputation with the critics, something that clearly rankles. As Guest points out, they rattled along with a wild momentum not found elsewhere in British cinema of the time. "Marcel Varnel was a brilliant little man who has never received the credit he deserves. He was full of energy. Pace was an unheard of thing in British films until he appeared on the scene."

After the war, when Guest attempted to establish himself as a director, his background in comedy became a millstone. "I had a terrible time breaking free. People wouldn't think of me in terms of anything else." The jobs that came his way were on low-budget movies such as Just William's Luck and William Came to Town, brisk but vapid low-budget yarns adapted from Richmal Crompton's children's books.

Life with the Lyons (1954), a modest little comedy-drama about an American family in Britain starring Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, marked a change of fortune. It was Guest's first film with Hammer. The very next year, he made a successful film version of the cult TV series, The Quatermass Experiment, at the studios. He later went on to direct The Abominable Snowman (1957) for Hammer, as well as his minor masterpiece, Hell Is a City, which is being revived next week as part of a two-week Barbican season celebrating the 70th anniversary of Elstree Studios.

Hell Is a City is one of the few British thrillers of the 1950s that is as gritty and intense as Hollywood film noir. It is set in Manchester, not London and, in Stanley Baker, boasts a brooding, muscular hero very different from the tweed-jacketed Kenneth More or Jack Hawkins-style "chaps" who passed for leading men in most British movies of the period. Guest's approach to his material was deliberately low key. "I tried to make the film as factual as possible. I treated it as cinema verite, almost as if a newsreel company had gone out and covered it. I used hand-held cameras, which was unheard of then. And Baker was a great asset. He was very down-to-earth, absolutely real. He never made an unbelievable movement."

Guest used precisely the same, understated documentary-style technique on The Day the Earth Caught Fire. "I very deliberately didn't make it as a sci-fi film. I knew the more real we made it, the more believable it would become." Quite apart from its apocalyptic storyline, the film boasts a loving evocation of Fleet Street in its heyday, complete with gimlet-eyed editors and drunken, cynical journalists slurping over their pints in grimy, backstreet pubs.

Despite his penchant for documentary-style realism, Guest was subsequently hired to help salvage Casino Royale ("chaos royale" as he now calls it) after several other directors quit or were fired. "I was engaged by the producer Charley Feldman for seven weeks to straighten out the mess, but I ended up working on the production for the best part of a year," he remembers. Feldman was quite incapable of making up his mind about anything for more than six hours at a time. "He'd ring me up in the middle of the night, tell me that William Holden was available next Tuesday morning, and could I please write in a part for him."

Guest was in charge of Woody Allen's scenes in the movie. "He was a very insecure little man," he now recalls. "You had to hold his hand and say, yes, you can do it." At one stage, Guest was pencilled in to direct Take the Money and Run for Allen but, in the end, the comedian helmed the comedy himself. Guest, meanwhile, ended up at Twickenham Studios, making the truly woeful Au Pair Girls. A few years and a few more lapses of taste later (The Persuaders, Confessions of a Window Cleaner), he bowed out of the industry.

Now living in retirement in Palm Springs, California, Guest is writing his autobiography and negotiating remake rights for some of his films with big Hollywood studios. Back home in Britain, he's a well-nigh forgotten figure, but, although he grumbles about the way "creative accountants have taken over from creative artists" in the film industry, he harbours no bitterness. "At least I've managed to keep working. When Beethoven was my age, he had already been dead for 50 years." Well, not exactly - maybe he means Mozart - but then, did even Mozart ever cover quite so wide a stylistic range as Val Guest?n

`Elstree Calling: 70 Years of Elstree Studios' is at the Barbican Cinema, Silk St, London EC2, from 12 to 25 Sept.

`Hell Is a City' is showing at various times on 12, 13, 15, 21 and 23 Sept.

Cinema hotline: 0171-382 7000