TELEVISION / Vampire movie maker

Click to follow
RALPH RICHARDSON thought Alexander Korda was 'the nearest thing to a magician that I have ever come across'. He was certainly good at making money disappear, to the extent that the Prudential, which funded Denham Studios to the tune of some pounds 3m, eventually decided that there was witchcraft afoot.

A formal report on its investment, read out in Omnibus's portrait of the film-director, brings to mind Peter Cushing briefing his companions about Dracula: '(His) engaging personality and charm of manner must be resisted . . . (He) is a very dominant man and very dangerous to converse with owing to his powers of persuasion.' So, whatever you do, Higgins, don't look at his eyes.

As Peter Sasdy's film pointed out, though, the qualities that turn an accountant's blood to ice-water can also be turned to making films that startle and enthral audiences. Cinema is a confidence-trick itself, and Korda was emotionally attracted to the grander type of con, spectacular films that persuaded audiences to believe what they knew to be impossible.

He clearly wasn't short of the raw material either. He was born to a poor Jewish family living in a small village but by the age of 26 had founded two Budapest magazines and directed 25 films. 'Geniuses don't need to graduate,' he explained to a friend when he left school early. When he fled Hungary after the arrival of Admiral Horthy he checked into the most expensive hotel in Vienna on the grounds that the people with money to back his films would be staying there too, a grand style he maintained throughout his life.

The spell didn't work everywhere. In Hollywood he found himself languishing, writing to a friend, 'Hollywood is still better than the Siberian lead mines. True, the lead mine is the only thing that is worse.' He was soon barred by every studio, a setback which this largely adoring profile skated over without explanation. Arriving in London, Korda took to England with the unabashed patriotism of the adoptive citizen, re-inventing himself as an English gentleman and calling his company London Films. His flair and complete absence of self- doubt soon established British films as an exportable product and introduced English actors (Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson among them) to international audiences.

All of this was sustained by special effects - both on camera (Korda loved them) and behind the scenes. All the food for the banqueting scenes in The Private Life of Henry VIII was delivered from Claridge's kitchens, a hideous extravagance that undoubtedly endeared the director to his cast. And when the money ran out, as it inevitably did, he would pull off another trick. On one occasion, needing to extract further funds from the Prudential, he threw a glittering party. The money-man was given the worst seat and ignored by Korda until the very last minute, when he ushered him to the door and asked for the huge sum in the tone of a man ordering his coat from the cloakroom attendant. The cheque turned up a couple of days later.