Master of Ealing comedies dies, aged 89

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CHARLES CRICHTON, the film director whose comedies were the cornerstone on which Ealing Studios built its post-war reputation, has died, his family announced last night. He was 89.

He died at home yesterday in South Kensington, London, after a short illness, his son David said. He leaves second wife Nadine, David and another son, Nicholas.

Crichton, together with fellow Ealing directors Henry Cornelius, Robert Hamer and Alexander Mackendrick, became synonymous with the genre of great British comedies from Ealing which defined for a generation of filmgoers - on screen at least - a confident, anarchic side to Britain when the country was still paying heavily for the Second World War.

Crichton, who directed the first of the Ealing comedy classics, Hue and Cry, and later The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt, was instrumental in developing emerging talent in the likes of Sir Alec Guinness. His brand of cinema was dubbed by one French critic l'ecole humoristique anglaise.

Born in Wallasey, Cheshire, he was educated at Oundle and Oxford, where he fell in love with cinema. He got an interview with Zoltan Korda, brother of the legendary Alexander, who offered him a cutting room job if he would work for nothing.

He was soon getting pounds 8 a week, although he was still so poor he had to stuff postcards in his shoe soles to cover the holes.

Promoted to full editor, he cut Things to Come and 50 or more lesser films. He graduated to directing in 1944 with For Those In Peril, about the Merchant Navy.

Later he directed the first Ealing comedy, Hue and Cry, and other Ealing classics of the early 1950s followed.

In 1962 his career suffered a setback when he quit in mid-production as director of Birdman of Alcatraz over a dispute with producer-star Burt Lancaster. In 1965, he directed what was to be his last feature film for 23 years, He Who Rides a Tiger.

He moved into television, making some of the more stylish episodes of The Avengers and Danger Man, and even dabbled with three episodes of the sci-fi series Space 1999.

He then met comic John Cleese when making training films for a production company Cleese part-owned. Cleese was determined that the near-octogenarian with back trouble and no recent track record would direct A Fish Called Wanda. The film won wide acclaim.

Cleese and fellow Monty Python star Michael Palin had at first found Crichton's "grumpy schoolmaster" attitude towards comedy a shock.

But he told them: "People think that if you're directing comedy you've got to be funny. On the contrary, you've got to be serious."

Despite his age, he insisted on being present at every shot, even if it meant being severely chilled suspended outside a car travelling at 40mph in sub-zero temperatures.

Sir Alec Guinness, in his book My Name Escapes Me - The Diary of a Retiring Actor, recalled Crichton's uncompromising approach to comedy direction.

Sir Alec said: "Ealing Studios never succeeded in killing me in spite of some quite good tries, the first of which was during the making of The Lavender Hill Mob."