Bryan Forbes: Actor, director and producer who was central to British cinema for decades


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The Independent Online

One of the most prolific and productive figures in the British film industry for more than 30 years, Bryan Forbes was an energetic jack of all trades, imaginative, thoughtful and gentlemanly. Along with his friend and colleague Richard Attenborough he was perhaps the last link left with a golden age of British film-making.

As a director, as well as exemplary chamber pieces like Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), Forbes delivered one of the key Hollywood films of the 1970s, The Stepford Wives (1975). His brief period as a producer for EMI in the late '60s spawned a vast number of projects including The Railway Children (1970). "The only power worth having is the power to help people" he once commented, which perhaps explains why he took the job and eschewed serious money as an independent producer and director.

Born John Theobald Clarke in West Ham, neither his name nor his background made acting a likely career for him, but like his army friend Kenneth Williams it was evacuation that broadened his horizons, as Forbes was taken in by a book-loving vicar and his wife in Cornwall. He enrolled at Rada when he was 17 but, frustrated, left and worked in rep until before being called up for National Service in 1945.

After a spell in the Intelligence Corps he joined the Combined Services Entertainments Unit and fell in with a colourful crowd that certainly had talent in common if little else, including Williams, Stanley Baxter, John Schlesinger and Peter Nichols. Back in Blighty Forbes found his acting career fitful, with occasional stage appearances such as in The Holly and the Ivy at the Duchess Theatre, and very minor roles in low-budget features, and so in between jobs wrote a pleasing collection of short stories, Truth Lies Sleeping (1951).

The same year he married the beautiful Irish actress Constance Smith, a Rank starlet. Smith's tempestuous behaviour quickly destroyed the marriage and eventually destroyed her career and her life, and after four years they divorced.

Forbes then married the charming and vivacious Nanette Newman. Clearly a perfect match, they also worked well together professionally, Newman appearing in many of Forbes's films and also giving a strong performance as a Victorian nanny in an unusual Play for Today called "Jessie" which he wrote and directed for her in 1980.

It was he and Attenborough's dissatisfaction with their careers, and often with the directors they were working for, that led them to form Beaver Films. Their first piece was the excellent The Angry Silence (1960), the story of a factory worker ostracised for refusing to go on strike. Forbes won a Bafta and was nominated for an Oscar for his script, which he had done for no up-front fee as a way of attracting funding. Beaver Films followed this with Whistle Down the Wind, his directorial debut. An adorable story of a stranger mistaken by imaginative children for Jesus, it remains a twinkling gem of nostalgic Englishness.

Beaver triumphed again with Seance on a Wet Afternoon, again scooping a clutch of awards with the remarkably moody story of a psychic who forces her husband to kidnap a child so that she can then claim to have solved the case. It could have been even more historically notable if Forbes's initial plan had been realised, which was to make the couple gay. ("Never anticipate the critics" was his maxim.) He approached Tom Courtenay and Alec Guinness to play them, but Guinness refused.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1965 to write and direct possibly his finest film, King Rat. A story of tough friendships in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Forbes assembled a splendid cast including George Segal and Denholm Elliott for what remains a brilliant study of male egos under pressure.

His decision in 1969 to accept Bernard Delfont's offer to become Head of Production at Elstree for EMI proved an unhappy one and interrupted his own career to little advantage. Forbes wanted to restore the old studio system and planned to churn out an enviable number of films per year, but he was hampered all the way by in-house politics.

 All the same, a few good films came out of his time there including The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), a bizarre fusion of Cheapside espionage, marital stagnation and the supernatural, starring Roger Moore as a sober businessman who is driven to the edge of sanity by an evil doppelganger. Forbes's script was smart and his characterisations vivid, and the film's reputation has grown enormously and deservedly in recent years.

After escaping EMI Forbes was back in Hollywood to direct William Goldman's script of the Ira Levin novel The Stepford Wives (1975). A witty piece of Seventies satire, the suburban sci-fi exposes an idyllic small town of happy marriages as being due to the men all having had their wives replaced by robots.

The same year he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but he was indefatigable and went on to direct The Slipper and the Rose (1976) and International Velvet (1978), while also dabbling with stage directing, including a Macbeth for the Old Vic in 1980 and Graham Greene's The Living Room at the Royalty in 1984, and writing two volumes of autobiography and a string of novels. He ended his screenplay career on a strong note with Chaplin (1992).

While exploiting the old boy network and occasional nepotism were charges laid on him more than once, Forbes was one of the true all-rounders of British film, and was a particularly fine scriptwriter. His enthusiasm for such a diverse range of projects kept cinema audiences of all ages and tastes happy. Despite his eclecticism, common factors can be found throughout his films: wit, humanity and determination. They are a fitting epitaph to him.

Simon Farquhar

John Theobald Clarke (Bryan Forbes), actor, writer, director and producer: born West Ham, London 22 July 1926; CBE 2004; married 1951 Constance Smith (marriage dissolved), 1955 Nanette Newman (two daughters); died Virginia Water, Surrey 8 May 2013.