C. M. Pennington-Richards

Ingenious cinematographer on 'The Wooden Horse' and 'Scrooge'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Cyril Montague Pennington-Richards, film director and cinematographer: born London 17 December 1911; (twice married); died Chichester, West Sussex 2 January 2005.

The name of C. M. Pennington-Richards was a familiar one to British filmgoers as the photographer of such films as The Wooden Horse and Scrooge, and to television viewers for his directing of such series as The Buccaneer and The Invisible Man. He also occasionally wrote and produced films, but his most distinguished work was as director of cinematography.

As a member of the distinguished Crown Film Unit, he worked on one of the finest of wartime shorts, Fires Were Started. The director Edward Dmytryk, who made three films with Pennington-Richards as photographer, described "Penny" as, "cheerful, witty, hard-working and ingenious" and "always ready to try something new".

Born in South Norwood, London, in 1911, Cyril Montague Pennington-Richards first became involved with film-making when his skill as an inventive photographer was tapped by J. Arthur Rank, who in 1934 abandoned working for his father's prosperous flour business to produce films for the Religious Film Society.

Forming his own company, Religious Films Limited, Rank took Pennington-Richards under his wing, and Penny later recalled how they made films using Rank's airing-cupboard as their "studio", making movies with an elaborate arrangement of lathes and puppets, with openings made either side of the cupboard so that the puppets could be animated against scenery which lined the cupboard's walls. The results were shown in Sunday Schools and Methodist halls, and their live- action shorts included Inasmuch (1934), which gave Greer Garson her first screen role (opposite Donald Wolfit), and William Tyndale (1937), with Alan Wheatley in the title role.

Pennington-Richards's work reached a more diverse audience when he became director of photography on his first feature film, Blarney (1937), a low-budget vehicle for the comedian Jimmy O'Dea. But it was his wartime work with the esteemed Crown Film Unit that brought him fame.

Formerly the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit, the Crown unit was controlled by the Ministry of Information with the purpose of providing wartime propaganda. It employed several important and influential film-makers, and produced some very fine documentaries. Pennington-Richards worked with arguably the greatest of Crown's talents, Humphrey Jennings, on Fires Were Started (1943). Like many of Jennings's films, a mosaic of what everyday life was like for those on the home front (in this case, members of the fire-fighting service), it is regarded as a classic documentary.

Using no stock footage - the fires were literally started by the director, using already bombed buildings - Pennington-Richards was able to make a sterling contribution to the poetic imagery, which won the film such acclaim. He followed this by photographing Jill Craigie's Out of Chaos (1944), about Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash, and a documentary about the battle of Arnhem, Theirs is the Glory (1946).

After the Second World War he filmed segments for the magazine series Pathé Pictorial, then resumed working for Rank. Though some of his assignments were routine, he did sterling work when reunited with such Crown alumni as the directors Jack Lee and Pat Jackson. For Lee he photographed The Woman in the Hall (1947), a strikingly original melodrama and an early film for Jean Simmons, who played a girl whose mother (Ursula Jeans) lives through begging letters and phony appeals to charity, and The Wooden Horse (1950), a true story of an ingenious escape by prisoners of war, and still one of the best of its genre. With Jackson, he brought a documentary-style realism to the stark settings of White Corridors (1951), an intelligent and involving drama of life in a hospital. He also photographed Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge (1951), which received a mixed reception at the time but is now considered the classic version of Dickens's tale.

In 1949, he made the first of three films with the blacklisted American director Edward Dmytryk, Obsession, a persuasive film noir starring Robert Newton as a man who kidnaps his wife's lover and holds him captive while he slowly prepares an acid bath. Dmytryk wrote in his autobiography,

The photographer on the film was a bearded young man named C. Pennington Richards - Penny for short. He was one of those rare Englishmen with whom an American can find no fault at all.

Dmytryk, who disliked over-detailed lighting, often had trouble putting his views across to his cinematographers:

Penny was more than willing. Our main set, the sub-basement, was supposed to be lit with two bright overhead hanging work lights, shaded with those large green enamel shades so common in old workrooms. Penny inserted a photo-flood bulb in each. When we walked on the set in the morning, a pull on the lamp cords lit the set. When an actor walked close to a light, he was hot; when he backed too far away, he nearly disappeared in the background. But God, did it look real!

The pair worked together again on Give Us This Day (1949), a grim tale based on a story by the Brooklyn bricklayer Pietro DiDonato, Christ in Concrete, about his father, an Italian immigrant who had been buried alive in concrete after the collapse of a cheaply constructed building during the Depression. Because of the English climate, the set of the four-storey building that collapses, which would have been an exterior one in California, had to be constructed inside, but was required to look as if in realistic daylight. Pennington-Richards solved the problem with four huge arc-lights placed in a tight four-leaf clover cluster at a corner of the stage, the heat they generated so strong that they could only be turned on while scenes were actually shot, with rehearsals and set-ups being done in semi-darkness. "Even now," wrote Dmytryk,

when I run my 16mm print, I marvel at Penny's skill. I'd swear we shot those scenes out of doors.

In 1962 Pennington-Richards made his first film as a director, The Oracle, a whimsical tale, based on Robert Barr's radio play To Tell You The Truth, in which a mysterious voice at the bottom of a well predicts the future (including racehorse winners). It was notable for featuring, as the voice, that of Gilbert Harding. Stormy Crossing (1957), a weak thriller, also is best remembered for a piece of casting, that of the future director John Schlesinger as a garage mechanic.

Pennington-Richards's directorial work was workmanlike at best, his more successful features including the comedies Inn for Trouble (1960, a spin-off of the television series The Larkins), Double Bunk (1961) starring Ian Carmichael, Dentist on the Job (1961), written by and starring Bob Monkhouse, and Ladies Who Do (1963).

He was prolific in the early days of television, and in 1956 produced the series The Buccaneer, starring Robert Shaw, also directing a dozen episodes. He directed the first episode, and most of the first series, of The Invisible Man (1958), 20 episodes of Interpol Calling (1959) and several segments of Danger Man (1960). For most of his television work, he used the name Pennington Richards. His occasional scriptwriting credits included the films Guns at Batasi (1964) and Headline Hunters (1967).

Pennington-Richards directed his last film, Sky Pirates, in 1977, then retired to Bognor Regis with his second wife, Beausie, a daughter of the King of Fiji. Still energetic, Pennington-Richards bought a motor-bike at the age of 75 and became a courier, but his wife persuaded him to give it up five years later after he had an accident.

Tom Vallance

Comments