Clive Donner: Film and television director best known for 'The Caretaker' and 'What's New Pussycat?'

Clive Donner directed for both film and television, and his work includes some "swinging London" comedies. But his lasting legacy includes perhaps the definitive versions of Pinter's The Caretaker and Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male.

Donner's mother ran a dress shop while his father was a violinist who played on the soundtrack of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and the film's director Michael Powell levered the young Donner into Denham Studios' editing room. Donner's national service ran from 1944-47 and included a stint in the Education Corps, which may account for his later facility in working with young people.

Demobbed, Donner moved to Pinewood to work with David Lean and Ronald Neame. Editing films like Madeleine (1950), Scrooge (1951) and Genevieve (1953) eventually led to a directing contract from Rank. In 1957 he directed his first film, A Secret Place, about a policeman's son who is tricked into lending his father's uniform to a gang of crooks. Shot on location in the East End, it climaxes in an exciting chase through a huge building site.

Donner's career witnessed some dizzying changes of direction, and the following year's Heart of a Child was an Alpine children's film in which a boy saves his dog from being put down. Donald Pleasence, who plays the canicidal father, would later star in Donner's first big success.

Despite these moderate successes, Donner found it difficult to sustain a film career and spent some time directing for television, including serials like Danger Man as well as adverts, all of which brought him some recognition. In 1962 he returned to the cinema with Some People, in which four Bristolian teenagers are brought back on to the straight and narrow when their music teacher (Kenneth More) encourages them to form a rock band. In this they are helped by the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, which enjoyed a slice of the film's profits.

Donner's next film, Pinter's bleak and semi-absurdist The Caretaker, was his greatest success to date. Donner had not directed the stage production, but it was obvious that he should cast two of its stars, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasence, while Robert Shaw, who had joined them on Broadway, replaced Peter Woodthorpe. Though the play had been successful (Harold Hobson praised the way that Pleasence captured Davies's "blustering pitifulness"), and Pinter had written the adaptation, they had difficulty in raising finance until an intervention from angels including Noël Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Their perspicacity paid off, the film winning a Silver Bear at Berlin. The Caretaker was claustrophobically shot by the future director Nic Roeg, and he and Bates rejoined Donner for Frederic Raphael's Nothing But the Best (1964), a blackly satirical Pygmalion story about an estate agent who wants to pass himself off as posh.

The sex-farce What's New Pussycat? (1965) is now chiefly remembered for Tom Jones belting out Bacharach and David's theme song. Peter O'Toole plays a hopeless womaniser who seeks help from a psychiatrist played with a bizarre Viennese accent by Peter Sellers. With an all-star cast it threatened to spin off the track completely and Woody Allen reportedly felt that his script had been massacred. But Donner just about kept it in control and it was a huge commercial success, buttressing The Caretaker's critical acclaim.

Donner was now a hot property and in 1967 directed Luv, adapted from Murray Schisgal's play and starring Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Elaine May. But where with The Caretaker Donner had stuck to the original play, here he was encouraged to open the original out and the film bombed.

Back home, he took on Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968), for which Hunter Davies transferred the action of his novel from his native Carlisle to Stevenage. A sidelong glance at Sixties permissiveness, it follows a 17 year-old's desperate attempts to lose his virginity. Another small-scale success, it allowed Donner to make Alfred the Great (1969), in which David Hemmings plays the king as a neurotic. Its avowedly "anti-epic" viewpoint didn't chime with audiences and Donner, again finding it difficult to initiate projects, returned to advertising.

In 1974 he directed on stage for the only time, with Robert Patrick's Kennedy's Children, a series of downbeat monologues. Starting at the King's Head in Islington, it then followed the trajectory of The Caretaker, from The Arts Theatre to Broadway.

He now returned to film and television, hopping to and fro across the Atlantic, but without recapturing his earlier energy. 1974's Dracula spoof Vampira starred an anaemic David Niven, while The Nude Bomb (1980), a spin-off from the TV series Get Smart about a weapon that destroys clothing, is equally weak.

Donner teamed up with George C Scott for two Dickens adaptations for television, Oliver Twist (1982) and A Christmas Carol (1984), neither of which stood comparison to the 1948 and 1951 versions that Donner had edited. Among his later work for television was an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer's Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1990), another stab at Arthur the King (1985) and, finally, Charlemagne (1993).

In the midst of this competent work he and O'Toole reunited for the BBC's outstanding Rogue Male (1976), adapted by Frederic Raphael from Geoffrey Household's novel. When an English aristocrat fails in his attempt to assassinate Hitler he fears he will find himself caught between the British and the Nazis. It was, deservedly, one of Donner's own favourites.

John Riley

Clive Stanley Donner, film, television and theatre director: born London 21 January 1926; married Jocelyn Rickards (died 2005); died London 6 September 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee