Greg Smith: Producer of the 'Confessions' films
Friday 01 May 2009
Greg Smith was the producer behind the hugely successful Confessions movies of the 1970s. The series' mixture of slapstick humour, big-name stars, double entendres and nudity made X-certificate films almost respectable and sounded the death knell for the less explicit Carry On films.
The first in the series – Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) – was made for £150,000 and became Columbia Pictures' most profitable non-American film of all time. It also made Robin Askwith a star. "I don't think British sex films were ever really sexy," Smith said in 2001. "They were risqué, but that's how British people like it. All I wanted to do was to make people laugh. I didn't want to push things for the sake of it, but I think the censor was in a state of shock!"
Despite the films' success, Smith's proudest achievement came on the West End stage as a co-producer of Buddy, a musical based on the life of Buddy Holly. The show opened at the Victoria Palace in 1989 and transferred to the Strand theatre, where it ran for 13 years, and toured Europe.
Born in 1939 in Twickenham, Smith was raised by an aunt in Basildon after the death of his parents. He left school at 15 and joined the Argyle Theatre's touring repertory company, before taking a job as a postboy for the theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont, a position which he said shaped the rest of his life. After working as a theatrical agent with the Billy Marsh Agency and MCA, Smith established a talent agency in London's Golden Square. He assembled a client list of producers, directors and writers that included the Irish-born film-maker Norman Cohen.
Smith and Cohen set up Prophet Enterprises and made two highly regarded shorts, Brendan Behan's Dublin (1966) and The London Nobody Knows (1967). The latter saw a flat-capped James Mason exploring the seedy streets of post-war London, discovering lamplighters, whiskey-swigging vagrants, red-cheeked buskers and scrapping kids. Documenting the decay of pre-gentrification Camden and Islington, and the poverty there, the film shocked its audiences.
The film first went out as a support feature to the movie version of the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965). That film inspired Smith and Cohen's next cinematic excursion. The transfer of hit sitcoms to the big screen was big business in the 1970s, and Smith quickly acquired the rights to Dad's Army; a film version was released in 1971, followed in 1972 by a movie based on Spike Milligan's memoir, Adolf Hitler – My Part in His Downfall.
The relaxation of censorship had opened the door to broader comedies. The success of Val Guest's Au Pair Girls (1972) persuaded Smith to team up with the director for the first Confessions film. The series was based on bestselling paperbacks by Cambridge graduate Christopher Wood, who used the pseudonym Timothy Lea for his bawdy tales of a cocky jack-the-lad and his encounters with the opposite sex. The books were a publishing phenomenon, and they came to Smith's attention when he purchased a copy of Confessions of a Window Cleaner from a station bookshop to read on the journey from Paddington to Folkestone. "When I got off at the other end I had decided that I wanted to make it into a wonderful movie," Smith said.
All the major distributors turned him down but Smith was convinced he could make the book's cheeky hero the "Alfie of the 1970s". Columbia finally agreed, and in 1974 Confessions of a Window Cleaner became the most successful British movie of the year. Askwith was voted most promising newcomer at the Evening News awards and his romp with Sue Longhurst on a kitchen floor covered in soap suds became one of the best-known British film moments of the decade. "Robin has the ability to be rude and drop his strides and not offend anybody," Smith said. "That is an incredible talent!"
The Confessions films attracted a high calibre of supporting actors, including John Le Mesurier, Dandy Nicholls, Windsor Davies and Irene Handl. They also attracted copycats: by the time Confessions of a Pop Performer was released in 1975, Adventures of a Taxi Driver and The Ups and Downs of a Handyman were competing for viewers. After four Confessions films (the last three directed by Norman Cohen), Smith realised that the bottom, so to speak, had fallen out of the market. The series climaxed with 1977's Confessions from a Holiday Camp, which was filmed at Hayling Island during a very chilly February.
Smith's other films included the glam musical Never Too Young to Rock (1975), starring the Glitter Band; a return to Ireland for the award-winning documentary The Importance of Being Dublin (1975); and a movie version of Leslie Thomas's Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers (1977), with Askwith in the lead and co-starring Smith's then-wife, the actress Lynda Bellingham.
In 1978 Smith produced a remake of The 39 Steps, and the following year turned to television to produce Thomas's Tropic of Ruislip. In 1980 came The Shillingbury Blowers, a television movie about two young Londoners (Robin Nedwell and Diane Keen) who relocate to a tiny Surrey village overflowing with English eccentrics.
In 1983 Norman Cohen died of a heart attack. Smith produced the independently financed Funny Money (1982), as well as Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball's ill-fated excursion into cinema, The Boys in Blue (1982). Back on TV, he produced two series of the Channel 4 sitcom Rude Health, and Great Expectations (1989), a three-part mini-series starring Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch which received four Emmy nominations. The following year Smith oversaw Trevor Nunn's acclaimed Othello for the BBC. In 1993 the duo collaborated again, on a Royal Opera House production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
Following the huge popularity of Buddy, Smith co-produced the musical Jolson with Brian Conley in the title role (it won the Lawrence Olivier award for best new musical of 1996 and toured the US and Australia); Great Balls of Fire, about Jerry Lee Lewis (1999); and Zipp! (2003), a short-lived whizz through theatreland which traded on Gyles Brandreth's assurance that it contained "100 musicals for less than the price of one."
In 1998 he set up a production studio in the Wicklow Mountains to film George Orwell's Animal Farm for the American Hallmark channel, using live animals and animatronic doubles supplied by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. It was rumoured to be the most expensive TV movie of all time, with a budget of $22m. An American TV film of David Copperfield (2000) followed. His final cinematic offering was the 1960s drama Agnes Browne (1999), directed by Anjelica Huston and shot on location in County Wicklow.
"I love the Confessions movies," he said in 2001, "and I love talking about them. I never cared what the critics said because the films made me laugh."
Greg Smith, producer: born London 4 November 1939; married Cheryl Cocklin (marriage dissolved), Lynda Bellingham (marriage dissolved), Valerie van Ost (marriage dissolved), Gloria Thomas; died London 19 February 2009.
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