John Brabourne forged a notable career as a film producer after rising through the ranks of the film industry in meritocratic fashion, despite being the seventh Baron Brabourne and the husband of Patricia Mountbatten, the daughter of Earl Mountbatten of Burma. He confessed himself slightly embarrassed by his title, which he used as little as possible, and was much prouder of his achievements as a film producer, his credits including Lewis Gilbert's Sink the Bismarck!, Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express and David Lean's A Passage to India. He was a key figure in the founding of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta), a pioneer of cable and pay-TV, and later the chairman of Thames Television.
In 1979 he was lucky to escape with his life when he was one of the seven people on board Earl Mountbatten's small fishing boat the Shadow V, in the harbour of Mullaghmore Bay, County Sligo, when it was blown up by a bomb planted beneath the steering wheel and remotely set off by the Provisional IRA. Mountbatten, Brabourne's mother, the Dowager Lady Brabourne, his 14-year-old son Nicholas and a local boy working as crew were killed, and Brabourne, his wife and another son, Tim, were all badly injured.
Tim, Nicholas's identical twin, recently praised the attitude of his parents, who were determined to feel no bitterness ("such a corrosive emotion" said his mother). "They are a tower of strength both to each other and to me," he said. The couple's devotion was apparent to all who knew them, and Stewart Granger, who starred in the first film produced by Brabourne, Harry Black (1958), recalled in his autobiography a weekend he spent with Brabourne and his wife in Kent:
I remember envying them their perfect life. They obviously adored one another, had a beautiful home with a magnificent park, lovely children and no money problems. How tragic that this happy life was to be shattered by some murdering madmen many years later.
Lord Brabourne was born John Ulick Knatchbull in 1924, the second son of the fifth Lord Brabourne, the Conservative MP for Ashford until his own father's death in 1933 and then Governor of Bombay, from 1933 to 1937, and Bengal. (In 1938 he served as acting Governor-General of India.) John was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, where, he later confessed that, instead of going to lectures, "I went to the cinema - twice a day and three times on Sundays". In the Second World War, he served as an officer in the Coldstream Guards in France. He succeeded to the title when his brother, two years and nine months his senior, was killed in 1943. Norton, a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards who had become the sixth Baron after their father had suddenly died aged 43 in 1939, was shot by the Germans while trying to escape from a prisoner-of-war train.
Later, John was appointed aide-de-camp to General William Slim in India, and he served in the same capacity for Rear-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander in South-East Asia (created a Viscount in 1946, and the following year Earl Mountbatten of Burma). In 1946 he married Mountbatten's elder daughter, Patricia, in a ceremony attended by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, with the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret as bridesmaids. Described as "the society wedding of the year", it was also attended by the 600 employees of the Mountbatten estate.
Mountbatten knew of his son-in-law's ambition to work in the film industry - in 1942 Brabourne had been an extra in the Dunkirk sequence of Noël Coward's film In Which We Serve, based on the sinking of Mountbatten's ship the HMS Kelly - and after the war he introduced him to Alexander Korda. "He put me in touch with [the producer] Ian Dalrymple," Brabourne recalled,
who gave me a job on the escape story The Wooden Horse  as a "production assistant", which was just a name to get me on the set. It is literally a runner, which is what I was at the beginning.
Other films on which he worked as an assistant, location manager or unit manager included six produced by Herbert Wilcox, among which were Odette (1950), The Lady with a Lamp (1951) and "one or two very bad films, like Laughing Anne  and Trouble in the Glen , with Orson Welles in a kilt!" He also worked in the cutting room, and was production manager ("which involves all the financial matters") on an intriguing thriller filmed in Venice, The Stranger's Hand (1955):
Graham Greene wrote the script. It was a film I always liked very much and Greene worked so hard, he really believed in it. I got to know him very well, and wouldn't have missed the experience for anything.
He also served as production manager on the Powell-Pressburger film The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and several Daniel Angel productions including The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956) and Seven Thunders (1957), on which he was associate producer, having meanwhile abandoned his initial ambition to direct:
The things that interested me were the story, which is number one for me; the script is certainly number two; and the third really important factor is the editing. I found that, al-
though I liked to work with actors, I didn't really have a feeling for directing. Richard Goodwin says that the director makes the film but the producer gets it made. That is a very important distinction and it was what I liked to do.
John Brabourne's first film as a producer was Harry Black (put out in the United States as Harry Black and the Tiger):
I had quite a lot of connections with India as my father was Governor of Bombay, and had been Viceroy for a short time, and my father-in-law was the last Viceroy. I wanted to make a film about India, and then found the book Harry Black [David Walker's 1956 novel]. I took on Richard Goodwin as location manager. He had been born in India, and although he was only 23, he had such a way with people that I knew he could do the job. He built the camp, found the tiger and did all those things.
Brabourne had met Goodwin when they both worked for Ian Dalrymple, and he later hired him to work on Seven Thunders:
From then on, every step I took, Richard came with me. Our last film was Little Dorrit, in 1987, so we worked together for over 30 years, which in this business is very rare.
Brabourne's next production was Sink the Bismarck! (1960), an exceptional war story for which Brabourne hired first-class talents including the writer Edmund H. North, the photographer Christopher Challis, the director Lewis Gilbert and, as star, Kenneth More. Brabourne remembered:
It is one of those extraordinary films that people go on watch-
ing. I've been getting a cheque every six months since it was made! It just goes on running and everyone likes it.
Brabourne then became part of a company named British Home Entertainment, a cable service which planned to bring the arts, particularly theatre, film and opera, to viewers who would pay by putting coins into a meter. One of its coups was acquiring the rights to show the Cassius Clay/Henry Cooper boxing match to several thousand subscribers in London.
For BHE, Brabourne co-produced, with Anthony Havelock-Allan, film transcriptions of stage hits which, if not entirely successful, preserved valuable parts of theatre history, such as Laurence Olivier's remarkable performance with Maggie Smith in Othello (1966) and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in The Mikado (1967). The pair also produced Zeffirelli's energetic and flamboyant Romeo and Juliet (1968), a movie so perfectly attuned to the air of youthful rebellion in the Sixties that it became an outstanding success:
The play had been ruined for me by seeing people in it who were much too old for the parts. It occurred to me that this was really a modern play, a ballad of youth. So Tony and I talked to Zeffirelli, and when we said that, he said, "We must make this."
The pay-per-view scheme, meanwhile, had collapsed when the Postmaster-General refused to allow the company to exceed the imposed limit of 150,000 customers. "We were years before our time," Brabourne commented wryly some years later.
Brabourne's next movie, Up the Junction (1968) was a bleakly realistic tale of working-class travails. It was followed by another innovative movie of which Brabourne was particularly proud, Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), the idea for which originated with Richard Goodwin and his wife, the designer Christine Edzard. Starring members of the Royal Ballet performing Frederick Ashton's choreography, it was a completely dialogue-free movie that proved surprisingly successful at the box office:
We were extremely lucky that Bryan Forbes was head of production at EMI. He thought it was a terrific idea and he was in the position to say that they would put up the money.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974), a big hit, was the first of four Agatha Christie stories that Brabourne produced on film, with star-laden casts including such heavyweight names as Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor and David Niven. Christie was on record as disliking all the film versions of her stories except Billy Wilder's 1957 Witness for the Prosecution, but she admired the Beatrix Potter film so much that she let Brabourne have the rights to her books. Though Death on the Nile (1978), with Peter Ustinov assuming the role of Hercule Poirot played in the first film by Albert Finney, was considered even better than its predecessor, the next two Christie movies, The Mirror Crack'd (1980) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), were less impressive.
In 1975 Brabourne joined the board of Thames Television, and in the same year he was active as a member of Harold Wilson's Working Party on Films. "What Wilson did then," he said,
was create a means of circulating money through the industry without taking government money, and it kept the industry alive. That ended when the Thatcher government took away all its support in the Eighties.
He and the documentary producer Peter Morley, who made the 1969 series The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten, were instrumental in raising the funds necessary for the merging of the British Film Academy and the Society of Film and Television Arts into Bafta, with its own equivalent of the "Oscars". He was to remain a director of Thames Television from 1975 to 1993, and served as its chairman from 1990 to 1993.
When Brabourne and Goodwin decided to make a film of E.M. Forster's enigmatic novel A Passage to India, the first director they thought of was David Lean, who had not made a film for 14 years:
I rang him, and when he picked up the phone the first thing he said was, "What happened in the caves?" He told me that he, too, had been trying to get the rights since 1958.
Brabourne and Lean disagreed on one point - Lean's choice of Alec Guinness to play the mystic Professor Godbole. Guinness himself was so unhappy with the role that he offered to leave the film after the first week's shooting without being paid, and after the film's completion he wrote to Lean regretting that his offer had been refused. "John Brabourne was right in his original objection," he wrote, describing his performance as "sickeningly awful". A Passage to India (1984) gained 11 Oscar nominations, including one for Brabourne, but the only winner was Peggy Ashcroft, as best supporting actress.
The last film Brabourne and Goodwin produced was Little Dorrit (1987), an adaptation of Dickens written and directed by Christine Edzard. Though its excessive length (six hours) limited its success in the cinema, it proved popular on television and video. In recent years, the Brabournes lived quietly in their family home in Kent, where he served as President of the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Kent and Provost of Wye College.
In 1998 Thomas McMahon, who made and planted the bomb that devastated their lives, was released from prison as part of the Ulster peace agreement. Last year, the couple gave a substantial amount of money towards setting up a bursary in their fourth son Nicholas's name at the Dragon prep school in Oxford, which has been associated with the Mountbatten family for 50 years. Patricia, who succeeded as Countess Mountbatten of Burma on her father's death, broke a long, self-imposed silence on the tragedy to say,
The past 25 years would have been far more difficult without my husband. In fact, it would have been unbearably ghastly. We have been married a long time, but I dare say that if we had a spare lunch or dinner and had to pick one person we'd still choose each other.Reuse content