Michael Relph

Multi-talented film producer and set designer
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The Independent Online

Michael Leighton George Relph, film producer and stage designer: born Broadstone, Dorset 16 February 1915; Chairman, Film Production Association of Great Britain 1971-76; Chairman, Production Board, BFI 1972-79; married 1939 Doris Gosden (one son; marriage dissolved), 1950 Maria Barry (died 2003; one daughter); died Selsey, West Sussex 30 September 2004.

Michael Relph was a key figure of the British film industry for over 40 years. Multi-talented, he was an art director, scriptwriter and director, as well as the producer of such classic films as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Blue Lamp. As a production designer, his work contributed to the persuasive mood created by such films as Champagne Charlie and Dead of Night, and his sumptuous designs for Saraband for Dead Lovers won him an Oscar nomination.

Michael Leighton George Relph, film producer and stage designer: born Broadstone, Dorset 16 February 1915; Chairman, Film Production Association of Great Britain 1971-76; Chairman, Production Board, BFI 1972-79; married 1939 Doris Gosden (one son; marriage dissolved), 1950 Maria Barry (died 2003; one daughter); died Selsey, West Sussex 30 September 2004.

Michael Relph was a key figure of the British film industry for over 40 years. Multi-talented, he was an art director, scriptwriter and director, as well as the producer of such classic films as Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Blue Lamp. As a production designer, his work contributed to the persuasive mood created by such films as Champagne Charlie and Dead of Night, and his sumptuous designs for Saraband for Dead Lovers won him an Oscar nomination.

In 1943 he worked for the first time with the director Basil Dearden, and the two were to form a fertile producing-directing team that was to last for nearly 30 years. Their films together included some of the most trenchant and courageous of the era, such as Sapphire, which dealt with racial prejudice, and Victim, the first mainstream film to deal with homosexuality. For many years Relph was Chairman of the British Film Institute Production Board.

Born Michael Leighton George Relph in Broadstone, Dorset, in 1915, he was the son of the actor George Relph, who was primarily a stage star but will be remembered on screen for his portrayal of the train-mad vicar in The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). He was educated at Bembridge School, and began his career in 1932 at the age of 17 as an assistant art director at Gaumont-British, where he worked under the man described by Michael Powell as "probably the greatest art director that films have ever known", Alfred Junge. The studio's head was Michael Balcon. "He was a friend of my family," Relph told the historian Brian McFarlane, "so there was a spot of nepotism involved."

He eventually moved to Warner Brothers at Teddington as art director on Maurice Elvey's Who Killed John Savage? (1937), and then had co-designing credit on two comedies directed by Roy William Neill, the Max Miller vehicle Everything Happens to Me and the Reginald Purdell/Claude Hulbert farce Many Tanks, Mr Atkins (both 1938). Of the 30-plus films he designed at Warners (mainly quota quickies), the most distinguished film was Arthur Wood's They Drive By Night (1939), a masterly thriller starring Emlyn Williams, its powerful atmosphere due in part to the art department's recreation of the nocturnal world of lorry drivers, all-night roadhouse cafes and dingy apartments.

Relph had a simultaneous career as a set designer for the West End theatre, starting with Arthur Macrae's Aldwych farce Indoor Fireworks (1934). He was particularly prolific during the Second World War years, fashioning sets for such prestigious productions as Saloon Bar (1939), with Gordon Harker, the revue Up and Doing (1940), John van Druten's Old Acquaintance (1941) and two hit comedies, Quiet Wedding and The Man Who Came To Dinner (both 1941).

Other credits included Watch on the Rhine and The Petrified Forest (1942), Heartbreak House and They Came to a City (1943), The Last Summer and Love in Idleness (1944), and The Years Between (1945). Post-war credits included Frieda (1946), September Tide (1948), Relative Values (1951) and The White Carnation (1953).

In 1942 he joined Ealing Studios, where Michael Balcon was now in charge:

I was very pleased to end up at Ealing, because Balcon had a reputation for promoting people from the ranks, as it were, and this encouraged me towards producing.

After working on My Learned Friend (1943), the last film of the comedian Will Hay, he designed three films directed by Basil Dearden. The Bells Go Down (1943) was a lively tribute to the Auxiliary Fire Service, Halfway House (1944) an intriguing ghost story, and They Came to a City (1944) an adaptation of a work that Relph had already designed for the theatre. His stylised sets for this static version of J.B. Priestley's allegorical play helped keep interest alive in the talkative piece. For Alberto Cavalcanti's Champagne Charlie (1944) Relph convincingly recreated the world of the Edwardian music hall, and the film was praised particularly for its period detail.

Having created an eerily chilly hotel for Halfway House, Relph provided perfect settings for the even more disturbing portmanteau thriller Dead of Night (1945). Particularly effective is the elaborate room of a past age that appears so hauntingly in the cursed mirror of Robert Hamer's sequence - one of the most unsettling ghost stories ever put on film. Memorable too are the night-club and backstage settings for the celebrated tale (directed by Cavalcanti) of the ventriloquist who becomes possessed by his dummy.

Cavalcanti's Nicholas Nickleby (1946) was Relph's last film solely as production designer. Cavalcanti had produced Halfway House and had noted how well Relph and Dearden worked together:

He thought I was a good influence on Basil, that I was able to direct his amazing technical skills into the right channels. So Cavalcanti suggested to Balcon that he should team Basil and myself. Basil was a very easy person to work with and I was able to convey any creative ideas I had through him. We complemented each other, I think, and also we loved making films.

(Relph's billing on most of their early films was as associate producer, since Balcon, who would allow the team to originate and develop projects, but had the final say on everything, received production credit.)

Relph both designed and produced Dearden's moving drama The Captive Heart (1946), with its convincing depiction of a prisoner-of-war camp, then he produced Dearden's 1947 version of the play Frieda, which forcefully addressed the attitudes of a middle-class British community to a German war bride (Mai Zetterling).

It was followed by Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), a lavish account of the tragic love affair between Sophia Dorothea, wife of George Louis of Hanover (later King George I) and Count Philip Konigsmark. Relph both produced and co-designed the movie, and won an Oscar nomination (with his co-designers Jim Morohan and William Kellner) for colour art direction and set decoration. "It was a magnificent-looking film," said Relph,

but it wasn't a success at the time. We were trying to get away from the Gainsborough-type costume picture, which was totally unreal, and to do a serious historical epic. I think the public probably wasn't ready for it and also it ended up being a bit heavy. I was very pleased to get an Oscar nomination for the set design. It was Ealing's first colour film, shot on three-strip Technicolor, and was very expensive for those days.

Relph then made the only Ealing film he produced without Dearden, Robert Hamer's masterpiece, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1948). With Hamer and John Dighton's deliciously droll script, the tour de force of Alec Guinness in eight roles, the superb central performance by Dennis Price, the sparkling support from Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, and its immaculate production design, the film remains one of the glories of British cinema.

After another portmanteau film, Train of Events (1949), Dearden and Relph made one of their most popular films, The Blue Lamp (1949), starring Jack Warner as PC Dixon, who is cold-bloodedly murdered on the eve of his retirement by a delinquent (Dirk Bogarde). Bogarde said,

It was the first of what we would call today cinéma vérité; the first true, on-location, movie we ever made. I think they built the policeman's flat but everything else was done in Paddington Green police station and the White City dog-racing track.

The Blue Lamp won the British Academy Award as best film of the year, and was to inspire the later long-running television series Dixon of Dock Green.

Cage of Gold (1950) was a more conventional melodrama but benefited from Jean Simmons's central performance. Relph said,

Some people at Ealing were inclined to make a film every three years or so, waiting for the perfect subject for their reputations. But we had a big staff working there and we had to keep the studio going. Basil and I were always stepping in with some subject or other. It mightn't have been the one subject in the world we really wanted to make, but it kept the studio working.

Pool of London (1951) was another film made primarily on location, and was notable for its documentary-style footage of the city's dockside, and for featuring a black actor (Earl Cameron) as the most sympathetic character.

Relph received co-writing credit on I Believe in You (1951), a look at the work of probation officers in which Joan Collins had her first important screen role. His father, George Relph, played a cameo in the film, though his son later had some harsh words to say about stage acting of the period:

The upper- or middle-class stage acting then looked ridiculous on film, when you think of the realism that people like Cagney were bringing to the cinema at the time. My father was a distinguished stage actor and he always said that British stage acting was an absolute killer as far as film was concerned. British stage acting in the Thirties and Forties was almost totally middle-class and it was just not transferable to the screen.

The team's penchant for multi- storied vehicles was apparent again in The Square Ring (1953), with its boxing-hall setting, and Out of the Clouds (1955), set in a fog-bound airport. Their final film for Ealing was The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), in which former servicemen after the war use their old gunboat for smuggling:

The ship, in a sense, represented what people had done with the country they had inherited after the war.

With Ealing sold, the couple moved to MGM at Elstree, where Relph made his directing début with Davy (1957) starring Harry Secombe and described by Relph as "not very good". Its writer, William Rose, told the team of an idea he had for a story about a couple inheriting a run-down cinema, and the result was one of their most popular films, The Smallest Show on Earth (1957). Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers played the couple, who also inherit a staff comprising a drunken projectionist (Peter Sellers), an eccentric cashier who was an organ player in the silent era (Margaret Rutherford) and an aged doorman (Bernard Miles).

Relph then directed Rockets Galore (1958), "rather a silly thing to do - to make a sequel to Whisky Galore!" He also directed Desert Mice (1959), a film about the escapades of an Ensa troupe during the war. It was originally entitled Every Night Something Awful until cinema-chain executives objected, saying it would be asking for trouble. With a fine cast of comedy players including Dora Bryan, Sid James and Irene Handl, it should have been funnier, but there was one haunting moment when the troupe appear in full costume, as if in a mirage, to troops in the middle of the desert. Relph later said of his directing:

It always boiled down to my getting the subjects on which Basil wasn't particularly keen. And I am not really temperamentally cut out to be a director. A director has to have an enormous amount of patience and the ability to take detailed pains, and I find it very difficult to do that.

Signed to a contract by Rank, the team was to make four more exceptional films. Sapphire (1959), an uncompromising murder mystery, with the victim a half-black girl passing for white, was a scathing assault on racial prejudice that won the team their second British Academy Award. "It looks dated now," Relph told McFarlane, "because of the changes in race relations since then, but it was a good film at the time."

The League of Gentlemen (1960) was an enormously popular caper comedy in which Jack Hawkins played an ex-army officer masterminding a bank raid in military fashion. It was followed by the controversial and brave attack on the pre-Wolfenden laws at the time regarding homosexuality, Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde as a blackmailed barrister:

I think he was very courageous to do it and so was Rank to allow us to make it at that time, because Dirk was one of their biggest assets.

Bogarde said,

It was the first time a man had said he was in love with another man on the screen. It was not in the script. I wrote that bit. I agreed to do the film on condition that we put in a scene at the end where the man says to his wife that, yes, he did love a boy. We then couldn't find anyone to play the wife, until Sylvia Syms, bless her dear little heart, finally said, "No problem."

The film not only proved a commercial success, but helped Bogarde make the transition from matinée idol to serious actor.

The following year Relph and Dearden tackled the subject of religious fundamentalism in Life for Ruth (1962), the tale of a sick girl whose father (Michael Craig) will not allow her to be given a blood transfusion. When the child dies, the agnostic doctor (Patrick McGoohan) presses manslaughter charges on the father.

Dirk Bogarde starred for the team again in an offbeat tale of sensory deprivation and espionage, The Mind Benders (1963), but Woman of Straw (1964) was a mild thriller despite the high- voltage teaming of Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida. The team returned to form with Masquerade (1965), a lively spy spoof with Jack Hawkins and Cliff Robertson as Foreign Office officials trying to kidnap a young prince from a country with vast oil deposits.

Relph went back to designing with the opulent settings for The Assassination Bureau (1969), which he also produced and co-wrote, a whimsically melodramatic Victorian thriller with Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed. The team's last film was The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), a sci-fi thriller starring Roger Moore.

After Dearden's death in a car crash in 1971, Relph became Chairman of the BFI Production Board, succeeding Michael Balcon, and produced only three more films, Scum (1979), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1981) and Heavenly Pursuits (1986). He was also the executive producer of the television series Treasure Houses of Britain (1985).

His son, Simon Relph, is a producer and former Chairman of Bafta.

Tom Vallance

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