Monty Berman

Prolific 'B'-movie producer
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The Independent Online

Nestor Montague Berman, cinematographer and film producer: born London 1912; married (one daughter); died London 14 June 2006.

Monty Berman was a former cinematographer who became a prolific film producer, co-founding with Robert S. Baker the company Tempean Films, which made over 30 "B" movies in the Fifties. Though modest of budget, they were mainly proficient thrillers, which, in the days when audiences expected a double-bill for their money, filled the slot accompanying more important product. Later, Berman moved into television, producing series that are still proving popular on video and on satellite stations, such as The Saint, The Champions and Department S.

Nestor Montague Berman was born in the Whitechapel district of London in 1912, and at the age of 17 entered films as a camera assistant at Twickenham Studios. He graduated to camera operator in 1934, first at Teddington and then at Ealing Studios.

One of the films on which he worked was Michael Powell's Some Day (1935), an early starring vehicle for Margaret Lockwood. When Powell was planning his first major film, The Edge of the World (1937), he remembered Berman, and later wrote in his memoirs, "Monty Berman, a young cameraman who had done outstanding work on two of my films, was to be lighting cameraman."

During the Second World War, Berman served with the Eighth Army Film Unit, after which he was camera operator on the hit comedy Hue and Cry (1946), the moody Daughter of Darkness (1947) and a Powell-Pressburger production, The End of the River (1947).

He had befriended Robert S. Baker when both were sergeants with the film unit, and in 1948 they decided to form their own company, Tempean. Financed by "friends and relatives", including Berman's father Morris, their first production was a cheaply produced musical, A Date with a Dream (1948), with a cast that included several names of future distinction - Norman Wisdom, Terry-Thomas and Jean (later Jeannie) Carson. The distribution company Eros Films was impressed by what the team had done on a limited budget and offered to finance their future productions.

Most of Tempean's films were photographed by Berman, and Baker occasionally directed. Unable to afford sets, they filmed mainly on location, a rarity in those days. According to Baker, their locations were usually within easy distance of London, "because we could never have afforded to take a unit away and pay hotel expenses." The team were among the first British film-makers to realise that by signing fading Hollywood stars, they could inexpensively provide some star appeal both for local audiences and for the American "B" market. American players in their films included John Carroll, Virginia Bruce, Arthur Kennedy and the blacklisted actor Larry Parks.

Berman and Baker were both admirers of film noir, and they tried to give their movies a noirish atmosphere. They also had an unofficial repertory company of some of the country's finest character players including Thora Hird, Michael Balfour, Charles Victor and Dora Bryan. One of Bryan's better roles in a Tempean film came when Diana Dors, cast in The Quiet Woman (1952), had some sharp disagreements with the director John Gilling, and became "indisposed". Bryan was quickly cast in her role, as a barmaid whose friend (Jane Hylton) runs a coastal inn where she is terrorised by her escaped-convict husband.

John Gilling worked for Tempean more than any other director, also providing the scripts. He wrote and directed one of Tempean's most successful films, The Voice of Merrill (1952), which was elevated to "co-feature" status. Other Tempean films of note include The Lost Hours (1952), which starred Jean Kent opposite the American Mark Stevens, and The Embezzler (1954), which provided a rare starring role for Charles Victor. Blind Spot (1958) featured an early screen appearance by Michael Caine as a small-time crook.

As the decade ended, Baker and Berman realised that television was making "B" movies redundant, and they decided to change course. After making three movies with the Abbey Players at Ardmore Studios in Ireland, they produced their first "A" film, Guy Green's Sea of Sand (1958), a war tale with both action and well-defined characters, its cast headed by Michael Craig, John Gregson and Richard Attenborough.

Hammer Studios had meanwhile discovered an audience for horror films, and the team tapped into the trend by hiring the writer Jimmy Sangster to adapt a television series by Peter Keys into the film The Trollenberg Terror (1958). Titled The Crawling Eye in the United States, it told of a Swiss village's inhabitants under siege from aliens concealed by a radioactive cloud.

Sangster also wrote the team's next two movies, Blood of the Vampire (1958), which benefited from a Grand Guignol performance from Donald Wolfit, and Jack the Ripper (1958), which gained notoriety when it was bought for the US by Joseph E. Levine, who added to the black-and-white film a climactic colour sequence in which the Ripper's death results in bright red blood seeping through the floorboards. The film made nearly $2m in the States, making it the most profitable movie ever made by Berman and Baker.

In 1960 they produced their most critically acclaimed work, The Siege of Sidney Street, based on the police assault on the hideout of Edwardian anarchists. Their last film productions as a team were The Hellfire Club (1961), a roistering tale with Keith Michell wielding a sword to reclaim his inheritance, The Secret of Monte Cristo (1961), starring Rory Calhoun, and What a Carve Up (1962), a comedy version of the 1934 Karloff vehicle The Ghoul.

In 1962 Baker and Berman negotiated with the writer Leslie Charteris for the television rights to his character The Saint, a debonair sophisticate and latter-day Robin Hood whose calling card depicts a stick figure with a halo. Already a popular figure in fiction, on radio and in movies, he seemed an ideal subject for a television series, but Associated Rediffusion, to whom Baker and Berman first offered the show, turned it down as "too expensive". Lew Grade, however, offered to finance it through his company, ITC.

Grade's choice to star in the series was Patrick McGoohan, but Baker and Berman thought him "too brittle" and approached Roger Moore. It transpired that Moore had himself tried to purchase the rights to the Saint stories some time earlier. He accepted the offer, and proved perfect casting. The series was one of the most popular shows of its era - it ran in the UK from 1962 to 1969, with 185 hour-long episodes (the earliest in black-and-white, the rest in colour) and it proved a huge hit internationally.

After a modest success with another television series, Gideon's Way (1964-65), their paths separated. Berman alone produced The Baron (1966-67), with Steve Forrest as an antique dealer who is a part-time undercover agent. Then he joined with Denis Spooner to create The Champions (1969-71), which featured three agents blessed with exceptional powers of telepathy, ESP and heightened senses, working for a secret organisation called Nemesis.

Berman then produced the Spooner-created Department S (1969), which featured three counter-espionage agents, one of whom, a philandering writer, was so captivatingly portrayed by Peter Wyngarde that the character was given his own series, Jason King (1971-72). Berman and Spooner had another popular series with Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-70), which mixed humour with the mystery and action. Mike Pratt played Randall, a private detective whose dead partner (Kenneth Cope) materialises as a ghostly white-suited figure who offers dubious assistance.

But by the start of the 1970s, the spy genre was fading, and Berman's last series, The Adventurer (1972-73), failed to generate much excitement.

Tom Vallance

Tom Vallance gives a fascinating insight into the cultural impact of Monty Berman as a movie producer, writes Giles Chapman. However, television is where Berman left a more lasting impression.

His split from his producing partner Robert S. Baker saw Berman's output of "tele-fantasy" explode. With script-editing partners, he would shoot two-dozen hours of, say, The Baron before creating an entirely new small screen world for The Champions. Scripts and sets were constantly recycled, and favoured members of his old and unofficial repertory stable of second-feature players were kept in work in their niches as henchmen, swarthy waiters, velvety-smooth villains and big-busted, dark-eyed femmes fatales.

The ultimate example of his factory approach had to be with Department S and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). These two shows were actually shot back to back for ATV/ITC at Elstree Studios in 1968/69 with the same crew, extras, sets and even cars. Berman was a prime exponent of a television " industry".

The fading of Berman's golden era seemed, somehow, totally counter to his amazing production efficiency. Quite why he stopped producing filmed TV series is unclear. Maybe no channel would touch him after Jason King and The Adventurer. He became a recluse who shunned every opportunity to take part in the nostalgia business of re- releasing his classic series on video and DVD. When the comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer revived Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in 2000, there was no mention of Berman in the credits.

Berman's silence over the last 34 years has been one of the most puzzling of any television creator.