Old-school film producer
Saturday 05 March 2005
Otto Plaschkes was one of a vanishing breed: the complete film producer. He developed scripts, raised finance, controlled production and guided his films creatively throughout. He sometimes had partners, as on
Georgy Girl (1966), his most successful film, but responsibility was shared not split.
Otto Plaschkes, film producer: born Vienna 13 September 1929; married 1975 Louise Stein (one daughter); died London 14 February 2005.
Otto Plaschkes was one of a vanishing breed: the complete film producer. He developed scripts, raised finance, controlled production and guided his films creatively throughout. He sometimes had partners, as on Georgy Girl (1966), his most successful film, but responsibility was shared not split.
Nowadays, producers on a film can field a football team plus reserves and a referee. What do they all do? They bring money; they take out money; they have opinions; and they get in each other's way. Worst of all, they split the financial from the creative aspects of film-making. Plaschkes was trained in a different culture, where it was understood that every creative decision has a financial consequence, and every financial decision has a creative consequence. You can't take the raisins out of the cake. It was a hard lesson that he learnt as he lived through many false dawns and real sunsets of the British film industry.
Plaschkes entered the film industry in 1955 after he came down from Cambridge, where he read History at Peterhouse, and Oxford, where he gained a diploma in education at Wadham College. He joined Ealing Film Studios as a runner through Tom Pevsner, a Cambridge friend, who later produced the Bond movies. Sandy Mackendrick was working on his masterpiece The Ladykillers at the time. It was Ealing's last big commercial success and the studio was winding down but, under the benign dictatorship of Michael Balcon, it was still the ideal place to learn the craft of producer.
He quickly became a production assistant and spent time in the cutting rooms: he learnt how films were shot and how they were put together. It was at Ealing that he came to believe in an authentic British cinema. It was also there that he made lifelong friendships with, among others, the producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and the director Jack Clayton. He used to say that Havelock-Allan taught him the rules of engagement in the industry: a handshake was as good as a contract. Sadly for the industry, and happily for media lawyers, those manners died with Ealing a few years later, but Plaschkes lived by them to the end.
While the studio system was collapsing, Plaschkes freelanced on a number of films, the most significant being Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960). In the same year he produced his first film, Bungala Boys, for the Children's Film Foundation, which was shot on location in Australia. He ran out of money but had just enough to send the director home - and spent the rest of the year earning his return ticket. His next assignment was on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). For nearly two years he worked in Spain, where the Aqaba sequence was shot, and also assisted the second unit in Suez (although Lean never used that material).
He progressed to location manager and then to production manager on two Tarzan movies, shot in Thailand and India. It was experience that no film school can provide. He had a view of the industry from the inside out. When his chance came he was ready. In 1965 Plaschkes bought Margaret Forster's novel Georgy Girl and had it adapted by Forster and Peter Nichols. He cast James Mason in the lead and Lynn Redgrave (when her sister Vanessa Redgrave dropped out) as Georgy. The film was a huge success and made the little-known Lynn Redgrave a star. It was Bridget Jones's Diary with a darker hue for the swinging Sixties.
Plaschkes's next film, The Bofors Gun (1968), adapted by John McGrath from his stage play and directed by Jack Gold, could not have been more different. It was gritty, claustrophobic and perhaps too downbeat to be a commercial success. The cast - Nicol Williamson, John Thaw, David Warner and Ian Holm - gave dazzling performances.
After working in America on Larry Peerce's A Separate Peace (1972) for Paramount, Plaschkes became executive producer for the American Film Theatre, which was a series of screen adaptations from the stage: Harold Pinter's The Homecoming (1974), directed by Peter Hall; Bertolt Brecht's Galileo (1975), directed by Joseph Losey; Simon Gray's Butley (1976), directed by Harold Pinter; and David Storey's In Celebration (1975), directed by Lindsay Anderson - probably the latter's most underrated film. The critics' snootiness about adaptations from the stage prevented a proper appreciation of a considerable achievement.
His next film was again a change of direction: the sophisticated thriller Hopscotch (1980), directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Afterwards Matthau commented: "This guy knows how to do it." His last cinema production was Shadey (1985), written by Snoo Wilson and directed by Philip Saville with Antony Sher in the lead.
He also produced a number of films for television, including two Sherlock Holmes adaptations: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983), directed by Douglas Hickox, and The Sign of the Four (1983), directed by Desmond Davis, who also directed Doggin' Around (1994), written by Alan Plater and starring Elliott Gould.
Plaschkes liked people. He even liked people he did not like. He was a leading light in the industry. He was a founder member of Bafta and of the ginger group the Association of Independent Producers; and he was also an active member of the British Film and Television Producers Association, where he was Chief Executive from 1986 to 1988. He also welcomed young film-makers and new talent and taught at the National Film and Television School. He was an incorrigible optimist - surprising, considering his early life.
Otto Plaschkes was born in Vienna. His father, a butcher, came from Bratislava and his mother from Budapest. He came to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1939 when he was maybe 10 years old - his personal papers reveal three different birth dates. He was initially adopted by a family in Liverpool, but was subsequently reunited with his own family when they were able to escape to Britain and settle in Wiltshire.
He attended Bishop Wordsworth's School, where William Golding was the English master. His contemporaries generally agree that Plaschkes was the inspiration for Piggy in Lord of the Flies. It is not a surprise to those who know him. Plaschkes, like Piggy, believed, despite terrible and shocking evidence to the contrary, that human beings can be rational, argument can prevail, conscience need not be discarded and we are all responsible.
In case that makes him sound earnest and pious, it should be said that he led a rich cultural life. He and his wife, Louise Stein, who migrated from Philadelphia and New York, turned London into Vienna. Their life was filled with friendship, music, literature, theatre, food, wit, laughter and fun.
Recently he complained to his daughter, Valli, who is crafting a career in the theatre in New York, that he hated all the meetings and bullshit. "Boy, are you in the wrong business!" she retorted. But she knew, as we all know, he was in the right business - and one of the best people in it.
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