Robert Fuest: Film director who worked with Vincent Price


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The Independent Online

Given his flair for the visual, unexpected camera angles and a streak of black humour, to call the film and television output of Robert Fuest colourful and kaleidoscopic would be an understatement. A physically slight figure who exuded nervous energy when committed, he captured some of what was best in the popular culture of the 1960s and was informed by his other activities as artist and comedy writer.

His best known works as writer-director, for the exploitation specialists American International Pictures, were the gleefully gruesome The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), with Vincent Price visibly enjoying himself among the Art Deco trappings. Significantly, Fuest's move from production designer to director took place on that most emblematic TV series of the 1960s, The Avengers.

Fuest was born in Croydon; his National Service, spent in Germany with the RAF, involved him in lifting coal over the Berlin Wall. After studying at Wimbledon School of Art he was a freelance illustrator, and tutor at Southampton College of Art. He was also drummer with the Tia Juana Jazz Band in the mid-1950s; one of his first credits as designer was Steamboat Shuffle (ABC, 1960), a showcase for Dixieland Jazz.

At the design department of the ITV contractor ABC, a friend, colleague and writing partner was Joe McGrath, who had a directorial career comparable to Fuest's, although in comedy. By 1959, Fuest was designing for the company's flagship strand Armchair Theatre, and on first series of the The Avengers two years later. He was also on the production team of their arts series Tempo, edited and presented by Kenneth Tynan.

Another series under Sydney Newman's stewardship was Out Of This World (1962), a sci-fi anthology introduced by Boris Karloff. Fuest then followed Newman by crossing over to the BBC, designing for Z-Cars (1963), and Ken Loach's directorial debut, Catherine (1964). With McGrath and the actor John Bluthal, Fuest wrote Justin Thyme (BBC, 1964), a subsequently wiped James Bond parody (one of the first on record), with Bluthal in the title role, alongside Leonard Rossiter.

Not Only...But Also... began as a pilot in 1965 on the new BBC2, with Dudley Moore as the headliner, McGrath as producer and Fuest as scriptwriter; in the pilot Peter Cook was only a guest, John Lennon being another. However, as its first series progressed and the Pete-and-Dud partnership asserted itself, Fuest became surplus to requirements as the stars became the writers.

Fuest's film debut was a comedy, Just Like A Woman (1966), involving a new home designed for heroine Wendy Craig by a former Nazi architect, played by Clive Dunn. Fuest worked closely with the art director Brian Eatwell, whom he would reuse in the Phibes films. He then returned to The Avengers, in the director's chair, having been encouraged in this ambition by Peter Hammond (obituary, Independent, 4 November 2011).

As he said in a 1992 retrospective for Channel 4's Without Walls, by the time of the sixth and final series in 1968, the style of direction had caught up with the scripts. His seven episodes featured giant board games designed according to their victims' professions, characters having dinner table conversations with a tailor's dummy, underground headquarters under rubbish dumps, talking briefcases, and a wall with "Interrogation" written on it; the series' ethos was perfectly suited to his stylings.

His next feature film was And Soon The Darkness (1970), for the Avengers producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. A Hitchcockian thriller about two young English women (Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice) on a cycling tour through France, it contained characteristic Fuest touches, like the sudden close-ups of the heroines' bicycle wheels. The same year, for AIP, he made a condensed version of Wuthering Heights (1970), using authentic Yorkshire locations.

He designed, wrote and directed The Final Programme (1973), adapted from Michael Moorcock's novel, juxtaposing wide shots of sparsely populated landscapes with close-ups of eccentric character actors giving their all. Moorcock disowned the film, which he felt didn't capture the spirit of the original.

He was then in America for The Devil's Rain (1975), best described as a devil-worshipping western, on which the real-life Satanist Anton La Vey was credited as technical adviser; one of the minor cult members was a young John Travolta. Back in Britain, and on television, he made two episodes of The New Avengers (1976), which featured more outdoor scenes and realism than its predecessor. For producer Peter Graham Scott, Fuest helped out on three family series made by HTV, The Doombolt Chase, Search and Rescue (both 1978) and Kidnapped (1979).

Fuest's later work offered him little scope for originality. His last film was Aphrodite (1982), a soporific soft porn movie (a genre into which his former colleague McGrath had already fallen). Television series included C.A.T.S Eyes (TVS, 1985-86), which carried a faint echo of The Avengers. His paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and he was among the guests at a 50th anniversary celebration of The Avengers, held at the University of Chichester in last June.

Robert Fuest, director, designer, artist and writer: born Croydon 30 September 1927; married firstly Gillian (three sons), 1981 Jane Gould (one daughter); died 21 March 2012.