Ronald Neame: Director, writer, producer and cinematographer celebrated for bringing the best out of his actors
A key figure in British cinema, Ronald Neame was a cinematographer, writer, producer and director who was an assistant cameraman on the first British "talkie", Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail.
He photographed such outstanding films as In Which We Serve and Blithe Spirit, and was a producer of David Lean's masterly adaptations of Coward's Brief Encounter, and Dickens' Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. He believed that a director's allegiance was to his performers, not his own ego, and many of the films he directed were noted for strong performances, such as Maggie Smith in her Oscar-winning portrayal in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Glenda Jackson in Hopscotch, Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing and Alec Guinness and John Mills in Tunes of Glory. He directed Guinness in three films, and in Hollywood he made the enormously popular The Poseidon Adventure.
Neame had a life steeped in movies from childhood. His mother was a screen actress, Ivy Close, a former beauty queen who became a star of silent films; his father Elwyn Neame was a society photographer who occasionally directed films. Neame was born in London in 1911 and educated at University College School and Hurstpierpoint College. When he was 12 his father, who had persuaded his wife to give up her career, was killed in a motor-cycle accident and Ronald had to leave school and take work as an office boy with an oil company.
Through his mother's contacts he was given a job as a messenger boy at Elstree, where he quickly worked his way up to assistant cameraman on Blackmail. He photographed many minor movies of the 1930s, including the Stanley Lupino musical, Happy (1933); Invitation to the Waltz (1935), a musical set in Napoleonic times; a horror movie for Tod Slaughter, The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936); and an early James Mason thriller, Catch as Catch Can (1937).
He then shot six vehicles for George Formby: Feather Your Nest (1937), in which the star introduced his hit song "Leaning on a Lamp-post", I See Ice (1938), It's In The Air (1938), Come On George, Let George Do It and Trouble Brewing (all 1939). Neame found Formby, whose wife Beryl was always on the set to monitor her husband's scenes with his leading ladies, "mean as mean can be", though his mood brightened when his wife was absent.
Neame's career changed course when he was asked by Gabriel Pascal to shoot a test of Wendy Hiller for Major Barbara (1940). The editor was David Lean (who shot much of Major Barbara uncredited) and Neame became the film's photographer, forming a close friendship with Lean. They then worked on Michael Powell's One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), edited by Lean and photographed by Neame, who won an Oscar nomination.
Neame photographed one of the most successful films of the war years, In Which We Serve (1942), written by Noel Coward at the request of producer Filippo del Guidice, who wanted to make a film about the British war effort. Inspired by the sinking of his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten's destroyer the Kelly, Coward fashioned a screenplay which he proposed to direct. Neame recalled, "He told Filippo, 'I don't know a lot about directing films. I want to direct it, but I must have around me people I admire,' and he went to see a lot of films, including Major Barbara. As a result, David joined with me and Tony Havelock-Allan, an executive producer, and we launched into In Which We Serve."
Delighted with the result, Coward suggested they stay together and the result was another classic, This Happy Breed (1944). Directed by Lean, it was Neame's first colour film. It was set in a working-class home in suburbia, and Neame muted the hues. "I wanted drab rather than bright colours. We wanted to use colour in a new way, and I think we did it successfully"
He then photographed Lean's version of Coward's hit comedy Blithe Spirit (1945), winning a second Oscar nomination. "It was a tremendous challenge, because the ghost lady, played by Kay Hammond, was in a grey tulle dress and completely grey make-up and had to be lit with a green light to create the ghostly illusion. This green light had to follow her everywhere, with the problem of keeping it off the other actors."
Havelock-Allan, Lean and Neame then formed their own company, Cineguild, and co-wrote and produced two Lean masterworks, the Coward adaptation Brief Encounter (1945) and a brilliantly condensed version of Great Expectations (1946), regarded by many as the finest Dickens screen adaptation. The following year Neame made an auspicious debut as a director with a neat atmospheric thriller, Take My Life, starring Greta Gynt as an opera star who turns detective to clear her husband of the charge of murdering a former girlfriend.
After co-producing another fine Dickens work directed by Lean, Oliver Twist (1948), Neame started directing The Passionate Friends (1949), adapted from an HG Wells story and starring Ann Todd as a woman whose loveless marriage to a banker (Claude Rains) is threatened when she rekindles an affair with an old love (Trevor Howard). When the film fell behind schedule, Lean took over. Rains later blamed Todd; she had begun an affair with Lean (who was married to the actress Kay Walsh), and Rains, who regarded her as "a man-eating machine", stated that "her prima donna behaviour with Neame over the script and his direction had wasted everyone's time." Neame later described the split with Lean as "painful".
He next co-produced and directed a mild thriller, The Golden Salamander (1950), and produced the Festival of Britain all-star movie about the film pioneer William Friese-Greene, The Magic Box (1951). Then he had a big success with The Card (1952), having bought the rights to Arnold Bennett's novel because he thought it would be perfect for Guinness, who played the genial but ambitious young clerk.
Neame's next two films were his first to gain wide international distribution, as they had American stars, though the first, an adaptation of Mark Twain's The Million Pound Note (1953) suffered from a miscast Gregory Peck as a seaman given the note to settle a wager that a man could live off such an item without ever having to spend it. Based on fact, The Man Who Never Was (1955), starred Clifton Webb as a naval commander who devises an ingenious plot to fool the Germans about invasion plans during the Second World War. It was one of Neame's finest films, a gripping, tense and moving thriller with one of Gloria Grahame's best performances.
Neame was to describe his first Hollywood film, The Seventh Sin (1957), as "a desperately unhappy venture" and the film was taken over by Vincente Minnelli, who refused to take a credit. Neame returned to the UK to make Windom's Way (1957) starring Peter Finch as an idealistic doctor coping with strife in Malaysia. His next two films reunited him with Guinness, who played the artist Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth (1959), and a rough-hewn army colonel who has risen through the ranks in Tunes of Glory (1960), which Neame, who co-wrote the screenplay with the writer of the novel, James Kennaway, was to declare his favourite of all the films he directed. "I firmly believe that the best director, theoretically, is the writer-director because then you have one man who both creates the material and directs it."
In the tale of rivalries in a Highland regiment shortly after the war, Guinness was offered the role of the authoritarian, public school-educated colonel who clashes with the hard-drinking Scots major, to be played by Mills, but he felt it was too similar to the one he had played in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and the roles were switched. Though Mills wrote that he and Guinness became friends, the actor John Fraser said that "Being gentlemen, both subsequently knighted, they behaved with impeccable manners, both on set and off it, though their relationship was not cordial."
Neame had a lot of temperament to deal with when he directed I Could Go On Singing (1962), with Judy Garland with Dirk Bogarde, who started the film as Garland's close friend but was as bruised as Neame by her insecurities and heavy drinking. Neame's policy of letting the camera observe and capture resulted in the film's most memorable sequence, in which Garland confessed her problems to Bogarde in a dressing-room scene that was largely improvised and semi-autobiographical. "Suddenly, Judy had become the real Judy," Neame said. "It was no longer acting, and it was absolutely wonderful."
The Chalk Garden (1963) was an efficient adaptation of Enid Bagnold's play, with Dame Edith Evans, Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills, and Gambit (1966) was a lively comedy-thriller with Shirley McLaine and Michael Caine, but Prudence and the Pill (1969) may be Neame's worst film. It was followed, though, by one of his most durable hits, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968). The first choice to play Jean Brodie, the Scottish school-teacher who talks about "my gels" and coaches them in becoming "la crème de la crème", was Vanessa Redgrave, who had played the part to acclaim on stage, but she refused to play "a proto-fascist" on screen, and the role went to Maggie Smith, whose performance won her an Oscar, though at first she was disconcerted by Neame's style of direction.
Gordon Jackson, who played a teacher in the film, told historian Brian McFarlane, "Neame records marvellously anything you do; because he has been a stills man and cameraman, he has been through it all. So he knows what angles he wants and all that sort of thing. I remember Maggie Smith looking worried and saying, 'He never laughs at any of my jokes.' I told her not to worry, that he would be recording her performance beautifully – which he did, and she ended up getting an Oscar." John Mills commented on Tunes of Glory, 'This was the first time Neame had directed me, and he said, 'I'll tell you one thing to make you feel confident: if you manage to produce a moment of magic, I promise to be in the right place to get it.' You can't ask for more than that."
Neame allowed Albert Finney to over-act in the musical Scrooge (1970), but marshalled the talents of 10 diverse players beautifully in the superior disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Neame's most commercially successful film. The tale of a ship that overturns, leaving survivors to find their way out by climbing from the top of the ship to the bottom, it was unabashed corn of which Neame owned five per cent, so it made him a very rich man.
The films he made subsequently, including The Odessa File (1974), in which Jon Voight pursued neo-Nazis, and a comedy, Hopscotch (1980), starring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson, were genial rather than outstanding, and he made his final film, Foreign Body, in 1987. In 1996 he was appointed CBE, and in 2003 he published an autobiography, Straight from the Horse's Mouth.
A son from his first marriage, Christopher Neame, is a writer-producer, and his grandson, Gareth Neame, is a television producer. In 2006, he recounted how doctors to whom he confessed that he enjoyed two large vodkas at lunchtime and three large scotches in the evening, told him, "If you would drink less, you'd live a lot longer." "But," he said, "They're all dead, and I'm still here at 95."
Ronald Neame, cinematographer, screenwriter, director and producer: born London 23 April 1911; married 1933 Beryl Heanly (separated 1971, divorced 1992; one son), 1993 Donna Friedberg; CBE 1996; died Los Angeles 16 June 2010.
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