Film director and screenwriter whose work ranged from Crazy Gang comedies to sci-fi and thrillers
Monday 15 May 2006
Valmont Maurice Guest, film director, actor and writer: born London 11 December 1911; married 1955 Yolande Donlan (one son); died Palm Springs, California 10 May 2006.
Discipline was the key to Val Guest's film work. He liked to create the original idea for a film or adapt a novel he had enjoyed. He would spend a solid four weeks writing the script. He directed, frequently produced and often supervised the editing.
But the amazing thing about his whole career was the wide range of themes and styles: he switched from broad comedy to situation comedy to crime and detective thrillers, from studio-bound productions to location dramas, from period musicals to science- fiction tales (of which the Quatermass films and The Day the Earth Caught Fire are among his best known work), from pop musicals to soft porn, from cinema to television series. It is impossible to think of another British film creator who can approach his record.
Valmont Maurice Guest was born in 1911 in Maida Vale, London. Some show-business blood must have come from his mother, who was a principal girl in pantomime, but his father, who had a jute business, divorced her early in the boy's life. At school at Seaford College, Sussex, young Val would sneak into the masters' common room where he used an old typewriter to compose short stories. He began writing professionally in his teens, turning out film news and gossip pages for classy weeklies like Illustrated London News and fan publications such as Film Weekly.
Val Guest's acting career began on the stage with several touring plays. He met the young but rapidly rising Ida Lupino, who introduced him to his uncle, the comedian Lupino Lane. Lane had been awarded a directing contract with British International Pictures, then one of the UK's biggest production companies, with studios at Elstree. He was about to direct a film version of Maid of the Mountains (1932) a hugely popular theatre hit. He sub-contracted Guest to write the script, privately paying him £50 and keeping the deal a secret so that Guest did not get a screen credit.
Guest did, however, play a small part in the film. This led to a number of "bit" roles for the company, from a gangster in Innocents of Chicago (1932) to small roles in Leslie Fuller comedies. "I was in good company, " Guest remembered. "Other extras and stand-ins included Patric Knowles, Michael Rennie and Michael Wilding."
In 1934 Guest was back writing about films for the newly issued London edition of Hollywood Reporter, a job which took him to the United States for the first time. In his weekly column "Rambling Around", he interviewed the French director Marcel Varnel and was very critical of his latest film. "If I couldn't write a better screenplay. . . ," he wrote. Varnel, incensed, complained to the editor, taking up the challenge, and Guest was given the chance of working on the screenplay of Varnel's next film.
No Monkey Business (1935) was an independent production starring Gene Gerrard, a popular film comedian of the period, and the ex-Hollywood glamour girl June Clyde. Guest co-wrote the script which was from a German screen original by Joe May. It led to a very comfortable film career for Guest as a gag-man and screenwriter, and he even tried his hand as director of the second unit. "Varnel was an excitable little Frenchman," said Guest. "An absolute professional. I learned my entire trade from him."
The success of the film led to a contract for Guest with Gainsborough as a staff writer at the Poole Street studios. He worked alongside Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and especially the former stage comedian George Marriott Edgar. From Windbag the Sailor (1936) to Where's That Fire (1939), the team of Edgar and Guest wrote eight excellent Will Hay comedies, placing the bumbling know-nothing in roles from sea captain, schoolmaster, and station-master of Buggleskelly, Ireland's most bashed-up station, to policeman and fireman.
For Hay's Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), Guest wrote a classic, much quoted, line for Moore Marriott, who opens the railway station's ticket hatch to announce, "The next train's gone!" He described Hay as "a brilliant comedian . . . but notoriously mean". Guest was also responsible for the discovery and casting of Graham Moffatt, Hay's insolent "fat boy" stooge whom he found delivering bacon sandwiches as a Gainsborough office boy.
In between Will Hay pictures Guest and Edgar worked on the series of four Crazy Gang comedies from Okay for Sound (1937) to Gasbags (1940), with its brilliant sequence of a dozen or more Adolf Hitlers. When I made a comedy documentary called The Crazy Gang: a celebration (1983), I interviewed Guest about his work. That extraordinary team of three disparate double-acts (Flanagan and Allen, Nervo and Knox, Naughton and Gold) were great fun to work with, recalled Guest, but hopeless as film crafters. When Edward Black, Head of Production at Gainsborough, suggested a get-together discussion at the start of Okay For Sound (1937), "They were useless," Guest said. "Why don't we do this? Why don't we do that? One hundred per cent undisciplined. We never called a cast conference again."
The radio triumph of Band Waggon, starring "Big Hearted" Arthur Askey and Dickie "Stinker" Murdoch, led to a film based on the show and a string of Askey/Murdoch vehicles. There was the variation on an old stage favourite Charley's Big-Hearted Aunt (1940), a remake of the Jack Hulbert film The Ghost Train (1941) and eventually the first feature film written and directed by Guest, Miss London Ltd (1943). Although he made seven films starring Askey for Gainsborough, Guest was not very keen on the half-pint comedian. "They called him Big-Hearted Arthur," he mused. "Big-headed Arthur, more like! In fact, he was a cross that I bore."
Now contracted as a writer/director, Guest was at last launched on his main cinema career. He began in an area strangely neglected by British films, the musical. With a co-writer, Manning Sherwin, Guest had been composing songs in his spare time for the Windmill Theatre, and now the pair began composing for films. Give Us The Moon (1944) was overlong and thoroughly disappointing. It was adapted from a pre-war novel by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, but Guest moved it forward in time to an England after the war. It frankly failed to work, and within months it was utterly out of date.
I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945) followed, shot during the height of Hitler's flying bomb attacks. A good story of the old music-hall days, it was again overlong and lacked the 20th Century-Fox touch Guest was trying to emulate. It did, however, make a star of his former colleague from BIP film-extra days, Michael Rennie.
When Sidney Box took over the production at Gainsborough in 1946, Guest followed the other creative people and left the company. He spent a year in Hollywood, returning to act as gag-writer to Sid Field in the technicolored musical London Town (1946).One line he was proud to recall followed Field's long speech which left him sagging to the ground - "I must remember to breathe when I speak!"
Guest finally made it back into the director's chair with two features based on Richmal Crompton's enormously popular children's books, Just William's Luck (1947) and William Comes to Town (1948). Both starred the youngster William Graham as the famous naughty boy, but he was too skinny for the part and no more "Williams" were made. During shooting, Guest discovered that he did not need to shoot with sound all the time, especially in a low budget film. He saved time and money by shooting long silent sequences and adding a music track later. This economic method became a Guest trademark for a while.
He had always enjoyed working among the half-dressed chorus girls at the Windmill, and now came up with a B-feature based on the "Revuedeville" theatre, Murder at the Windmill (1949). Shot in 17 days, the film is interesting in that the foundations of the Val Guest "Repertory Company" could be seen. Garry Marsh, Jon Pertwee and Peter Butterworth were present, later to be joined by Reginald Beckwith, A.E. Matthews ("Always bemused but fabulous") and others whose cameos delighted cinema audiences.
Meanwhile, Guest had fallen in love with the American star Yolande Donlan. They promptly set up house together, marrying in 1955; and when, six months ago, Guest was asked the secret of his longevity, he replied, "Marry someone like Yolande."
Guest immediately began creating films for her, and in 1950 made Miss Pilgrim's Progress and The Body Said No. Later came Mr Drake's Duck (1951) based on a radio sketch, "The Atomic Egg", by Ian Messiter. Opposite Donlan Guest cast Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who would only agree if Guest switched the title: it had originally been called "Mrs Drake's Duck".
Penny Princess (1952) was the first true Val Guest Production and his first film in technicolor. It was made for Rank and he was forced to accept Dirk Bogarde as the leading man, although he had hoped for Robert Cummings. Donlan played the "princess" - it would be her last leading role, although Guest would pop her into his later pictures now and then.
Guest who had scripted the Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon comedy Hi Gang (1941), now made two films with the American stars and their children, Barbara and Richard. Based on their tremendously successful radio sitcom, Life with the Lyons (1953) and The Lyons in Paris (1955) were popular but no great shakes as films beyond the lively performances of the experienced stars. The films were made for Hammer, not yet the world's champion horror purveyors, and in all Guest would direct 14 films for the company.
Guest now made The Runaway Bus (1954), the first film to star the radio comedian Frankie Howerd. He continued to browse around popular genres. Men of Sherwood Forest (1954) was a burlesque of the Robin Hood formula with the American Don Taylor as Hood. Dance Little Lady (1954) featured young Mandy Miller as a child ballerina. They Can't Hang Me (1955) was a crime drama teaming Donlan with Terence Morgan. Break in the Circle (1955) was a return to Hammer and marked Guest's first location film, being shot in Hamburg.
Guest's next film became a milestone in both his career and Hammer's. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) was adapted from BBC TV's first huge success, an original science-fiction serial by Nigel Kneale. Guest had not seen any of the six episodes, and commented "I'm not mad about science fiction" , a statement that may still surprise cinema sci-fi buffs. An enormous box- office hit, the film set Hammer on their new trend. It starring Brian Donlevy, by this time not the force he had been in the Forties, and suffered from the usual Hammer low budget, and Guest's main worry was that Donlevy had to face the wind "or his toupée blew off". The sequel - Quatermass II followed in 1957.
For some while, Guest continued to vary his film types. It's a Wonderful World (1956) was a musical with songs by Guest for which George Cole had to learn to dance. Carry On Admiral (1957) was from Ian Hay's play Off the Record and, according to Guest, gave a rival producer the whole idea of the "Carry On" series. Returning to Hammer horror, Guest made another film from a Nigel Kneale serial, The Abominable Snowman (1957). Rather slow to climax, the film starred Peter Cushing, who proved to be hugely entertaining to the crew.
Given a scene in which he examined a Yeti's tooth, Peter unexpectedly produced a huge magnifying glass, a tape measure to measure it, and a nail file to scratch it. We were all in hysterics.
Camp On Blood Island (1958) was a return to realism based on an ex-POW's wartime-diary scribbled on lavatory paper. For the first time, Guest had two of his films playing against each other in the West End, Blood Island at the Pavilion and Up the Creek (1958) at the Warner. Utterly different in style and story, the latter was the first starring role for the comedian Peter Sellers. By the time he directed the sequel, Further Up the Creek (1958) Sellers was too expensive and Guest had to make do with his old friend Frankie Howerd.
Guest's comedy cavalcade continued with a revival of the Crazy Gang after a 30-year hiatus. Life Is a Circus (1959), filmed in cinemascope, was notable mainly for its reunion of Bud Flanagan with his long-retired partner Chesney Allen. In a moving sequence, the two meet and sing their old favourite " Underneath the Arches" once again. Yesterday's Enemy (1959), taken from a TV play, marked a return to war, this time 1943 Burma. Guest shot the film entirely at Hammer's studio in Bray, so realistically that Earl Mountbatten of Burma at the premiere was certain he recognised many of the trees.
Expresso Bongo (1959) starred Laurence Harvey in a Wolf Mankowitz play. Harvey, young and inexperienced, asked Guest how he should play his character. "Base it on Wolf," said Guest, "only don't tell him!" The film made a star of Cliff Richard and his group, the Drifters - it was Guest who renamed them the Shadows. Set in a saucy Soho club, this was the first film to be shot in two versions, one somewhat spicier, for Continental consumption. "For British release, the nude ladies wore tassels on their tits," Guest said.
In 1960 Guest moved into gritty location reality with Hell Is a City. Writing the film from a Maurice Procter novel, Guest and company moved into Manchester with Stanley Baker playing the tough Inspector and the local police providing full co-operation. After scripting Dentist in the Chair for Bob Monkhouse, Guest made perhaps the one film that younger film buffs will always cherish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). This fantasy of the end of the world, shot mainly in Fleet Street, has one, perhaps two bad mistakes: the casting of the non-actor Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express, as himself, and the cut-price special effects which made the atomic fog travelling down the Thames look like a cardboard cut-out. Guest won his first and only award: Bafta gave him (jointly with his co-writer, Wolf Mankowitz) the best screenplay of the year.
Guest was now on a run, making location-based thrillers that remain the best films he ever directed. Jigsaw (1962), a crime drama from a book by Hilary Waugh, was originally set in Canada. Guest's script moved it to Brighton. Jack Warner was again excellent as the plodding detective, and there was a first character role for Donlan. 80,000 Suspects (1963), the story of a city besieged by smallpox, was filmed in Bath, where Guest, having a drink one day, thought the balding barman looked familiar. It was Will Hay's former fat boy Graham Moffatt. Guest immediately gave his old friend a bit role in the film: Moffatt is the man who receives an injection and promptly faints.
The Beauty Jungle (1964) was overlong and not quite tough enough in its attempted exposé of Miss World-type contests. However, it proved Janette Scott to be more of a beauty than one suspected. Where the Spies Are (1964), from a James Leasor novel, switched its locale from Tehran to Beirut and its title from Passport to Oblivion. "Audiences will think you mean Laurence O'Blivion," the head of MGM objected.
The odd-man-out James Bond film Casino Royale (1965) was a colourful mess. Guest was given the job of "supervising director" (there were six in all) and "linking writer" (there were five others at least). The producer was Charles K. Feldman, who wanted 18 different actors to play Bond. One was Peter Sellers, who was sacked before the finale was filmed. Orson Welles refused to act in the same set-piece with him, calling him "that effing amateur!" Assignment K (1967), a Stephen Boyd thriller, was somewhat better.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) was Guest's one fantasy set in prehistoric times. Shot in the Canary Islands, it starred Veronica Vestri, a Playboy centrefold, and featured a made-up language. Tomorrow (1970), a futuristic musical starring Olivia Newton-John ("cute as a button" ) had little more than two days in the West End before vanishing forever after a lawsuit between Guest and its producer Harry Saltzman. Guest won but was never paid his £75,000,and the film has still not been released.
Guest's rapid descent into soft porn, perhaps hinted at by the nude bath scene with Claire Bloom in 80,000 Suspects, began with Au Pair Girls (1972). Among its stars was Me Me Lay. Then came Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) which made so much money that Columbia had to pay corporation tax for the first time. It led off a series which Guest did not direct.
Diamond Mercenaries (1975) was Guest's first and only American film, shot in the African desert, and he now plunged into television. He directed a number of episodes of The Persuaders (1971), "quite a lot" of episodes of Space 1999 (1976) for Gerry Anderson, and numerous chapters of The Adventurer (1973). Guest's last television series was Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1983).
One more film remained. This was The Boys in Blue (1982) starring the TV comics Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball. Guest rewrote his old Will Hay script of Ask a Policeman and came up with the impossible: a comedy without a single laugh from the audience. Guest shrugged off the sad end to an outstanding career: "They weren't my cup of tea!"
In the later years of his life, Guest went to live in the United States but, still sprightly, was in London in December to attend a screening at the National Film Theatre of his gritty thriller Hell is a City, and to field questions from an appreciative audience.
* Denis Gifford died 20 May 2000
Whenever anyone asked Val Guest how many films he thought he had made, he always replied with a twinkle, "Too many!", writes Marcus Hearn. There were certainly movies on his lengthy CV that he preferred to forget, but there are many that have long been acknowledged as classics.
Even into his nineties, Val cut a dapper figure. The pencil moustache familiar from his 1950s and 1960s heyday had been replaced by a grey goatee, but he was never without a rakish silk scarf and a smart blazer. I will miss that mid-Atlantic voice at the end of the line, cheerfully asking when the next DVD commentary was coming his way, or offering another idea to promote his autobiography, So You Want to Be in Pictures (2001), which my company had published. Numerous conversations would start with, "I've had a great idea for your publicity boys . . ." More often than not, the budget wouldn't stretch to "publicity boys", but I always did my best to oblige Val.
I think I was most grateful for the opportunity to interview Val for the DVD of his seminal 1955 thriller The Quatermass Xperiment. He needed relatively little prompting: his memories were detailed, insightful and often tinged with mischievous wit. During the recording, I asked him if he had had any idea that The Quatermass Xperiment would prove to be the first of so many Hammer horrors. "Oh no," he said, laughing. "If I'd known that, I'd have asked for a royalty!"
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