Obituary: Sidney Gilliat
Thursday 02 June 1994
BY CONTRAST with Hollywood's so-called 'dream factory', whose films would travel along an assembly line like so many automobiles, with each technician indifferent to any but his own specialisation and the director functioning more or less as a foreman, our domestic cinema has tended to be perceived in the popular imagination as something of a cottage industry. Like most small businesses, too, it seems to have been run by partnerships rather than corporations. The most celebrated of these partnerships was of course the Archers, the production company of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but the recent, and entirely justified, cult of these two remarkable artists should not be allowed to obscure the rather more modest but no less engaging contribution of the Individuals, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.
As with the Archers, whose trademark was all arrow piercing a bullseye, Individual Pictures had its own patented title-card logo: a pair of director's chairs with the names 'Launder' and 'Gilliat' stencilled on their backs. Equally, as with Powell and Pressburger, it's not always easy to figure out precisely who did what, since they took turns at writing, producing and directing (it would take a lynx-eyed buff to distinguish the films of one from those of the other). And, like Powell and Pressburger's, if much less conspicuously, their work testified to a strain of eccentricity at odds with the tradition of genteel realism within which the British cinema has been inscribed almost since its inception. 'Versatility,' Gilliat once said, 'was always our curse.' It was also their own form of individualism.
The son of a Manchester-based journalist who would eventually become the editor of the London Evening Standard, Gilliat entered the British cinema on New Year's Day 1928 at the suggestion of the Standard's film critic, Walter Mycroft, who had just been appointed what was called 'scenario chief' at Elstree. He soon graduated to the composition of intertitles for silent films (most notably, for Alfred Hitchcock's Champagne) and by the Thirties had established himself as a screenwriter, his (not always credited) output in this capacity including The Ringer (1931, one of several filmed versions of Edgar Wallace's thriller), A Night in Marseilles (also 1931 and based on a French Grand Guignol play unexpectedly entitled The Last Tango]), Chu-Chin-Chow (1934, from the record-breaking musical comedy) and, inaugurating his collaboration with Frank Launder under the most auspicious circumstances imaginable, Hitchcock's still wholly wonderful comedy thriller, repaying any number of re-viewings no matter how well one feels one knows it, The Lady Vanishes (1938).
It was Gilliat himself who, for that last film, devised the characters of Charters and Caldicott, two cricket-obsessed Englishmen played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, who reappeared in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1941) and Launder and Gilliat's own Millions Like Us (1943).
In 1944 Launder directed and scripted Ten Thousand Women, a comedy drama about the female internees of a French prisoner- of-war camp, while Gilliat meanwhile directed and scripted Waterloo Road, an early example of the British cinema's long love-affair with the national Weltschmerz of rain-soaked seediness. But, once they had co-founded Individual Pictures in the following year, it became a fairly futile exercise endeavouring to apportion precise measures of praise or reprobation. Who directed The Rake's Progress (1945), an unusually sophisticated pseudo-Hogarthian comedy starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer? That was Gilliat, but it might just as well have been Launder. Or The Blue Lagoon (1948), the first cinematic adaptation (there have been three to date) of H. de Vere Stacpoole's corny, sexy desert-
island romance? Launder in this instance, but there's nothing to suggest that Gilliat wouldn't have made exactly the same job of it.
For the record, though, the finest of Gilliat's own directorial assignments were Green For Danger (1946), a marvellously shivery comedy-thriller with Alastair Sim which managed to satisfy the primary requirement of that trickiest of genres: it was both funny and scary, simultaneously; London Belongs to Me (1948), a choice specimen of the delectable subgenre of 'the boarding-house film', with Richard Attenborough, Fay Compton and Sim again (who was already the fetish-actor of Launder and Gilliat); and Only Two Can Play, (1961), a droll travesty of Kingsley Amis's That Uncertain Feeling with Peter Sellers as a philandering Welsh librarian, 'a wan don who wanted to be a Don Juan' (as the Time reviewer put it). And the best of those on which he lent Launder his support in one capacity or another were The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), Folly to be Wise (1952) and The Belles of St Trinian's (1954), the first of their four St Trinian's farces.
Of all the tireless toilers in the ungrateful vineyards of British cinema comedy (Roy and John Boultihg, Ralph and Gerald Thomas, Muriel and Sydney Box), Launder and Gilliat were least in thrall to the insatiable jokiness of the breadwinning professional humorist, and their long collaboration has left us with a memory of unfailing good-humour and an occasional brainy prankishness.
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