John Walsh: Showman with relentless love of films

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The Independent Online

Ismail Merchant was a great ebullient panjandrum of filmic exuberance in a world where movies were increasingly financed by nervy cabals of faceless co-producers. He was a shouter, a showman, a mountebank, a monstre sacre. His noisy enthusiasm for the projects of his quieter, more reflective collaborators James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was equalled only by his relentlessness. He machine-gunned nervous backers with unshakeable arguments.

Merchant Ivory productions was one of the most successful enterprises in movie history. Over 40 years it made hundreds of millions of dollars, picked up a score of Oscars and became - depending on which critical orthodoxy you favour - either a benchmark in classy white-frocks-and-Bentleys film-making, or an emblem of blandly anonymous heritage-industry tat.

In his palatial flat in Portman Square, he held court for his wide social acquaintance like a mogul emperor. When he and Ivory were trying to persuade Raquel Welch to star in The Wild Party, Merchant rented a mansion in the Hollywood hills and invited her to a dinner cooked by himself. Ms Welch said yes. Everyone said yes to Merchant sooner or later.

His view of the producer's role was simple. He had no time for modern money-crunchers who take no part in actual movie-making. "A good producer rolls up his sleeves and jumps into everything, finding the location, even finding the props. If a cup of coffee needs to be made, or an actor to be driven somewhere, I'm there. And talking to exhibitors, designing the posters, seeing the promotion is right, and the advertising."

James Ivory, who directed all the films, may have got the artistic credit, but Merchant was in the thick of the creative process. In their first movie together, The Householder (1963), it was Merchant who found the book, commissioned the screenplay, chose the actors and found the location. And when critics and detractors attacked the Merchant Ivory canon - especially their mid-period love affair with lukewarm costume dramas from E M Forster's novels - it was the explosive Merchant, rather than the fastidious Ivory, who came out fighting. "What Forster saw wasn't the Edwardian period. What he saw was the future," he once said. "I'm surprised that Forster, who was a great writer, wasn't accepted by the English. They should worship him." That was Merchant all over. For him, there just wasn't enough worship in the world.