Harry Alan Towers: Prolific radio, television and film producer and screenwriter

Wednesday 04 November 2009 01:00

As entertainment moguls go, Harry Alan Towers was never in the same league as David O. Zelnick or Louis B. Mayer, but at least he had a proper middle name; and during a long career in radio, television and films he acquired a legendary reputation as the most prolific – and occasionally elusive – independent producer in the business.

Born in Wandsworth, the only son of a theatrical business manager, Towers started young, entering the profession via the Italia Conti school for child actors; he was spinning discs for a European radio station when the job, and his adolescence, ended sharply with the outbreak of the Second World War. He became a BBC scriptwriter, turning his pen to drama series and comedy shows until old enough to serve King and Country. By 1944 Aircraftsman Towers was head of the RAF's Radio Unit, making programmes for the Forces (as opposed to the Home) Service; there he introduced Richard Murdoch to Kenneth Home, and the outcome was the long-running BBC comedy series Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh. In 1942 Towers had devised a radio magazine entitled March of the Movies, presented by newsreel commentator Leslie Mitchell, and the first series of peacetime allowed a visit to the United States. Harry Alan Towers was impressed by Cecil B. De Mille, writing that he epitomised "Hollywood's sense of showmanship, worship of efficiency, and spirit of adventure."

By 1950 the London-based Towers was distributing radio shows to overseas commercial stations. The internationally famous artistes under contract for those productions included Noel Coward, Sir Thomas Beecham, Gracie Fields and James Mason. And nobody who heard the 1951 radio spin-off from The Third Man can ever forget that programme's thrilling start: a gunshot, followed by Orson Welles informing listeners: "That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. How do I know? Because I am Harry Lime."

Towers' name was everywhere on the pirate Radio Luxembourg, broadcasting from the heart of Europe on 208 metres. The station's light entertainment shows, drama serials and quiz programmes were all sponsored on the American model by products like Bird's Custard and Wisdom toothbrushes. Luxembourg's call-sign was "Two-O-Eight, Your Station Of The Stars!", and Towers' input certainly lived up to the slogan. A typical week in 1954 had Welles narrating The Black Museum, Bogart and Bacall in Bold Venture and Michael Redgrave as Horatio Hornblower; all were produced by Harry Alan's company, Towers of London Limited. On the BBC Light Programme, his instinct for exploiting successful characters reached a pinnacle with the casting of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Towers was a declared enthusiast for sponsored broadcasting so it was natural that he would offer his entrepreneurial flair to the nascent British commercial television. At Highbury Studios, Towers of London geared up to supply the ITV network with economically-made programmes on film. Associated Rediffusion's opening night in 1955 included Edith Evans giving viewers 10 minutes of her Lady Bracknell, pre-recorded for the occasion by Towers' outfit. Commissioned to deliver 39 playlets for ATV at the rate of one a week, under the generic title "Theatre Royal", he became a frequent visitor to the studios that had been nicknamed by the industry "Highbury Towers". Parking his Morris Oxford next to Jaguars and Austin Healeys, he would remark on the immense wealth of the acting profession; but since his own annual turnover was an estimated £350,000 he could afford the occasional private joke. Towers' weekly routine took in board meetings at ABC Television, negotiations with the BBC and visits to office and home, where his mother signed all the cheques; her son's pale complexion and heavy eyelids denoted a workaholic life style but his energy was apparently limitless.

A particular coup was a 90-minute version (the first British "TV movie") of The Anatomist, with Alastair Sim recreating his stage performance as Dr Knox in James Bridie's play. In that same year, 1956, Towers of London hired Marius Goring to impersonate The Scarlet Pimpernel for a series filmed at Elstree studios. Between 1957 and 1959 Towers masterminded two co-productions with a Stateside company, Ziv TV: Martin Kane, Private Investigator in which William Gargan played the American gumshoe seconded to Scotland Yard, and Dial 999, with Robert Beatty's RCMP detective seconded to the Yard. Meanwhile, Robert Morley played Mr Micawber for the anthology "Tales From Dickens". To sell the Dickens format in the United States, Towers brought over the Hollywood star Fredric March to host and narrate some 13 episodes of "classic scenes", one of which featured March's wife Florence Eldridge as Miss Havisham; another gem was Basil Rathbone as Scrooge in the adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Literary precedent was always sound insurance, and when Towers graduated to the cinema in the '60s he maintained the same policy. Edgar Wallace's hero Commissioner Sanders was played by Richard Todd twice, in Death Drums Along The River (1963) and Coast Of Skeletons (1964), while Sax Rohmer's fiendish oriental villain Fu Manchu was splendidly interpreted by Christopher Lee in five movies between 1965 and 1970. Towers not only produced, but wrote the storylines using his old radio nom de plume "Peter Welbeck".

By now, Towers had become what Leslie Halliwell in The Filmgoer's Companion tolerantly described as "peripatetic" – mainly because of a contretemps with the American police in 1961, when Towers and his then girlfriend Mariella Novotny were charged with operating a call-girl racket from a New York hotel. Towers, asserting a frame-up, jumped bail and returned to Europe, where he took refuge in the Eastern bloc, producing low budget thrillers financed through Liechtenstein and other tax havens (a dodge he pioneered).

In 1965 he was introduced to Samuel E Arkoff of American International Pictures. The resultant partnership generated two comedy adventures, Our Man In Marrakesh (1966) and Jules Verne's Rocket To The-Moon (1967), loaded with bankable stars like Terry-Thomas; and Sumuru, with Shirley Eaton the eponymous "female Fu Manchu". Arkoff then dispatched Towers to Madrid to oversee a Spanish/German co-production for AIP. House of a Thousand Dolls was an exotic drama about the white slave trade with Vincent Price as the stage illusionist/brothel keeper plying his evil trade in Tangier.

In Spain, Towers met the cult director Jess Franco and entered his "blue period" with a roster of sexploitation and schlock horror movies. Justine was narrated by Klaus Kinski as the Marquis de Sade; and the German actor was persuaded to return for Venus In Furs and Count Dracula, in which he played the madman Renfield. Most of these pictures also featured the Austrian actress Maria Rohm, who became Towers' wife.

Over the next couple of decades, with a keen eye for non-copyright literary material, Towers raided the popular classics. Hence the 1971 treatment of Treasure Island, in which Welles essayed Long John Silver, also contributing to the screenplay (as "O.W Jeeves"); but Towers' hit-and-run methods of production meant that Welles' dialogue was post-synchronised by the dubbing specialist Robert Rietty. Meanwhile, credit problems with American Express obliged Towers to remove himself to Canada, where he took citizenship and relaunched his career from Toronto, drawing on overseas investment. The 1973 version of Jack London's Call of the Wild was a German/Spanish/Italian French co-production; this was followed by King Solomon's Treasure (1977) and The Shape Of Things To Come (1979).

In 1980 Towers cleared his outstanding account with the US authorities, paying a £4,200 fine in recognition of the 1961 bail escapade; the old vice racket charges were then dropped. From 1985 onwards he was involved with kindred spirits Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus aka Cannon Films. For Golan, he supervised a trio of Edgar Allan Poe stories – Premature Burial, Fall of the House of Usher, Masque of the Red Death – shot in South Africa; and yet another remake of Phantom of the Opera. For Globus, Towers signed up the accomplished screenwriter Nelson Gidding to script The Mummy Lives (1992), but with Tony Curtis as the Brooklyn-accented Egyptian high priest it was doomed to oblivion.

In 1995 Towers organised the return of Len Deighton's spy anti-hero Harry Palmer. Bullet to Beijing was filmed cheek by jowl with Midnight in Moscow (rapidly amended to Midnight in St Petersburg after the collapse of the Soviet Union). "Peter Welbeck" wrote the storylines for these UK/ Canada/Russia co-productions but despite Michael Caine's customary professionalism, Palmer's new adventures went straight to UK video in 1997. Towers resurfaced in Bulgaria, where he instigated a brace of mystery thrillers shot "back to back" with the same crew and virtually identical casts. In High Adventure the plot device was a map showing the location of Alexander the Great's treasure, while for Death, Deceit and Destiny On The Orient Express it was a terrorist bomb on the train. While at the local Boyana studios, the 80-year-old Towers also knocked out a new version of H. Rider Haggard's She.

Cy Young

Harry Alan Towers, film producer and scriptwriter: born 19 October 1920; married 1964 Maria Rohim; died 2 August 2009.

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