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Ivan Foxwell

Friday 01 February 2002 01:00 GMT

Ivan Cottam Foxwell, screenwriter and film producer: born London 22 February 1914; married 1940 Edith Lambart (died 1996; two daughters; marriage dissolved 1974), 1991 Zena Marshall; died London 16 January 2002.

When the British Lion film company had one of its periodic financial crises in 1954 and Ivan Foxwell lost the financial backing for his latest project, he did what no producer should ever do: he put his own money into it. But his faith in The Colditz Story was not misplaced: the comedy-drama about prisoners of war in a supposedly escape-proof German castle was the fourth biggest box- office attraction at British cinemas in 1955, after The Dam Busters, White Christmas and Doctor at Sea, and Foxwell recouped his investment within four months. He benefited financially when it became a television series and just last year he sold the re-make rights to Miramax.

Foxwell, who inherited a considerable personal fortune from his father, spurned a place at Sandhurst to learn the film business instead, rising from clapper boy to production manager in Britain and France, before serving in the Royal Norfolk and Airborne Regiments during the Second World War. He became a producer who liked to adapt existing books and plays, often collaborating on the screenplay. He worked with Dylan Thomas on the script of the enjoyable melodrama No Room at the Inn (1948), about the wartime mistreatment of children placed in care.

The first production of his own company was The Intruder (1953), a thoughtful drama about a soldier turned criminal that was well received by both critics and audiences. Foxwell entrusted the direction to the young Guy Hamilton, and they went on to make three more pictures together: The Colditz Story, Manuela and A Touch of Larceny. Hamilton recalled, "He didn't want to direct and I didn't want to produce, so we made an excellent combination."

Advised by Alexander Korda to aim at the world market after Colditz, Foxwell responded with Manuela (1957), a rather sensual, un-British story with an international cast headed by Trevor Howard as the sea captain lusting after a half-caste girl (Elsa Martinelli)). Foxwell attributed its box-office failure to the downbeat conclusion and turned to comedy, achieving more box-office success with A Touch of Larceny (1959), which showed a lighter side to James Mason's saturnine personality. It became Foxwell's favourite of all his films.

After an unfruitful attempt to produce for Paramount in Hollywood, Foxwell made two big films through the Rank Organisation: Tiara Tahiti (1962), a comedy-drama in which James Mason's colourful reprobate settles an old grudge against John Mills's upright businessman; and The Quiller Memorandum (1966), an intelligent spy drama scripted by Harold Pinter that made effective use of George Segal, Alec Guinness and Max von Sydow.

"Kitchen sink is not my line of country," Foxwell remarked in 1968. "I prefer the more sophisticated type of subject. The seedier side of life has never appealed to me. A film should be made purely to entertain." It was with that last aim in mind that he undertook a project particularly close to his heart: the filming of Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall. "This story of the ruin and disgrace of a very likeable young man is probably the blackest, as well as, I think, the funniest comedy of our time," he declared. Waugh lived near Foxwell's country house in Wiltshire and the two had become friends; Waugh, who mistrusted the cinema, only released the film rights after he had approved of the screenplay written by Foxwell.

The producer decided the material would work best given to stage actors not noted for comedy and he appointed a director with a reputation in documentaries, John Krish. Released in 1968, the film had distinct virtues but was tiresomely over-long and its modernised setting and lack of box-office names doomed it to financial failure, not helped by the revised title, Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher. Foxwell made no further films but he left a body of work that displayed commendable craftsmanship and care.

Allen Eyles

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