OBITUARY : David Shipman

Richard Cohen
Wednesday 24 April 1996 00:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


For over a quarter of a century David Shipman was the most influential writer on film in the world.

He was never film critic for a national newspaper, and was generally not seen by the cinema establishment as a heavyweight; but in the 10 books he wrote, most notably the three volumes that made up The Great Movie Stars and the two-volume The Story of Cinema, he exerted an influence no other writer on film has matched. More widely read than Pauline Kael, more authoritative and more knowledgeable than Leslie Halliwell, he always seemed in touch with the audiences for whom he wrote, and they appreciated his strongly held if iconoclastic views and the fact he was always his own man. Elia Kazan commented accurately of him, "Shipman writes the most complete, the most enthusiastic and the most entertaining accounts of the films he deals with of anyone I know."

Shipman had no family or formal connection with the film world. After a brief spell at Merton College, Oxford, he entered publishing as a sales rep in 1955, and for the next 11 years worked for a number of leading publishers, includ- ing Gollancz, Methuen and Bantam-Corgi, mainly on the Continent looking after European sales. "In the end one hotel room is very like another," he wrote, and in 1965 returned to Britain to work for Thames and Hudson.

In 1968 he began his most popular book, the first volume of The Great Movie Stars, The Golden Years, and it became a best-seller on its publication in 1970. Two years later a second volume appeared, The International Years, drawing on the interest in non-Hollywood film that Shipman had developed during his time living in Paris. That same year he was commissioned by Phaidon to write a companion volume to Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art. "I thought it would take me two years and it took 11, because I needed to see the 5,000 films discussed in it," he later wrote, determined that he would never write about a film unless he had himself seen it.

The massive two-volume work - some half a million words - was eventually published by Hodder & Stoughton with a preface by Ingmar Bergman. It was the book of which he (and his publisher) was most proud, and was a beguiling mixture of the authoritative and the idiosyncratic. Of Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, Shipman wrote: "I find almost all of his later films lumbering, literal and not nearly as clever in evoking thrills as they think they are." He described as "unequivocally the greatest film ever made" the Japanese three-parter The Human Condition (1959-61), directed by Masaki Kobayashi - while admitting that it was also the longest film ever shown.

Shipman said of himself that he was the only British film historian to make a living solely from books, and in the 1980s several shorter books helped him through what, financially, were difficult years: a short biography of Marlon Brando and studies of science fiction and sex and eroticism in the cinema. He also wrote a film and video guide entirely from his own experience, an extraordinary achievement when in 1995 alone some 419 new films were screened; and all his reference books he vigorously updated. A third volume of The Great Movie Stars, The Independent Years, appeared in 1991, by which time he was in much demand as lecturer, journalist and film consultant. He was a frequent adviser to the National Film Theatre, and in 1986 began writing obituaries for the Independent, becom-ing one of its most regular contributors.

In 1992 Shipman's biography Judy Garland appeared, to widespread acclaim. It showed he could write as well at length on a single individual as he could in brief in his works of reference. At the time of his death he was completing what promised to be an ambitious biography of Fred Astaire, and he was full of other plans, including a memoir of the screenwriter and director Joseph Mankiewicz.

Joe Mankiewicz and his wife Rosemary were just two of a number of Hollywood celebrities who became close friends. Sheila Grahame was another who would be a regular visitor at Shipman's stylish flat in Callow Street, in the heart of Chelsea. Shipman himself was a shy man, exceptionally kind while sensitive to criticism and watchful of his reputation. His exhaustive research methods and the lack of any regular means of income meant that he was never rich; but he was always sartorially elegant, and in his last public outing, attending the publication party for Kevin Brownlow's biography of David Lean (the appearance of which was due much to Shipman's influence), was dressed in a three-piece Savile Row suit and accompanying trilby.

In 1964 he met the art director and editor Felix Brenner, and together in Chelsea and at their cottage retreat in Hampshire they made a formidable partnership.

The world of film has lost not only one of its foremost champions and historians, but a man whose genial presence, warmth, generosity and boundless enthusiasm will be sorely missed by all who knew him, writes Tom Vallance.

A handsome man with, in recent years, a flock of white hair, David was always ready with a beaming smile and effusive greeting, his eyes twinkling as he disclosed some new piece of movie information or gossip. A man of strong opinions, he nonetheless showed genuine concern if one disagreed with his views, and would listen carefully to one's reasons. Unlike many historians, he refused to write critically of any film he had not personally seen, so, although his sometimes controversial judgements could raise hackles, at least they were his own opinions and not regurgitated from the writings of others.

He started keeping notes on the films he had seen when he was in his early teens and carried on throughout his life, compiling an enormous library of personal synopses and critical comments with which, like everything else, he was extremely generous. One had only to mention an obscure German silent recorded from satellite television and next morning's post would bring a copy of his detailed notes to aid one's viewing.

His The Good Film and Video Guide (first published in 1984) is notable for its inclusion of more detail and more foreign films than similar publications, and he was particularly proud of his giant opus the two- volume The Story of Cinema. It is a monumental achievement to be sure, distinguished by the diligent research and meticulous documentation that marks all his work, but his most important contribution to film literature may well be his wonderful trilogy The Great Movie Stars.

Unlike previous such reference books, which included a brief biography, then a (usually incomplete) list of credits, his pioneered the chronological career-filmography, contextualising the films so that one could chart the trajectory of each star, the changes in course and their fluctuating fortunes. It was an original idea, triumphantly followed through, and won instant acclaim from critics and public ("The best, and best-written, aide-memoire on the great stars," wrote Clive Hirschhorn). Consistent sellers, the three books are permanently in print, and there can be few film enthusiasts who do not have them on their shelves.

All of David Shipman's work was pervaded by his unquenchable love of cinema. When I last saw him, four days before his death, he was as enthusiastic as ever at the prospect of fresh films, both old and new, to be viewed over the coming days.

In the nine-and-a-half-year history of the Independent, David Shipman contributed more than 200 obituaries to the newspaper, most of them written on the run, writes James Fergusson. He contributed his first in our second week and his last last week. He was encyclopaedic, enthusiastic, fiercely loyal.

He could also be quite difficult. Sometimes his fastidiousness and high standards dictated a de-haut-en-bas style which might sit well on the experienced film critic he was but would not look so judicious in the sober light of the posthumous morning. As the editor of his obituaries one had to wrestle with him to persuade him of this, to recast and to rethink, to steer him towards a candour the right side of kindness. He endured such bouts stoically, and bounced straight back. His enthusiasm was real and invigorating.

Shipman embraced the ideals of the new newspaper - and particularly the liberations of its obituaries column - from the start. A former Daily Telegraph obituaries editor, in introducing an amusing anthology of that newspaper's obituaries, has boasted that it was the Telegraph which initiated the innovations to the obituary form which have revived it, across all newspapers, for the Nineties. Shipman would snort at this, properly, for it was the facility the Independent afforded for signed pieces, written accountably and with a personal authority by such contributors as David Shipman, in the style of an essay or a profile, and boldly illustrated (in Shipman's case with vivid Hollywood studio portraits and film-stills), which drew a new and young readership to the newspaper obituary. The Independent sought to demystify obituaries, to make them not so much a hilarious private joke as honest, catholic, authoritative, accessible.

David Shipman's last obituary, of Toms Gutierrez Alea, the Cuban director, producer and screenwriter, appeared last Thursday. His first, published on 16 October 1986, was of Keenan Wynn, "one of the last great character men, . . . with a licence to steal scenes from Garland or Gable, putting them down, putting up with them, moustache atwitch to whack his lines across before the camera returned to making them look good". The words could almost describe Shipman himself.

David Herbert Shipman, film historian: born Norwich 4 November 1932; died Overton, Hampshire 22 April 1996.

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