Gifted director and actor brought his craft to more than 70 films in 39 years
Published 28/02/2010 | 05:00
Lionel Jeffries, who died on February 19, aged 83, was a character actor, screenwriter and director; his most lasting legacy was probably The Railway Children, which he brought to the screen in 1970.
As an actor, the bald, bewhiskered Jeffries showed a facial mobility and excellent comic delivery that turned him into one of the best-known bumbling figures in British cinema and, however brief his appearances, he was always an asset in films that ranged from The Colditz Story and The Quatermass Xperiment to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
He gave a fine performance as the Marquess of Queensbury in the latter film, positively seething with rage when Wilde, played by Peter Finch, replies to his gift of a cauliflower with the line: "Thank you. Whenever I look at it I shall think of you."
But it was as the director of The Railway Children, one of the most enchanting films ever made for young people, that Jeffries left his mark on the history of cinema -- and it was one of his own children who provoked this change of career from acting to directing.
One day his eight-year-old daughter Martha came to him with a book. It was Edith Nesbit's Edwardian classic, a gentle tale of young Edwardian adventurers round and about a Yorkshire railway line, and as she handed it to him she told her father: "I think that would make a good film."
Jeffries promptly bought a short option on the film rights for £300. But no producer seemed interested, and for another £300 he extended the option. This time he was backed by the producer Bryan Forbes, who approved the script and agreed that Jeffries should direct.
Jeffries' script and direction, along with the acting of Bernard Cribbins, Dinah Sheridan and Jenny Agutter and the homely tone of the enterprise, earned the film its place as a minor classic.
With this success behind him, Jeffries was inspired to make more films in the genre, coming up with The Amazing Mr Blunden (set in 1918, it has a widow and her two children living in a country house haunted by the friendly Mr Blunden); Wombling Free (1977) and The Water Babies (1978). None of these, though, rivalled the warmth, simplicity, charm and eye for period detail that distinguished The Railway Children.
Jeffries enjoyed making its successors and, undeterred by the indifference of producers to many of his subsequent projects, kept on writing scripts and pestering for their realisation. Eventually he was able to draw only one conclusion: "No one wants family entertainment any more. They want explicit sex."
Lionel Charles Jeffries was born in London on June 10, 1926. Both his parents were social workers with The Salvation Army.
He was educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wimborne, Dorset. In 1945 he was commissioned into the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, serving first in Burma (where he worked for the Rangoon radio station) and then later as a captain in the Royal West African Frontier Force.
After leaving the army, Jeffries went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was, he said, "the only bald student". He had lost all his hair by the age of 19, later remarking: "Of course, I was upset. Tried a toupee once, but it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg."
Despite this disadvantage, he won Rada's Kendal Award in 1947, then spent two years in rep at Lichfield.
Work was hard to come by, with one agent informing him: "I can't see you getting anywhere for at least 10 years. You've got a young face but you're bald -- meaning you're too young for character parts and not good looking enough for leading roles."
However, Jeffries quickly won his first West End engagement as Major ATM Broke-Smith in Dorothy and Campbell Christie's Carrington VC (1953), with Alec Clunes in the title role. The following season saw him on the London stage as The Father in Peter Hall's production of Lorca's Blood Wedding and The Doctor in Jean Giraudoux's The Enchanted, both at the Arts Theatre.
Jeffries was soon attracted to the cinema, starting his film career in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1949). But he made his first real impression as one of the prisoners-of-war in Guy Hamilton's The Colditz Story (1954). Jeffries later recalled: "I went to the cast meeting with holes in my shoes, but I was given the third lead to Eric Portman and John Mills."
Offers of work poured in, and in one year alone he acted in nine different films. In 1955 he was a great success in Windfall, and there followed a plethora of successful cameo roles in which he proved capable of summoning up dry comedy and menace. Among them were an inquisitive reporter in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955); Gelignite Joe, a diamond robber whose schoolgirl niece contrived for him to impersonate a new headmistress in Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957); and a sailor charged with trying to prevent the ship's captain from knowing about all the livestock being carried on board in Up the Creek (1958).
Jeffries continued in this vein for another two decades, samples being The Hellions (1961); The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963); First Men in the Moon (1964); You Must be Joking! (1965); Rocket to the Moon (1967); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), in which he played Grandpa Potts; and The Prisoner of Zenda (1978). In all he appeared in 70 films between 1949 and 1988.
He once said: "I was constantly rewriting the words of the comedy characters I was given to bring them a comic humanity. Most of the people I played were caught in desperation. In their hearts they knew that they were failures -- but they would never admit it, even to themselves."
He did not entirely neglect the theatre, treading the boards in the musical Hello Dolly! (1984), among a host of other productions.
His television credits included the title role in Father Charlie, about an eccentric priest assigned as spiritual adviser to a convent; the sitcom Tom, Dick and Harriet; and the series All for Love, Shillingbury Tales, and Cream in my Coffee.
Lionel Jeffries married, in 1951, Eileen Mary Walsh, who survives him with their son and two daughters.