Monday 17 December 2018

Obituary: Lewis Gilbert

Veteran director who made Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine and Alfie as well as three James Bond spectaculars

COCKNEY CAPER: Lewis Gilbert directing Michael Caine on the set of ‘Alfie’ in 1966
COCKNEY CAPER: Lewis Gilbert directing Michael Caine on the set of ‘Alfie’ in 1966 Newsdesk Newsdesk

Lewis Gilbert, who has died aged 97, was among the most commercially successful, if critically unfashionable, of British film directors.

He directed celebrations of wartime heroism - The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) - and was responsible for such quintessentially British comedies as Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989).

He also directed three James Bond spectaculars: You Only Live Twice (1967), with Sean Connery, and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) with Roger Moore.

Gilbert directed more than 40 films, a considerable achievement considering the insubstantial nature of the British film industry, many of which he also produced and co-wrote.

That he did so is largely due to his pragmatic attitude towards material and his lack of extravagance, which made him popular in Hollywood. "I'm really somebody like a doctor who you call in when you want the patient to live, as it were," he said. "And in that way I think I've lasted."

He imposed little as a director, allowing narrative and acting to carry his films. When these were strong, he succeeded. He was at his best with simple stories of individual endeavour, as was evident with his films set in the war.

"The war was the biggest single influence in my life," he said. "I think it was natural in the years after the war to make films that were part propaganda and part portraits of heroism. If you see these films now you might giggle a bit, but I think that they provide a very true picture of feelings of the time."

Reach for the Sky, in which Kenneth More gave a classically rigid performance as the RAF ace Douglas Bader who overcame the loss of both legs, and Carve Her Name With Pride, with Virginia McKenna as Violet Szabo, a British spy executed by the Nazis, are perhaps the best of these.

Gilbert's later attempts at sensitive themes could be dire. Friends (1971) was a un-nutritious slice of corny sentiment, inexplicably successful at the box office, with Sean Bury and Anicee Alvina as teenage lovers who run away to a country cottage where they have a child.

Seven Nights in Japan (1976) was a ludicrous though perhaps prophetic romance, with Michael York as heir to the British throne falling in love with a geisha while on shore leave in Tokyo; while Not Quite Jerusalem (1985), a version of Paul Kember's play in which an Israeli girl and an American fall in love on a kibbutz, was unkindly known as "Carry on Terrorist".

Despite the varied quality of his output, Gilbert had a reputation as an actors' director. He considered that this stemmed from his understanding of actors' insecurities (he had started out as an actor).

Two of Michael Caine's Oscar nominations came in films directed by Gilbert, and he also extracted sensitive performances from Kenneth More ("a marvellous guy … always looking out for the small-part actors"), Susannah York, Dirk Bogarde and Margaret Lockwood.

He had particular respect for Connery, who he felt was trapped by his image as Bond when he "really is the James Mason of his time".

"Film is really a piece of entertainment," he said. "There are only two criteria for surviving in this business; you can either be a big artistic success or a big commercial success. You are lucky if in some time in your life you enjoy both. And I suppose I've been lucky in that way."

Lewis Gilbert was born in London on March 6, 1920. He began his career as a child actor in silent movies. Shyness drove him to find work on the technical side of films and he moved into direction when Alexander Korda appointed him third assistant on 21 Days (1937). During World War II he worked for the RAF's documentary film unit and afterwards he began to work full time as a director.

In 1966 came Alfie. "Paramount backed Alfie," said Gilbert, "because it was going to be made for £500,000, normally the sort of money spent on executives' cigar bills.

Caine gave an immaculate performance as the cockney Lothario, whose philandering is halted by tragedy from which he gains a new maturity. The film's sexual frankness - and performances -made it highly popular, and it was nominated for five Oscars.

The next year Gilbert undertook his first Bond film, You Only Live Twice, in which 007 went to Japan, assisted by a script from Roald Dahl.

In 1983 he had a great success with Caine in Educating Rita, Willy Russell's Liverpudlian Pygmalion, with Julie Walters as a housewife hell-bent on self-improvement, and Caine as the besotted tutor. The film received three Oscar nominations and the Bafta award for best film.

He filmed a companion piece in 1989, Russell's comedy Shirley Valentine, in which Pauline Collins gave a virtuoso performance as a Liverpudlian housewife fleeing into the arms of Tom Conti's Greek bar-owner. It won a Bafta and was nominated for two Oscars and three Golden Globes.

Gilbert continued to work in his ninth decade. His final film, Before You Go (2002) with Julie Walters, was a comedy which explored the lives of three sisters at the funeral of their unloved mother. His memoir, All My Flashbacks: The Autobiography of Lewis Gilbert, Sixty Years a Film Director, was published in 2010.

Lewis Gilbert, who was appointed CBE in 1997, married Hylda Tafler in 1952 and they had a son. She died in 2005.

He died on February 23.

© Telegraph

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