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Saturday 18 November 2017

Clive Donner

Director who epitomised the Swinging Sixties in 'What's New, Pussycat?' and 'Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush'

CLIVE Donner, who has died aged 84, directed two of the films that epitomised the freewheeling spirit of the Swinging Sixties -- What's New, Pussycat? (1965) and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968).

He once declared his ambition was to make successful films that were profound, but in the event his most successful work remained curiously stuck on the surface of a hedonistic decade, the images flamboyant and decorative but ultimately dated. Yet, as a rising young star, by 1964 he was being hailed as Britain's leading New Wave director, with one newspaper noting: "Suddenly it's Donner this, Donner that, Donner everywhere".

In the knockabout sex farce What's New, Pussycat? Donner abandoned several long-standing cinematic conventions, applying quick-fire cutting, exaggerated slapstick and hammed-up acting from stars including Peter O'Toole, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress and Peter Sellers. To O'Toole's sex-mad fashion editor, Sellers (in a velvet suit and ridiculous wig) played a deranged psychiatrist, a part that might have been written for him.

But Donner detected tensions during filming, and after a particularly lengthy delay shooting one scene, Sellers removed his wig, thrust it on Donner's head and marched out, saying: "When you're absolutely sure you're ready, I'll be at the hotel."

Although it became one of the most successful films of the mid-Sixties, Donner's first big commercial success was slated by the critics. Robert Robinson in the Sunday Telegraph found it had "all the pace, wit, thrills, inventiveness and sheer high-spirits of a bank holiday traffic jam".

But the last laugh was had by Sellers: the film's producer, Charles Feldman, was so delighted with the comedian's spontaneous performance that he presented him with a Rolls-Royce.

Donner's next film, Luv (1968), made in Hollywood, and starring Jack Lemmon, was a dud. On the other hand, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, based on the debut novel of the journalist Hunter Davies, struck the critics as the essence of permissiveness, and a triumphant return to form for Donner after the mauling of Pussycat.

Davies, who had also written the screenplay, accompanied Donner to Paul McCartney's house to try to persuade him to write the film's theme tune; although McCartney declined (he was too busy), the encounter sowed the seed of Davies's acclaimed book about the Beatles.

Donner was one of a diminishing breed who belonged to the old school of film-making, learning his craft through the studio system. While many of his films are firmly products of their time, he was skilled at delivering on time and to budget.

Clive Stanley Donner was born on January 21, 1926, in West Hampstead into a family of Polish Jews. His father, Alex, was a violinist and his mother ran a dress shop. Clive grew up in Willesden and left Kilburn polytechnic school of commerce when he was 15.

His father, who had done some work in film, arranged an introduction for his son at Denham film studios and then at Pinewood, where he was offered a job in the editing rooms. He worked initially with Michael Powell, and later with David Lean.

In 1944, when he was 18, he joined the army, and became a sergeant in the education corps before returning to Pinewood in 1947 to work as an editor on films such as Scrooge (1951), The Card (1952), Genevieve (1953) and on I Am A Camera (1955), the drama which earned the famous one-line dismissal from one critic: "Me no Leica."

After his heyday in the Sixties, Donner turned increasingly to directing and producing for the theatre, staging successful productions of Shakespeare as well as contemporary plays in London and the provinces.

A late return to directing film, Vampira (1974), was critically panned, and coincided with an unhappy time for him personally: his wife, costume designer Jocelyn Rickards, whom he had met during the filming of Alfred The Great in 1969, suffered a stroke.

When a bachelor, Donner's proudest possession at his Mayfair flat was a Parisian bed built for three. For most of his married life he lived in a house in St John's Wood, London, with a beautiful walled garden, which gave him much pleasure. Later, he and his wife moved to a flat in Hammersmith overlooking the Thames. There he found relaxation, enjoyed the varied bird life, and provided lunch and lively discourse for friends.

Clive Donner married Jocelyn Rickards in 1971. She died in 2005. They had no children.

Sunday Independent

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