Obituary: Alan Bridges, film and television director

Born: 28 September, 1927, in Liverpool. Died: December 7, 2013, aged 86

Actress Sarah Miles with British Film Director Alan Bridges during a break of movie shooting on May 13, 1973. Picture: AP
Actress Sarah Miles with British Film Director Alan Bridges during a break of movie shooting on May 13, 1973. Picture: AP

Although he was a prize-winner at Cannes and directed scripts by Ingmar Bergman and Dennis Potter on television, Alan Bridges remained surprisingly little known outside the industry and his death last month initially went unnoticed by the media.

Bridges, who was born in Liverpool, but was of Scottish descent, accumulated a very impressive body of work in television and film in a directing career that stretched from the early 1960s to late 1980s.

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In television the director is often overshadowed by the writer – hardly surprising when you are dealing with the likes of Bergman, who wrote the script for The Lie, and Potter, who wrote Traitor, a drama inspired by the Kim Philby spying scandal and starred John Le Mesurier in a performance far removed from Sgt Wilson on Dad’s Army. Both were Bafta winners.

Bridges reckoned his Scottish roots helped him relate to Bergman and to the legendary Swedish film-maker’s unfinished, rather joyless portrait of marriage and adultery. He cast Frank Finlay and Gemma Jones as the married couple.

“Ingmar Bergman – he once wrote half a script for a BBC film which I took over and made into The Lie as part of the Play For Today TV series and won a Bafta,” Bridges told Screen International, the trade magazine, in 2007.

“We had to improvise dialogue at times, but his direction in what he wrote was amazing. But then I’m a Northerner, half-Scottish, and we’re a bit bleak.”

Other British directors of the period, including Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, managed to graduate from television to wider acclaim and public recognition on the big screen. But they were also writers and they were dealing with contemporary society and social issues, whereas Bridges’s films were often period dramas, adapted from acclaimed novels.

The Hireling was an adaptation of an LP Hartley novel with Sarah Miles as a depressed aristocrat and Robert Shaw as her chauffeur. It won the main prize at Cannes in 1973, the predecessor of the Palme d’Or.

And it seemed to set Bridges up for a glittering big-screen career, but he opted to return to television in the short term and did a TV remake of Brief Encounter with Richard Burton and a hopelessly miscast Sophia Loren.

He was back on cinema screens in the early 1980s and garnered some excellent reviews for a sensitive adaptation of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, with Alan Bates as the shell-shocked officer, who returns from the front, minus any memory of recent years. He fails to recognise his beautiful wife Julie Christie and thinks he is in love with a rather dowdy, working-class Glenda Jackson, the object of his affections in his youth.

He got even greater acclaim of his adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party with James Mason, Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell. Once more, it was set in a world of privilege, and touched on illicit relationships, with, on this occasion, the First World War looming large on the horizon.

The preeminent American critic Pauline Kael wrote: “Bridges, as can be seen also in his 1982 film The Return of the Solider, has a special gift for these evocations of a world seen in a bell jar… A late bloomer, Bridges goes beyond being pictorial and literary. He sharpens the novel’s wry observations on the Edwardian era and at the same time infuses a sensuous sweetness into the material.”

Bridges had originally intended to become an actor and studied at Rada, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London. He began directing in English repertory theatre, and then moved on to the BBC, beginning with the crime series You Can’t Win in 1961. He also worked on Z-Cars and Maigret.

It was with single plays that he really made his mark in the industry.

One-off dramas were a significant feature of the television schedules in the 1960s and 1970s and he directed plays for various slots, including First Night, The Wednesday Play and Play for Today.

He enjoyed the BBC ethos and the readiness, at that time, to take risks and fail.

He made his first cheap feature films in the mid-1960s, including Invasion, in which aliens arrive, not in the US, their usual terrestrial stopping-off point, but in a little English village.

He also directed ten-part television adaptations of Great Expectations and Les Miserables for the BBC and a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Ghosts in the West End with Peggy Ashcroft.

His later films opened doors for him and after The Shooting Party he headed for America, where he began shooting an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil, in which an American youth discovers his elderly German neighbour is a Nazi war criminal.

He was well into shooting with the Scottish actor Nicol Williamson as the Nazi and Ricky Schroder as his pupil when cheques started bouncing.

The money had suddenly run out, shooting halted and the film was never finished. Another team started from scratch ten years later with Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro. But the collapse of the film more or less brought Bridges’s career to a halt and he slipped from view, though in the last few years critics have begun to reappraise his work, particularly the television plays.

He is survived by his wife Ann and by two children.