Obituary: Assheton Gorton, film production designer

Assheton Gorton: Gifted production designer behind Rob Roy and The French Lieutenant's Woman
Assheton Gorton: Gifted production designer behind Rob Roy and The French Lieutenant's Woman
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Born: 10 July, 1930, in Leeds. Died: 14 September, 2014, in Powys, in Wales, aged 84

Assheton Gorton combined art, engineering and a dogged perfectionism in transforming locations and creating whole new worlds for a string of hit movies, including the Swinging Sixties classic Blow-Up, the ambitious period drama The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the acclaimed 1995 Scottish historical adventure Rob Roy.

Gorton was a production designer, working hand in hand with the director, costume designer and make-up team to create the “look” of the films.

He did meticulous research for his Rob Roy designs and built the legendary 18th-century outlaw’s stone cottage at Bracorina on the north side of Loch Morar.

“When you’re doing a period picture on location, you do the research and arrive with images already formed in your mind,” he said. “But the actual location imposes its own reality. With this kind of landscape, you can’t work against it, you just have to go with it.”

The Scottish landscape and weather certainly made their mark on the village he built in Glen Nevis for a ceilidh scene, with 200 extras. The rudimentary stone cottages appeared to have risen from the very earth on which they stood.

But the film-makers had to settle for a few long shots as it poured with rain for two nights and Gorton had to build a fresh set inside the Perth Equestrian Centre. He also built a stone hall there for the climactic duel between Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) and Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth).

For The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the early 1980s he had convincingly restored a section of the Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis to the way it might have looked 100 years earlier, removing or covering modern signs and road markings and adding the likes of cooper’s barrels, horses and carts, cobbles and flagstones.

However, Gorton especially relished the surreal and fantastical. He was passionate about and influenced by the great 18th-century poet and artist William Blake.

His more fantastical films include Zachariah, a bizarre musical reworking of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, set in the Wild West, and Ridley Scott’s fantasy film Legend, starring a long-haired Tom Cruise.

For Legend, Gorton covered the huge 007 stage at Pinewood Studios with trees that were about three times normal size, so humans and indeed unicorns looked tiny against them. And then he put mirrors on the walls, so the forest just went on and on forever.

The son of a clergyman, Assheton St George Gorton was born in Leeds in 1930. His father was headmaster of Blundell’s School in Devon, in the 1930s and early 1940s, and subsequently Bishop of Coventry.

Gorton did national service in the army and served in Hong Kong. He wanted to be an artist, but was persuaded to aim for something more practical and studied architecture at Cambridge University.

While he was a student there he designed sets for stage productions. His early theatre work would eventually lead to a professional career as a production designer in films, after a further course of study at Slade art school in London.

He blew his chances of a job with the BBC when he told the interviewer exactly what he thought was wrong with the set designs for a recent drama, only to discover that his interviewer was the man who designed them. It was a story Gorton liked to retell.

The interviewer told Gorton he did not know what he was talking about and would never make it as a production designer. ABC, one of the new commercial television companies, disagreed and took him on as a draughtsman. Gorton later recalled that his duties included drawing up a list of all available windows, doors and fireplaces for use on sets.

He worked on dozens of editions of Armchair Theatre before moving on to films in the mid-1960s. He was art director on The Knack and Blow-Up, which reflected the spirit of the Swinging Sixties and the idea of London being very much a “happening” place.

He also helped present a very different vision of England a few years later in the gritty thriller Get Carter, with its bleak Tyneside setting.

Gorton maintained a flat in Notting Hill Gate in London, but in the 1970s he also bought a large property in the Welsh border county of Powys, along with other artists.

It was then sub-divided and he had a large studio in a converted barn there, where he worked on paintings, drawings and etchings, as well as film designs.

His last film credits were for Shadow of the Vampire and Disney’s live-action 102 Dalmatians in 2000, by which time he was 70.

He is survived by his wife Gayatri, who is a potter, and by three children, all of whom followed their parents into the creative sector.

Steve is a photographer, Barnaby an artist and Sophie a designer and lecturer in fashion and textiles. He also had seven grandchildren.