Obituary: Bob Kellett; Writer, director and producer whose major projects earned popular acclaim

0
Have your say

Born: 25 December, 1927, in Lancashire. Died: 27 November, 2012, in Westergate, West Sussex, aged 84.

Bob Kellett was one of British cinema’s top comedy directors in the 1970s, working with many of the big names of that era, including Ronnie Barker and Frankie Howerd.

It was a decade in which a struggling film industry seemed determined to turn every half-decent television sitcom into a feature film and Kellett directed several such ventures.

Although they were never popular with the critics, he had a major commercial success with the 1971 big-screen version of Up Pompeii, the Frankie Howerd sitcom that raised doubles-entendres to an art form.

Howerd played a slave called Lurcio in Ancient Pompeii, serving a rather forgetful master called Ludicrus Sextus (Michael Hordern). “He’d forget what sex he was if he didn’t tie a knot in it,” says Lurcio. “That is if he could find his handkerchief.”

There were sequels called Up the Chastity Belt and Up the Front, which presented much the same character in a later historical period in the manner of the Blackadder series.

Kellett also directed film spin-offs from the television series Are You Being Served?, which employed the tired old stand-by of having the entire cast go off on holiday together, and Till Death Us Do Part (his film instalment was called The Alf Garnett Saga).

Many of Kellett’s films looked for laughs in innuendo and camp characterisations, though John Inman’s shop assistant had endeared himself to the nation on the sitcom Are You Being Served? long before Kellett got involved.

However Kellett’s film Girl Stroke Boy, which came out the same year as Up Pompeii, prompted minor controversy as it touched on the subject of homosexuality in a slightly more sophisticated way, albeit with a fair bit of comedy thrown in.

Michael Hordern and Joan Greenwood played parents of a young man who comes home with a new partner called Jo and they cannot work out if Jo is male or female. It was based on a play, but the film also made the character black as well as of doubtful gender.

Eventually the son reveals that his partner is not only a woman, but that the two have just got married, and the parents are very relieved. The role was played by someone simply credited as “Straker”, who was actually male. The subject matter merited an “X” certificate in 1971.

Born in Lancashire in 1927, Robert Ryerson Kellett had a peripatetic childhood. He spent some time in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where his father ran a tea plantation, and with relatives in Canada during the Second World War.

After abandoning a medical degree, Kellett had a brief spell as an actor in repertory theatre and was employed as a writer with Wessex Films. He worked uncredited on the classic 1950 prisoner-of-war escape movie The Wooden Horse.

As his career developed, he wrote for television and he produced, wrote and directed short instructional films and documentaries.

He was the producer on A Home of Your Own, a largely silent 45-minute film about the construction of a house. It starred Ronnie Barker, Bernard Cribbins and Peter Butterworth and was an award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival in 1965.

He also produced the Wendy Craig comedy feature film Just Like a Woman, which had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1966.

By this time he had also set up his own company, Gannet Films, and he was reunited with Ronnie Barker on Futtocks End, a 50-minute film which once more drew inspiration from the old silent comedies.

Barker played a lecherous old general who lives in a crumbling mansion and communicates by a series of grunts. Barker wrote it and Kellett produced and directed it. The public loved it, the critics hated it – these were the days when short films were shown in cinemas and reviewed by critics.

During the 1970s Kellett directed a string of feature films including Up Pompeii; Our Miss Fred, with Danny La Rue; Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something!, an adaptation of a Whitehall farce with Brian Rix, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims and Joanna Lumley; and Spanish Fly, starring Phillips and Terry-Thomas.

His style of comedies went out of fashion in the 1980s, however, and he worked as an executive producer, writer and director with the Children’s Film Foundation.

In the 1990s he collaborated on various projects with the veteran director Lewis Gilbert.

They worked together on the script of the James Herbert adaptation Haunted, with Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale, and Kellett was the second unit director of Gilbert’s 2002 comedy Before You Go with Julie Walters.

Kellett is survived by his wife Annie and their five children, including two sets of twins.

One of his sons Ben Kellett followed him into the business, and has recently been directing a new series of the television comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys, in Glasgow.

BRIAN PENDREIGH