Obituary: Bryan Forbes, CBE, film director, producer, writer and actor
Bryan Forbes was one of the most powerful men in the British film industry in the 1960s and early 1970s. One of the first British screen actors to graduate to making films, he wrote, directed and produced a string of minor classics, including The League of Gentlemen, Whistle Down the Wind and the original 1975 version of The Stepford Wives.
Forbes was married to the actress Nanette Newman and counted Elton John and the late Queen Mother among his celebrity friends. He and Richard Attenborough had a joint production company. He even had a brief stint as a studio mogul, running MGM-EMI and Elstree studios and overseeing production on The Railway Children and The Go-Between in the early 1970s.
For all his achievements and his charm, however, Alexander Walker noted in his definitive history, Hollywood, England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties, that Forbes’s success brought with it a great deal of “controversy, antipathy and outright hostility”.
Forbes won a Bafta and got an Oscar nomination for his script for the 1960 film The Angry Silence, the first film that he and Attenborough made through their Beaver Films company. Attenborough played a worker who refused to go on strike with everyone else and the character is presented as the hero of the piece.
Yet this was a time when “closed shops” and “collective action” were the norm in many industries and many reviled the character as a “scab” and the film as muddle-headed and politically simplistic.
Others were uncomfortable about the way in which Forbes combined the roles of studio executive and director and his use of his wife, Nanette Newman, as the leading lady.
The scriptwriter William Goldman devoted a chapter to The Stepford Wives in his classic insider account of the film industry Adventures in the Screen Trade, beginning with an exchange in which Forbes suggests Newman play one of the main roles and Goldman fails to express his reservations, before going on to articulate them in some detail, if rather belatedly.
In the film the husbands in a small American town replace their troublesome womenfolk with much more agreeable, physically perfect robots. Goldman felt the casting of Newman, an English rose type of actress, meant “the whole look of the film had to alter”.
He wrote: “Forget the parade of Bunnies.” He claimed the long dresses were dictated by Newman’s casting, although he did add: “Even if Nanette meant a change in the look and the reality, that didn’t mean the movie wouldn’t work.”
The Stepford Wives turned out to be an imaginative blend of science-fiction, horror story and feminist treatise – not that all feminists saw it that way at the time. But Goldman’s complaint continued to bristle with Forbes. He wrote to me many years later, after I had interviewed Goldman for The Scotsman, to give his side of the story, whereas most big-name film-makers would just have let it go.
There was a 2004 remake with Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler, which seemed only to underline the quality of the original, which is rated significantly more highly on the Internet Movie Database.
There is no single title in Forbes’s resumé to rival the work of such great English film-makers as Hitchcock or Lean, but it was as remarkable a career as any in the business.
He was born John Theobald Clarke in London in 1926, but changed his name to avoid confusion with another actor. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), acted in theatre and played a string of supporting roles in the Second World War films that the industry was churning out at the time, including The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story.
Forbes developed a reputation for being able to tweak dialogue for actors, which he often did without a screen credit. By the mid-1950s he was having as much success as a writer as he was as an actor.
He scripted the war films The Cockleshell Heroes and I Was Monty’s Double and wrote and acted in The League of Gentlemen, a highly original crime caper, revolving around a robbery planned by former army officers, and as charming as anything of that period.
In the late 1950s he formed Beaver Films with Dickie Attenborough. They made The Angry Silence and acquired the film rights to Whistle Down the Wind, a sweet tale about a group of children who mistake an escaped convict for Jesus.
It was written by Mary Hayley Bell, whose daughter Hayley Mills was Britain’s leading child star and was lined up for the film. It was a passion project for Forbes, who hoped it would give him the chance to direct for the first time. But Hayley Mills’ representatives wanted an experienced director and relented only when the chosen one pulled out shortly before production began.
Forbes also directed the social realist drama The L-Shaped Room, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, starring Attenborough, the Hollywood PoW film King Rat and the Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation The Wrong Box, before taking charge of the Associated British Picture Corporation. It was in the process of evolving into MGM-EMI and Forbes ran the company for a couple of years, but there were several expensive flops and his time there was dogged by industrial disputes.
Later films include the Cinderella movie The Slipper and The Rose, on which Forbes was director and co-writer, with David Frost as producer, and International Velvet, a 1978 sequel to the Elizabeth Taylor equine hit National Velvet, with Nanette Newman stretching the imagination slightly as a former Grand National champion jockey.
Forbes and Goldman both worked on the script of Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin.
Forbes wrote two volumes of autobiography and several novels, the most recent of which was published just last year. His first marriage to the Irish actress Constance Smith ended in divorce.
He is survived by Nanette Newman, to whom he had been married for 58 years, and by their daughters Emma Forbes, a television presenter, and Sarah Standing, a journalist. His son-in-law is the actor John Standing.