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Bryan Forbes: Renaissance man

17 October 2007
A relaxed Forbes pictured at home in Winter 2006Jake Gavin/BAFTA Publishing 2007

Multi-skilled and with a career spanning six decades, Bryan Forbes has played a leading role in the history of British Cinema. Quentin Falk reviews his life and work.

The League Of Gentlemen, Whistle Down The Wind, The L-Shaped Room, Séance On A Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers, King Rat... It’s an award-winning roll call of excellence which would, in itself, be enough to ensure him a place in Britain’s creative pantheon even before considering his several acclaimed novels, two volumes of autobiography and fine TV drama and documentaries (on Dame Edith Evans and Elton John). Then, sealing his position as once perhaps the most important man in the British film industry, he famously ran EMI-MGM Studios at Elstree between 1969 and 1971, overseeing successful films like The Go-Between (1970), The Railway Children (1970) and The Tales Of Beatrix Potter (1971).

Born John Clarke, eastender Forbes, who will be 81 in July, originally started out as an actor. After three terms at RADA and a brief spell in Rep, Forbes, just 17, went into the army for four years where he began to hone his skills as a writer with a series of short stories.

He is a Renaissance man, with an ability to take risks and engage a multitude of skills...

It was a published collection in the early 50s that caught the attention of producer 'Cubby' Broccoli who contacted Forbes saying, “I gather you’re a fast man with the pen. Can you provide some pages?” The film in question was The Black Knight (1954), and Forbes’ uncredited work quickly led to much better things like The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), I Was Monty’s Double (1958) and The League Of Gentlemen (1959), for which Forbes was BAFTA-nominated.

When he and close pal Richard Attenborough felt they wanted to add more strings to their filmmaking bows, the result was the formation of a company, Beaver Films. Their first production was The Angry Silence, in which a young factory worker rebels against an unofficial strike. It culminated in an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win for Forbes’s screenplay. He clocked up four more BAFTA nominations for his work on coming-of-age drama Whistle Down The Wind (1961, and his first directing job), kitchen sink comedy Only Two Can Play (1962), crime drama Séance On A Wet Afternoon (1964) and WWII drama King Rat (1965).

In the 20 years that followed, Forbes was one of the busiest directors around, making films in both Britain and America. Forbes, who celebrated his golden wedding anniversary to actress Nanette Newman in 2005, continues to write; his latest novel The Choice was published this year.

His legacy is that of a Renaissance man, whose ability to take risks and engage a multitude of skills has propelled his long and illustrious career in film.