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Magyars in Mayfair

Hungary's contribution to British film and television

Main image of Magyars in Mayfair

If asked to list the most important British films made between 1930 and 1950, few would challenge a selection that included The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Things To Come (1936), Rembrandt (1936), The Four Feathers (1939), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Third Man (1949).

What these films also have in common is that at least one Hungarian was credited as writer, producer or director. Indeed, with the exception of the United States, no other country has made such a significant contribution to British film culture.

The linchpin was Alexander Korda, one of Britain's few genuine film moguls. After leaving Hungary following brief imprisonment for his Communist activities by Admiral Horthy's incoming right-wing government, he built up experience and contacts in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Hollywood before arriving in Britain in 1931. Within two years his self-directed The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was the first genuine British commercial success in the crucial US market. On the back of this, Korda's London Films became the undisputed giant of 1930s British cinema, subsequent hits including The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935, starring the half-Hungarian Leslie Howard), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Things to Come (1936), and many more.

Korda's brothers also worked extensively in British cinema. Zoltán Korda directed Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (co-d. Robert Flaherty, 1937), The Drum (1938), The Four Feathers (1939) and (uncredited) parts of The Thief of Bagdad (1940), before moving to Hollywood. Returning to Britain, he made Cry, The Beloved Country (1952) and Storm Over The Nile (1955), the first seen as an attempt to atone for the glorification of the British Empire in the early films, particularly Sanders of the River. Vincent Korda designed many high-profile London Films productions before working for Carol Reed (The Fallen Idol, 1948; The Third Man; Outcast of the Islands, 1951) and David Lean (The Sound Barrier, 1952; Summer Madness, 1955).

Other Hungarian-born Korda protégés included writer Lajos Biró (credited on most of Korda's British films), director Paul Czinner (director of The Rise of Catherine the Great and the self-produced As You Like It, 1937), director André De Toth (an assistant director at London Films who then moved to Hollywood, returning occasionally to Britain to make The Two-Headed Spy, 1958, and Play Dirty, 1968), and of course Emeric Pressburger who, like Korda, was a refugee from fascism.

Although English was Pressburger's fifth language (after Hungarian, Romanian, German and French) and he only started to learn it in the late 1930s, during the following decade he would write some of the most distinctively 'British' films ever made. His best films shared a 'written, produced and directed by' credit with Michael Powell, though Powell himself acknowledged that he was largely the director and Pressburger the writer.

After Korda's commercial decline in the late 1940s and early death in 1956, the number of UK-based Hungarian filmmakers correspondingly dwindled. Peter Medak is the most interesting of the post-Korda directors, with The Ruling Class (1972), The Krays (1990) and 'Let Him Have It' (1991) turning a caustic eye on, respectively, the House of Lords, London's most notorious gangsters and the Craig/Bentley murder case.

Aside from some late Hammer horrors (Countess Dracula, Taste the Blood of Dracula, both 1970; Hands of the Ripper, 1971) and similar genre efforts, director Peter Sasdy mainly worked in television, were his work included episodes of The Plane Makers (ATV, 1963-65), Journey to the Unknown (LWT, 1968-71), Hammer House of Horror (ITV, 1980) and the Adrian Mole stories (ITV, 1985-86), as well as the highly-regarded Nigel Kneale ghost story The Stone Tape (BBC, tx. 25/12/1972). More recently, he made 'I Don't Grow On Trees', a two-part documentary about Alexander Korda (BBC, 1993).

Hungarian actors who have graced British films include Bela Lugosi (The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, 1935; The Dark Eyes of London, 1939; Mother Riley Meets The Vampire, 1952), and Paul Lukas (several 1930s films, notably Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, 1938; plus Lord Jim, 1964). Eva Bartok made ten forgettable sci-fi horror cheapies in the 1950s and Catherine Schell was a familiar face on British screens large and small from the 1960s to the 1990s, while Zsa Zsa Gabor may be better known for her self-parodic TV appearances alongside Dame Edna Everage and Ruby Wax than her four British films (the most distinguished being John Huston's Moulin Rouge, 1952).

Animation and special-effects pioneer George Pal worked for J. Walter Thompson's advertising company in the 1930s. After he moved to the US in 1941 (he returned to Britain in 1958 to make Tom Thumb), his successor was John Halas, whose Halas & Batchelor studio would produce the first British animated feature, an adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm (1954). Mátyás Seiber scored many of Halas' films, as well as live-action features including Jack Lee's A Town Like Alice (1956) and Robbery Under Arms (1957). Seiber's fellow countryman Joseph Kosma, though mostly based in France, came to Britain to score Innocents in Paris (1953) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1958).

Hungary's rich musical heritage has featured in a number of British productions. Two British actors have played Franz Liszt: Dirk Bogarde in Song Without End (US, 1959) and Roger Daltrey in Ken Russell's Lisztomania (1975). Béla Bartók's music appears in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), Ken Loach's Fatherland (1986) and Ken Russell's documentary about the composer (BBC, tx. 24/5/1964). György Ligeti owes his unusually high profile (for an uncompromisingly 'difficult' composer) to Kubrick's inspired choice of music in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), while Sir Georg Solti's numerous TV appearances culminated in presenting Channel Four's witty educational series Orchestra! (1991) alongside Dudley Moore. More recently, singer Márta Sebestyén made a memorable contribution to The English Patient (US, 1996).

Other Hungarian-born artists who have occasionally graced British films and television include artist and photographer László Moholy-Nagy (a key influence on the 1930s British avant-garde who also made a few British shorts), directors István Szabo (Meeting Venus, UK/Japan, 1991), Géza von Bolváry (The Ghost Train, 1927; The Wrecker, 1928), László Benedek (Moment of Danger, 1960), Steve Sekely (Day of the Triffids, 1962) and Andrew Marton (Africa - Texas Style, 1967); writers Felix Salten (The Only Girl, 1933), George Tabori (The Young Lovers, 1954; Secret Ceremony, 1968) and Joe Eszterhas (Checking Out, 1988); designers Ernö Metzner (numerous 1930s films including Chu-Chin-Chow, 1934) and Alexandre Trauner (Night of the Generals, UK/France, 1966) and cinematographers Ernest Laszlo (Ten Seconds to Hell, 1958) and Ernest Vincze (several World in Action documentaries, plus Winstanley, 1975; Jane Austen in Manhattan, 1980; Scrubbers, 1982 and A Very British Coup, Channel Four, 1988). And one of Channel Four News' most respected correspondents was Gaby Rado, sadly killed in an accident when covering the Iraq war on 30 March 2003.

Specifically Hungarian cultural influences on British cinema have been few, but an exception is Refuge England (1959), recalling writer-director Robert Vas's experiences as a Hungarian refugee in Britain. It was screened in the final Free Cinema programme, and its critical success led to The Vanishing Street (1962), a similarly evocative portrait of a fading Jewish community in London's East End. Vas's later films include My Homeland, a documentary about Hungary (BBC, tx. 4/11/1976), and the documentary The Golden Years of Alexander Korda (BBC, tx. 27/12/1968).

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 10/8: Hungarians in Britain (1957)Mining Review 10/8: Hungarians in Britain (1957)

Refugee miners from Hungary are retrained for work in British pits

Thumbnail image of Refuge England (1959)Refuge England (1959)

Moving film about a Hungarian refugee's first day in London

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Thumbnail image of Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)


Thumbnail image of Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)

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Thumbnail image of Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)

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Thumbnail image of Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)

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Thumbnail image of Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)

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Thumbnail image of Vas, Robert (1931-1978)Vas, Robert (1931-1978)