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Towers, Harry Alan (1920-2009)

Producer, Writer

Main image of Towers, Harry Alan (1920-2009)

As entertainment moguls go, Harry Alan Towers was never in the same league as David O. Zelznick or Louis B. Mayer, but during a long career in radio, television and films, he acquired a legendary reputation as the most enterprising, prolific - and elusive - independent producer of his day. The only son of a theatrical business manager, he attended the Italia Conti school for child actors before graduating in adolescence to disc jockey and radio scriptwriter. At the BBC he devised the magazine programme March of the Movies, for which he once interviewed Cecil B. De Mille, who epitomised showmanship, efficiency and the spirit of adventure - qualities that Towers would always seek to emulate.

By 1950 he was distributing radio shows to overseas stations through agents in Paris, Toronto, New York and Sydney, while his company Towers of London typically supplied 30 entertainments a week to the 'pirate' Radio Luxembourg. Luxembourg's output was directly sponsored on the American model, so it was natural that Towers should offer his expertise to British commercial television when it arrived. At Highbury studios in north London, he geared up to supply ITV with economically-made programmes on film.

Associated Rediffusion's 1955 opening night included ten minutes of Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, pre-recorded by Towers' outfit. Commissioned to deliver 39 television playlets for ATV under the generic title Theatre Royal (1955-56), and longer 60 minute dramas for the Television Playhouse (1955-63) slot, the workaholic Towers was soon estimating his annual turnover at £350,000.

In 1956 he virtually invented the British TV movie - a 90 minute 'special', The Anatomist (tx. 6/2/1956) - with Alastair Sim recreating his stage performance as Dr. Knox in James Bridie's play about bodysnatchers Burke and Hare. Towers then co-opted Marius Goring to impersonate The Scarlet Pimpernel (1955-56) in new television adventures, while Robert Morley was seen as Micawber in the anthology series Tales From Dickens (1959) - for which Towers also contracted Hollywood star Basil Rathbone to play Scrooge.

Graduating to cinema features in the early 1960s, he embarked on a peripatetic lifestyle, wheeling and dealing around the world. In Hungary and Czechoslovakia he produced low budget thrillers financed through Liechtenstein tax havens - a dodge that he pioneered - with 'itinerant' American thespians supported by local casts and technicians. During his travels, Towers discovered a young Austrian actress named Maria Rohm; she promptly became Mrs Harry Alan Towers, thereafter appearing in most of her husband's films.

For his characters and plots, Towers generally relied on already successful literary properties. Edgar Wallace's hero Commissioner Sanders was played by Richard Todd in Death Drums Along the River (UK/Germany, d. Lawrence Huntington, 1963) and Coast of Skeletons (UK/South Africa, d. Robert Lynn, 1964), and Sax Rohmer's fiendish oriental villain Fu Manchu was interpreted by Christopher Lee in five movies between 1965 and 1970. Towers not only produced, but wrote the storylines, using an old radio nom de plume, 'Peter Welbeck'. Agatha Christie's classic whodunit 'Ten Little Indians' was filmed in three adaptations over as many decades (1965, 1974, 1989), each with an 'all-star' international cast. Somehow, he always had the necessary chutzpah to attract genuinely big names - like Richard Attenborough - to these potboilers.

The myriad ad hoc production companies registered for such excursions included Hallam, named after the street in London where Towers once lived, and the entirely appropriate Filibuster.

In 1965, Towers was introduced to kindred spirit Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures. The partnership generated two comedy adventures - loaded with bankable stars like Terry-Thomas, Gert Frobe and Herbert Lom; an exotic drama, Sumuru (d. Lindsay Shonteff, 1967) featuring Shirley Eaton as 'the female Fu Manchu'; and one drive-in movie, Das Haus der tausend Freuden (House of a Thousand Dolls, W. Germany/Spain, 1967), starring Vincent Price as a stage illusionist and brothel keeper in Tangier. Next, Towers met Spanish director Jesus Franco and entered his 'blue period' with a swathe of schlock-horror movies, whenever possible employing German actor Klaus Kinski. In 1969 Towers and Franco found themselves ahead of schedule on Die sieben Männer der Sumuru (The Seven Secrets of Sumuru, W.Germany/Spain/UK). While hanging around for the Rio de Janeiro carnival that was to provide essential background footage, Towers improvised a script about three escapees from a women's prison in the South American jungle. Using his Sumuru cast and technicians, he shot the action sequences for lesbian sexploitation flick 99 mujeres (99 Women, W. Germany/Spain/UK), which would eventually contrive to star Mercedes McCambridge.

Over the next couple of decades, Towers continued to raid the popular classics. In Treasure Island (UK/France, d. John Hough/Andrew White, 1972), Orson Welles essayed Long John Silver, also contributing to the screenplay as 'O.W. Jeeves'. The hit and run nature of the production, photographed on location along various European coastlines, resulted in Welles' dialogue being post-synchronised by voice artiste Robert Rietty. Meanwhile, credit problems obliged the nomadic Towers to remove himself to Canada, where he took citizenship and relaunched his career from Toronto, drawing on substantial overseas investment. The 1973 film of Jack London's Call of the Wild (d. Ken Annakin) - starring Charlton Heston - was a British / German / Spanish / Italian / French co-production.

From 1985 Towers was involved with fellow buccaneers Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, aka Cannon Films. For Golan, he supervised a trio of Edgar Allan Poe stories filmed in South Africa, and a Phantom of the Opera (US, 1989) with Robert Englund of 'Freddie Krueger' infamy. For Globus, Towers hired accomplished screenwriter Nelson Gidding to invigorate The Mummy Lives (US, 1993), but with Tony Curtis as the Egyptian high priest it was never to be taken seriously.

In 1995 Towers persuaded Michael Caine to return as spy anti-hero Harry Palmer in two films made cheek by jowl, Bullet to Beijing (d. George Mihalka) and Midnight in Moscow (d. Douglas Jackson) - rapidly renamed Midnight in St. Petersburg after the Gorbachev revolution. 'Peter Welbeck' wrote the original storylines for these UK / Canada / Russia co-productions, both of which went straight to video in Britain. Towers re-surfaced during 2000 in Bulgaria, where he instigated a brace of mystery thrillers shot 'back to back' with the same crew and virtually identical casts, High Adventure (Canada/UK/Bulgaria, d. Mark Roper, 2000) and Death, Deceit & Destiny Aboard the Orient Express (Canada/Bulgaria/UK, d. Roper, 2001).

Towers' unquenchable enthusiasm for making movies - and money - guaranteed that in his 'declining' years he was as active as ever. In 2003 he was operating again out of South Africa, where he claimed to have no less than 25 projects in the pipeline. Nobody could ever accuse Harry Alan Towers of thinking small.

Cy Young

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