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Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)

Director, Producer, Writer, Editor

Main image of Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)

Charles Crichton was born on 6 August 1910 in Wallasey, Cheshire, and educated at Oundle public school. His father worked in the shipping industry, and was unconventional enough to wear a beret to work instead of the statutory bowler hat. While studying history at Oxford, Crichton met Zoltan Korda, who offered him a job at London Films as an assistant editor.

Crichton joined London Films in 1932 and stayed there for eight years, graduating from assistant editor to editor in 1935. The films he worked on included several of the studio's prestige productions: The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933), Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935), Things to Come (d. Cameron Menzies, 1935), Elephant Boy (d. Robert Flaherty/Zoltan Korda, 1937) and The Thief of Bagdad (d. Ludwig Berger/Michael Powell/Tim Whelan, 1940). Among the things Crichton learned there, he later recalled, was the valuable lesson that "a script is not the bible, it is not a blueprint that must be followed precisely, word for word."

In 1940, Crichton joined Alberto Cavalcanti at the Crown Film Unit and moved with him to Ealing Studios, where he edited documentary-influenced war movies such as The Big Blockade (d. Charles Frend, 1941) and Nine Men (d. Harry Watt, 1942). He was now recognised as one of the finest editors in the business, skilled at letting a scene tell its story with terse economy but no loss of lucidity. Appreciative of Crichton's talents in the cutting room, Ealing boss Michael Balcon eventually let him direct For Those in Peril (1944) and Painted Boats (1945). They were in much the same drama-documentary mould as those he'd been editing, but his comic contribution to the ghost-story anthology Dead of Night (co-d. Alberto Cavalcanti/Basil Dearden/Robert Hamer, 1945) pointed the way his career would soon go.

Though he made as many dramas as comedies, it is as a comedy director that Crichton is best remembered. Hue and Cry (1947) inaugurated the great cycle of post-war comedies with which the name of Ealing became associated. Scripted, like many of its successors, by ex-special policeman T.E.B. ('Tibby') Clarke, it set the template for the Ealing comedy style - realistic, everyday settings against which were played out events pushed just over the edge of absurdity, and a tone of mildly populist insubordination. The plot was Boys' Own Adventure stuff - a group of schoolboys foil a gang of crooks who are passing coded messages through the boys' favourite magazine - but Crichton handled it with a light, dancing brio that kept it fresh and diverting.

Crichton's next four films were less successful. Against the Wind (1948) took a downbeat, disenchanted view of Allied undercover work in occupied Belgium. It now looks impressively authentic, but audiences weren't yet ready for such an unheroic take on the war. Another Shore (1948), a flaccid, Irish-set comedy, was followed by an episode of another anthology film, Train of Events (co-d. Sidney Cole/Basil Dearden, 1949), and Dance Hall (1950), which offers a surprisingly vivid snapshot of its era, tracing the loves and dreams of four London factory girls in and around the eponymous palais de danse.

Crichton's best, and best-loved, Ealing film is The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), a crime comedy that gave Alec Guinness, as the meek Bank of England clerk who plots to rob his employers, one of his classic roles. Guinness and Stanley Holloway, as his partner-in-crime, play off each other in masterly style, and Crichton paces the comedy impeccably, keeping the rhythm crisp and alert while relishing the wealth of quirky detail. Tibby Clarke's screenplay, gleefully spoofing heist-movie conventions, was awarded an Oscar.

Crichton was loaned out to Rank to direct Hunted (1952), a taut killer-on-the-run thriller starring Dirk Bogarde. When he returned to Ealing to make The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), again scripted by Tibby Clarke, the studio's comic impulse was declining into cosiness, and the film lacked the sharp social insights of Crichton's earlier comedies. His last Ealing comedy, The Love Lottery (1954), was even feebler. The Divided Heart (1954), by contrast, was Ealing in its worthy, conscience-wracked mode, dealing with the postwar problem of displaced children and disputed parentage. Well received at the time, it now looks sententious and over-contrived.

When the studio folded, Crichton, like most of his Ealing colleagues, had trouble keeping his career on the rails. He revisited his documentary influences to bring realism to the melodramatic Floods of Fear (1958), but The Battle of the Sexes (1959), which offered ideal black-comedy material (James Thurber's classic short story 'The Catbird Seat'), was softened and sentimentalised. Invited to Hollywood to make Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, Crichton clashed with Burt Lancaster and was replaced by John Frankenheimer. After two potentially interesting thrillers - The Third Secret (1964) and He Who Rides a Tiger (1965) - marred by clumsy scripting, Crichton cut his losses and retreated into television.

His career as a feature director seemed over, especially when he moved from TV work to directing corporate videos. But the company involved was John Cleese's Video Arts, and it was at Cleese's invitation that Crichton made his return to the cinema, after twenty-three years, with the heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda (1988). Pacy, crisply edited, and mining a vein of ruthless black humour that recalls The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick 1955), Wanda looks like what Ealing comedy might have become by the '80s had the studio survived. The film scored a major international hit, and Crichton was nominated for an Oscar. Rumours that he might direct a sequel came to nothing, but the success of Wanda, and Cleese's generosity in sharing the profits, allowed Crichton to live out his final years in unprecedented comfort. He died in South Kensington, London on 14 September 1999.

Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios (London: Cameron & Tayleur/David & Charles, 1977)
LeFanu, Mark, 'Entretien avec Charles Crichton', Positif, Feb. 1989, pp. 31-37
Palin, Michael, 'Farewell to the admirable Charlie', The Times, 1 Oct. 1999, p. 48
Perry, George, Forever Ealing (London: Michael Joseph/Pavilion Books, 1981)
Unsigned profile, 'The old man and the fish', Independent, 18 March, 1989, p. 18
Vallance, Tom, 'Charles Crichton' (obit), Independent Review, 16 Sep. 1999, p. 6

Philip Kemp, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Thumbnail image of Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987) Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

His career at Ealing Studios as an editor and subsequently as a director

Thumbnail image of Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987) Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

Memories from his career as a director at Ealing

Thumbnail image of Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1987) Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1987)

On the collaborative process and why Ealing stopped making films

Thumbnail image of Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1987) Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 4 (1987)

Making programmes and differences shooting TV series and feature films

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Dance Hall (1950)Dance Hall (1950)

Low-key drama about factory workers and their evening escapades

Thumbnail image of Dead of Night (1945)Dead of Night (1945)

Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Elephant Boy (1937)Elephant Boy (1937)

Korda Kipling adaptation that made an instant star of Sabu in the title role

Thumbnail image of Hue and Cry (1947)Hue and Cry (1947)

First of the postwar Ealing comedies: a joyous boy's own romp

Thumbnail image of Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

A group of eccentric Londoners plot the perfect crime

Thumbnail image of Nine Men (1943)Nine Men (1943)

WWII drama: a handful of British men hold off an Italian battalion

Thumbnail image of Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)

Ealing comedy in which the villagers of Titfield decide to run their own railway

Thumbnail image of Yellow Caesar (1941)Yellow Caesar (1941)

Inventive, hard-hitting satire of the rise of Mussolini

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Black Beauty, The (1972-74)Adventures of Black Beauty, The (1972-74)

TV adaptation of Anna Sewell's classic children's novel

Thumbnail image of Man in a Suitcase (1967-68)Man in a Suitcase (1967-68)

Memorably gritty ITC series about an ex-CIA private investigator

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Ealing ComedyEaling Comedy

Eternal postwar comedies from 'the studio with team spirit'

Thumbnail image of Who's Who at EalingWho's Who at Ealing

Meet the team at 'the studio with team spirit'

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)


Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

Film Studio, Production Company