Vernon Campbell Sewell was born in London on 4 July 1903 and educated at Marlborough public school. He began his career as camera assistant at Nettlefold Studios in 1929 and moved on to become camera operator, sound recordist, art director and cutter. He also revealed ingenuity in the use of foreground models to achieve special effects and attracted the attention of Michael Powell, who wrote the script of Sewell's first directorial assignment, The Medium (1934), which made extensive use of such models. He was production assistant on Powell's The Edge of the World (1937) and claimed in 1994 to have directed some sequences of his The Spy in Black (1939). Sewell directed several short films in the '30s, including the VD cautionary tale, A Test for Love (1937), but made his name with the still gripping wartime drama, The Silver Fleet (1943), made for Powell and Pressburger's Archers company. It stars Ralph Richardson, as a Dutch shipbuilder who fakes collaboration with the Germans, and it doesn't shirk a tragic dénouement. He and Gordon Wellesley co-wrote the film and Wellesley is technically - but not otherwise - its co-director.
He turned down the opportunity to direct Madonna of the Seven Moons (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1944), and went to work with producer Louis Jackson at British National. After his interesting study of WWI flyers coping badly with peacetime Britain, The World Owes Me a Living (1945), he had a big financial success with Latin Quarter (1946), a Gothic remake of The Medium, sumptuously and inventively lit by Gunther Krampf. The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947), with Robert Morley and Felix Aylmer as the eponymous spirits condemned to haunt a London house until it is visited by a reigning monarch, was less successful despite its jokes and special effects, and most of Sewell's remaining career was confined to 'B' movies. He made nearly thirty of these, some well above the usual cut-price standards of film-making at this level.
A keen yachtsman, he used his own vessel for such films as Ghost Ship (1952), starring his wife Joan Carol; The Floating Dutchman (1953), with an opening sequence that anticipates Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972); and Dangerous Voyage (1954), a dim little thriller with minor US star William Lundigan. His best work of this period is in economical and highly effective little thrillers such as The Man in the Back Seat (1961), a minimalist tale of a pair of thugs on the run, with a chilling pay-off; The House of Mystery (1961), which juxtaposes the rational and the supernatural and has a striking finale; and, best of all, Strongroom (1962), which again ends unexpectedly after a very tense, humanly absorbing 80 minutes. This is Sewell's most wholly achieved film, though the horror films he made for 'fun' at the end of his career have their admirers.
The fact that he had private means allowed him a robust individuality, though it probably meant that he pursued his career less determinedly than he might have done. He died at his home near Durban, South Africa, on 21 June 2001.
Long, Stanley, 'Obituary', Stage, Screen and Radio, Set. 2001, p. 22
McFarlane, Brian, 'Vernon Sewell' (interview), An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1977)
BECTU History Project Interview, July 1994 (tape held in BFI Library)
Brian McFarlane, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors