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Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)

From the 1940s to the mid 1960s, Sidney Gilliat and his film-making partner Frank Launder carved a distinctive niche in British cinema, offering middle-brow entertainments stamped with intelligence, an impish wit, and a close regard for the quirks of British life. They initially joined forces in the mid 1930s as scriptwriters, specialising in comedy-thrillers; then the upheavals of the Second World War gave them their chance to direct their own scripts, beginning with Millions Like Us (1943).

Many projects were developed jointly, yet each had their own preferences. Gilliat's forte was dry social comedy with a pessimistic streak, an ideal platform for his caustic sense of humour; Launder was happiest with lighter, farcical comedy, or subjects with a Celtic flavour. Neither matched their ingenious scripts with a particularly developed visual style, though the flourishes of European silent cinema - an early passion - found distant echoes in some of Gilliat's scripts, and both knew much about comic timing.

Gilliat was born in Stockport, on 15 February 1908. His father was a journalist and newspaper editor, and Gilliat entered films in 1928 in tandem with Walter C. Mycroft, formerly the film critic on his father's paper, the London Evening Standard. For ten months he performed dogsbody chores in Mycroft's scenario department at British International Pictures at Elstree, but learned more about film-making assisting the comedian and director Walter Forde at the more modest Nettlefold Studios.

In 1931 he joined Gaumont-British as a junior writer, and won his industry breakthrough writing the lion's share of Forde's fast-moving thriller Rome Express (1932), a prestige product for the company. He cemented his success writing comedy-thrillers with Launder which were consciously modelled along Hollywood lines but had English eccentricities writ large. In their script for The Lady Vanishes (1938), written before Alfred Hitchcock was assigned to direct, they established the characters of Charters and Caldicott, two imperturbable Englishmen abroad who proved popular enough to be resurrected in a number of other films.

Edward Black at Gainsborough Studios gave the team their first chance to direct. Both jointly wrote and directed Millions Like Us, an unusually lively and vivid portrait of Home Front life. Gilliat's first solo project as writer-director, Waterloo Road (1945), displayed the same beady eye for ordinary wartime lives, compromised slightly by the demands of melodrama.

But in The Rake's Progress (1945), made through the team's own company Individual Pictures, Gilliat shook off popular conventions to write and direct his most distinctive film: a sharp, sometimes touching social comedy about the escapades of an upper-class cad who finally finds a niche fighting in the Second World War. The role was perfectly pitched to the acting style of Rex Harrison, its lead performer. Green for Danger (1946), adapted from Christianna Brand's thriller about murder stalking a wartime hospital, was a less personal project, but Gilliat's handprints stayed visible in the sardonic tone, the expert blending of laughter and fear, and the proud parade of Alistair Sim's eccentricities as the fallible Inspector Cockrill.

With Powell-Pressburger's The Archers, David Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan's Cineguild, Individual Pictures formed part of Independent Producers, a high-profile group sheltering inside the Rank Organisation.

When relations with Rank soured, Launder and Gilliat joined the exodus towards Alexander Korda's London Films. Gilliat's first film for Korda, the crisply paced chase thriller State Secret (1950), was based on another strong original script; his passion for detail helped enormously in creating the setting, an imaginary Central European country. There was less opportunity to put a personal mark on The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), a lavish musical biography that had its incidental pleasures but never came to heel.

During the 1950s, inside and outside Korda's domain, Launder and Gilliat enjoyed box-office success with the St Trinian's farces, beginning with The Belles of St Trinian's (1954). But these high-spirited romps were Launder's chief concern: Gilliat himself experienced less success finding outlets for his larger ambitions. The Constant Husband (1955) reunited him with Rex Harrison for a sophisticated comedy about an amnesiac sufferer who discovers he has six wives; but compared to The Rake's Progress, the film's social observations remained on the surface. The thriller Fortune Is A Woman (1957) and the political comedy Left Right and Centre (1959) offered further polished, but relatively mild, entertainment.

Once Launder and Gilliat ascended into management with the Boulting brothers on the board of the British Lion Film Corporation in 1958, chances to practice film-making themselves began to shrink. However, Gilliat achieved substantial critical and popular success with Only Two Can Play (1962), adapted by Bryan Forbes from Kingsley Amis's novel That Certain Feeling. Gilliat charted the progress of Peter Sellers' philandering Welsh librarian with mordant wit, fine timing, and an appropriate regard for the sordid side of domesticity.

As the 1960s advanced, upheavals in the industry increasingly kept Gilliat chained to a desk at British Lion, but he emerged to direct scenes in The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (co-d. Launder, 1965). Other planned productions fell by the wayside - one was Modesty Blaise, subsequently filmed by Joseph Losey (1966); but in 1971 he managed to direct Endless Night (1972), an elegant version of an Agatha Christie thriller, unfairly mauled by the contemporary press.

Launder and Gilliat resigned from British Lion in 1972, and no other film project stirred Gilliat sufficiently to emerge from retirement; his chief participation in Launder's The Wildcats of St Trinian's (1980) was in offering the advice that it should not be made. Much of his time was spent writing a meticulously researched comic novel Catch Me Who Can, set against the railway frauds of the 19th century; it was almost finished at his death on 31 May, 1994.

Babington, Bruce, Launder and Gilliat (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)
Brown, Geoff, Launder and Gilliat (London: British Film Institute, 1977)
Gilliat, Sidney, interviewed by Macdonald, Kevin, 'The Early Life of a Screenwriter II', in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 2. A Forum for Film-Makers (London: Faber and Faber, 1993)

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Ask A Policeman (1939)Ask A Policeman (1939)

A policeman is forced to commit crimes to avoid the sack

Thumbnail image of Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)

Anarchic comedy based on Ronald Searle's popular cartoons

Thumbnail image of Captain Boycott (1947)Captain Boycott (1947)

Lively drama about 19th-century Irish civil disobedience

Thumbnail image of Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)

Arabian Nights-inspired musical starring Anna May Wong

Thumbnail image of Constant Husband, The (1954)Constant Husband, The (1954)

Comedy with Rex Harrison as an amnesiac with a terrible secret

Thumbnail image of Friday the Thirteenth (1933)Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Drama about the lives of various people involved in a bus crash

Thumbnail image of Green Man, The (1956)Green Man, The (1956)

Comedy thriller with Alastair Sim as an eccentric assassin

Thumbnail image of Green for Danger (1946)Green for Danger (1946)

Whodunit with Alastair Sim as a less than Poirot-like detective

Thumbnail image of Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)

Comedy with two very different schools forced to share a building

Thumbnail image of I See A Dark Stranger (1946)I See A Dark Stranger (1946)

A fiery Irishwoman becomes a spy for the Germans during World War II

Thumbnail image of Jamaica Inn (1939)Jamaica Inn (1939)

Hitchcock's last pre-Hollywood film, a tale of Cornish smugglers

Thumbnail image of Lady Vanishes, The (1938)Lady Vanishes, The (1938)

Glorious comic thriller about a mysteriously disappearing old woman

Thumbnail image of London Belongs To Me (1948)London Belongs To Me (1948)

Eccentric comedy-thriller about a fake psychic and an accidental murder

Thumbnail image of Man Who Changed His Mind, The (1936)Man Who Changed His Mind, The (1936)

Wonderful early 'mad scientist' film, with Boris Karloff

Thumbnail image of Millions Like Us (1943)Millions Like Us (1943)

Launder & Gilliat film about the lives of women during World War II

Thumbnail image of Rake's Progress, The (1945)Rake's Progress, The (1945)

Definitive Rex Harrison, as a carefree 1930s playboy confronted by war

Thumbnail image of Rome Express (1932)Rome Express (1932)

Delightful comedy-thriller set on a VIP-packed express train

Thumbnail image of Seven Sinners (1936)Seven Sinners (1936)

Comedy-thriller about train wreckers: a dry run for The Lady Vanishes

Thumbnail image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)

Technicolor biopic of the masters of the Victorian operetta

Thumbnail image of Waterloo Road (1944)Waterloo Road (1944)

Soldier John Mills goes AWOL to investigate rumours about his wife

Thumbnail image of Would You Believe It? (1929)Would You Believe It? (1929)

A toyshop assistant invents a radio-controlled tank

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Thumbnail image of Launder, Frank (1906-1997)Launder, Frank (1906-1997)

Director, Script, Producer