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Donner, Clive (1926-2010)

Director, Producer, Editor

Main image of Donner, Clive (1926-2010)

Clive Donner was born in West Hampstead, London on 21 January 1926. His father was a concert violinist and his mother ran a dress shop. His grandparents were Polish immigrants. At seventeen, having left Kilburn Grammar School and started work as an office clerk, he went to Denham Studios for one of his father's recording sessions for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Powell & Pressburger, 1943) and met Michael Powell. He began to think seriously of a life in film and eventually found employment in the cutting rooms at Denham. He worked on On Approval (d. Clive Brook, 1944) and The Way Ahead (d. Carol Reed, 1944) but was then conscripted into the army. He served from 1944-1947, ending in the Education Corps, where he was responsible for training new recruits. Working with young people would be a recurring theme in his later career.

After leaving the army, Donner went to Pinewood as first assistant editor and continued his apprenticeship, this time under David Lean. From 1951 he began making a name for himself as an editor on films such as Scrooge (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951), The Card (d. Ronald Neame, 1952) and Genevieve (d. Henry Cornelius, 1953). By 1956 he had become a Rank contract director. His first two films started a trend in his work for the next decade, resulting in his becoming known as a 'youth' director. The Secret Place (1957) was a crime thriller about a young boy who thwarts a pair of small-time East End crooks. The boy is a policeman's son and he is tricked by one of the crook's girlfriends, whom he idolizes, into loaning them his father's uniform. Donner took pains to establish realistic backgrounds and settings and choose appropriate East End locations, especially for the final chase, which takes place on the scaffolding of a vast building site, and drew a convincing and touching performance from the young actor (Michael Brooke) playing the betrayed boy. Donner's next film, Heart of a Child (1958), was not so well reviewed, but important for being the first time he worked with actor Donald Pleasence. It featured another child as the central character, this time with an abusive father who threatens to kill his beloved St Bernard dog.

The next few years were difficult for Donner, as he struggled to finance the film subjects which interested him. He moved into television, directing documentaries and episodes of the series Danger Man (ITV, 1964-69) and Sir Francis Drake (ITV, 1961-62). By 1961 he was making television commercials for J. Walter Thompson and was voted Best TV Commercials Director of that year.

Donner returned to the film industry to direct two tightly effective episodes of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace 'B' film series, Marriage of Convenience (1960) and The Sinister Man (1961). His next film, Some People (1962), designed to promote the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. was a surprise box-office hit. Donner makes good use of the Bristol locations and the film is unpatronisingly sympathetic to its potential teenage delinquents (Ray Brooks and David Hemmings) who are persuaded to join the Scheme.

Despite this success Donner was unable to find a backer for a film version of The Caretaker (1963), written by his friend Harold Pinter, but a private consortium, headed by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noël Coward and Peter Sellers, agreed to put up a minimum of £1000 each. The film starred Alan Bates and Donald Pleasence, who had created the roles on stage, and it won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Shot in atmospheric black and white by Nicolas Roeg and imaginatively directed by Donner on a claustrophobic, mainly one room set, the film is striking. Donner deploys a non-musical soundtrack, close-ups and two-shots to unsettling and menacing effect.

Donner's next film was Nothing But the Best (1964), written by Frederic Raphael and again starred starring Alan Bates, as an opportunistic young man on the make who will stop at nothing, even murder, to achieve success. A black comedy of greed and heartlessness, it ran counter to the hippy ethos of the 1960s but was eerily prescient of the Thatcher years. Donner established his international reputation with a stylish farce What's New, Pussycat? (US/France, 1965) written by Woody Allen and starring Peter O'Toole as a serial womaniser and Peter Sellers as the wacky psycho-analyst who attempts to cure him. Seen by Hollywood as a 'with-it' director, Donner was asked to film the Broadway comedy Luv (US, 1967), starring Jack Lemmon , but the play transferred poorly to film and Donner returned to England to make the more congenial coming of age comedy, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967). Written by Hunter Davies and set in the new town of Stevenage rather than in London, it sent up more than it celebrated the 'swinging 60s' and is Donner's best known film.

Its success allowed Donner to make the ambitious 'anti-epic',Alfred the Great (1969), with David Hemmings as an authentically neurotic King Alfred and Michael York defying his milksop image to play the savage Viking leader, Guthrum. It was a surprising change of pace and genre for Donner and proved a step too far for critics and audiences, though the emphasis on the youth of the historical characters might now be seen as legitimate attention to historical reality rather than a gimmick to attract the younger audience.

Donner returned to making television commercials, not directing another feature until Vampira in 1974. He proved that his talent was undiminished with the TV film Rogue Male (1976), the first in a BBC trilogy based on famous adventure stories; John Buchan's The Three Hostages (1977) and Dornford Yates' She Fell Among Thieves (1978) followed. For the next decade, Donner alternated between Britain and Hollywood, directing competent remakes of The Thief of Bagdad (1978), The Scarlet Pimpernel (US, 1982), Oliver Twist (1982) and A Christmas Carol (1984) and American television films such as Merlin and the Sword (1982), To Catch a King (US, 1984), Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly and Babes in Toyland (both US, 1986).

At the height of his fame, in the 1960s, Donner was spoken of as Britain's answer to Vincente Minnelli. In later years this elegant film-maker never enjoyed the big screen success which might have enabled him to take on more personal projects, though in his last film, Stealing Heaven (UK/Yugoslavia, 1988), he returned to the Middle Ages to tell the story of doomed twelfth century lovers Abelard and Heloise.

Clive Donner has deposited his papers at the British Film Institute.

Cavander, Kenneth, 'Harold Pinter and Clive Donner', Behind the Scenes. Theatre and Film Interviews from the Transatlantic Review, Joseph F. McCrindle (ed.), (London: Pitman Publishing, 1971)
Baker, Bob, 'Clive Donner', Film Dope, no.12. June 1977. pp. 36-37
Cameron, Ian and Mark Shivas, 'What's New, Pussycat? Directed by Clive Donner', Movie, no.14. Autumn 1965, pp. 12-16
Gow, Gordon, 'The urge of some people', Films and Filming, July 1969, pp. 4-11

Janet Moat, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Caretaker, The (1963)Caretaker, The (1963)

Donald Pleasance, Alan Bates and Robert Shaw star in Pinter's classic

Thumbnail image of Genevieve (1953)Genevieve (1953)

Cheerful light comedy set against the London to Brighton car rally

Thumbnail image of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1967)Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1967)

The Swinging Sixties hit Stevenage, with suitably tragicomic results

Thumbnail image of Scrooge (1951)Scrooge (1951)

Alastair Sim's definitive portrayal of Charles Dickens' curmudgeon

Thumbnail image of Secret Place, The (1957)Secret Place, The (1957)

Crime melodrama about a small boy upsetting jewel thieves' plans

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