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Guest, Val (1911-2006)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Guest, Val (1911-2006)

Valmond Guest occupies a special niche in British cinema history as a uniquely versatile craftsman with a career that stretches over fifty years.

Beginning as an actor on stage and screen in the early days of sound pictures, he went on to distinguish himself in the fields of journalism, scriptwriting, songwriting, and film production, as well as directing nearly fifty feature films. Although Guest made his name as a writer and director of quick-witted and often bizarre comedies, his serious dramas - which brought a refreshing realist aesthetic to the science fiction, war and crime genres - may prove the more memorable.

The son of a jute broker, Guest spent his early life in India and London and was educated at Seaford College, Sussex. He single-handedly ran the British office of The Hollywood Reporter, and came to the attention of director Marcel Varnel, who invited him in 1935 to join Gainsborough Studios as a writer.

Here, the fledgling scenarist associated with top creative talent such as Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Alfred Hitchcock, and impressed Varnel so much that he was signed to an exclusive partnership. Guest showed a genuine flair for comedy writing, contributing to scripts for Will Hay classics like Oh, Mr Porter (1937) and Convict 99 (1938), and pumping out a stream of gags for Arthur Askey and the Crazy Gang. He also gained his first directorial experience on the second unit for some of Varnel's films.

Moving to Lime Grove Studios at the outbreak of World War Two, Guest continued to write hit comedies, while also serving as an auxiliary fireman. He was finally given his first directorial commission by the Ministry of Information, which agreed to him writing and directing an Askey short which warned of the dangers of coughs and sneezes, The Nose Has It! (1942).

On the strength of its success, Gainsborough consented to Guest directing two feature length scripts for Askey, the racey musical comedies Miss London Ltd (1943) and Bees in Paradise (1944). However, the fledgling director's most original film of the war years was the quirky Give Us the Moon (1944), a screwball comedy that gave the teenage Jean Simmons her first major part. The serious political undertones which Guest gave to the comedy pointed the way to the issue-based cinema he would develop a decade later.

In the post-war years, Guest further developed his reputation for sharp and pacy comedies, working with a variety of producers, notably Daniel M. Angel. Increasingly, his films featured the vivacious American actress Yolande Donlan, who became Guest's second wife in 1953. Having written her into one of the William films (based on the books of Richmal Crompton), Guest went on to create five star vehicles for Donlan. They included the Ealing-like rural fantasies Mr Drake's Duck (1949), which satirised cold war paranoia and military inefficiency, Miss Pilgrim's Progress (1950), in which an American girl saves a British village from the ravages of town planning, and Penny Princess (1952), which Guest also produced.

When Hammer Studios hired Guest to direct his old friends Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels in two "spin-offs" from their successful television series Life with the Lyons (BBC, 1955-56; ITV, 1957-60), it seemed he was firmly type-cast in comedy, but Hammer surprisingly offered him the chance to explore new genres.

In adapting a Nigel Kneale teleplay, Guest pointed a new direction for Hammer with The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), one of the high points of British SF/horror cinema. The same team followed it with Quatermass II (1956) and The Abominable Snowman (1957), two thoughtful and intelligent films which tapped into widespread fears about government secrecy and nuclear proliferation, and helped to lift the output of the studio to 'A' movie status.

Although Guest did not abandon comedy - Expresso Bongo (1959), for instance, was a memorable satire on Tin Pan Alley - his new trajectory would lead him to write, produce and direct British cinema's definitive expression of post-war anxiety and ambivalence about scientific progress, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). The film won the BAFTA for Best Screenplay.

Guest's films are distinguished by their pace and conviction, and the use of techniques more conventionally associated with social realist cinema - such as overlapping dialogue, location filming, and hand-held camera - to keep his narratives credible.

The same techniques and pictorial sensibilities are evident in the director's crime and war films, made at the pinnacle of his powers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yesterday's Enemy (1959) and The Camp on Blood Island (1957) do not flinch from showing the horrors of the war in East Asia, or the amorality encouraged by survival conditions.

In Hell is a City (1960) and Jigsaw (1962), Guest enlisted the aid of local police forces to facilitate location shooting and bring a new level of authenticity to the crime melodrama and police procedural. His fondness for a documentary approach to drama and his increasingly accomplished use of Arthur Grant's shimmering widescreen cinematography are exemplified in 80,000 Suspects (1963), Guest's homage to one of the key influences on his filmmaking, Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (US, 1951).

As the sixties began to swing, Guest's cinema also became more decadent and flippant, eventually returning to its roots in comedy via the shenanigans of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (co-d. John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, Joe McGrath, 1967) and the salaciousness of Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974).

Later working more in television than cinema, he made his last films in the early 1980s. He revived his Ealing style in The Shillingbury Blowers (1980), but for his swansong, The Boys in Blue (1983) - a slipshod retread of his script for Ask a Policeman (d. Marcel Varnel, 1939), TV comedians Cannon and Ball unfortunately proved poor substitutes for Will Hay. Val Guest died in Palm Springs, California, on 10 May 2006.

Guest, Val, So You Want To Be In Pictures? (London: Reynolds and Hearn, 2001)
Hunter, I.Q. (ed.) British Science Fiction Cinema (London: Routledge, 1999)
Interview by Steve Swires, Starlog, 162 and 163 (Jan/Feb 1991)
Interview by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and Richard Scrivani, Scarlet Street, 15, 1994, pp. 25-33
Jezard, Adam, 'Reel Life', Hammer Horror 7, 1995, pp. 8-13
Kinsey, Wayne, 'Val Guest', The House that Hammer Built, 11, 1999, pp. 117-21

Steve Chibnall, 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 Convict 99 (1938)Convict 99 (1938)

Comedy with Will Hay mistaken for both prisoner and governor

Thumbnail image of Day the Earth Caught Fire, The (1961)Day the Earth Caught Fire, The (1961)

Nuclear tests send the Earth hurtling towards the Sun in this SF thriller

Thumbnail image of Expresso Bongo (1959)Expresso Bongo (1959)

Cliff Richard comedy about the discovery of a new musical star

Thumbnail image of Hell is a City (1960)Hell is a City (1960)

Tough thriller with Stanley Baker on a murder hunt in Manchester

Thumbnail image of London Town (1946)London Town (1946)

Notoriously disastrous Technicolor musical extravaganza

Thumbnail image of O-Kay For Sound (1937)O-Kay For Sound (1937)

Knockabout film studio farce that introduced The Crazy Gang

Thumbnail image of Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

Will Hay as a bumbling stationmaster in his most famous comedy

Thumbnail image of Old Bones of the River (1938)Old Bones of the River (1938)

Will Hay comedy about an African colonial administrator

Thumbnail image of Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

The first big-screen spin-off from Nigel Kneale's legendary TV series

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