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Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)

Main image of Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)

Leslie Norman was born in London on 23 February 1911, and entered the film industry at the age of sixteen. In 1930 he joined British International Pictures and edited Man from Chicago (d. Walter Summers). He worked as an editor throughout the 1930s and co-directed a low-budget thriller, Too Dangerous to Live, in 1939. After serving as a major in the sonic-warfare unit in Burma during the war he joined Ealing Studios, where his first assignment was as supervising editor on the Australian production The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946). He edited Nicholas Nickleby (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947) and Frieda (Basil Dearden, 1947), and teamed up again with Harry Watt to produce more overseas adventures: Eureka Stockade (1949), Bitter Springs (1950) and Where No Vultures Fly (1951). He also produced two of Ealing's best non-comedies - Mandy (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1952) and The Cruel Sea (d. Charles Frend, 1953) - before competently directing The Night My Number Came Up (1955), a thriller revolving around a nightmare about a plane crash. It was critically and commercially successful, and Norman was borrowed by Hammer to replace the blacklisted Joseph Losey on X The Unknown (1956).

After directing The Shiralee (1957), a drama starring Peter Finch in the Australian outback, Norman returned home to make his best-known film, Dunkirk (1958), a large-scale project made as an Ealing Studios production for MGM. It was one of the last of such epics to be made in black-and-white and failed to justify its heavy costs, but its honesty and lack of grandiloquence has allowed it to age gracefully. When Ealing closed down, Norman returned to Australia to make Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (UK/US/Australia, 1959) and worked with Michael Balcon on another Second World War story, The Long and the Short and the Tall (1960), a stage success which its director, Lindsay Anderson, had hoped to bring to the screen himself. Norman was considered a safer pair of hands and the producers played even safer by insisting that the film be shot at Elstree rather than in the jungles of Burma.

Like most of Ealing's directors, Norman found it difficult to find projects in the different climate of the 1960s. Spare the Rod (1961), starring Max Bygraves, is a lively precursor of the huge commercial success To Sir with Love (d. James Clavell, 1967), but Mix Me a Person (1961), starring Adam Faith, shows Norman uncomfortable and wary of the emerging youth culture. Apart from his uncredited co-direction of The Lost Continent (1968), Norman's subsequent career was confined to television, where he directed episodes of The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69), The Saint (ITV, 1962-69) and The Persuaders (ITV, 1971-72). Having survived cancer of the larynx, he died, aged eighty-one, after suffering a seizure while driving near his home in Knebworth, Hertfordshire, on 18 February 1993. His son is the television film critic Barry Norman.

Bergan, Ronald, 'Leslie Norman', The Guardian, 23 Feb 1993, p. 10
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1992)
Norman, Leslie, 'Those were the Days', Film and TV Technician, Nov 1990, pp.18-19

Margaret Butler, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bitter Springs (1950)Bitter Springs (1950)

Confused but interesting drama about the plight of Australian Aborigines

Thumbnail image of Cruel Sea, The (1952)Cruel Sea, The (1952)

Distinguished Ealing war film about the inexperienced crew of a naval warship

Thumbnail image of Dunkirk (1958)Dunkirk (1958)

Ealing's ambitious, sombre account of Britain's pivotal defeat of WWII

Thumbnail image of Frieda (1947)Frieda (1947)

Ealing social problem melodrama about postwar anti-German prejudice

Thumbnail image of Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1947)Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1947)

Cavalcanti's adaptation of Dickens' classic novel

Thumbnail image of Long and the Short and the Tall, The (1960)Long and the Short and the Tall, The (1960)

Wartime drama about British soldiers fighting the Japanese - and each other

Thumbnail image of Mandy (1952)Mandy (1952)

Powerful portrait of a family struggling to cope with a deaf child

Thumbnail image of Overlanders, The (1946)Overlanders, The (1946)

First Australian-set Ealing film, recreating an epic WWII cattle drive

Thumbnail image of West of Zanzibar (1954)West of Zanzibar (1954)

African adventure - a sequel to Ealing's Where No Vultures Fly

Thumbnail image of Where No Vultures Fly (1951)Where No Vultures Fly (1951)

Spectacular Technicolor African safari drama from Ealing Studios

Thumbnail image of X the Unknown (1956)X the Unknown (1956)

Post-Quatermass Xperiment blend of SF and horror from Hammer Films

Thumbnail image of Avengers, The (1961-69)Avengers, The (1961-69)

Ultra-stylish '60s spy drama that all but invented cult TV

Thumbnail image of Champions, The (1969)Champions, The (1969)

Colourful fantasy drama featuring a trio of superhero spies

Thumbnail image of Department S (1969-70)Department S (1969-70)

Drama series about a trio of spies, one being crime writer Jason King

Thumbnail image of Persuaders!, The (1971-72)Persuaders!, The (1971-72)

Adventure series about a US millionaire and an English lord

Thumbnail image of Saint, The (1962-69)Saint, The (1962-69)

Roger Moore stars as the latter-day Robin Hood, Simon Templar

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