Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Box, Muriel (1905-1991)

Director, Writer

Main image of Box, Muriel (1905-1991)

Muriel Violette Baker was born in New Malden on the outskirts of London in September 1905, the third child of a family she described as Respectable Poor. Influenced by her mother's progressive, left-wing ideas, Muriel developed a passion for writing, theatre and cinema, attempting unsuccessfully to become a professional actress and ballet dancer. She gained low-level employment in the film industry, including work as a continuity girl for British International Pictures, but the key event was her marriage to Sydney Box in 1935, which nurtured a mutual talent for playwriting. They completed nearly forty short plays before the outbreak of war in 1939. During the war, Muriel assisted her husband in running Verity Films, gaining her first experience of directing with The English Inn (1941), a typical Verity propaganda short produced for the British Council. The Boxes moved into features, achieving a spectacular hit with The Seventh Veil, the highest grossing British film of 1945, which won them an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

On the strength of this success, Sydney was invited by the Rank Organisation to take over Gainsborough Pictures, where Muriel ran the scenario department. The emphasis was on volume production, but many of the Boxes' screenplays - such as The Years Between (Compton Bennett, 1946) or Good Time Girl (David Macdonald, 1948) - emphasise the problems women face in their struggle to gain recognition or independence. Muriel occasionally assisted as dialogue director, or re-shot scenes that needed attention in post-production. On The Lost People (1949), about the plight of European refugees, she was credited as co-director for the very substantial reworking she deemed necessary.

When Sydney left Rank to set up London Independent Producers in 1951, Muriel was allowed more opportunity to direct. The majority of her films were stage adaptations: The Happy Family (1952), To Dorothy a Son (1954), Simon and Laura (1955), This Other Eden (1959), Subway in the Sky (1959), Too Young to Love (1960) and Rattle of a Simple Man (1964). Her directorial energies were channelled into eliciting strong performances from the actors; visually the films are competent and unfussy, with a preference for medium shots, allowing the audience to concentrate on dialogue and the telling glance or gesture. The films have a stage-bound feel, and rarely venture out on to location. The most successful, precisely because it thrives on such artifice, is Simon and Laura, Alan Melville's acerbic satire of early television 'soaps', where Kay Kendall and Peter Finch play an idealised couple who are actually the reverse of their real selves.

Box's films are notable for their strong, often topical and controversial themes. This Other Eden raises a number of complex issues about Irish politics, commemoration, hypocrisy and illegitimacy. Too Young To Love, which addressed the problem of teenage sex, abortion and syphilis, was sufficiently contentious to be banned by several local authorities. The semi-documentary Street Corner (1953), based on Muriel and Sydney's original screenplay, was a complement to The Blue Lamp (Basil Dearden, 1950), emphasising the courage and capabilities of women police officers. It formed part of Box's repeated attempts to foreground women's experiences, her most important subject.

In her version of the famous Somerset Maugham tale The Beachcomber (1954), it is the pluck and tenacity of the missionary Martha (Glynis Johns), that dominates the film. Simon and Laura, The Passionate Stranger (1957), The Truth About Women (1958) and Rattle of a Simple Man were all comedies about the gulf that exists between the sexes whose needs and aspirations are quite different, and between fantasy and reality. Box described The Truth About Women as "the film personally significant to me above all others", a "comedy with serious undertones concerning the status of women in various societies from the turn of the century until today". She was dismayed when the distributors, British Lion, refused it a West End premiere, an indication that its subject was uncomfortable for a patriarchal industry.

Box experienced other forms of prejudice. Michael Balcon doubted her competence to direct a large-scale feature film, a modern Romeo and Juliet story that she had written in 1950, and the project was aborted. In 1952 the Boxes pretended that the direction of The Happy Family was a joint affair, but when word leaked out that Muriel was directing on her own, one of the principal financial backers, John Woolf, withdrew. She was particularly hurt when other women, Jean Simmons in So Long at the Fair (1950), and Kay Kendall in Simon and Laura, wished to have her replaced as a director. Simmons was powerful enough to get her way and Terence Fisher was given the director's slot. In the press her position as one of the very few women directors in the British film industry was frequently noted, but usually condescendingly.

However, she was a role model for young women. Her chequered career illustrates the difficulties for a woman working in the film industry, and also its volatility, particularly in the 1950s and 60s when she and her husband struggled to retain a measure of independence and integrity. She left film-making after the tepid reception of Rattle of a Simple Man, but continued to write novels and she set up a successful publishing house, Femina, which offered a more rewarding outlet for her feminism. She died in London on 18 May 1991. If Muriel Box never directed a masterpiece, her oeuvre remains the most significant achievement of a women director in the British film industry.

Aspinall, Sue and Robert Murphy, (eds), Gainsborough Melodrama (London: British Film Institute, 1983)
Box, Muriel, Odd Woman Out (London: Leslie Frewin, 1974)
Harper, Sue, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (London: Continuum, 2000)
Merz, Caroline, 'The tension of genre: Wendy Toye and Muriel Box', Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992, Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed.), (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994)
Spicer, Andrew, Sydney Box (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)

Andrew Spicer, Directors In British and Irish Cinema

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Daybreak (1948)Daybreak (1948)

Eric Portman stars as a man leading a double life as hangman and hairdresser

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

Thumbnail image of Seventh Veil, The (1945)Seventh Veil, The (1945)

Melodrama starring James Mason as a young pianist's obsessive guardian

Thumbnail image of Simon and Laura (1955)Simon and Laura (1955)

Soap opera satire: a real-life couple plays a happier version of themselves

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Women and FilmWomen and Film

Women on both sides of the camera

Related people and organisations