Ken Annakin's fifty-year career as a director comprises a remarkably diverse body of work including seventeen documentaries, several post-war comedies, four Disney adventures, three 'Empire' films, two impressively mounted war epics and, in later years, a number of television movies. His films demonstrate a love of comedy and adventure, and a "fascination with human beings and their endless variations of behaviour in different settings".
Like fellow wartime documentarists Pat Jackson, Jack Lee and Philip Leacock, Annakin made a successful transition into feature film-making. Much of his work is inventive, but it is also technically skilful and demonstrates a concern for realism. Though it would be difficult to identify a true masterpiece among his films, a number of them show a keen regard for humanity and the common man.
Annakin was born on 10 August 1914 in Beverley, Yorkshire. On leaving school he joined the civil service but left to travel to Australia, New Zealand and the United States. On his return he sold insurance, cars and advertising before joining the RAF as a flight mechanic. Invalided out in 1942 after being injured in the Liverpool blitz, he worked for Sydney Box's Verity Films as a camera operator on training films for the RAF and documentaries for the Ministry of Information, the British Council and the Army.
While working on We Serve in 1942, a recruitment film for women in the Army, its director Carol Reed offered Annakin the post of assistant director. His directorial debut, London 1942 (1942), a morale-boosting documentary about Londoners under fire, is significant in that it combines entertainment, which he claimed to be the raison d'être behind his career, with showing the serious business of people fighting for a common cause.
Until 1946, his work consisted of recruitment and information films, the last of which, English Criminal Justice (1946) prompted Sydney Box, by then head of Gainsborough Pictures, to invite him to direct his first feature.
Holiday Camp, made in 1947, introduced the Huggett family to the British public and caught the postwar mood perfectly. At a time when melodramas and 'spiv' thrillers were dominating cinema screens, Holiday Camp's combination of down-to-earth characters and everyday dramas offered a refreshing slice of working-class life. The Huggetts embodied Annakin's feeling for the 'common man' and his belief that after the war people wanted realistic films they could believe in. Such was their popularity that 'Pa' and 'Ma' Huggett, played by Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison, appeared in three further films, although none were as successful as the first.
Other films made for Gainsborough included Miranda (1948), based on Peter Blackmore's popular play about a flirtatious mermaid, and Annakin's sensitive interpretation of 'The Colonel's Lady', one of a portmanteau of Somerset Maugham stories in Quartet (co-d. Ralph Smart/Harold French/Arthur Crabtree, 1948). This was followed in 1950 by Trio (co-d. Harold French), for which he directed 'The Verger' and 'Mr Know-All'.
Annakin's career prospered in the 1950s. He directed Hotel Sahara (1951), a comedy-drama set in North Africa during World War Two, with Peter Ustinov as the wily proprietor who swiftly changes allegiances whenever new armies arrive, and several other comedies followed. He also directed four films for Disney's British operation: Swiss Family Robinson (UK/US, 1960), The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952), The Sword and the Rose (1953) and Third Man on the Mountain (UK/US, 1959), all of which demonstrate his aptitude for crafting enjoyable family adventures.
The Disney pictures were interspersed between 1952 and 1959 by three 'Empire' films, The Planter's Wife (1952), The Seekers (1954) and Nor the Moon By Night (1958), set in Malaya (though filmed mostly in Ceylon due to Malaya's political instability), New Zealand and South Africa respectively, and made he argued, not out of an ideological concern, but because he enjoyed travelling to far flung places. Annakin himself regards Across the Bridge (1957), adapted from a novel by Graham Greene and shot in Texas and Mexico, as his best film of this period. Rod Steiger gives a powerful performance as an embezzler who adopts the identity of his double only to find that the man is a wanted murderer, and the film showed that Annakin was more than capable of delivering tense, compelling drama.
Two of Annakin's most notable films of the '60s were war epics; The Longest Day (US, co-d. Bernhard Wicki/Andrew Marton, 1962) and The Battle of the Bulge (US, 1965). In The Longest Day, a star-studded Anglo-American production about the Normandy landings, he was given responsibility for the British and French sequences and all the studio scenes. Its illustrious cast rather precludes the realist element Annakin usually aimed for but it demonstrates his skill in dealing with complex sequences. His work on The Longest Day attracted the attention of producer Milton Sperling and he was assigned to direct The Battle of the Bulge, a worthy attempt to deal fairly with the German counter-attack which temporarily halted the Allied advance across Europe in the winter of 1944.
Annakin also directed two comic epics whose international casts were overshadowed by gloriously old-fashioned planes and cars: Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (UK/Italy/France, 1969).
Given his experience, competence and international standing, Annakin's later career has been something of a disappointment. In the mid-70s, after making Paper Tiger (1974) with David Niven, he turned to directing American television films, though he has made frequent returns to the big screen where his subjects have ranged from Pippi Longstocking to Genghis Khan. As he said himself, "I make films for audiences". Ken Annakin was awarded the OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2002.
Annakin, Ken, National Film Theatre Programme, July 1998a, pp. 24-27
Box, Muriel, Odd Woman Out (London: Leslie Frewin, 1974)
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: BFI, 1992)
'Who's Who of the Critics: The Screen Answers Back', Films and Filming, May 1962, pp. 12-14
Annakin, Ken, 'In Praise of Producers', Sight and Sound, Nov. 1998b, p. 69
Margaret Butler, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors