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Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)

Director, Actor, Producer

Main image of Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)

It is difficult to categorise Jack Clayton's work as a film director. Given that all of his feature films were adapted from novels, he could be seen as the most literary of British film-makers, and yet he was also deeply committed to using all the resources offered him by cinema. His films were always carefully crafted but they also contained moments of spontaneity and rawness.

This craftsmanship earned him the respect of his fellow film-makers but - with the notable exception of Room at the Top (1959), which in many ways was his least typical film - he rarely enjoyed substantial commercial success. A director of remarkable talent, Clayton's uncompromising independence led not just to a relatively small output - with only eight feature films completed in his entire career - but also to his often being out of step with what the market, and sometimes also the critics, wanted.

Jack Clayton was born in Brighton on 1 March 1921. He began working in the film industry at the age of fourteen as a third assistant director for Alexander Korda's London Films at Denham Studios. His first experience of film direction occurred during the war with Naples is a Battlefield (1944), a short documentary for the Royal Air Force Film Unit. During the late 1940s and first half of the 1950s, he worked on a range of films as an assistant director, production manager, second unit director, associate producer and, from 1956 onwards, as a producer.

In 1955 he received his first directorial credit for the short film The Bespoke Overcoat, an adaptation of a Nikolai Gogol ghost story. (His contribution to Naples is a Battlefield (1944) had been uncredited.) Although the film was a considerable critical success, winning both an Oscar and a British Academy Award, Clayton continued to work as a producer for several more years before John and James Woolf, who had backed The Bespoke Overcoat, gave him the opportunity to direct again, this time a feature adaptation of John Braine's novel Room at the Top.

The release of Room at the Top in 1959 inaugurated a cycle of realist films that came to be known as the British New Wave. These films, which featured what for the time were unusually frank treatments of sexual mores, were seen by many critics as introducing a new maturity into British cinema. Clearly Room at the Top fitted this pattern in its focus on a materialistic working-class male seeking the good life in a Northern town.

However the film was more polished than later examples of the British New Wave, reflecting Clayton's experience of working on more conventional studio fare throughout the 1950s, and it had a more moralistic conclusion, in which the hero realises the terrible emotional price that he has had to pay for his material success. The film was also notable for Simone Signoret's performance as the doomed Alice, the first of several very distinguished performances by women in Clayton's work - Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961), Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) and Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987).

Confirming his distance from the New Wave ethos, Clayton's next film was an adaptation of Henry James' celebrated ghost story The Turn of the Screw. The Innocents is probably more significant an indicator than Room at the Top of the themes that would subsequently preoccupy the director. In The Bespoke Overcoat he had already explored the psychological dimension of being haunted, with the ghost that visits the tailor potentially an externalisation of the tailor's own guilt.

Returning to this idea in The Innocents, Clayton adds to it both a sensitive portrayal of the central female character and a compelling exploration of the emotional world of children. The psychologically troubled heroine of The Pumpkin Eater, Clayton's next film, can be related to the governess in The Innocents, with both 'haunted' by fears of their own mental breakdown, and the children in Our Mother's House (1967), communing with the spirit of their dead mother, are lineal descendants of the children in The Innocents as they attempt to make sense of an adult world from a child's limited perspective.

Clayton's next two films were made in America. The Great Gatsby (US, 1974) was an effective adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, albeit one that did not fare well with the critics. Something Wicked This Way Comes (US, 1983), made after Clayton had recovered from the stroke he suffered in the mid-1970s, fitted more closely with the ideas he had explored earlier in his career, especially in its focus on the exposure of children to evil. But the finished film was compromised by Disney's insistence on a more 'commercial' version than that originally envisaged by the director.

Clayton returned to Britain for his final two films, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (set in Dublin but filmed largely in England) and the BBC film Memento Mori (1992), both of which were quietly moving meditations on disappointment and ageing. Mournful but never depressing, and with Clayton's characteristic eye for visual detail, they made a fitting conclusion to a career that, as Clayton himself acknowledged, should have generated more films than it actually did. Clayton died on 25 February 1995.

Gow, Gordon, 'The Way Things Are: An Interview with Jack Clayton', Films and Filming, April 1974, pp. 10-14
Higson, Andrew, 'Gothic Fantasy as Art Cinema: the Secret of Female Desire in The Innocents' in Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Lloyd-Smith, Allan and Sage, Victor (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994)
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997)
Palmer, R. Barton, 'What was new in the British New Wave? Reviewing Room at the Top', Journal of Popular Film and Television, 3, 1986, pp. 125-135
Sinyard, Neil, Jack Clayton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)

Peter Hutchings, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bespoke Overcoat, The (1955)Bespoke Overcoat, The (1955)

Jack Clayton's Oscar-winning ghost story, based on a Gogol fable

Thumbnail image of Innocents, The (1961)Innocents, The (1961)

Unnerving ghost story based on Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'

Thumbnail image of Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The (1987)

Maggie Smith gives an acting masterclass as a lonely Irish spinster

Thumbnail image of Naples is a Battlefield (1944)Naples is a Battlefield (1944)

Documentary about the devastation and reconstruction of Naples

Thumbnail image of Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

Fascinating, underrated study of a troubled marriage

Thumbnail image of Room at the Top (1958)Room at the Top (1958)

The first 'kitchen sink' drama kick-started a British film revolution

Thumbnail image of Memento Mori (1992)Memento Mori (1992)

Outstanding adaptation of Muriel Spark's unsettling novel

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