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Thomas, Ralph (1915-2001)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Thomas, Ralph (1915-2001)

Born in Hull on 10 August 1915 and educated at Tellisford School, Clifton and Middlesex University College, Ralph Philip Thomas entered the film industry in 1932 and gained wide experience in various production departments, especially in the editing room. He worked at Sound City, first as clapper-boy, then as camera assistant, and from 1935 to 1939 he edited at Elstree, Isleworth and Shepperton. He spent the war years as a Regimental Officer, 9th Lancers, then, when invalided out in 1944, as instructor at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

Joining Rank's Gainsborough Studios in 1946, he first worked in the trailer department, which he found a very useful training in narrative economy. While making the trailer for the mermaid comedy, Miranda (d. Ken Annakin, 1948), he met producer Betty Box, with whom he established a working association that lasted for a quarter-century.

His first three films for Gainsborough, all produced by Antony Darnborough, were long-forgotten comedies, though even the idiotic Helter Skelter (1949) has a few moments of comic inspiration, involving a wobbling desk made from aspic. It was when he and Box relocated, with the rest of the Rank Organisation, to Pinewood, that he hit his stride, starting with the excellent, taut chase thriller, The Clouded Yellow (1950). This was not merely a melodramatically efficient action piece, but it also resonates with that postwar malaise (especially in Trevor Howard's ex-SIS agent) which gives shading to so many British films of the time.

He modestly referred to himself as a journeyman director, and there is some truth in this, but several of his films rise above this quotidian level. Certainly, few postwar British directors were so prolific, and none is more representative of mainstream film-making of the 1950s and 60s. There are comedies, colonial adventures, war films, thrillers, period pieces, spy capers (serious and spoof), all popular genres of these decades: he is perhaps the British genre director par excellence. His willingness to have a go at whatever came along, "if it was half-way respectable," as he said in 1990, should not disguise the professionalism at work.

After The Clouded Yellow came several minor entertainments, including Appointment with Venus (1951), a mild wartime comedy for which some have an inexplicable fondness, and the tense naval drama, Above Us the Waves (1955), but it was their well-deserved success with Doctor in the House (1954) that established Thomas and Box as Rank's favoured cash-cows. Skilfully written by Nicholas Phipps, the film holds up as a zestful paean to youthful high spirits, its attractive cast working every joke about the medical profession for all - and more - than its worth. The ingredients are tossed with an admirably sure and light touch and once or twice the tone deepens touchingly, as in the scenes with Maureen Pryor as a young mother. The film inspired six sequels to inevitably diminishing (aesthetic and commercial) returns, with Michael Craig and Leslie Phillips replacing Dirk Bogarde after the first few.

Bogarde's career was in fact largely caught up with the Thomas-Box team at this stage: Rank's leading star, he was often cast in films to which he was not greatly suited, including Thomas's location-filmed adventures, Campbell's Kingdom (1957), The Wind Cannot Read (1958) and The High Bright Sun (1965), all of which could have benefited from a more conventionally rugged leading man, but the team hadn't always the control over casting they would have liked. However, Bogarde is a fine, romantically dissolute Sydney Carton in their A Tale of Two Cities (1958), which they later regretted not filming in colour. It lacks the visual panache of the old Hollywood version, but that sort of flamboyant filmmaking was not a likely option in 1950s Britain.

Among Thomas's finest achievements were Conspiracy of Hearts (1960) and No Love for Johnnie (1961). By the early 1960s, he and Box were given a more or less free hand by Rank: provided they kept turning out the profitable "Doctor" films, they could make the films that particularly interested them. Conspiracy of Hearts told the story of a group of nuns who help Jewish children to escape a Nazi concentration camp, and was successful in the US where it appealed to the large Catholic and Jewish populations. It doesn't avoid all the cinema's clich├ęs about beautiful nuns (e.g., the young Sylvia Syms), but it achieves some real poignancy. No Love for Johnnie, a strangely neglected film (and probably Thomas's best), is a surprisingly acrid study of political opportunism, its protagonist a Labour member who has betrayed his roots - and most of the people he has had dealings with along the way. Peter Finch gave a finely subtle account of this attractive, dislikeable figure, and the film doesn't shirk his basic cynicism.

Thomas's other films of the 1960s and after are less inspired. The public continued to patronise the "Doctor" films and, to its discredit, the abysmal penis-transplant comedy, Percy (1971), and its sequel. There were a few modestly entertaining thrillers, including Nobody Runs Forever (UK/US, 1968), but Thomas's best work was over by the early '60s. He was not likely to be any more attuned to the youthful-rebellion scenario of The Wild and the Willing (1962) than to the sniggering sex-comedy mode of the Percy films. However, for a dozen years, he could be counted on for workmanlike fare - and sometimes for much more than that.

His brother Gerald Thomas directed all of the Carry On films, produced by Peter Rogers, husband of Ralph's producer Betty Box, and his son Jeremy Thomas is a noted producer. He died in London in 2001.

Interview with Ralph Thomas, Classic Images, March 1996 pp.34,36,38,40,42-43
Interview with Ralph Thomas and Betty Box, CinemaTV Today, 26 Jan 1974 p. 10
'Ralph Thomas' (interview) in McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1977) Thomas, Ralph, 'My Way with Screen Humour', Films and Filming, Feb. 1956, p. 5

Brian McFarlane, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Doctor in the House (1954)Doctor in the House (1954)

Hugely popular medical comedy, the first in a long-running series

Thumbnail image of Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)

Dirk Bogarde stars as an idealistic lawyer in this Dickens adaptation

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Thumbnail image of Box, Betty (1915-1999)Box, Betty (1915-1999)


Thumbnail image of Thomas, Gerald (1920-1993)Thomas, Gerald (1920-1993)

Director, Producer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Thomas, Jeremy (1949-)Thomas, Jeremy (1949-)

Producer, Director