Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)

Cinematographer, Director, Writer

Main image of Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)

Ronald Neame was born in London on 23 April 1911, the son of the celebrated portrait photographer and director Elwin Neame and the actress Ivy Close. Financial problems caused by his father's death in 1923 forced Neame to leave public school and he gained employment at British International Pictures' newly opened Elstree Studios. He was a clapper boy on Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), before becoming an assistant photographer to Jack Cox, and subsequently Claude Friese-Greene. He photographed many 'quota quickies' before graduating to more prestigious films at Ealing, including several George Formby comedies.

The turning point came on Major Barbara (1941) when he met David Lean, with whom he had an instant rapport. After working on Noël Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), Neame, Lean and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan formed Cineguild, an independent unit within the Rank Organisation. They started with three films adapted from Coward plays: This Happy Breed (d. David Lean, 1944) where Neame's muted Technicolor photography was much praised, Blithe Spirit (d. Lean, 1945) where he won an Academy Award nomination for his special effects photography, and Brief Encounter (d. Lean, 1946) where he acted as co-producer and co-screenwriter. Neame also produced Lean's two Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), but when Lean replaced Neame as director on The Passionate Friends (1948), their relationship soured and Cineguild collapsed.

Neame's first features as director were thrillers for Rank, Take My Life (1947), a stylish noir, and the more conventional The Golden Salamander (1949). But his career was properly launched with The Card (1952), a vibrant comedy in which he proved his ability to elicit accomplished performances from his cast, notably Alec Guinness as the upwardly mobile anti-hero. The Card's success led to The Million Pound Note (1953), a Technicolor comedy starring Gregory Peck and a rather leaden war film, The Man Who Never Was (1956), starring another American, Clifton Webb. Neame worked in Hollywood on MGM's The Seventh Sin (1957), but it proved an unhappy experience ending with his replacement by Vincente Minnelli. He returned to Britain, to direct Windom's Way (1957), a fudged colonial film about a liberal doctor (Peter Finch) caught between two warring factions in Malaya.

He left Rank in December 1957, complaining that its business ethos stifled creativity. Together with John Bryan, an art director who had produced two of his earlier films, he formed Knightsbridge Films and worked with Alec Guinness on two slightly offbeat films, financed by United Artists, that are now acknowledged as Neame's finest, The Horse's Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960). The Horse's Mouth captures the combative iconoclasm of Joyce Carey's celebrated novel through Guinness's compelling performance as the irascible artist Gulley Jimson. In Tunes of Glory, armed with another excellent screenplay (James Kennaway, from his own novel), Neame again encouraged outstanding performances from Guinness and John Mills, representing two antithetical forms of militarism, engaged in a bitter and tragic rivalry.

Neame started the '60s with the lame thriller Escape from Zahrain (US, 1961), but continued to demonstrate his skill with actors: Judy Garland in her last film I Could Go on Singing (1963), Edith Evans and Deborah Kerr in The Chalk Garden (1964), Robert Mitchum in Mister Moses (US/UK, 1965), Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine in Gambit (US, 1966), Deborah Kerr and David Niven in Prudence and the Pill (uncredited, co-d. Fielder Cook, 1968), Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970) and, perhaps most of all, Maggie Smith, who received an Oscar for her performance in the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). These films, though largely financed by American money, were almost all studies of British culture.

Neame's '70s films were more internationalist, beginning with the hugely profitable The Poseidon Adventure (US, 1972), which made Neame financially secure for the rest of his life. Its action-packed story of ten passengers trying to escape from an ocean liner overturned by a freak wave, inaugurated a new sub-genre of disaster films. He had another success with The Odessa File (UK/West Germany, 1974), adapted from Frederick Forsyth's novel about a secret Nazi organisation. Meteor (US, 1979) was sabotaged by poor special effects and Neame tried, unsuccessfully, to be removed from the credits. After two engaging comedy thrillers with Walter Matthau, Hopscotch (US, 1980) and First Monday in October (US, 1981), he made his first British film for over a decade, Foreign Body (1986), a lame sex comedy about a poor Indian (Victor Banerjee) passing himself off in British society as a doctor. Neame's final film, The Magic Balloon (US, 1990) was a promotional film for Douglas Trumbull's ShowScan process, but few cinemas could show this format.

Neame regarded directing as an interpretative not a truly creative act and never aspired to be an innovative auteur imposing his vision on the material. He came from a generation of filmmakers who believed that a director should be as unobtrusive as possible. This enabled him to work across a range of genres, adapting his style to suit the material, but he preferred to make "art house pictures - good stories with interesting characters," such as The Horse's Mouth. Like many of his generation, he left an ailing British film industry to seek more remunerative work in Hollywood, where he sometimes worked on inferior material. Perhaps the most successful example of a cinematographer turned director, Neame made an important contribution to British cinema through his well-crafted films, and as a founder member (sometime Chairman) of The British Academy, the Association of Cine Technicians and the British Society of Cinematographers. He was awarded the CBE in 1996, the same year in which he was given a BAFTA Lifetime Fellowship Award.

Frumkes, Roy, 'Icons: Ronald Neame', Films in Review, May-June 1996, pp. 13-22
Neame, Ronald, with Barbara Roisman Cooper, Straight from the Horse's Mouth (Maryland and Oxford, The Scarecrow Press, 2003)
Pulleine, Tim, 'Practically Born in a Film Studio', Films and Filming, April 1987, pp. 24-7
Robinson, David, 'Neame the film-maker', Financial Times, 24 March 1971

Andrew Spicer, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of ...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Documentary-style WWII drama about an air crew stranded in Holland

Thumbnail image of Blithe Spirit (1945)Blithe Spirit (1945)

Noël Coward comedy about a ghost who won't stay still

Thumbnail image of Brief Encounter (1945)Brief Encounter (1945)

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson start a great British romance

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1946)Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean's definitive Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of In Which We Serve (1942)In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean/Noël Coward classic about a bombed WWII destroyer

Thumbnail image of Magic Box, The (1951)Magic Box, The (1951)

Star-studded biopic of British film pioneer William Friese-Greene

Thumbnail image of This Happy Breed (1944)This Happy Breed (1944)

David Lean/Noël Coward film about a London family between the wars

Related collections

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)


Thumbnail image of Lean, David (1908-1991)Lean, David (1908-1991)

Director, Writer, Editor

Thumbnail image of Cineguild ProductionsCineguild Productions

Production Company