Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Leacock, Philip (1917-1990)

Director, Producer

Main image of Leacock, Philip (1917-1990)

Philip David Charles Leacock was born in London on 8 October 1917, and like his younger brother, the future documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock, spent his childhood in the Canary Islands and at the progressive English boarding school, Bedales (where he was encouraged to take an interest in photography). At seventeen, he worked briefly as an assistant to his brother-in-law, Harold Lowenstein, on his documentary, Out to Play (1936), before going to Spain to help Thorold Dickinson on his pro-Republican Behind The Spanish Lines (1938) and Spanish ABC (1938).

Leacock spent most of the Second World War with the Army Kinematograph Service and joined the Crown Film Unit after being demobbed. Story documentaries such as Life in Her Hands (1951), which makes good use of Kathleen Byron and Bernadette O'Farrell, and Out Of True (1951), with Jane Hylton and Muriel Pavlow, opened the way to feature films. In 1952 John Grierson asked Leacock to direct a film about a Scottish coal mining disaster for the NFFC-backed company, Group 3. Leacock instilled a strong documentary quality into The Brave Don't Cry, despite the fact that it was filmed largely in a studio, but he also showed a talent for dramatic storytelling and the film appealed to both audiences and critics.

The success of The Brave Don't Cry led to a contract with the Rank Organisation at Pinewood, where Leacock's first film was Appointment in London (1953), with Dirk Bogarde as a war-weary Wing Commander struggling to maintain morale amidst the heavy losses of the Second World War bombing campaign. Though the action moves along stiffly, Leacock cleverly integrates documentary footage of a large-scale night bombing raid to build to an exciting climax.

In his next film The Kidnappers (1953), a beautifully shot and deeply moving story of two orphans living in turn-of-the-century Nova Scotia who, starved of affection, 'adopt' a baby, Leacock revealed his talent for getting superb performances out of children. There followed a series of films which feature children but also explore complex social and moral issues - Escapade (1955), in which the children of an anti-war campaigner decide to make their own anti-war protest; The Spanish Gardener (1956), which follows a father's realisation that he has been taking his thwarted ambitions out on his son; and Innocent Sinners (US, 1958), about the resilience of a neglected child who manages to find beauty in the bleakest of environments.

Leacock was then lured to America, where he made a handful of interesting films such as Take A Giant Step (1959), which had a largely black cast and tackled racism. The audience for such socially committed films was a limited one, however, and Leacock returned to Britain to make Reach for Glory (1961), his most disturbing film about children - this time not so innocent in their mirroring of the jingoism of their elders; The War Lover (1962), with Steve McQueen as a psychopathic variant on the bomber commander played by Dirk Bogarde in Appointment in London, and Tamahine (1963), a comedy with Nancy Kwan as an exotic South Sea Islander disrupting the placid environment of an English public school.

None of the films were big box-office successes, and Leacock, perhaps feeling out of tune with Britain's burgeoning youth culture, went back to America where, as a talented and reliable director, he was able to work regularly in American television on series ranging from Gunsmoke to The Waltons to Dynasty; and on television films as different as the thriller Key West (1973), the comedy The Wild Women of Chastity Gulch (1982) and the acclaimed drama based on the Salem witchcraft trials, Three Sovereigns for Sarah (1985). He died of a collapsed lung on 14 July 1990 while on holiday in London.

Philip Leacock was an intelligent filmmaker whose documentary training strongly influenced his approach to features - he felt it was always important to make the basis of what is going on as real as possible. But unlike many ex-documentary directors, he was a sensitive director of actors. His concern with human relationships and values lent itself to small-scale drama, and made him an excellent television director. He brought an integrity and a sense of decency to his work and his films, because they explore universal themes, remain as topical today as they were at the time.

BECTU History Project, Stephen Peet, interview with Philip Leacock
Cole, Sidney and Taylor John, 'Philip Leacock: a gentle man', Film and TV Technician, Oct. 1990 p. 31
Salmi, Markku, 'Philip Leacock', Film Dope n. 33. Nov. 1985 pp. 39-41

Linda Wood, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)Brave Don't Cry, The (1952)

Drama-documentary about a Scottish mining rescue team

Thumbnail image of Kidnappers, The (1953)Kidnappers, The (1953)

Moving, award-winning drama about two orphan boys in Nova Scotia

Thumbnail image of Life In Her Hands (1951)Life In Her Hands (1951)

Fascinating dramatised documentary describing a new career in nursing

Related collections

Related people and organisations