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Yates, Peter (1928-2011)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Yates, Peter (1928-2011)

Peter Yates, the son of an army officer, was born in Aldershot, Hampshire, on 24 July 1929 and educated at Charterhouse and RADA. He entered repertory theatre in the late 1940s as an actor, and then worked as a racing driver and manager for the internationally successful Stirling Moss. He dubbed foreign-language films into English and edited documentaries before becoming an assistant director on such films as The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (d. Mark Robson, 1958), The Entertainer (d. Tony Richardson, 1960) and The Guns of Navarone (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1961). From 1962 he directed episodes of the ITV series The Saint and Danger Man.

Yates made his feature debut with the energetically vacuous Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday, the second most popular film at the UK box-office in 1963. His next film, an adaptation of the play One Way Pendulum (1965), which he had directed at the Royal Court, could not have been more different. Yates resists the temptation to add visual eccentricity to N.F. Simpson's tale of a madly eccentric family, and the film is dryly amusing, but its absurdist comedy had little popular appeal. He returned to the mainstream with Robbery (1967), a methodical, mechanically efficient thriller based on the 1963 Great Train Robbery, which carries Yates's only scriptwriting credit and suggests an interest in charting process and procedure which recurs throughout his work. Its opening car chase - as taut as the denouement is limp - won him his first Hollywood assignment, the sleek, glacial Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt (US, 1968), which became a smash hit and one of the seminal films of the 1960s.

Yates moved to New York and continued to make films in America; his few subsequent British films have usually been backed by Hollywood studios. Creatively he peaked between 1968 and 1973, with a number of capably handled thrillers and action films. Murphy's War (1971) is an exciting adventure with some spectacular stunt flying and an engagingly grungy performance from Peter O'Toole. The Hot Rock (US, 1972), a lightweight caper comedy, adds visual wit to William Goldman's wry script. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (US, 1973), perhaps the director's best film, is a cold, sombre, yet sympathetic study of underworld informers with Robert Mitchum entirely convincing as the seedy, doomed Coyle.

Yates's career has since embraced clumsy farce (For Pete's Sake, US, 1974), coarse black comedy (Mother, Jugs & Speed, US, 1976), a pair of clunky blockbusters (The Deep, US/UK, 1977; Krull, 1983) and a turgid period drama (Eleni, US/UK, 1985). The tender observation of teenage delusions in Breaking Away (US, 1979) and the grandiloquent theatrics of The Dresser (1983) arguably won more praise than they deserved, for all their calculated assurance. More interesting is a loose trilogy of thrillers with a political background: the messy but likeable Eyewitness (US, 1981), the mildly Hitchcockian The House on Carroll Street (US, 1986) and the slick Suspect (US, 1987 - especially well edited by the director's regular collaborator, Ray Lovejoy).

The Run of the Country (US/Ireland, 1995), a sensitive Irish melodrama adapted by Shane Connaughton from his own novel, was the only one of Yates's 1990s pictures to merit British theatrical distribution. The Goldman-scripted Year of the Comet (US/UK, 1992) is undoubtedly both men's worst film, while Roommates (US, 1992), a sentimental comedy-drama starring Peter Falk, and Curtain Call (US, 1997), with Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as the ghosts of bickering Broadway stars, sat on the shelf for several years before receiving very limited releases. More recently Yates has directed adaptations of Cervantes' Don Quixote (by John Mortimer, 2000), and A Separate Peace (by Wendy Kesselman, 2004), John Knowles's popular novel about American teenage boys growing up under the shadow of World War II, for American television.

Day, Barry, 'The Suggestive Experience', Films and Filming, Aug. 1969, pp. 4-7
Gow, Gordon, 'Pressure', Films and Filming, April 1971, pp. 18-22
Gow, Gordon, 'Breakaway', Films and Filming, Feb. 1980, pp. 12-15
Sibley, Adrian, 'Peter Yates - Director with a Difference', Films and Filming, June 1988, pp. 6-8
Yates, Peter, 'Dialogue on Film', American Film, April 1984, pp. 14-18

Sheldon Hall, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Summer Holiday (1962)Summer Holiday (1962)

Cliff Richard and chums cross Europe by double-decker bus

Thumbnail image of Danger Man (1960-67)Danger Man (1960-67)

TV spy thriller series with Patrick McGoohan as agent John Drake

Thumbnail image of Saint, The (1962-69)Saint, The (1962-69)

Roger Moore stars as the latter-day Robin Hood, Simon Templar

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