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Collinson, Peter (1936-1980)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Collinson, Peter (1936-1980)

Peter Collinson was born into a theatrical family on 1 April 1936 in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. Following his parents' divorce, he lived briefly with his grandmother before being sent to the Actors' Orphanage in Chertsey, Surrey. There he appeared in a number of plays, coming to the notice of the Orphanage's President, Nöel Coward, who watched over the young Collinson's career, arranging an audition at RADA and his first job as a stage-hand at the New Cross Empire.

Following National Service in Malaya, Collinson went to work in independent television as a trainee director at ATV. He then moved to the new Ulster Television channel in Northern Ireland, where he became Senior Drama Director and won a number of awards before returning to ATV. His break into features came in 1967 with The Penthouse. Though it seemed to follow in the footsteps of Harold Pinter and Joe Orton, this menacing thriller was condemned by critics as a derivative and exploitative mix of sex and violence. Collinson's next project was a cinema version of Nell Dunn's Up the Junction, which had been filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965. It was equally poorly received by the critics, but Collinson's strategy of down-playing social criticism in favour of the cross-class romance between middle-class Polly (Suzy Kendall) and working-class Peter (Dennis Waterman), meant that the film was successful with audiences.

Collinson continued to follow the zeitgeist with his next project, the anti-war drama The Long Day's Dying (1968), a brave attempt to explore the tensions between hostility to the idea of war and exhilaration at the experience of combat. It benefits hugely from the fine performances of David Hemmings, Tony Beckley, Tom Bell and Alan Dobie as the scared but enterprising soldiers, but it was too violent to appeal to critics and too downbeat to attract audiences. Much more acceptable was The Italian Job (1969), Collinson's best-known and most popular film. With an excellent script from Troy Kennedy Martin and a strong cast headed by Michael Caine and Nöel Coward, this crime caper has remained an audience favourite and was remade in Hollywood by F. Gary Gray in 2003.

Collinson was prolific in the '70s, though the general decline of British cinema during the decade meant he had to be ingenious in his funding arrangements. The comedy-adventure You Can't Win 'Em All (1970), starring Tony Curtis and Charles Bronson as American mercenaries in 1920s Turkey, was backed by Columbia. Fright (1971) and Straight on Till Morning (1972) took him closer to the exploitation end of the market. After making the interestingly downbeat spy film, Innocent Bystanders (1972), Collinson turned to Europe, making The Man Called Noon (Spain/Italy/UK, 1973), a Western, and Open Season, which returns to some of the themes of The Penthouse, in Spain. And Then There Were None (1974), a remake of the old Agatha Christie whodunit filmed by René Clair in 1945, is even more of a Europudding, with a cast ranging from Elke Sommer and Gert Frobe to Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough, and finance from Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Britain. Though it did not enjoy the success of EMI's more mainstream Murder on the Orient Express (d. Sidney Lumet, 1974), its eclectic cast and interesting setting (a grand Iranian hotel) make it at least as interesting. Collinson's remake of Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase (1975), on the other hand, is vastly inferior to the original. Subtlety was never Collinson's strong point and what had been a frighteningly atmospheric thriller is reduced to a dull story punctuated by too-obvious shocks.

Ever enterprising, Collinson went to Israel to make The Sell-Out (UK/Italy, 1975); South Africa to make Tigers Don't Cry (1976); Canada to make Tomorrow Never Comes (UK/Canada, 1977); and Australia to make his last film, The Earthling. He died from cancer on 16 December 1980 in Los Angeles, aged only 44. In 2003, a poll of British moviegoers voted Charlie Croker's (Michael Caine) exclamation, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off", in The Italian Job the greatest one-liner in cinema - a fitting epitaph, perhaps, for Collinson's career.

Carr-Smith, Rodney, 'Peter Collinson', Photoplay, December 1968, pp. 55, 61.
Murphy, Robert, Sixties British Cinema (London: BFI, 1992).
Walker, Alexander, Hollywood, England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties (London: Michael Joseph, 1974), pp. 395-396.

Martin Hunt, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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