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The Guardian (01/Jun/1994) - Obituary: Sidney Gilliat

(c) The Guardian (01/Jun/1994)

Obituary: Sidney Gilliat

If one wanted to give new generations, or foreigners, some idea of the way the British were in the thirties and forties, one could do no better than show them the films with which Sidney Gilliat was connected as producer, director and screenwriter.

Gilliat, who has died aged 86, had unfailing good humour, and an unerring feeling for time, place and character. These were most noticeable in the comedy-thrillers, in which the realistic treatment disguised far-fetched plots. A prime example was the brilliant screenplay, written with Frank Launder, his long-time working partner, for Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). Aside from the skilful and dotty plot, their creation of the two Englishmen abroad, Charters and Caldicott, delightfully played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, provides one of the cinema's most reliable pleasures.

Launder and Gilliat were the Charters and Caldicott of the cinema, expressing a light-hearted Englishness, refusing to take the world or themselves too seriously. Gilliat had met Launder in the silent days: "Frank promptly stole my job."

Gilliat was the son of a former editor of the Evening Standard, educated at London University. He began his career writing intertitles for silent films, graduating to full screenplays in the thirties. These included Rome Express (1932), the prototype for the train thriller genre, like The Lady Vanishes, and Night Train To Munich (1940), written with Launder for Carol Reed.

In 1943, Gilliat and Launder co-directed their first film, Millions Like Us, the only one they made actually side-by-side on the studio floor. It was an uplifting story of working-class people in Britain conducting the war on the home front.

Two years later, they started their own production company, Individual Pictures, for which they wrote most of the films, alternating assignments as producer and director. During the British film industry's most fertile period, there was always an expectant pleasure to be had from a film with credits that opened with the two on their studio chairs, their names on the backs.

Among the pictures for which Gilliat was responsible as director were Waterloo Road (1944) - John Mills against spiv Stewart Granger; The Rake's Progress (1945) - insouciant playboy Rex Harrison dies a war hero; Green For Danger (1946), a whodunnit with Alistair Sim at his eccentric best as an unorthodox detective, and State Secret (1950), a tale of political intrigue in the mythical country of Vosnia, for which Launder and Gilliat invented a language. The Story Of Gilbert And Sullivan (1953), seemed the perfect subject - one partnership paying tribute to another - though the film team were never at each other's throats, unlike G & S.

In 1961, Gilliat made a smooth transition into a changing sexual era with Only Two Can Play starring Peter Sellers as "A wan don that wanted to be a Don Juan", as Time magazine put it. However, their greatest box office successes were the films inspired by Ronald Searle's cartoons, starting with The Belles Of St Trinians in 1954 (casting Alistair Sim as the headmistress was a stroke of genius).

Launder and Gilliat were feted by knowledgeable hosts at Cannes in 1990: call it "homage to age", said Gilliat, who confessed there he found it "laborious to write funny lines" - that was Launder's speciality. Gilliat, an opera-lover, unexpectedly also wrote the libretto for Malcolm Williamson's version of Our Man In Havana.

Sidney Gilliat, born February 15, 1908; died May 31, 1994.