Friday, 19 February 2010

PORT OUT, STARBOARD HOME...

And now the British film industry has lost one its great treasures, Lionel Jeffries. A superb and diverse character actor, he was wonderful in comedy, but equally at home in dramas: for example, he made a wildly demented Marquis of Queensbury in The Trials of Oscar Wilde.

His films, spanning almost forty years, included Up the Creek, Two-Way Stretch, The Wrong Arm of the Law, First Men in the Moon, The Colditz Story, Murder Ahoy! (managing to hold his own alongside that redoubtable scene-stealer, Margaret Rutherford), Rocket to the Moon, Camelot and, of course, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang...



He directed only a handful of films, among them The Amazing Mr Blunden and The Water Babies, but, if he had never done anything else in his prolific life, he would be remembered for his directorial debut (for which he also wrote the script): the utterly glorious, totally unforgettable, 1970 version of E Nesbit's The Railway Children.

Thank you, dear Mr Jeffries, for all the laughs and for one of the best endings any film ever had...



LIONEL JEFFRIES
(1926-2010)

22 comments:

Good Dog said...

“Daddy! My Daddy!” just chokes me up every time. Keeping the cloud of steam on the platform for Iain Cuthbertson to appear out of is just brilliant. And the end credit sequence with people standing in the banks of the railway cutting waving and the gorgeous Ms Agutter writing on the slate is genius.

February of last year a few of us spent a weekend watching science fiction movies from the 1950s and 60s (because the BBC shamefully don’t put on those film seasons any more) and one of the film titles pulled out of the hat was First Men in the Moon. Mr Jeffries wonderful turn as Professor Cavor was like an early prototype for Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy. “Absolutely Imperial”, indeed!

I was amazed to read in The Independent obit that he was six months younger than Dick Van Dyke when he played Grandpa Potts. I loved the quote that he tried a toupee once but it looked like “a dead moth on a boiled egg.” One of British cinema’s great character actors – who could steal scenes at the drop of a hat – at least we’re left with his absolutely wonderful body of work.

Suzanne said...

Oh the wondrous mist of the steam train! Modern day trains just don't have the same effect.
We have our own narrow gauge steam railway in my village and I love to hear it toot-toot on a summer Sunday afternoon.
So long, Mr Jeffries.

Eudora said...

Oh, a wonderful actor, but I didn't know that he was film director too.

It's a shame, little by little we lose the generation of 20's. Fortunately we still have their works to remember them.

Brian Sibley said...

GOOD DOG - Do you know, I first saw The Railway Children in the cinema (heaven help me) 40 years ago! I've seen it several times since over those four decades and watched it again only the other week and it is still pure magic!

There are, I think, many reasons why it works beginning with the casting: Jenny Agutter as Bobbie, brilliantly playing the child on the cusp of becoming a woman; Dinah Sheridan as the perfect idealised Victorian mother - indulgent, proud, loving but firm; William Mervyn as the twinkliest Kindly Old Gentleman imaginable; and Jeffries' old muckers, Bernard Cribbins pitch perfect as Perks and David Lodge adding his own little comic turn as the endlessly frustrated bandmaster.

Then there's the director's ability to coax such a sincere and endearing performance from young Gary Warren (and succeed in convincing us that the 20-year old Sally Thomsett was still only 11!) but, above all, it is down to his finely-tuned balancing of comedy and pathos and being able to tell Nesbit's story from the children's p.o.v. without a whisper of condescension.

Plus - in addition to all that - there's the Yorkshire settings (the Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, as Dr Forrest's house) and Johnny Douglas' haunting score which, like the picture itself, seems to be full of genuine warmth, honest emotion and just a tiny hint of sadness

Bryan Forbes, apparently, put up the security for the film to be completed and during the curtain call with the players at the end someone (Cribbins, I think) calls out, "Thank you, Mr Forbes." Quite right, too.

And thank you Mr Jeffries.


EUDORA - If you can find copies of The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr Blunden anywhere in Spain do watch them: they truly are gems, believe me.

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE - I didn't ignore your comment, it's just that, for some strange reason, it didn't come through to me and I only discovered (and published) it when I went onto my blogger dashboard...

Yes! The romance and emotional power of steam! Nothing quite like it!

I'm sure someone has written a book about trains in movies from The Lady Vanishes via Murder on the Orient Express to Harry Potter. If not, maybe I should start writing...

Let's see, now, there's The Titfield Thunderbolt, Brief Encounter, Murder She Said, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, The Music Lovers, Polar Express, The General, Around the World in 80 Days, The Ghost Train, Von Ryan's Express, The Harvey Girls, The Great Train Robbery, Some Like It Hot.....

SharonM said...

Yes, he was a great actor - always watchable - and director.

Two obits in a row. I do hope the rule of three doesn't apply!

Good Dog said...

Brian,

It must have been around that time when my sister and I were taken to see it, either upon its initial release or perhaps it came back around a year or so later. I remember becoming particularly upset by the scene in which Perks refuses the children’s gifts.

I’d say that The Railway Children is one of those films that made such an impression on me it became the basis for a lot of actor connections. I suspect Bernard Cribbins was the only person I was already familiar with from his appearances on Jackanory, but when I’d see the other members of the cast in new productions or in earlier films shown on television I’d instantly recognize them from the role they played in Mr Jeffries’ film.

As for your wonderful list of steam trains in movies I’d add ’I Know Where I'm Going!’ for the journey Wendy Hiller takes from London to Scotland (and the wonderful and playful visual effects Michael Powell incorporates into the sequence), and the thrilling chase that concludes The Seven-per-cent Solution.

Brian Sibley said...

SHARON - Well if it's mine, you'll have to write it! ;)


GOOD DOG - Would you not have seen William Mervyn as the Bishop in All Gas and Gaiters, or was that before your time?

'Yes' to your two train-movie additions and (how could we have overlooked them?!) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

Incidentally, in my earlier comment, I should have said when speaking of Miss Sheridan's character: 'Edwardian mother' rather than 'Victorian'.

Jen said...

The passing of a great actor. Very sad but leaves a wonderful acting legacy
I love his readings of Winnie the Pooh
still have a well worn tape which I enjoy immensely.

Poogyre:Companionable walk in The 100 Acre Wood

Brian Sibley said...

You're right, JEN! I'd totally forgotten his Pooh readings: great vocal characterisations, I remember - much better than Alan Bennett's! I also have the cassettes somewhere - must find them and put them onto CD...

Sheila said...

This blog and the comments are yet another demonstration of the necessity of a regular R2 series on cinema presented by Brian S and David P.

So, now we've all agreed that - maybe you could start with an episode on films featuring trains.

Thank you.

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, Ma'am! I'll notify the Director General immediately! ;)

Good Dog said...

I suspect All Gas and Gaiters was a little before my time. Trying to figure out when I first saw Derek Nimmo on screen, I was wondering if I had seen the odd episode without taking it all in. Although now I think about it, that must have been ”Oh, Father!” instead.

Because this is going to be rattling around in my head, the one western specifically about the railroad has to be Once Upon a Time in the West. I know it’s celebrated for the extended opening sequence but I just love the ending where the train finally arrives at Sweetwater and Ennio Morricone’s marvellous score swells as Caludia Cardinale comes out with refreshments for the thirsty workers.

And as for Hitchcock and trains... Well, there’s The 39 Steps as well. It was a shame the trains had gone electric by the time North by Northwest came around. (Although the final scene was steamy enough on its own).

Boll Weavil said...

He also co-starred as Bounty mutineer Alexander Smith opposite Ollie Reed in a magnificent 1995 BBC radio adaptation. His voice was as instantly recognisable as his face and he was one of those whose abilities we always seem to take for granted until they're gone.
UNDERSIBL : An actor whose career spans a lifetime of memorable roles but whose name only appears in the credits after the ex-soap stars have taken top billing.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for that, BOLL; there was a nice quote in The Times obituary today that described Jeffries voice as being "like a rubber ball bouncing round inside an empty oil drum"!

Suzanne said...

More trains in "The Good, the B and the U"! Maybe you should write several books Brian! That would keep me in Christmas presents for your namesake for some time!

Brian Sibley said...

It's only tangentially connected to movies (since there's only a TV link), but I wrote a book, some years ago now, called The Thomas the Tank Engine Man about the Reverend W V Awdry and his famous railway stories.

SharonM said...

Von Ryan's Express, Horror Express and of course Murder on the Orient Express - yes, plenty of scope for a series.

Michael Sporn said...

I worked with him ever-so-briefly as he voiced a character in my film, ABEL'S ISLAND. He was always the great actor and gentleman as well. I'm very sad to hear of his passing.

Brian Sibley said...

SHARON M - I'd already listed Von Ryan and Murder on the Orient Express but NOT Horror Express, so that's on the list now --- and has reminded me of another Peter Cushing-on-a-train-movie: Dr Terror's House of Horrors.

And, as a so-called 'Disney Expert', I should really be ashamed of myself for forgetting Casey Jnr, the little circus train in Dumbo!


MICHAEL SPORN - Thank you for that. I see you had Tim Curry in the cast as well...

Mr Jeffries clearly had a great affinity with children's literature and I was reading in one of the obituaries that he spent his last years, prior to becoming too ill, adapting children's books and trying (unsuccessful) to get them produced. We desperately need of such film projects and, obviously, a few more Bryan Forbeses to back them.

SharonM said...

I'd forgotten Peter Cushing was in it too - and now that I think about it, wasn't Telly Savalas on the train too, or is my brain a bit befuddled at this time of the morning?
I remember Horror Express best for Christopher Lee being in it (wasn't he an extremely dour professor?)

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, Telly played a Cossack - the Horror Express was the Trans-Siberian Railway's 11:45 from Moscow to Vladivostok!