I was lucky enough to interview Bryan Forbes in the late 1980s, and he was kind and generous with his time, and absolutely forthcoming about his career, both the triumphs and the disappointments. Though most people seem to insist on linking him solely with one of the least interesting and ambitious of his films, the adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives, Forbes himself was dismissive of the project, telling me that he only really did it because he liked working in Connecticut, and it required very little in the way of real thinking — it was pretty much on the page, and he shot it.
I would much rather remember him as the director of Hayley Mill’s breakthrough film, the drama Whistle Down the Wind (1961), as well as The L-Shaped Room (1962), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), King Rat (1965), the dark comedy The Wrong Box (1966), and The Whisperers (1967), one of the most compelling films ever made about old age, starring Dame Edith Evans. He also scripted a number of excellent films directed by his good friend, and an equally good director, Basil Dearden, including The League of Gentlemen (1959) and The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), in this instance without screen credit, which turned out to be Dearden’s last film before his untimely death in a car crash. He also contributed to the screenplay for Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr.
As Wikipedia notes, “in 1969, Forbes was appointed chief of production and managing director of the film studio Associated British (soon to become EMI Films). Dennis Barker, in his obituary of Forbes for The Guardian, states that ‘this amounted virtually to an attempt to revive the ailing British film industry by instituting a traditional studio system with a whole slate of films in play.’ Under Forbes’s leadership, the studio produced The Railway Children (1970), The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) and The Go-Between (1971), all successful films.” But the studio higher-ups kept blocking his moves to turn the studio into an efficient and yet artistically viable enterprise, and he resigned under pressure in 1971.
As an actor, he worked in some forty projects, including An Inspector Calls (1954), adapted from the play by J.B. Priestley, as well as the science fiction classic Quatermass II: Enemy from Space (1957) and The Guns of Navarone (1961). He was also ran a very egalitarian set as a director, playing chess between setups with the lighting cameraman, and in one case, letting future director Anthony Harvey off from his editing duties on The Whisperers to make his director debut with the brilliant film Dutchman (1967). It’s a pity that all these credits aren’t better known, for Bryan Forbes was one of the finest craftspersons in the British film industry, and his accomplishments deserve much more attention than just a cursory glance at The Stepford Wives.
When I interviewed him, he was planning a biopic on the life of the poet Rupert Brooke, and wanted to cast the then-unknown Jude Law in the starring role, which I thought then was a masterstroke, and still think it would have been superb casting. But the problem, as always, was money. As he told me with a sardonic laugh, “I’m still a million dollars short for the budget, and I’m not gonna get it tonight, so I’m just going to have to keep trying.” He also left behind two volumes of memoirs and some novels, and even as he career slowed down, he stayed on top of the latest developments within the industry.
In short, Bryan Forbes that rarest of combinations in the film business — an artist and a businessperson, who argued that there was no reason one could not make commercially and aesthetically successful films on a budget, something he demonstrated time and time again throughout his career. A long illness hindered him in the last years of his life, but with the help of his wife, the actress Nanette Newman, Forbes kept on trying right to the end, and for that, we should all be deeply grateful.