LEWIS Gilbert, who has died aged 97, was a prolific film director, writer and producer who worked on nearly 40 films between the late 1940s and the early 2000s. He will probably be most widely remembered for his three entries in the James Bond series – You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) – but a number of his other films were distinctive successes in their own right.
Among these selected highlights were the Michael Caine-starring, Swinging London-set adaptation of Bill Naughton’s play Alfie (1966), and a pair of adaptations of Willy Russell stage plays; Educating Rita (1983), an update of Pygmalion starring Julie Walters and Caine, and Shirley Valentine (1986), in which Pauline Collins’ title character has a revelatory mid-life holiday romance in Greece.
An east Londoner by birth, the son of parents who performed in the music hall, Gilbert offered with these films the best examples of a signature voice, as a chronicler of the post-war British working class who understood that even those who lived supposedly unglamorous lives could be characters with charm, humour and powerful aspirations.
Continuing the theme, he had been slated to direct the 1968 version of Oliver!, but contractual obligations to the funders of Alfie – which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a Best Director BAFTA for Gilbert – meant that he was tied instead to an unsuccessful version of Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers (1970).
These latter high-profile works aside, for the first two decades of his career Gilbert made a name for himself as a director of genre pieces within the British film industry, many of them successful and still remembered today. Selected titles included the X-rated gang thriller Cosh Boy (1953, starring a young Joan Collins), the serial killer film noir Cast a Dark Shadow (1955, starring Dirk Bogarde), and the adventure Ferry to Hong Kong (1959, in which Gilbert directed Orson Welles, an experience he did not enjoy).
In Reach for the Sky (1956) Gilbert told the story of aviator Douglas Bader, and he adapted JM Barrie’s 1902 theatrical comedy The Admirable Crichton (1957), both with Kenneth More in the lead. He also had a successful line in war films, many of them based on true stories, including the North Sea rescue mission tale The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), which told of executed resistance heroine Violette Szabo, and the international hit naval adventure Sink the Bismarck! (1960).
Born in Hackney in 1920, Gilbert began appearing onstage in his parents’ vaudeville show and travelling the country with them at the age of five. After his father’s death from tuberculosis when Gilbert was seven, he went to work as a bit-part child actor in films to put food on the family’s table, appearing uncredited in Michael Powell’s The Price of a Song (1935) and opposite Laurence Olivier in The Divorce of Lady X (1938), amongst others. Yet his all-consuming childhood passion was for football, both playing it and watching his beloved Arsenal.
Graduating to behind-the-scenes work before the outbreak of war – notably, he assisted on Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) – Gilbert served in the Royal Air Force and directed with their film unit and that of the United States Air Force. After the war, he made commercial documentaries for the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation and moved into feature production with The Little Ballerina (1948).
Continuing to make films until his reunion with Walters on 2002’s Before You Go, with his autobiography arriving in 2010, Lewis Gilbert enjoyed a career unlike any other director, blending genre thrills, franchise-bound success and critical acclaim over more than half a century and taking pride in his own reputation as a safe pair of hands. His wife of 53 years Hylda died in 2005, and Gilbert is survived by his stepson John and son Stephen.