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Wednesday, September 15, 1999 Published at 02:52 GMT 03:52 UK


Charles Crichton: A legend of British film

Crichton and John Cleese on the set of A Fish Called Wanda

Charles Crichton, who has died aged 89, directed some of the most important British film comedies of the post-war years.

Crichton, who died at home in South Kensington, west London, on Tuesday after a short illness, made the very first of what were to become known as the "Ealing comedies".

Film critic Simon Rose: "He quit Hollywood after a row with Burt Lancaster"
Born in Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula, Crichton was a public schoolboy who went to Oxford University, where he fell in love with the cinema.

He obtained a job in the cutting rooms of legendary 1930s director Alexander Korda, by agreeing to work for free.

Although his wages soon rose to 8 per week, Crichton's lifestyle remained far removed from film star glamour. The young editor had to mend the soles of his shoes with postcards.

Crichton become an full-time editor, working on such distinguished movies as Things to Come, with a script by HG Wells, and The Thief of Baghdad, which was completed in Hollywood due to the Blitz.

He finally graduated to directing duties during World War II, making propaganda films.

His first movie was For Those In Peril, about the Merchant Navy, in 1944.

Golden age of Ealing comedy

Crichton made his name in the post- war years - the golden age of British cinema.

[ image: The Lavender Hill Mob: Crichton's classic Ealing comedy]
The Lavender Hill Mob: Crichton's classic Ealing comedy
He directed Hue and Cry in 1947, which is widely regarded as the first of the "Ealing comedies" - a gentle series of films from the famous London studio, often concentrating on the pluck and resilience of ordinary folk.

In The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Alec Guinness played a mousy bank clerk who hatches an unlikely plot to steal a fortune in gold and smuggle it abroad disguised as models of the Eiffel Tower.

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) centres on an eccentric band of villagers battling to save their local branch line from British Rail cuts.

Movies such as these marked Crichton out as a genius of the era, capturing exactly the mood of the times.

[ image: Crichton flew Holllywood after clash with Birdman star Burt Lancaster]
Crichton flew Holllywood after clash with Birdman star Burt Lancaster
He made other great films such as The Battle of the Sexes (1959), which starred Peter Sellers as a Scottish accountant plotting to murder a female efficiency expert.

Hollywood soon beckoned, but his career suffered a setback in 1962 when he was forced to quit the set of Birdman of Alcatraz after a row with the star, Burt Lancaster.

He Who Rides a Tiger, in 1966, looked almost certain to be his last film.

Moving into television he directed several episodes of Danger Man, and the popular sci-fi series Space 1999.

He also took over the helm of The Avengers, filming a number of the cult TV shows in the 1960s. The series remains hugely popular with fans.

Worked wonders with Wanda

In 1988 he was tempted back to the big screen by John Cleese to work on the hit comedy A Fish Called Wanda.

[ image: The Avengers: Crichton's career moved to the small screen]
The Avengers: Crichton's career moved to the small screen
Crichton, then aged 78, told Cleese and co-star Michael Palin: "People think that if you're directing comedy you've got to be funny. On the contrary, you've got to be serious."

The film, made in London but starring big Hollywood names such as Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis, was a big box office success.

But it proved to be Crichton's swansong and he spent a happy retirement fishing in Scotland and Wales.

He leaves a second wife Nadine, and two sons, David and Nicholas.

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