The Late and Legendary Film Director Bryan Forbes

150 150 Rob McGibbon

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Published: 23 June 2012

Legendary director Bryan Forbes:

"I would be happy for family and friends to remember my good bits, scatter my ashes in the garden and plant a tree in my memory"

We ask a celebrity a set of devilishly probing questions – and only accept THE definitive answer. This week it’s the turn of film director, author and actor Bryan Forbes (who directed Rob McGibbon in International Velvet alongside Tatum O’Neal – well, sort of!)

The prized possession you value above all others...My garden, which I have fashioned from nothing since Nanette [actress Nanette Newman] and I bought our house when we got married in 1955. It has ten acres and was completely overgrown and I became obsessed with making it beautiful. The garden has been my passion and my sanctuary over the years. I am 85 now and not very mobile, so I can’t garden any more, which is sad.

The unqualified regret you wish you could amend...
That I was never able to make my film of Napoleon and Josephine. Ian Bannen was going to play Napoleon and I slaved over writing it for three years, but then Warner Brothers junked it because Stanley Kubrick was going to make a film on the same subject, although he never did.

The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions...I would spend all day with my three wonderful granddaughters [India Rose, 24, Tilly, 21, and Lilly, 15]. We’d fly by private jet to Antigua for breakfast on the beach, then on to New York for shopping, so I could spoil them. We’d have tea at the Carlyle Hotel, then go to a Broadway musical in the evening, then fly back home on the private jet, missing all the hideous delays we normally have to endure.

The temptation you wish you could resist…To stop buying books. I love reading and have about 6,000 books. I used to have nearer to 10,000, but I have sold a great many in recent years. I owned a bookshop for 37 years, so there was a great temptation to pinch from myself!

The book that holds an everlasting resonance...The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. He was an extraordinary writer and this is such a clever, brilliantly constructed novel. I wish I could write as well as him.

The priority activity if you were the Invisible Man for a day...I would reschedule all television programming. We have about 600 channels at home, yet Nanette and I often can’t find anything worth watching. I think the programmers have lost touch and it drives me nuts.

The pet-hate that makes your hackles rise...All those politicians on the gravy train at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. They waste amazing amounts of our money complicating our lives with idiotic regulations. It would be great if we could tell them all to get stuffed!

The film you can watch time and time again...
Jeux Interdit (Forbidden Games) directed by René Clément from 1951. It is a French classic about innocence, which epitomises the futility of war.

The person who has influenced you most...
Graham Greene was a great mentor who always encouraged me. We first met in London in the 1950s and we were in touch right up until his death [in 1991]. I used to see him a lot in the South of France when he was living in Antibes. Once we were having dinner at a little bistro called Chez Felix and he turned up with a revolver in a plastic bag. He said: "If a black Citroen drives by, make sure you duck. It will be the Marseille mafia coming to shoot me!" Graham was always one for great drama and he was a lovely man.

The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint...Marcel Proust. I would like to know how he managed to keep on writing.

The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child...Don’t despise education – it could be the difference between happiness and abject failure.

The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity...
Cooking, which will most definitely seem unlikely to Nanette and our family because I can only cook three dishes! I once set fire to the kitchen whilst making langoustine flambé. But I love the idea of cooking and admire Rick Stein for being so innovative.

The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again...A signet ring that Nanette gave me, which came off while swimming in the South of France in the 1960s. I spent hours diving for it, but never recovered it.

The unending quest that drives you on...
The whole object of writing is to write a masterpiece, but it doesn’t happen to many people. I wrote one great novel – Familiar Strangers – which I am proud of, but if I could write a book as good as Greene’s The End of the Affair I would die a happy man.

The poem that touches your soul...I don’t have one. Poetry has not been a great force in my life.

The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase...I honestly don’t know what people think of me. I was known as a jack-of-all-trades, which is fine, but can inspire envy. You have to wait until you are dead before people say what they think of you, but then you can’t read it! (And they have written wonderful things about you, Bryan – including me! You were so very much loved and respected. RM)

The event that altered the course of your life and character...When in 1942 the BBC producer Lionel Gamlin took me for tea and a bun and gave me a job as Question Master for the BBC’s Junior Brains Trust. It was my first professional job and my life in show business began. He also suggested I change my name. [Bryan’s real name is John Clarke].

The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it...I think we are badly governed by politicians of all hues. One doesn’t want to commit murder, but it would be nice if they could all be miraculously obliterated.

The song that means most to you...
When I Fall In Love as sung by the great Nat King Cole. I was directing a film called King Rat [released in 1965] in Hollywood and one night at a cabaret Nat suddenly dedicated that song to me. He was desperate to be an actor and star in that film, but I had the unfortunate task of telling him there wasn’t a part for him.

The happiest moment you will cherish forever...Managing to buy our house in Surrey and forging our life here. It had been derelict for seven years and we bought it at auction for £8,300, although we couldn’t afford it. My best man gave me a private mortgage to help pay for it.

The saddest time that shook your world...When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis whilst directing The Slipper and the Rose in 1975 [film was released in ’76]. It was a horrible time, especially for Nanette, because it felt like I had been given a death sentence. I kept it secret because I would not get any work if people thought I was not long for this world because of insurance problems. But all the doctors later admitted that the diagnosis was totally wrong and I have never developed any symptoms.

The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you...
I don’t really have one. I have been luckier than most and realised so many ambitions. I received a British Film Institute Fellowship earlier this year. I am very proud of getting that.

The philosophy that underpins your life...
Never take anything for granted.

The order of service at your funeral...I am not very religious, so I wouldn’t want a formal ceremony as such, or a tombstone. I wouldn’t even want people to wear black. I would be happy for family and friends to remember my good bits, scatter my ashes in the garden and plant a tree in my memory.

The way you want to be remembered...As somebody who was not taken in by fame.

The Plug...My new novel The Soldier’s Story is published by Quartet Books in July, priced £18.

The Bryan Forbes died at his beloved home surounded by his family following a long illness on Wednesday, 8th May 2013. He was 86. RIP.