09 May 2013
Posted in Film
By Nick Yapp
Bryan Forbes, who died on 8th May at the age of 86, was a key figure in the history of cinema for more than 30 years. With John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Kenneth More, he was one of the band of actors who refought much of WW2 on the back-lots of British film studios. He was a master of most cinematic trades – a screenwriter, director, producer and key executive, becoming Managing Director of Associated British Productions in 1969.
But he was also one of the group of screenwriters who met at 7 Harley Street in London on 13th May 1959 to create the Television and Screenwriters Guild (TSG), a forerunner of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. With Ted Willis as Chair and Forbes as Honorary Treasurer, the Guild embarked on an ambitious programme of events to recruit members, among them a series of lectures on writing for the cinema. The lectures were held at the National Film Theatre (2 guineas/£2.10 to attend the whole series, 5 shillings/25p for each individual lecture). Forbes was in illustrious company – other lecturers in the series included the film critic Dilys Powell, the director Karel Reisz, and John Trevelyan, then Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors.
The TSG became the Screenwriters Guild in 1961, with Forbes continuing as Treasurer. The early Sixties were dubbed the years of 'Fun and Aggro' by members of the Guild, but times were financially hard. Forbes was a man of vision with high hopes for the Guild’s future. 'We should aim for a staff of at least ten,' Forbes told Guild members, 'so that you can have the sort of service you expect.; That dream has yet to come true, but Forbes worked tirelessly to strengthen the Guild’s financial position, repeating over and over again his mantra: 'We must find more money from somewhere.'
His most ambitious plan, and one that still sets the adrenalin going at the thought of ‘what if it had come true’, was presented to the Guild in 1969. EMI had just bought Associated British from Warner Brothers and had put Forbes in charge. He took his work seriously and was incredibly conscientious about scripts submitted to him, reading up to ten scripts a day even though he found on average that 80% of them were unusable.
To quote from The Write Stuff (the history of the Writers' Guild):
'What Forbes wanted were ideas for low budget, original, comedy films which didn’t fall into the "dreaded mid-Atlantic category". He welcomed unsolicited material, and asked "everybody to believe that every single submission" would be considered. Those writers who showed promise he directed to the Guild, and his great ambition was to make Elstree a Guild studio.'
With Carl Foreman, who had succeeded Willis as President of the Guild, what Forbes hoped to achieve was a Guild shop within the entire British Film Industry, along the lines of what the WGA had set up in the United States. It never happened – well, it hasn’t happened yet – but the 1960s were in many ways a Golden Age for the Guild. The prestigious series of Annual Awards Dinners held at the Dorchester Hotel from 1961 to 1970 helped raise the profile of the Guild to an enormous extent. And it was fitting that in 1962 the first ever Best British Comedy Screenplay Award went to Forbes for Only Two Can Play – a screenplay that was also nominated for a BAFTA that year. From 1971, when he resigned from Associated British, Forbes divided his time between the UK and the USA. The Guild lived on, in no small part thanks to the pioneering work that Bryan Forbes had put in from its earliest days.
If such titles existed as ‘Hero of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’, that awarded to Forbes would have been First Class.
Nick Yapp is author of The Write Stuff, the history of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain