An Important British Film: Bryan Forbes’ “Whistle Down The Wind”

The other week, watching an old TV interview of Alfred Hitchcock by fellow film director Bryan Forbes, I was struck not only by Forbes’ wide jacket lapels, but also his seeming nervousness when confronted by the director of Pyscho: a nervousness he covered well by a somewhat contrived eloquence, and the casual lighting of a cigarette. After ten minutes or so, with Hitchcock given room to tell his often witty and dead-pan stories, Bryan Forbes had turned what might have been an awkard encounter between star and fan into an enlightening masterpiece.

But then enlightening masterpieces is what Forbes did, and Whistle Down The Wind is one of them.

Director Brian Forbes
Director Brian Forbes

1959 was a busy year for Bryan Forbes and his film producing partner Richard Attenborough, not least because of the creation of Allied Film Makers, a production company that had come about through the production of The League of Gentlemen, with a superbly witty script by Forbes.

Forbes, in his autobiography, Notes For a Life, has written of Allied Film Makers:

“ It was a co-operative effort from start to finish. The six founder members put up £5000 each, and in return for distribution rights John Davis [the MD of Rank]provided a revolving fund of £1,000,000. We had internal autonomy as to choice of subjects, and since we were such a small board [Forbes, Attenborough, John Davis, Guy Green, and Micheal Relph, plus company secretary Leslie Baker] we agreed that voting should be unanimous…” which effectively gave them total artistic control, with, as mentioned, the finished films distributed by Rank who were paid a fee of 27.5%, with 2.5% returned to Allied Film Makers, who also managed to keep a small proportions of each film’s profits, over and above the 2.5%. It was a good deal at time when the British film industry was starting to falter.

And if that wasn’t enough 1959 also saw Richard Attenborough and Forbes set up Beaver Films, a company that, with Allied Film Makers, was to go on to make Whistle Down The Wind. And if that wasn’t enough Forbes was also working on at least four other film scripts, including The Angry Silence, which has become a classic about industrial life and strife in Britain at the turn of the fifties and sixties. But what to do afterwards?

Richard Attenborough and Michael Craig
Richard Attenborough and Michael Craig

Forbes writes:

“ At this point Bunter [Richard Attenborough] and I were searching for a suitable project with which to follow The Angry Silence. It was Bunter’s idea that we should purchase the screen rights to Mary Hayley Bell’s novel, Whistle Down The Wind. Hayley Mills had just scored a notable success in her screen debut, acting alongside her father [John Mills] in Tiger Bay. Disney had signed her to a long-term (but not exclusive) contract and she had been to Hollywood to make Pollyanna and The Parent Trap. She had, of course, a very special quality, being a child star devoid of the usual nauseating precociousness, and audiences were flocking to see her.”

After a lot of discussions with his good friends, Mary and John Mills, and the Mills’ agent, Richard Attenborough managed, using Allied Film Maker funds, to obtain the screen rights to the novel.

The next step was to get Hayley Mills to sign a contract to play the leading role. This proved to be a much harder task than Attenborough and Forbes had anticipated.

With her Hollywood profile Hayley Mills was now being offered parts in films by leading directors. Her character in Whistle Down The Wind was an ideal part for her, but it was felt that Bryan Forbes, who was to direct the film, was still very much an unknown name (and untested) as far as film directing was concerned, and, with the Mills family having reserved the right of veto when it came to the choice of director, they thought it might be best (to preserve their daughter’s Hollywood appeal) that a ‘name’ director should be hired. A list was made of suitable directors was made, including David Lean, all of which, as Forbes points out, were well beyond their budget. In the end they signed Guy Green (on the board of Allied of course and with a string of films to his credit, including of course The Angry Silence), which hugely upset Forbes who, he admits, in a fit of pique, declined to write the screenplay, a job that went to Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, two up and coming writers who, as Forbes admits, did a much better job than he could ever have done.

With those decisions made, Forbes got on with writing those other screen plays, including one for Cary Grant about a jewel thief which was rejected by Grant as a bit dull, although the star did pay Forbes for his efforts out of his own pocket.

Then, after Attenborough and Forbes returned from the US opening of The Angry Silence, Guy Green told them he’d been offered the chance of directing a film starring Olivia de Haviland (Light in the Piazza), and asked if he could be released from his contract to direct Whistle Down The Wind. And although the script had been finished and approved, and the majority of the crew and cast assembled, and with locations set, Forbes and Attenborough generously agreed and Green went off to direct a film that has been pretty much forgotten.

The result was that the two producers faced bankruptcy — unless, unless…

Unless they could get Mary and John Mills (and Hayley) to accept Forbes as the director. They all met informally at the Mills’ home, explained the situation, with, at the end, John Mills saying to his wife that they couldn’t let old chums “…go to the wall, and I’m sure Forbesey will make a smashing film.” It was agreed. Champagne was opened and toasts made. Phew!

After the meeting, outside the Mills’ house, Attenborough asked Bryan Forbes if he thought he really could direct a film. Forbes replied that he supposed he’d “…bloody well have to.”

And he did, and according to Forbes this directing lark all went very well, but then he did have some of the finest British actors and technicians of the day, plus Hall and Waterhouse’s brilliant script that had opened-up Mary Hayley Bell’s novel gently and thoughtfully and which, when Forbes said action for the first time, became a wonderfully visual and often hard edged black and white essay of Lancashire farm and village life in the first year of the 1960s, a life changed fundamentally by the arrival of a stranger.

Bryan Forbes’ remarkable first film, as a director, retains, without sentimentality, the innocence and sometimes cruelty of childhood, and the journey of the Hayley Mills character from the confusing and the often tight-lipped world of her father (Bernard Lee) — and the unpleasantness of her father’s farm hand, played wonderfully by Norman Bird— into her own blossoming young adulthood as a result of the coming of the stranger, whose mysterious and iconic appearance can still pierce the heart of a viewer to this day, leaving them momentarily at a loss and in disbelief. It can’t be, surely not?

Suffer the Little Children to come unto Me…

What Forbes cleverly does is gather a group of children from local schools, who, with the exception of one cynical pre-teenager (played by a fifteen year old Roy Holder), are convinced that the stranger, played by Alan Bates, is actually Jesus. It’s so well done that my own thoughts — when I first saw the film at the RAF Kinema as a fourteen-year-old — took me back to my own Sunday School days, and the idea of a “…gentle Jesus…” which is beautifully, and heart-breakingly whispered by Alan Barnes.

Of course Bates’ character says “ Jesus Christ” as an expletive when confronted by the kids, but it soon becomes clear that he is not Christ, but in fact a killer on the run from the police.

In his autobiography, Notes For a Life, Bryan Forbes writes:

“ The children I had selected from local schools proved to be exceptionally receptive to direction. I had taken a calculated risk from the beginning and apart from Hayley none of them were ever given a script. I wanted to avoid the trap of them ‘acting’ what could have been a sentimental, not to say banal, story by having too much awareness of what they were saying and doing. I therefore kept rehearsals down to a minimum and tried to give the children parallel and more easily acceptable illustrations, bullying them in a light-hearted manner. They responded to authority, I found, as long as I kept them them amused.”

Forbes goes on to write that the crew had to be ever alert to catch the first take reactions of the kids as they were often the best, with each repeated take poorer and poorer.

Attenborough and Forbes stayed in the newly completed Keirby Hotel in Burnley, which my wife (she’s from Lancashire) assures me was a large and rather posh hotel, with the news that Attenborough and Forbes were staying there causing quite a stir: which was good pre-screening PR.

Forbes recalls that he and Attenborough were like a dotty old married couple living in the hotel’s penthouse suite arguing who should use the bathroom first and be the one to turn out the lights.

As Fotbes admits Hayley Mills carried the entire film, and only her name could have raised the £150,000 production costs (around £30m today), and as far as he is concerned she didn’t put a foot wrong.

I agree, and neither did he.

Bryan Forbes superb autobiography, Notes for a Life, is a must for any film fan, and although now out of print is still available second hand.

The film’s memorble music is by Malcolm Arnold. Listen

Watch the film on The Hobbledehoy

Source: Whistle Down The Wind — A Film by Bryan Forbes

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