Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were two English film-makers who maintained a steadily consistent presence in the British cinema between the 1930s and the 1970s. Launder and Gilliat’s creative film roles, whether as writers, directors or producers (or as all three), contributed to over 100 British films in that era, including nearly 40 together as co-writers and producers.
The two co-wrote The Lady Vanishes, a 1938 mystery which was a breakthrough feature for Alfred Hitchcock❈. Interestingly Launder and Gilliat (hereafter L & G) had their (separate) starts in the film business composing inter-titles (title cards) for silent movies in the late 1920s, the same industry beginnings undertaken by Hitchcock several years earlier. L & G combined their talents behind-the-camera together for the first time from the mid 1930s. The L & G partnership had a flexibility and a particular pattern to it … invariably they would jointly produce films and/or also co-write screenplays (although on other occasions either man would co-write films with various other collaborating screenwriters). But almost with very few exceptions one or the other would direct a specific film singly – this was done apparently to avoid confusing the actors.
A versatile¤ and fecund partnership
As well as being prolific contributors to the creation of British films for such a long period, L & G’s film output spanned a range of genres … from thrillers and ‘whodunits’ like Green for Danger (1956) and Secret State (1950) to WWII social-realism films such as Waterloo Road (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943) to romance/adventures like The Blue Lamp (1949) to historical dramas such as Captain Boycott (1947) to farces like The Green Man (1956) and light comedies such as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), a precursor to a popular series of movies set in a girls’ boarding school immobilised by riotous juvenile anarchy – starting with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) which spawned a string of increasingly predictable sequels.
The Times of London described the Gilliat/Launder team as “one of the most sparkling writing, directing and producing partnerships in postwar British cinema”. Notwithstanding such praise, L & G’s body of work has tended to be undervalued by the bulk of film critics … at times eliciting back-handed appraisals from critics such as “toilers in the British comic tradition”; (their films at best exhibiting) “unfailing good humour and the occasional brainy prankishness”. Certainly, technical innovation and self-conscious artiness was not Gilliat and Launder’s style, but they never managed to garner anything remotely like the prestige or critical approval that was lavished on other contemporary British film-makers, eg, Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed or the Boulting brothers. Bruce Babington has attributed this in part to L & G’s ‘reticence’ as film-makers, the way that they declined to project themselves forward and intervene in controversies and debates of the day, unlike say, their contemporaries the Boultings.
Enlistment in the production of propaganda vehicles
So closely did the personal film-making styles and interests of the two collaborators align, many people found it hard to distinguish between a Launder-directed picture and one directed by Gilliat … most L & G films tended to resemble the fruits of their combined efforts. Or as Adair and Roddick put it, “it would take a lynx-eyed buff to be able to distinguish one from the other”.
The war-time pictures, Millions Like Us and Two Thousand Women can be identified as reflecting in particular Frank Launder’s preoccupation with the portrayal of strong, defiantly independent women. These films were commissioned by the UK Ministry of Information to counter the prevailing low recruitment and morale of women in war-time factory work. Millions Like Us, as Judy Suh has noted, conveyed the “double valence of women as productive workers and domestic symbols of national unity”. L & G’s social-realist films, though propagandist in purpose, posed questions of gender and class whilst depicting the routine of ordinary people at work. The necessities of war-time brought out the conflicting roles and identities of women in such an out-of-the ordinary circumstance, as well as the existence of crossings of class boundaries.
After the war, witty and farcical, albeit slight, comedies were their forte (with the occasional thriller thrown in). Like other high-profile international film-makers L & G had their favourite performers that they liked to work with. L & G got the best performances out of British actors like Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Rex Harrison and George Cole. Of these luminaries it was Alastair Sim whose star shined most brightly under the direction of L & G. Sim appeared in at least ten L & G movies and his deliciously roguish star turns as a middle class word-spinning con-man were pure gold. George Cole, who also had a regular gig in the St Trinian’s cycle as the ultra dodgy spiv Flash Harry◘, described working with Gilliat and Launder (and Sim) … to Cole (later himself to find TV fame as consummate, malapropistic con-man ‘Arfur’ Daley in Minder) their films meant:
“Good scripts but terrible money. If Alastair was in the film it was even worse because he got most of it. But they were wonderful people to work with”.
In the 1940s Launder and Gilliat formed their own production company, aptly named Individual Pictures, at this time they were contractually engaged by Gainsborough Pictures … in 1958 the partners took charge of the production side of the struggling independent studio British Lion. By the 1960s both the quality and quantity of Gilliat/Launder productions had receded. In 1980 Launder went once more to the St Trinian’s well❃ with yet another sequel, Wildcats of St Trinian’s … unwisely so as the novelty of L & G’s feature films based on Ronald Searle’s charming cartoons of feral schoolgirls had long since lost their appeal.
PostScript 1: The Charters and Caldicott characters trope – antiquated, old school Englishness
L & G wrote into The Lady Vanishes two minor characters that were to become iconic, background characters in British cinema. Played by actors Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne, the two incidental supporting figures are singleminded cricket enthusiasts (“cricket tragics” as one recent Australian PM was dubbed) trying to hurry back to England to see the last days of the Manchester test match. The popularity of the characters saw them reappear in other L & G movies (including Night Train to Munich, Millions Like Us and in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes), and in several other non-L & G films, eg, the Boxs’ A Girl in a Million and (appropriately enough) It’s Not Cricket. Charters and Caldicott were also reprised for several radio series, and for a 1985 television series. Charters and Caldicott’s fame also extended to their inclusion in a series of Carreras Cigarette cards in the 1950s.
The gormless personalities of Charters and Caldicott, a couple of blithering “Colonel Blimpish” snobs, was a comical throwback to a past England with ‘proper’ gentlemanly good manners and standards of dress. Matthew Sweet saw the two blunderers (in their 1938 incarnations against a backdrop of appeasement) as symbols of “a peculiarly British obstinacy in the face of Nazi aggression” in Europe. Their apathetic dispositions and complete lack of perspicacity about the momentous events happening around them also puts one in mind of Tom Stoppard’s two artless and aimless courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roaming through Elsinore, ‘Everyman’ figures in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
❈ The Lady Vanishes helped open Hollywood doors for Hitchcock … after ‘Hitch’ completed Jamaica Inn in 1939 (written by Gilliat et al) he set sail for America (for good), inviting Gilliat to join him however the Cheshireman declined the offer, preferring to stay in the smaller and infinitely less lucrative pond that was the British film industry (Babington, 2002)
¤ “Versatility” Gilliat once said, “was always our curse”, but as Gilbert Adair remarked in a 1994 obituary for the film-maker, “it was also their own form of individualism”
◘ Cole as well appeared in nine of L & G’s films
❃ this was twice too often to the well as the preceding Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) was also a lame effort at rehashing the by now decidedly stale formula
 although such was the working symbiosis between the two that the non-directing partner would in all likelihood make suggestions for improvements to the designated director where necessary, B Babington, Launder and Gilliat (2002)
 quoted in The Age (Melbourne), 08-Jun-1994
 G Adair & N Roddick, A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film, (1985)
 Babington describes Launder and Gilliat as “modest auteurs”, Babington, op.cit.
 Adair & Roddick, loc.cit.
 ‘Launder and Gilliat’, BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk
 J Suh, ‘Women, Work, Leisure in British Wartime Documentary Realism’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 40(1), 2012
 ‘Obituary: Frank Launder’, The Independent, 24-Feb-1997, www.independent.co.uk
 ‘Charters and Caldicott’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘Charters and Caldicott’, www.chartersandcaldicott.co.uk
 M Sweet, ‘Mustard and cress’, The Guardian, 29-Dec-2007, www.theguardian.com