Lewis Gilbert: master craftsman who went beyond Bond with a 'working class trilogy' | Peter Bradshaw

Gilbert, who has died aged 97, may have been best known for his three 007 films, but it’s the films he made about working class life that are his great achievement

Lewis Gilbert was the brilliant master-craftsman of the postwar cinema, whose staggeringly prolific career epitomised the technique, professionalism and dash that made British moviemaking tradecraft respected everywhere. He started in wartime film units and the British studio system, making war movies with tremendous elan and punch, like Reach for the Sky and Sink the Bismarck!, and also comedies and character dramas like The Admirable Crichton and The Greengage Summer, which were robustly confident and terrifically watchable. He also famously took the helm of three very successful Bond movies, one with Connery, two with Moore: You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, maintaining that uniquely British brand with wit and clout.

But Gilbert was a lot more than a safe pair of hands: he created what was known as the “working class trilogy” of British cinema, and in doing so put himself at the vanguard of this country’s social revolution. He made Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and then Shirley Valentine (1989) – and this third film revived his elegant comic trick of getting the lead character to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera.

Breaking the fourth wall ... Michael Caine in Alfie
Breaking the fourth wall ... Michael Caine in Alfie Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/PARAMOUNT

When he got Alfie to stop what he was doing and take the audience into his confidence, it was of course a mannerism which had been current in the theatre for hundreds of years. But it was unusual in the cinema, and even now there are very few film-makers or actors who can carry it off – certainly the remake with Jude Law never had anything like the kind of freewheeling, subversive insolence. Because when Lewis Gilbert got Alfie speaking directly into the camera, it was a political act. He was speaking up, talking back. His was a working-class voice which presumed to address the audience from a position of strength, as opposed to just being cheeky, getting into trouble, and finally learning a lesson. Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (author Bill Naughton adapted the script from his own stage-play) was sexy in a way that Billy Liar and Jim Dixon weren’t. And Alfie itself was probably the nearest that British cinema ever came instinctively to moving away from Free Cinema and the kitchen sink to the world of the French New Wave.

With Educating Rita (by Willy Russell) Lewis Gilbert probably gave Michael Caine the best role of his career, and superbly handled the relationship between Caine’s bearded, disillusioned OU lecturer Frank Bryant and Julie Walters’s wonderfully funny student Rita, looking for a glimpse of a better life, the life of the mind, before she succumbs to her destiny of marriage and motherhood. Their relationship is governed by class, and takes on the theme of self-betterment through education. Rita’s belief in this is naïve in one sense, although she has an idealism and integrity that Frank realises he has gradually permitted to wither in himself. And it is invigoratingly concerned with aspiration and success: themes which were interestingly revived in Billy Elliot, a film in which Julie Walters’s presence carried the sense-memory of Rita.

Terrifically watchable ... Diane Cilento, left, as Tweeny, and Kenneth More in The Admirable Crichton
Terrifically watchable ... Diane Cilento, left, as Tweeny, and Kenneth More in The Admirable Crichton Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA PICTURES/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

And then, Shirley Valentine was the third great figure (also written by Willy Russell), almost an evolutionary step further from Alfie and Rita. She is the older woman, played with breezy Scouse chutzpah by Pauline Collins who takes off on holiday and rediscovers in herself an appetite for the fun, laughs and sex that she wasn’t getting on the home front. Again, Gilbert stage-manages Shirley’s slyly murmured confidences to the audience about all the daft things men would say in an attempt to have their wicked way. Tom Conti’s suave waiter affecting to be entranced by her stretch marks is something she sees through but likes at the same time. Shirley Valentine is perhaps the ancestor of the escapist golden-years comedies like the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but with far more of an edge. His Stepping Out, with Liza Minnelli leading a dance class, recapitulated many of the themes of Educating Rita – with the same gutsy, never-say-die ethos.

Lewis Gilbert was a powerhouse of invention and movie showmanship.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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