Ken Hughes: Forgotten Auteur

November 14, 2020
Stephen Vagg looks at the life and career of the little remembered British writer-director.

Ken Hughes was one of those directors I used to dismiss on the basis of a traumatic childhood experience. One day in high school, a history teacher locked us inside the assembly hall and forced us to watch the 1970 epic Cromwell, a sluggardly dull trudge through the English Civil War. Hughes’ name was plastered all over it, as writer and director, and it scarred me from visiting his filmography for many years.

It was unfair, I know, but these things happen. Later on, I heard that he made one masterpiece, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), which I did see – and it was brilliant. So, I had a second look at Cromwell, was bored again, and ran away once more.

What prompted a more serious dive into the Hughes oeuvre was my interest in Diana Dors. Hughes directed Ms Dors in The Long Haul (1957), a great little unpretentious B-movie about truckers co-starring Victor Mature. I was surprised to see the name of the auteur of Cromwell on it, and decided to revisit his filmography, only properly this time. I was surprised to find a filmmaker whose output was consistently interesting and entertaining, and deserved more critical attention than it has received.

Hughes was born in Liverpool in 1922. He began working at the BBC as a technician when he was only sixteen, then during the war moved into making documentaries, short features, and training films for the Ministry of Defence. After the war he directed documentaries for the BBC.

The British film industry had a thriving “B” picture scene in the 1950s, helped by quota protections which incentified thrifty producers to make short features that played the lower half of double bills. A new organisation that specialised in this field was Anglo-Amalgamated, run by the team of Stuart Levy and Nat Cohen. Cohen is one of those moguls who should be better known – a shrewd gambler who would later control EMI Films and help finance debut features from directors as varied as John Schlesinger, Ken Loach, John Boorman and Alan Parker… and Ken Hughes. Anglo-Amalgamated wanted to make a crime drama called Wide Boy (1952), based on a radio and TV play by Australian Rex Rienits about a low-class chiseller who gets in over his head when he attempts blackmail. Hughes was given the job of directing and did it excellently – it’s stripped back, atmospheric entertainment, without an ounce of fat on it.

Check out this opening sequence.

Anglo-Amalgamated put Hughes to work writing and directing 30 minute films for release in cinema, such as The Missing Man (1953), The Candlelight Murder (1953), The Drayton Case (1953), The Dark Stairway (1954), The Blazing Caravan (1954), The Murder Anonymous (1955), Passenger to Tokyo (1954), The Strange Case of Blondie (1954), Night Plane to Amsterdam (1955). These essentially feel like self-contained episodes of an anthology TV series; I’ve only seen a few but they hold up well – Australia’s own Vincent Ball pops up in some, like The Drayton Case.

Hughes’ second feature was Black 13 (1954), which he wrote and directed for low budget producer Roger Proudlock. The star was Peter Reynolds, a highly entertaining actor who specialised in cads, and who later emigrated to Australia where he died in a fire.

Hughes then wrote and directed The House Across the Lake (1954), based on Hughes’ own novel. This was made for Hammer Films, before that studio specialised in horror, and featured many aspects of British B movies from the 1950s: a short running time, film noir-ish plot, and imported B-list American stars, in this case Alex Nicol and Hilary Brook. It’s quite a fun movie, reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice; one is inclined to wonder if Nicol’s character, a writer under the pump and distracted by lust, was a Hughes self-portrait.

Anglo-Amalgamated hired Hughes to make The Brain Machine (1955) with Elizabeth Allen and Maxwell Reed, a decent little thriller that feels like it wants to be sci-fi but isn’t. Like most of his early features, it’s an easy watch if you’re in the right mood.

Hughes wrote and directed two more features for Anglo, both with B-list stars from Hollywood, both worth watching: The Little Red Monkey (1955) with Richard Conte, based on a TV serial, and Confession (1955) with Sydney son-of-Charlie Chaplin. He also helped write The Flying Eye (1955) for the Children’s Film Foundation.

Hughes’ thrift and versatility impressed Tony Owen, aka Mr Donna Reed, who had set up a filmmaking operation in England, Todon. Todon had a lot of success making genre pieces aimed at the international market; indeed, Owen’s impact on the British scene is under-rated because he rarely took screen credit – it was easier to get British subsidies with a local producer’s name on it. Owen hired Hughes to write Portrait of Alison (1955), a lively Laura (1944)-style murder mystery starring Howard Hughes favourite Terry Moore and Canadian-living-in-Britain Robert Beatty; Guy Green did the actual directing. Also for Owen, Hughes wrote and directed Timeslip (1955), a slightly sci-fi tale based on a TV serial, starring two Americans, Gene Nelson and another Howard Hughes fave, Faith Domergue. Both were distributed by Anglo-Amalgamated.

The first really stand-out movie of Hughes’ career was Joe MacBeth (1955), a modernised re-telling of Macbeth set among American gangsters of the 1930s, shot in England. It was produced by American Mike Frankovich from a script by another American, Philip Yordan (with a little help from Shakespeare). “It was one of the few scripts I picked up in my life that didn’t require a great deal of work,” said Hughes. The movie is gloriously fun. Everyone is in strong form: Paul Douglas, Ruth Roman, Sid James, Bonar Colleano (an American who worked extensively in British films prior to his death in a car crash). It was distributed by Columbia; Frankovich became head of that company’s British operations, and they would finance Hughes’ next few films.

First of these was Wicked as They Come (1956), which Hughes wrote and directed for producers Frankovich and Setton. It starred Arlene Dahl as a woman who claws her way from poverty to the top; it’s revealed at the end that she was motivated by having been sexually assaulted when younger (there was a feminist-ish strand through some of Hughes’ work: for instance in The Brain Machine a person refers to Elizabeth Allen’s character as “ma’am” and she asks to be called “doctor”.) Dahl later sued Columbia over the movie claiming its poster art was misleadingly sexy. The film would have been better off following the lead of the poster art rather than the script: at heart this should have been a campy Joan Crawford vehicle but it’s far too reticent and dull. I watched this after Joe MacBeth put me on a high over Hughes’ abilities – Wicked as They Come sent me back down to earth. I’m sure the film has its fans. Dahl lost her case, incidentally.

Hughes worked on two more Max Setton films for Columbia. He wrote the excellent script for Town on Trial (1957), directed by John Guillermin, where detective John Mills investigates the murder of a sexy piece of tail in a small town (men driven by lust was a recurring theme of Hughes movies). He also wrote and directed The Long Haul (1957), which I mentioned at the top of this piece, a movie that has been overshadowed in the cinema of British truck driving stories by Hell Drivers (1957) but which is enormously entertaining, with Diana Dors and Victor Mature giving excellent performances.

Maxwell Setton left Columbia to help establish Bryanston Films with Michael Balcon, leaving Hughes needing a new patron. For British TV, he wrote episodes of Solo for Canary (1958) and had a huge personal success with a one-man TV play he wrote and directed, Sammy (1958); this was a 40-minute story about a low-level Soho operator (played by Anthony Newley), who can’t pay his gambling debts. Reviews were excellent and Hughes’ script was adapted countless times in other countries for TV, notably in the US as Eddie (1959) starring Mickey Rooney.

Hughes’ work had impressed producers Irwin Allen and Albert Broccoli, owners of Warwick Films,  which, like Todon, was an operation aimed at making international-orientated genre pieces in England  “for a price”. Hughes worked on the script for Warwick’s High Flight (1957), a Top Gun-esque tale, complete with cocky pilots and homoeroticism starring Ray Milland, that was directed by John Gilling.

Warwick liked it enough to hire Hughes to direct two films for the company. Oddly, these were different to the bulk of their usual output, being non-action films, and not featuring a Hollywood star. Instead, both featured Anthony Newley: Jazz Boat (1960) (based on another story by Rex Rienits) and In the Nick (1960). Jazz Boat starts out as a crime drama then weirdly turns into a musical (complete with dance numbers) then back into a crime drama again. In the Nick is a comedy.

Neither film is particularly remembered today, but Warwick also financed Hughes’ one undeniable classic. This was The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), with Australia’s own Peter Finch in the title role. It’s a stunningly good account of the legendary playwright, with beautiful art direction from Ken Adams and a superb line-up of actors doing sterling work. Finch was rarely better; the entire subject is treated with taste and discretion.

The film was highly acclaimed by critics but not popular at the box office, in part because of the appearance at the same time of a rival project on the same topic, Oscar Wilde (1960) starring Robert Morley. The movie’s financial failure contributed to the dissolution of Warwick; Broccoli and Allen split up, Broccoli went on to make the James Bond films, while Allen spent the rest of his career trying to catch up to his former partner (and came close, incidentally, with a series of hit movies based on the Matt Helm stories).

Hughes had wanted to follow Oscar Wilde with a biopic about Oliver Cromwell but was unable to raise the finance. Instead, he wrote and directed The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), a feature-length adaptation of his TV play Sammy, with Anthony Newley reprising his small screen performance. The film was a co-production between Bryanston Films and Seven Arts, an American company headed by Ray Stark which had set up operations in England. The film contains much to admire, including superb photography and acting (Aussies Ken Wayne and Kenneth Warren have support roles), and a glimpse of Soho of the time. It is repetitive (Sammy tries to get money, almost gets it, doesn’t) and how much you like it will very much depend on your opinion of Anthony Newley. The movie has become something of a cult item in recent years, but was a commercial failure on release and contributed to the collapse of Bryanston Films.

Hughes moved back to television, directing episodes of the TV series Espionage (1964) and writing episodes of An Enemy of the State (1965). He returned to features when Henry Hathaway walked off the set of Of Human Bondage (1964), which the latter was directing in Ireland with Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak. The film was made by Seven Arts and Ray Stark offered Hughes the job of taking over; Hughes also rewrote Bryan Forbes’ script, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The resulting film is interesting, and contains one of Harvey’s best performances, but isn’t that good. Novak’s performance doesn’t help and, more seriously, Hughes doesn’t get – or didn’t have time to capture – the essential DNA of the story. It is interesting to compare it with other versions of the novel.

Seven Arts still liked Hughes and helped finance a comedy he wanted to write and direct, Drop Dead Darling (1965), starring Tony Curtis as a Bluebeard type who kills women he marries. It’s a frantic farce that does cartwheels for a laugh with beautiful locations and contains some excellent support performances, including Zsa Zsa Gabor. Curtis claimed in his memoirs that he did the film because he liked Hughes’ “excellent script” but felt the final movie did not add up to the sum of his parts. He was spot on.

The movie was presumably why producer Charles Feldman hired Hughes to direct a section of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) – reportedly the Berlin stuff with Joanna Pettet. Other directors credited included John Huston, Val Guest, Robert Parrish and Joseph McGrath. I’m not sure comedy was Hughes’ strength.

I think this is Hughes’ stuff here, but don’t quote me:

Hughes’ next movie also had a Bond connection, or rather, several: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) was based on a novel by Ian Fleming, produced by Albert Broccoli, written by Roald Dahl (who had scripted You Only Live Twice), designed by Ken Adam, and featured a number of Bond actors (Desmond Llewellyn, Gert Frobe). Hughes directed and rewrote Roald Dahl’s script. It’s a gorgeous looking movie with divine sets, a fabulous cast and cheerful songs; it’s also, like so many late ‘60s musicals, far too long and would have been better at a tight 90 minutes.

Chitty Chitty cost so much it actually lost a lot of money on first release – it helped convince Broccoli not to make anything other than Bond movies – but it was popular and has become a family viewing perennial.

“The film made a lot of money, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better about it,” said Hughes later. “On the other hand, I’ve made pictures that got awards at Berlin and places, and didn’t make any money, and that doesn’t make me feel any better either.”

The film was well regarded enough to enable Hughes to raise finance for his dream project, an epic biopic of Oliver Cromwell called Cromwell (1970). It was produced by Albert Broccoli’s old partner, Irwin Allen.

I’ve been mean about this film and will be again, but it does have some good things about it: Alec Guinness is superb as Charles I, and the production design is amazing. But it’s dull. So dull. Every time Richard Harris walks on screen he looks as though he’s about to give a speech and he does. Admittedly, I don’t enjoy English Civil War tales unless they involve witch burnings or focus around Charles II in exile. But if you are a history teacher who couldn’t be bothered talking to class for two hours, Cromwell could solve your issues that day.

Up until making this film, Hughes was riding high. He earned £44,177 in 1968 and £47,960 in 1969, the year he sold his company, Ken Hughes Productions, to Constellation Investments for £300,000. It was one of those tricky financial arrangements filmmakers sometimes enter into to help with their tax situation; Hughes was to regret it.

Cromwell was popular at the British box office but failed to recoup its huge cost. Around this time, the American majors pulled out of filmmaking in Britain, and Hughes, after steady work for almost two decades, found himself floundering a little, earning no money in 1970.

In hindsight, he probably should have fled to Hollywood, like so many of his contemporaries (John Guillermin, Michael Winner) or gone into horror, sex comedies or big screen adaptations of TV shows (the most profitable genres in ‘70s British cinema). Instead, he stayed in London where he wrote for television (Menace, Colditz, Fall of Eagles, Dial M for Murder, Oil Strike North). He eventually got two feature gigs as writer-director: The Internecine Project (1974), a thriller for British Lion starring James Coburn and Lee Grant, and Alfie Darling (1975), a sequel to the comedy-drama Alfie (1966), financed by his old patron Nat Cohen (now head of EMI). Internecine has a decent central idea – James Coburn is up for a job so decides to kill off four people who know about his shady past – but the film feels in need of some extra twists/complications. And Alfie Darling suffers very, very, very badly in comparison to the original, which turned Michael Caine into a star (you may feel differently if you like Alan Price, who steps into Caine’s shoes).

Both films flopped. In 1975, Hughes declared bankruptcy, claiming his personal inability to curb expenses, two divorces, taxes and the collapse of the film industry.

Hughes decided to move to the US. He got the gig making one of the most bizarre movies of all time, something even weirder than Casino Royale: Sextette (1978), starring Mae West. Irving Rapper had originally meant to direct before Hughes stepped in just before shooting began. The resulting film is absurd but almost compulsive in its randomness, whether it’s Timothy Dalton singing “Love Will Keep Us Together” to Mae West, or George Hamilton playing a gangster, or Ringo Starr putting on a weird European accent to play a director, or Tony Curtis as a Russian, or Dom DeLuise as a manager flunky, or West talking to George Raft in an elevator, or Keith Moon and Van McCoy and Alice Cooper AND Walter Pidgeon or… Oh, anyway, see it if you want.

Hughes’ last film as director was a slasher flick, Night School (1981), the movie debut of Rachel Ward. It’s quite a stylish piece of entertainment, made with professionalism and skill rather than ludicrous excess, which means it isn’t as fun as others in this genre. Ward has X factor from the get-go and takes part in a Psycho (1960) shower scene homage; it has feminist moments and there’s also not one but two sexually predatory academics.  For me, it was Hughes’ most enjoyable film since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

And then the credits stopped. I don’t know what happened. Night School was well done. The producer of that film speaks well of Hughes in interviews. He was heading towards sixty years of age so there was ageism, but he could write as well as direct and was used to low budgets… Maybe there were other issues (if anyone knows, please feel free to tell me). He died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2001.

So how good a filmmaker was Ken Hughes? For me – and this is purely, utterly subjective – he was a very “ups and downs” kind of guy with a solid overall average: the maker of a genuine classic (Trials of Oscar Wilde), a handful of terrific movies (Long Haul, Joe MacBeth, Wide Boy) and some films that have splendid things in them (Small World of Sammy Lee, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and yes, Casino Royale). He also made movies that were dull (Cromwell), dire (Alfie Darling), disappointing (Timeslip) and in one case, beyond belief (Sextette). He clearly worked best when attached to a feisty little production company with strong Hollywood links (Anglo Amalgamated, Tony Owen, Warwick, Seven Arts).

I also wonder if maybe Ken Hughes rated his own writing too highly. He clearly had abilities as a writer – some of his scripts were fabulous. But it is hard to keep a high level of quality if you write and direct all the time and Hughes was also prone to rewrite, even on screenplays by skilled colleagues (Roald Dahl on Chitty Chitty, Bryan Forbes on Of Human Bondage). In hindsight, maybe Hughes would have been better off working more with a trusted collaborator than being a one man band. I completely admit that it’s hard to make these sort of judgements without reading/comparing original drafts and the rewrites, but it’s just a sense I get.

Still he should be better known. I wonder why he isn’t. Check out Joe MacBeth if you haven’t.


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