Obituary: Ronald Neame

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Ronald Neame was one of cinema's great all-rounders

Writer and director Ronald Neame, who has died at the age of 99, known to all his friends as Ronnie, was all but born in a film studio.

His mother, Ivy Close, who won the first ever Miss World competition, was a star of the British silent movie era. She was filming while heavily pregnant with Ronnie.

She would bring him on the set when he was but a few weeks old. Her husband, Elwin, Ronnie's father, directed her in her first film.

He was killed in a road accident when Ronnie was 15, necessitating his son to leave school to get a job.

His mother pulled some strings and he began as a messenger boy in Elstree studios.

Within two years he was working, as assistant cameraman, on Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 movie, Blackmail, the director's first sound film.

This was the start of the golden era of British cinema. Britain's quota system, that deemed that a quarter of all films shown in the country had to be home-made, ensured lots of work and opportunities to learn one's craft.

As cinematographer, he teamed up with David Lean and writer Noel Coward for films such as Blithe Spirit and In Which We Serve.

He also shared the screen writer credits with Lean on Great Expectations and Brief Encounter which earned him Oscar nominations.

He produced both of these films, as well as Oliver Twist and The Magic Box, with his partners David Lean and Anthony Havelock-Allan.

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Neame directed Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Magic Box is credited with having persuaded a young Martin Scorsese to become a director.

Despite viewing Brief Encounter dozens of times, the romance between the characters played by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson never failed to stir his emotions.

With Great Expectations, he gave Alec Guinness his first major role, and went on to direct four of the actor's films including Tunes of Glory, with John Mills, that became Neame's proudest achievement.

It was Guinness who persuaded Ronnie Neame, against his initial instinct, that Tunes of Glory could be adapted from a book to the big screen.

'Filthy mood'

Directing Guinness in "he Horse's Mouth taught Neame many lessons in dealing with actors. Guinness took him aside and complained that he "hadn't given him any praise".

He told Neame that with actors, "the part of their mind that wants to act is never older than 14".

Ronnie Neame needed all his experience in dealing with Judy Garland whose last movie, I Could Go On Singing, he directed.

"When she liked me, which was half the time, she called me 'Pussycat'", he recalled. "Then she'd come on the set in a filthy mood, having been missing for three days, and try to have me fired."

But thanks to Neame's talent and a slice of luck, Judy Garland produced one of cinema's most memorable scenes.

In a dialogue with Dirk Bogarde, Garland's fragile psychological state produced such emotional intensity including genuine tears and choking voice, that all plans were ditched in favour of a single take.

Ronnie Neame directed Maggie Smith's Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Jean Brodie and had varying success with Scrooge, The Odessa File and the Poseidon Adventure.

In all, Ronnie Neame achieved more than 80 screen credits over more than six decades. In that time, he achieved the reputation of being the best all-rounder in the business.

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