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Desmond Davis - An Obituary

Desmond Davis – film and television director

 Born May 24, 1926; died July 3, 2021


 Desmond Davis, who has died aged 95, was a British film director who became best known for Clash of the Titans (1981), the Greek mythology based fantasy adventure that was stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen’s film. Davis was hired after directing a BBC Television Shakespeare production of Measure for Measure (1979), with the producers keen to have someone on board who could deal with classical actors such as Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, who were both in the cast.


Davis had come to the fore two decades earlier on the back of a new wave of British film-making that came to be known as ‘kitchen-sink’ films. Davis worked as camera operator on a Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), both directed by Tony Richardson. It was Richardson who gave Davis the chance to direct his own films, which began with Girl with Green Eyes (1964). The film was produced by Richardson’s Woodfall company, with Davis going on to direct other key 1960s films such as Smashing Time (1967), before moving into television throughout the 1970s.


Davis may have flexed his muscles on Clash of the Titans with his return to the big screen, but it is notable how many of his earlier films are adapted from novels and stories written by women. Davis collaborated with Edna O’Brien three times, on Girl with Green Eyes, adapted from her novel The Lonely Girl; I Was Happy Here (1966), adapted from a short story by O’Brien; and The Country Girls (1983), taken from her 1960 novel of the same name.


Desmond Stanley Tracey Davis was born in Wandsworth, south-west London, the youngest of two children to Dorothy (nee Newbold) and Isaac (known as William) Davis, who was a director of optical lens manufacturer Newbold & Co, his wife’s family firm. Davis attended Wimbledon College and Belmont Abbey, Hereford, and built his own darkroom at home.


He enrolled at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography and Cinematography, and in 1944 joined Riverside Studios in Hammersmith as a clapper loader. He worked on his first films, It’s in the Bag (1944), a comedy vehicle for variety double act Gert and Daisy, aka Florence and Doris Waters; and Don’t Take It to Heart! (1944) prior to army service. He joined the British Army Film Unit, and after training in battle photography, was posted to southeast Asia, where he filmed the liberation of British prisoners of war from Japanese camps. Some of Davis’ footage is held at the Imperial War Museum.


After being discharged, he worked as clapper loader and focus puller on numerous low budget British films until the mid 1950s. He also worked on John Huston’s production of The African Queen (1951), starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. 


Throughout the second half of the 1950s, he was a camera operator on more than twenty films, including British noir, Tread Softly Stranger (1958) starring Diana Dors. Three films with Richardson followed, with A Taste of Honey adapted from Shelagh Delaney’s play and starring Rita Tushingham, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner taken from Alan Sillitoe’s short story, with Tom Courtenay playing the lead. 


Davis worked the same year on Huston’s film, Freud, starring Montgomery Clift in the title role. Davis’ final film before moving into directing was Tom Jones (1963), Richardson’s lavish romp starring Albert Finney as Henry Fielding’s eighteenth century charmer in a version penned by John Osborne.


It was Richardson who suggested Davis direct O’Brien’s story, and executive produced what became Girl With Green Eyes (1964). Tushingham starred, as she did in Davis’ fourth film as director, Smashing Time (1967). This saw Tushingham team up with Lynn Redgrave in a musical comedy charting the misadventures of two northern English girls who go in search of swinging London. 


In-between, Davis directed The Uncle (1966), adapted from Margaret Abrams’ novel about a seven-year-old boy who must take charge of his nephew, also aged seven, during the summer holidays. Davis followed this with I Was Happy Here, taken from O’Brien’s short story, A Woman by the Seaside. The film starred Sarah Miles as a woman who chases the bright lights to London, only to make a prodigal’s return to her home by the sea. Smashing Time was followed by A Nice Girl Like Me (1969), adapted from Anne Piper’s novel, Marry at Leisure, and starring Barbara Ferris as the perennially pregnant Candida.


Davis’ television credits included overseeing episodes of Follyfoot (1972) and The New Avengers (1976), as well as Julia Jones’ play, Back of Beyond (1974) for Play for Today. Other work included The Emperor’s New Hat (1977), written by Angela Huth for the BBC’s Centre Play strand, and a three-part adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda (1977).


Post Measure for Measure and Clash of the Titans, Davis directed In a Glass Darkly (1982) for The Agatha Christie Hour, and another Christie adaptation, Ordeal by Innocence (1984), starring Donald Sutherland and Faye Dunaway. The Country Girls came in-between the two.


Davis’ final film was Doggin’ Around’ (1994), penned by Alan Plater, and starring Elliot Gould as an American jazz musician who finds himself travelling through the north of England with a cast of eccentrics.


Davis is survived by his son, Tim, to his former wife Shirley Smith.

The Herald, September 15th 2021




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