Val Guest (1911-2006)

Space:1999 director Val Guest, who died in May, was one of the British film industry’s most prolific film-makers. The director, producer and screenwriter of some of the cinema’s best-loved comedies and science-fiction films, his movies included The Runaway Bus (1954), The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) and Confessions Of A Window Cleaner (1974) as well as 14 features for Hammer Films, among them The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Abominable Snowman(1957) and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1969).

Born in Maida Vale, London on 11th December 1911, Valmond Maurice Guest was educated at Seaford College. He left a bookkeeping job at Selfridges to become an actor and then formed a songwriting partnership with Ivan Keith, supplementing his income as a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, Picturegoer, Film Weekly and the Los Angeles Examiner. His writing and songwriting brought him to the attention of actor/director Lupino Lane who invited him to collaborate on the musical The Maid Of The Mountains (1932) in which Guest also made his film debut. He went on to write a series of comedy screenplays for Gaumont- British and director Marcel Varnel, among them No Monkey Business(1935), Public Nuisance No 1 (1936), seven Will Hay comedies – including Oh, Mr. Porter (1937) – and four Crazy Gang films. He penned a series of vehicles for Arthur Askey and then made his directing debut with Askey’s seventh feature, Miss London Ltd. (1943).

Over the next decade, Guest both wrote and directed at least one film (and often two or more) every year and in 1951 he began to produce his own films too, forming Conquest Productions with actress Yolande Donlan – whom he married in 1954 – and actor-screenwriter Reginald Beckwith. Beckwith and Donlan both starred alongside Dirk Bogarde in the company’s first production, Penny Princess (1952), a comedy written, directed and produced by Guest about a New York girl who inherits a tiny European principality. Their next production, comedy thriller The Runaway Bus (1954), launched the film career of Frankie Howerd, here playing the driver of an airport shuttle bus who is unaware that he has a cargo of stolen gold on board.

The same year, Guest began his association with Hammer Films when he directed the company’s first colour feature, Men Of Sherwood Forest (1954), with American actor Don Taylor as Robin Hood and Reginald Beckwith as Friar Tuck. He followed this with the radio comedy spin-offs Life With The Lyons (1954) and The Lyons In Paris (1955) before taking the helm on the company’s first ‘X’ certificate film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), its sequel Quatermass II (1957) and The Abominable Snowman (1957), also working on the screen adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s original television scripts for all three features. Despite the horror content of these films, Guest always insisted that he never directed any horror films for Hammer. Indeed, his other features for the company were either comedies (Up The Creek

[1958] and Further Up The Creek [1958]), war pictures (The Camp On Blood Island [1958] and Yesterday’s Enemy[1959]), or thrillers (Hell Is A City [1960] and The Full Treatment [1961]), although he also wrote and directed the monster fantasy When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1969), The company’s follow-up to the better known One Million Years B.C. (1966), Dinosaurs saw Victoria Vetri and Robin Hawdon menaced by stop-motion monsters animated by Jim Danforth.

In between his Hammer assignments, Guest produced and directed one of the best British film musicals, Expresso Bongo(1960) starring Laurence Harvey and featuring Cliff Richard in his first screen role. It was Conquest’s biggest success, picking up nominations for two BAFTAs (Harvey as Best Actor and Wolf Mankowitz for Best British Screenplay) but ultimately losing out to John Boulting’s I’m All Right Jack (1959) in both categories. Guest was also BAFTA nominated for Yesterday’s Enemy and Hell Is A City but he and Mankowitz finally got their BAFTA in 1962 when they shared the Best British Screenplay award for their science-fiction drama The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961), widely acknowledged as one of the best SF movies of the Sixties. The pair later collaborated on the David Niven espionage romp Where The Spies Are (1965) which led to their unfortunate involvement in the original Casino Royale (1967): Guest was originally contracted to direct the Woody Allen sequences of the confused Bond spoof but he also shot a number of additional scenes with Niven in a hopeless attempt to join together and make sense of the sequences shot by the film’s other four directors. Producer Charles Feldman offered Guest the credit of ‘Coordinating Director’ to reflect that his contribution had been more considerable than that of the other directors, but Guest wisely turned it down.

In the early Seventies, the changing fortunes of the British film industry led Guest to work in filmed television and softcore sex comedies. For ITC he helmed two of the finest episodes of The Persuaders! (Angie…Angie and Five Miles To Midnight), penned a episodes of The Adventurer. His two contributions to the smut-com genre were certainly among the most amusing: he wrote and directed both the frankly bizarre Au Pair Girls (1972) with Richard O’Sullivan and Gabrielle Drake, and the wildly popular Confessions Of A Window Cleaner (1974) with Robin Askwith and Linda Hayden. The latter broke box-office records in the UK and was the highest-grossing British movie of 1974, naturally spawning a series of sequels. However, at the request of his wife Yolande, Guest had no further involvement with smut-coms.

On Space:1999, Guest became the series’ primary ‘double-up’ director in the second season. In order to reduce the season’s shooting schedule, pairs of episodes were shot simultaneously. One episode in each pair was helmed by a member of the series’ regular directing team while the other was directed by Guest in the same two-week period. In this way, Guest shot The Rules Of Luton, The AB Chrysalis and Dorzak while Charles Crichton, Robert Lynn and Tom Clegg shot (respectively) The Mark Of Archanon, Catacombs Of The Moon and Devil’s Planet. Filmed almost entirely on location, the first of Guest’s episodes, The Rules Of Luton, has a notorious reputation but is, nonetheless, an effective romp with strong performances from Martin Landau and Catherine Schell. The AB Chrysalis and Dorzak were totally studio-bound but are generally recognised as two of the season’s strongest shows.

Guest next became involved in Sherlock Holmes And Doctor Watson, an ambitious 24-part Anglo/Polish series produced in Poland by Sheldon Reynolds. Geoffrey Whitehead and Donald Pickering played the title characters and the series was generally well-received in the countries where it was screened (including West Germany and America) but it was oddly ignored by British television and has never been seen here. Guest even found a role for Catherine Schell in one of his episodes (The Case Of The Deadly Tower). More successful was The Shillingbury Blowers (1979), a gentle comedy film for ITC about a village brass band, which reunited Guest with Greg Smith, the producer of Confessions Of A Window Cleaner. Guest and Smith formed Inner Circle Films to produce both The Shillingbury Blowers and the resulting six-part series, Shillingbury Tales, starring Robin Nedwell, Diane Keen and Jack Douglas, They then produced a TV pilot adaptation of Leslie Thomas’s novel Dangerous Davies – The Last Detective (1981) with Bernard Cribbins in the title role, but the expected series did not materialise.

The following year Guest reworked his script for the Will Hay comedy Ask A Policeman (1938) as a vehicle for telecomedians Cannon and Ball but the result, The Boys In Blue (1982) directed by Guest and produced by Smith, was a sadly ignominious end to Guest’s long film career. Thankfully his final screen works were more of a return to form, renewing his association with Hammer to direct three chilling feature length episodes of Hammer House Of Mystery And SuspenseMark Of The Devil, In Possession and Child’s Play.

Bringing to a close a career in the British film and television industry that had spanned five decades, Val Guest retired to live in California in 1990. His autobiography, So You Want To Be In Pictures, was published by Reynolds & Hearn in 2001. He died in Palm Springs on 10th May, aged 94, leaving his wife Yolande and their son.

Originally published in FAB 55.