BOOKS: BIOGRAPHY - Divided Loyalties - the Rolls-Royce or the Bentley? ; as God Made Him: Tom Dewe Mathews Enjoys the Life of a Middling Film Director with a Top Class Personality
Mathews, Tom Dewe, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The Empress of Ireland
By Christopher Robbins
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T oday, the name Brian Desmond Hurst is almost unknown; largely because, although Hurst was Ireland's most prolific movie-maker during the 1940s and Fifties, his films were uneven and such a mixed bag: a lively adaptation of Synge's Playboy of the Western World followed on from rather stodgy war melodramas like Dangerous Moonlight or Malta Story, a quaint Tom Brown's Schooldays preceded the classic version of A Christmas Carol in 1951 with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Yet this inconsistent and overlooked movie-maker has now become the unlikely object of an exhaustive biography. And it's a very good choice.
For what becomes rapidly apparent in Christopher Robbins' memoir is that while his subject might have been a middling director, Hurst had a top- class personality, knew almost everybody of note in the first half of the 20th century and possessed a wry line in lacerating wit. Also, fortunately for Robbins, he met Hurst when the director still retained the ambition to make one "masterpiece", to deliver one last big hit, a Biblical blockbuster no less, recounting the events leading up to the birth of Christ, whose screenplay Robbins was hired to write in 1974.
As a destitute, callow freelancer Robbins is inevitably drawn to the words blockbuster and "big bucks" like a salmon to the sea, and Hurst is eager to proffer words of filmic advice as well as provide an education in the ways of the cultural world to his young amanuensis. Hurst's suggestions, however, are invariably outlandish and impractical: whether it's fiscal matters ("Don't be like me Christopher - 36 years old before I owned my first coachbuilt Rolls- Royce"); on the use of typewriters ("Good possibly for war reporting and American novels, but abrasive and harsh") or the essentials of scriptwriting ("Something everybody can understand, producers, financiers, gaffers and best boys... even the bloody actors").
As for the everyday rudiments of movie-making Robbins learns next to nothing. "What is a budget?" he innocently asks Hurst at one point. Not that their Biblical epic is ever likely to receive any backing. For the first rule Hurst imparts is to enjoy oneself, even at the expense of sponsorship. "Some of the people on the boards of the new film companies these days are not in the least suitable as partners. No fun. No fun at all," the Irishman declares. Robbins quickly discovers, moreover, that fun for the 77-year-old Hurst is combined with a relentless, indiscriminate sex life, preferably with servicemen "either with three children or three convictions", to which Robbins adds, "Brian also liked the occasional copper. …