There was some head-scratching when it was announced that John Cleese had requested Charles Crichton direct A Fish Called Wanda. Charles Who? Didn't Cleese realise he should entrust the biggest film of his career to a young, thrusting go-getter rather than to this old timer, then in his late seventies.
But Cleese new exactly what he was doing. He'd seen Crichton's other films, some made decades before, and knew that class doesn't age. Crichton was responsible for some of Britain's best comedies and the man from Monty Python wanted some of that for himself.
Born in 1910, Crichton began work as an editor for Alexander Korda (he cut The Thief of Bagdad) before graduating to the director's chair at Ealing, the studio he was most associated with. After directing the light-hearted golfing story in Dead of Night he gained a reputation for comedy and help shaped the style that would become known as the 'Ealing comedy'.
Although not as well known as his colleagues Alexander Mackendrick or Robert Hamer, Crichton made some of Ealing's best (and best-loved) comedies, including Hue and Cry, The Titfield Thunderbolt and, above all, The Lavender Hill Mob, one of the best things the studio, and its (Oscar nominated) lead actor Alec Guiness ever did.
So successful were Crichton's comedies that his strengths as a drama director are sometimes overlooked. The best of these is Hunted, in which murderer Dirk Bogarde goes on the lam with a small boy. A recent DVD revival received a rapturous reception; the film – a tense, unsentimental thriller – has been hailed as a minor-classic.
When Ealing went into decline, Crichton briefly tried Hollywood but found himself temperamentally unsuited to tinsel town. So he returned to Britain and moved into television, directing episodes of Danger Man, The Avengers and Space: 1999. He'd all but retired when Cleese – an ardent Ealing fan – begged him to do Wanda. The large grossing, Oscar® winning results proved the nay-sayers wrong.
Crichton died in 1999, aged 89. Widely recognised as one of Britain's greats, it's impossible to imagine British film without him.