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March 26 2012

Robert Fuest obituary

Director who blended sophistication and sickness in the horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes

With its mix of pop art, sophisticated humour, pulp science fiction and English eccentricity, the television series The Avengers was among the most influential and significant products of "swinging London" in the 1960s. Robert Fuest, who has died aged 84, cut his teeth on the series under the aegis of the writer-producer Brian Clemens, initially as a production designer when the show was produced "as live" in the studio in black and white and co-starred Honor Blackman with Patrick MacNee, then as director when the series had moved on to colour, film and Linda Thorson.

As designer and director, Fuest learned how to achieve style on a budget – making a great deal of the show's famously minimalist aesthetic – and he carried this over into his best-known works as a film director, the two Dr Phibes horror movies of the early 1970s, starring Vincent Price, and the Michael Moorcock adaptation The Final Programme (1973). In 1970, he made a commercially successful literary adaptation of Wuthering Heights, with Timothy Dalton as a pin-up Heathcliff, and the highly regarded, recently remade suspense picture And Soon the Darkness.

Fuest was born in Croydon, south London. He graduated from Wimbledon School of Art with a national diploma in design, then went on to Hornsey College of Art to study for his art teacher diploma. He did his national service in the RAF and was involved, in a tiny way, in the Berlin airlift of 1948.

After a decade teaching illustration and lithography at Southampton School of Art, he entered the TV industry as a production designer in 1961, first working at Thames Television on The Avengers. He worked for ITV and the BBC throughout the 1960s, mostly as an art director/production designer on prestige shows including Out of This World, Armchair Theatre and the BBC Sunday Night Play. He also contributed material to the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore sketch show Not Only … But Also, as a comedy writer, and seemed drawn towards the pop art/satire world epitomised in the British cinema by the films of Richard Lester.

In 1967, Fuest wrote, directed and provided songs for his first feature, the marriage-in-crisis comedy Just Like a Woman, starring Wendy Craig and Francis Matthews. The film ventures into freewheeling, surreal territory thanks to a Peter Sellers-esque performance from Clive Dunn as a modern architect who creates a stylish but hideous new home for the heroine. Seldom revived yet fresh and memorable, Just Like a Woman might well have been Fuest's most personal film, though his subsequent work found him gravitating towards mainstream success and a lasting cult reputation.

Fuest then directed eight episodes of The Avengers and continued his collaboration with Clemens on And Soon the Darkness, a sunstruck thriller about two girls (Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice) stalked by a murderer while on a cycling holiday in France. Wuthering Heights, one of several literary classics reimagined as 1960s-style youth romances in the wake of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, and John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd – was made for American International Pictures, which was at that time best known for beach-party musicals and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Price.

Wuthering Heights was AIP's biggest success to that date – rather to the surprise of studio chief Samuel Z Arkoff, who tried in vain to persuade Fuest to deliver a sequel – and Fuest was then teamed with Price, who had at that time grown weary of his horror stardom and become prickly to work with. Rewriting without credit a simple parade-of-deaths film initially called The Curse of Dr Pibe, Fuest delivered The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971), in which a disfigured vaudeville organist-theologist kills off, in gruesome manners derived from the Plagues of Egypt ("Aaargh, locusts!"), the doctors who failed to save his wife's life.

Aside from the relentless black humour of the premise, Fuest and Price worked hard on an unusual blend of sophistication and sickness, playing up the art deco sets and befuddled succession of mostly doomed British character actors. The film was a big enough hit to re-enthuse Price and AIP and led to an even more stylish and acid-dipped follow-up, Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), which did well, but not well enough to ensure further instalments.

The Final Programme, with Jon Finch as Moorcock's futuristic dandy Jerry Cornelius and an absurdist take on the end of the world, is a remarkable achievement, though the author did not care for it and audiences did not initially take to its odd qualities. After directing an entertaining American horror movie, The Devil's Rain (1975) – with Ernest Borgnine and William Shatner – Fuest mostly worked in television in the US and UK, inevitably directing episodes of The New Avengers but also odd projects such as Revenge of the Stepford Wives; an hour-long version of Poe's The Gold-Bug; and children's programs in the US and the UK.

From the mid-80s, he returned to teaching, as senior professor at the London International Film School, and then became a full-time painter, specialising in seascapes and maritime subjects. He was also a well-liked guest at film festivals and cult movie events.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, and their daughter Rebecca, and his former wife, Gillian, and their sons Adam, Ben and Aaron.

Robert Fuest, director, production designer and artist, born 30 September 1927; died 21 March 2012 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 28 2011

Beautiful rebels: the daring art of the aesthetic movement

The aesthetic movement was more than William Morris wallpaper – it turned Victorian values upside down. Jonathan Jones goes to Paris to seek out its dark side

In spring sunlight, art students rush through the grand courtyard of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Artists such as Matisse studied here. But I am looking for a British and Irish cultural hero. On the Rue des Beaux Arts, a narrow Left Bank street next to the famous art academy, an expensive hotel (simply called L'Hôtel) is getting ready for the lunch hour. Only if you know this was once the run-down Hotel d'Alsace where Oscar Wilde died in 1900, disgraced, despised, penniless, his health broken by Reading jail, will you stop and notice the plaque that commemorates him.

My trip is a pilgrimage inspired by the new V&A exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. Remembered today as a dramatist and wit, in his lifetime Wilde was notorious as the spokesman of this daring art movement and its bold declaration that art exists solely to create beauty with no moral purpose whatsoever. To follow this idea to the hotel where its persecuted hero died is to discover that the V&A's spring blockbuster is not just a delve into the drawing rooms of Victorian England, but a portal to the very origins of modern attitudes to art, sex and death.

In 1873, the students of Oxford were shaken by a very strange book. The Renaissance, by Walter Pater of Brasenose College, is a vision of life as pure sensual experience and a manifesto for hedonism. Writing in Victorian England, in that age of stern hypocrisy and repression, Pater gleefully expounds on the sexual adventures of the great Renaissance artists, openly praising gay desire. His febrile vision of art culminates in a bizarre description of the Mona Lisa: "Like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave."

Pater concludes that the purpose of life is to pursue sensual beauty and live in the moment. "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life," he declares. His students were enthralled – one of them was expelled because of love letters Pater sent him. Another, Oscar Wilde, was inspired to become the high priest of the movement Pater launched and to defy the age until finally it destroyed him, convicting him for homosexual "crimes", imprisoning him, then leaving him to eke away his final years abroad.

Not far from L'Hôtel is the Musée d'Orsay, where a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec portrays Wilde at the moment of his fall (they had met in London when Wilde was awaiting trial). Toulouse-Lautrec pictures him in Paris, watching the wild dance of the Moulin Rouge star La Goulue. As she kicks and leaps, Wilde stands massive and melancholy, with an unhealthily red face and dry yellow-grey hair. He looks like a ruined man.

Wilde's portrait underlines that the aesthetic movement was not merely a Victorian taste for William Morris wallpapers and peacock-tail Liberty prints – though it abounded in such beautiful creations. It was dangerous. This was the age of Gladstone, the British Empire, the pious bourgeoisie. The idea of "art for art's sake" turned Victorian values upside down. The aesthetic movement inspired an astonishing range of innovations in art and design that the V&A exhibition brings together, from Edward Burne-Jones's spectral, waxy paintings to "aesthetic" clothes for men and women. Wilde took the lead in dressing in knee-length velvet, while women wore simple dresses in blue or white, a reaction against the stuffy frocks of their forebears. In the best aesthetic movement designs, you see a simplicity that is beguilingly modern. As a young man, Morris was disgusted by the ugly exhibits piled up in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition: he set out to reform taste and society. If Pater and Wilde advocated a liberation of the senses, Morris was a Marxist who believed the triumph of beauty would destroy capitalism. The repeated, interlocking patterns of his wallpapers and fabrics are not just lovely – they are abstract art.

For all its rich creations, the real point of the aesthetic movement was rebellion. In France, modern art was already born – aestheticism is contemporary with Manet, Monet and Renoir. While Britain was buttoned up, the French capital was hedonistic. The aesthetes set out to live as if they were in France, and it was in Paris that the most beautiful art of the movement was born. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was by far the greatest painter linked with the aesthetic movement. As a cosmopolitan art star, famous on both sides of the channel and across the Atlantic, he blended heady ideas from London with new techniques from Paris. While most aesthetic painters – even Burne-Jones – are hampered by their acceptance of very traditional ideas of the well-crafted depiction, Whistler's paintings fizz with impressionist suggestion. This makes their declaration of the supremacy of beauty all the more striking. If Pater's book The Renaissance is the literary manifesto of the aesthetic movement, its visual masterpiece is Whistler's 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 1 – otherwise known as Whistler's Mother. She sits today in the Musée d'Orsay among the masterpieces of impressionism. But where Monet enjoys, Whistler argues. Greys and silvers, whites and blacks shimmer across the canvas with the restrained beauty of a Japanese screen. The message is provocative: Whistler pours scorn on the sentimentality and piety of his age. Whatever he felt for his mother, her portrait does not show it. In Whistler's eyes, art has no moral duty to convey any feeling except the sheer bliss of visual stimulation. His painting, its title and its formal purity, make that message explicit.

The aesthetic movement soon revealed its dark side. The hero of Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray destroys lives in his pursuit of beauty without limits. When Pater compared the Mona Lisa with a "vampire", he linked the cult of beauty with depravity and death. There is a close parallel between the heady prose of Pater and the art of his French contemporary Gustave Moreau, whose paintings reimagined Renaissance art as a decadent ecstasy of the senses. Moreau's beautifully preserved home in Paris is near the Moulin Rouge and the sleaze of Pigalle. Its walls are lined with his paintings of orgies, beheadings and cruel goddesses, but the bed he slept in is a single bed, austere and lonely. An eerily similar single bed can be seen in Leighton House in London, where the rich aesthetic painter Frederic Leighton created a fantastic realm of Arabic tiles, a delicate fountain, bronzes, flowers. Like Moreau, Leighton painted beauties, but seemingly slept alone. It was easier to dream than to act.

Today we visit Leighton House to glimpse the world of these sensuous dreamers, but an ideal aesthetic movement tour would include the long-vanished opium dens of London's docklands, where Dorian Gray attempts to fulfil the aesthetic ideal. Nothing modern was lost on these pioneers. But the supreme expression of the darkening mood of aestheticism in British art – and in the V&A show – is in the gorgeous macabre drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, ornate fantasmagoria of sin.

In the end, these adventurers were Victorians, and pure hedonism was never going to be simple for them. Thus, the culmination of the aesthetic movement in Britain was to be a golden age of horror fiction that began with Gray's portrait. The most famous Victorian aesthete, immortalised in a thousand screen bites of sex and death, may be Count Dracula, the connoisseur of young beauty in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel that popularised aesthetic decadence. The lingering morality of the Victorian age pushed imaginations inward – in those single beds of the aesthetes – to feast on macabre visions of sin.

It is the intensity of the aesthetic movement, dreaming of a hedonism just out of reach, that made it influential. Across Europe its passion for flowers and vampires, decor and desire can be glimpsed in Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Munch's macabre women, Klimt's Kiss. Its legacy weaves through modern times in the defiance of dandies from Salvador Dalí to David Bowie. In art, it is still provocative because champions of culture (and arts funding) still feel obliged to claim that art has a moral value, a political value. Today as the arts face cuts, such proclamations of usefulness seem all the more necessary. So it is salutary for us to read the aesthetic philosophy expressed in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray. We can still be provoked by its Victorian modernist hauteur: "All art is quite useless." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 03 2010

The Last Exorcism poster banned

ASA says it received complaints that the promotional images showed a girl who appeared to have suffered a sexual assault

The Advertising Standards Authority has banned a graphic poster for the Eli Roth-produced horror film The Last Exorcism following complaints that it was distressing and unsuitable for public display.

One promotional display for the film featured a young woman doubled over backwards with her dress covered in blood, while another showed her dishevelled and filthy in the top corner of a room. The movie, which is directed by Daniel Stamm and stars Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell, depicts a faithless evangelical minister who agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew, only to discover that this time, the subject may be genuinely possessed. It was released here in September.

The ASA said most complainants found the images promoting the 15-rated film offensive, distressing and unsuitable for public display because the girl appeared to have suffered a sexual assault. The images appeared on buses and in the Cineworld's cinema chain's Unlimited film magazine. There was concern that the posters were likely to upset children because some posters were placed near schools and because the magazine was freely available.

The film's distributor, Optimum Releasing, said it did not intend the posters to cause distress and had instructed its media agency to remove any ads displayed near schools once it learned of the complaints. The ASA ruled that the first ad was likely to cause offence and distress and agreed that the image of the young girl covered in blood was unsuitable to be seen by children.

However, it said that because young children visiting the cinema were likely to be accompanied by an adult to see a 15-rated film, they were unlikely to see and be distressed by the ad in that context. The ASA ruled that the first ad must not appear again in its current form. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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