Veteran film director Roy Ward Baker, who has died in London aged 93, will be remembered as the man who brought the epic about the Titanic, A Night To Remember, to the screen in 1958.
It was a movie that immediately revived interest in the tragic shipwreck of 1912 that had been pushed into the back of the public’s mind by the death and mayhem of two World Wars and here in Northern Ireland the blitz on Belfast.
But with life returning to normal in the mid-1950s, Belfast-born film producer William MacQuitty, who died in 2004, saw an opportunity for the story of the sinking and the iceberg to be told properly after a few bad attempts on film.
He and the Rank studio talked Baker into taking on the job and the result was a huge success in cinemas around the world — in spite of financial restrictions which forced the director to shoot some of the scenes of victims jumping from the deck of the stricken Titanic in an outdoor swimming pool.
Kenneth More, fresh from his screen portrayal of legless flying ace Douglas Bader, had the role of second officer Herbert Lightoller. Baker once recalled how, on a freezing November morning, he had to persuade his star and a dozen extras to jump into the icy water of the pool while the cameras rolled.
Baker (left), who for most of his career was known just as Roy Baker, but added the Ward to distinguish him from another Roy Baker in the industry, had an uneasy relationship with MacQuitty after the success of the movie, which won Golden Globe awards. Each thought the other was given too much credit for A Night To Remember being a box office smash.
In Belfast, after the screening, the Titanic was suddenly making a comeback as part of the city’s history and MacQuitty and Baker only shelved plans for some kind of sequel when the Troubles broke out.
Baker, who worked with Hitchcock and directed Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother To Knock, was the ‘go to’ director of the 1950s, with successes like Morning Departure, The One That Got Away, Tiger In The Smoke and the controversial The Singer Not The Song in 1961 about a relationship between a bandit (Dirk Bogarde) and an Irish priest (John Mills) which Rank directed him to make against his own wishes.
He also directed Hammer horror films like Quatermass And The Pit, The Vampire Lovers and Scars Of Dracula.
Another of his stars was Hollywood legend Bette Davis.
But when I met him in the 1990s in London, where he had directed episodes of series like The Avengers and The Saint, he made it clear that the film he regarded as his greatest achievement was A Night To Remember.
“William MacQuitty and I went to great lengths to be deadly accurate and truthful and tell the story as it really happened without any film world glitz,” he stressed.
He admitted being flattered — as was MacQuitty — when James Cameron turned to them for advice when producing his 1997 film Titanic, one of the biggest cinema successes ever.
A Night To Remember was based on the bestseller by Walter Lord and was scripted by novelist Eric Ambler, whose The October Man Baker also turned into a screen success.
Baker began his career as a tea boy at Gainsborough Picures and during the war was an Army cameraman. He was married to Muriel Bradford (divorced 1944) and to Joan Dixon (divorced 1987) and had a son.