Desmond Davis obituary

<span>Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy</span>
Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

Desmond Davis, who has died aged 95, was a British director widely known for his 1981 Hollywood film fantasy Clash of the Titans, a saga of Greek myths and legends, thrilling duels to the death, and fearsome creatures and visual effects that were brought to the screen by the great animator Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen’s creativity was matched by a stellar cast, with two film newcomers, Harry Hamlin as Perseus and Judi Bowker as Andromeda, joined by Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Claire Bloom as Hera and Maggie Smith as Thetis.

Davis was chosen to direct by the producer Charles H Schneer, who was impressed with his intelligent, visually inventive 1979 BBC production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

The film was worlds away from the so-called kitchen-sink dramas that Davis had worked on two decades earlier as camera operator for the social-realist director Tony Richardson, one of the “angry young men” who brought working-class voices to the stage and screen.

A Taste of Honey, about Jo, a 17-year-old in the north of England who becomes pregnant with a black sailor’s baby and later moves in with Geoffrey, a gay student, started as a stage play written by Shelagh Delaney and directed by Richardson. Together, they adapted it for a 1961 screen version – winner of four Bafta awards – starring Rita Tushingham.

Richardson was keen to have Davis working alongside the director of photography, Walter Lassally, because of his earlier documentary-making experience as a camera operator in the army.

Lynn Redgrave. left, and Rita Tushingham in Girl With Green Eyes, 1964, directed by Desmond Davis.
Lynn Redgrave. left, and Rita Tushingham in Girl With Green Eyes, 1964, directed by Desmond Davis. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“We used Arriflex handheld cameras a lot,” Davis told the Guardian in 2018 for a feature on the making of A Taste of Honey. “I had form on that, as I’d been in the army film unit for three years during the second world war, shooting in near battlefield conditions. Their use is especially noticeable in the scenes on Blackpool pier, where heavy camera tracks weren’t feasible.”

He added that he welcomed the chance to shoot entirely on location after “working in a stuffy, studio-bound atmosphere making films by numbers for Pinewood”.

Davis then shot The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), with Tom Courtenay as the borstal juvenile offender who shows talent as an athlete in Alan Sillitoe’s screenplay from his own short story.

His final film alongside Richardson, Tom Jones (1963), John Osborne’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel, was a switch to period drama, described by the director as his “holiday” from social realism, although the bawdy tale of Albert Finney’s country lad seeking women, food and rowdy adventures bore comparison with the freedoms of the swinging 60s era that was just getting under way. This was reflected in the move away from gritty black-and-white film to colour, which Davis and Lassally embraced as they shot evocatively in rambling countryside.

The movie won four Oscars and went on to become a comedy classic while Woodfall, Richardson’s production company, gave Davis the chance to begin a 30-career as a director. “Tony gave me my big break,” he said. “It entirely changed my life in one moment.”

His first film, Girl With Green Eyes (1964), was one of his finest, with Edna O’Brien adapting her novel The Lonely Girl, about a naive young woman in rural Ireland falling for a sophisticated older man.

Tushingham starred, with Lynn Redgrave as the girl’s friend and Peter Finch as her lover. Davis recalled Finch arriving on set every morning “slightly red-eyed” after nights on the town – “but he knew his lines absolutely, had done his homework, somewhere, somehow”.

Girl With Green Eyes won a Golden Globe award in the US, where Variety wrote: “Davis is imaginative, prepared to take chances and has the sympathy to draw perceptive performances from his cast.”

The director reunited Tushingham and Redgrave for the slapstick comedy Smashing Time (1967), set in swinging London. Another comedy, A Nice Girl Like Me (1969), starring Barbara Ferris facing life as an unmarried mother, was Davis’s final feature film before switching to television, where he worked for a quarter of a century.

Desmond was born in Wandsworth, south-west London, to Dorothy (nee Newbold) and Isaac (known as William) Davis, a director of the optical lens manufacturer Newbold & Co. He hated his schooldays at Belmont Abbey, Hereford. Having built his own darkroom at home and enjoyed watching Humphrey Bogart films, he was more enthusiastic about studying at Regent Street Polytechnic’s school of photography and cinematography.

On leaving in 1944, he joined Riverside studios in Hammersmith as a clapper loader, working on two comedies, Don’t Take It to Heart and It’s in the Bag, before his call-up for wartime service. Following training in battle photography at Pinewood studios, he served in the army (1945-49) as a sergeant in South East Asia Command seconded to the Army Film and Photographic Unit. After covering the Japanese surrender in Singapore, he filmed Jewish refugees arriving in Palestine and some of his footage is held by the Imperial War Museum.

On demob, Davis resumed life as a clapper loader on films such as the comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) and The African Queen (1951, directed by John Huston), before almost 20 movies as a focus puller. His many as camera operator included Freud, Huston’s 1962 biopic about the psychiatrist.

He also directed I Was Happy Here (1966), O’Brien’s adaptation of her story A Woman by the Seaside, starring Sarah Miles, and worked with the author again on The Country Girls (1983), an atmospheric retelling of her novel for television.

His other feature-length dramas for TV included The Sign of Four (1983), starring Ian Richardson as Sherlock Holmes, Camille (1984), with Greta Scacchi and Colin Firth, and The Man Who Lived at the Ritz (1989), with Joss Ackland.

His final feature film was Ordeal by Innocence (1984), starring Donald Sutherland, Faye Dunaway and Christopher Plummer. He retired in 1994.

Davis’s 1959 marriage to Shirley Smith ended in divorce. He is survived by their son, Tim.

• Desmond Stanley Tracey Davis, born 24 May 1926; died 3 July 2021