Peter Duffell obituary

Peter Duffell filming in 1987
Peter Duffell filming in 1987

Peter Duffell, who has died aged 95, was a film and TV director who might have been better known had he been less eclectic and made more movies. Duffell made only five features over two decades, whereas he was very active, throughout his career, in television, where directors’ work is more anonymous.

After his successful debut feature, an omnibus horror movie, The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Duffell was offered other films in the same genre but refused them because he did not want to be typecast. Instead, he went on to direct a version of his friend Graham Greene’s novel England Made Me (1973); a second world war action movie, Inside Out (1975); a breezy coming-of-age comedy, Experience Preferred … But Not Essential (1982); and a boy-and-his-horse yarn for children called King of the Wind (1990).

His television work, even more wide-ranging, included the witty and trenchant BBC drama Caught on a Train (1980), for which he won a Bafta as best director, and The Far Pavilions (1984), an epic three-part romance set during the British Raj.

Born in Canterbury, Kent, Peter was the only child of Dorothy (nee Allen), who sold advertising space for a magazine, and Albert Duffell, a newspaper distributor. When their marriage broke down, Peter was brought up mainly by his grandmother. His childhood was fairly chaotic; he moved around a variety of schools before studying English literature at Keble College, Oxford.

Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt in The House That Dripped Blood (1971), directed by Peter Duffell.
Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt in The House That Dripped Blood (1971), directed by Peter Duffell. Photograph: Amicus/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

His directing career began with Pearl & Dean film commercials, which preceded the big picture at cinemas throughout the UK. This led to his directing three taut, low-budget Scotland Yard dramas, all in 1961, which were also shown as part of the film programme. Shot at Merton Park Studios in south Wimbledon, London, which specialised in these second features, the films were 30 minutes long and were hosted by the crime writer Edgar Lustgarten. In the same year, he directed an episode of the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre TV series.

But his TV career took off in 1967 with an episode of The Avengers called The Winged Avenger and all six episodes of Man in a Suitcase (1967-1968), a roving private eye adventure series starring the American actor Richard Bradford.

The House That Dripped Blood (a title Duffell hated, because there is no blood in the movie), proved that he was a dab hand at the horror genre, brilliantly using all the elements of the macabre – creepy sound, striking camera angles, a skilful buildup of tension, black humour and performances just the right side of ham by a cast that included Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Denholm Elliott and Jon Pertwee.

England Made Me, elegantly shot in Yugoslavia, was a rather awkward adaptation of the Greene novel, shifted from post-Depression Sweden in the 1930s to prewar Nazi Germany. But it had a sterling cast headed by Peter Finch, Michael York and Michael Hordern, the latter as a seedy journalist, the most Greene-ish character.

Inside Out, a gripping heist movie about the search for and recovery of Nazi gold, with Telly Savalas, Robert Culp and James Mason, made good use of locations in London, Amsterdam and Berlin, and moved along at a rapid enough pace not to allow audiences time to question holes in the plot.

In general, Duffell was more at ease and more in command on television, whether directing children’s series such as The Adventures of Black Beauty (1973) and The Famous Five (1978) or TV films. His film of Stephen Poliakoff’s intimate drama Caught on a Train, starring Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Kitchen, was outstanding.

In complete contrast, The Far Pavilions, based on the bestseller by MM Kaye, and shot in India at a cost of £9m, demonstrated Duffell’s ability to handle large resources with authority.

In 2011, he published his entertaining autobiography, Playing Piano in a Brothel: Memoirs of a Film Director, in the preface of which Lee described him as “the most underrated director we have had in Britain for a very long time”.

Duffell’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1991 he married Ros (Rosslyn) Cliffe, who survives him along with a son, Christopher, from his second marriage.

Peter Duffell, film and television director, born 10 July 1922; died 12 December 2017