Forest Gate-born Bryan Forbes recalls his local origins

Monday 31 July 2017

One of Britain's cinematic greats, Bryan Forbes, was born and brought up in Forest Gate, as this site recalled, when it marked his death in 2013 (see here).

He first hit the entertainment headlines as question master for BBC's Junior Brains Trust in the 1950's, was later head of production at EMI, and founder of a film production company, Beaver Films.

It was however, his role as actor in and writer and director of such films as The League of Gentleman, The Railway Children, Whistle Down The Wind, The Stepford Wives and the L-Shaped Room, that he is best remembered.

This article provides a potted biography of him and in particular of his roots in Forest Gate. It relies heavily on his first autobiography: Notes For a Life and his Wikipedia entry (see footnotes for details). He used his autobiography as an aide-memoire to pen an article for the short-lived Forest Gate Times in 2011, which is also quoted, below.

Bryan Forbes' first autobiography,
 upon which much of this
article is based
He was born, John Theobald Clarke on 22 July 1926: "in the sullen aftermath of the General Strike", as he recalled in his autobiography. He had a sister six years his senior and the family lived at 43 Cranmer Road - "destined to be destroyed in the early days of the Blitz" - he told the Forest Gate Times

43 Cranmer Road, today. Forbes
 told the Forest Gate Times that it
 was "destined to be destroyed
 during the Blitz". Hmm ...

His stage name, Bryan Forbes, was chosen at random by the man who gave him his first professional job, as Equity rules at the time required that he could not perform under his birth name, as another actor was already registered under it.

He went to Godwin Elementary School, as it was then called, and later recollected. "That establishment was approached through a long corrugated iron covered way which held more dread than all the tombstones in Wanstead Cemetery (ed: he probably meant Manor Park Cemetery)." 

Godwin school - Forbes' first
After winning a scholarship, he went to the old West Ham Secondary in Tennyson Road, Stratford.

His grandparents lived in Odessa Road, where he went once a week for family tea. Writing of the street and house in the 1930's, he said in Notes for a Life:

This was a dismal thoroughfare, bordering at one end on the London and North Eastern Railway, which ran, below street level behind a blackened wall, topped with jagged bottle glass. ... Pollution being then undiscovered, the belching tank engines were merely an accepted fact of life, menacing every wash-line and delighting only small boys - for to remain fearless on the wooden pedestrian bridge while a train shuddered beneath it was a considered a supreme test. One of the punishments meted out to the bullied (of which he was one) was for the victim's face to be pushed between the wooden floor slats of the bridge while a slow goods train passed jerking and clanging below. Apart from the terror produced by the noise, the sufferer was choked by thick yellow smoke which took minutes to disperse.
He later told the Forest Gate Times, that his grandparents' house was:
A humble house, sandwiched between two other identical houses with front gardens just big enough to take a pram lengthways, separated from the road by a privet hedge, the stems cankered by years of vintage dog pee, the leaves sooted and crisped to the texture of dried holly.
Writing of his own, Forest Gate home during childhood, he said: 
The gentle flow of life in Cranmer Road were seldom disturbed. It was a peaceful neighbourhood with pretensions to what used to be called the 'genteel' : neat, undistinguished but solidly built rows of terraced houses, carefully painted every year on the outside, and the women used to hand striped canvas sun-blinds during the summer months to protect the front doors.
Of Forest Gate, in the 1930's, he wrote:
Forest Gate was a pleasant place to live in those days. Originally a hamlet lying to the north of Upton at the edge of Wanstead Flats, it was as its name denotes, the southern entrance to Epping Forest.
He had this to say about Wanstead Flats:
Cranmer Road bordered on the Flats, the savannah of my formative years which I was forbidden to explore beyond a certain limit and which, in consequence, appeared to me to be as mysterious and boundless as the entire continent.
In reality it was a large area of sparse grassland dotted with irregular plantations of thin trees and some sand hills humped around what I assume must have been a derelict gravel pit.
 It had a pathetic boating lake, like something out of Toy Town, with half a dozen rotting paddle boats for hire, and a small bandstand where, some Sunday evenings, we were taken to hear the music, sitting on hard slatted seats and surrounded by discarded peanut shells. I thought it was one of the most romantic places on earth.
Bandstand on the Flats, a few years
 before Forbes was taken to hear
 music on Sunday evenings
 Running parallel to Cranmer Road", he noted:
were four other roads named after the martyred bishops - Latimer, Lorne, Tylney and Ridley. They were considerably posher than my own, and Lorne was the poshest of the lot.
My dallion days on Wanstead Flats were for the most part totally uncomplicated: it was football in the mud during winter and cricket until the light faded in the summer.
Bryan Forbes had his first - unwanted - sexual encounter on Wanstead Flats, when he was approached by a flasher, who offered him 6 pence if he co-operated. Forbes ran off, cutting his thumb on a broken bottle as he stumbled and later recalled:
The gentleman in the raincoat proved to be an escaped lunatic (it would appear that Forest Gate had more than its fair quota in those days) and apparently, was swiftly apprehended.
The episode was completely erased from my mind until 1969 when I went back to Cranmer Road with a BBC camera team who were shooting a biographical Man Alive programme around me and visiting my childhood haunts to capture celluloid nostalgia. 
Bryan Forbes on a return visit to
 Forest Gate, in the 1950's
I stood again on Wanstead Flats, the limitless vista now reduced to its true scale, shivering in the winter dusk while hoards of turbinated immigrants played hockey in the Giant's Basin - not the canyon I had remembered, but just a slight dip in the arid terrain. It was only then that the memory of the naked man returned, though the physical scar has always whitened the skin beneath my left thumb.
Bryan Forbes recalled fascism in Forest Gate, during the 1930's
Mosley came to Wanstead Flats some Sunday evenings. He came in a sealed truck with a wire cage set into the roof. Surrounded by a black garland of close-cropped, scrubbed and wax-like body guards, he stood within his cage and screeched his British upper-class impersonation of Streicher to an audience that mostly consisted of children, derelicts and policemen.

Oswald Mosley, a visitor to Wanstead
Flats in the '30's - caged in his white van
I remember listening without comprehension (ed: Forbes would have been about 10 at the time). It was merely a strange, but not unwelcome diversion from the sameness of everyday life. I can remember seeing bottles breaking on the white cage close to the thin drawn face of Mosley and hearing his lunatic-amplified voice bouncing back from the houses behind him.
Mounted police waited in the shadows beside the empty bandstand, edging their restless horses forward as the bully boys started on the really important business of the evening. Mosley looked like Mighty Mouse in his mobile cage and departed the scene as battle commenced to spread his gospel to another corner of a foreign field.
His early encounters with the cinema were in Forest Gate
Most of my contemporaries patronised the 'Tuppenny Rush' at the Splendid, alongside Forest Gate railway station. (His Forest Gate Times article embelished this a little: I also haunted the old second hand bookshop close to the cinema. I have no idea how the old bookseller kept his head above water, because he operated on a barter system.) There on a Saturday afternoon, we would rush the doors to tread the threadbare carpets inside that dark and welcoming cave. For three pence you could join the ranks of the elite and sit upstairs in the balcony, a privilege which carried with it the bonus of being able to hurl your ice cream carton on the unruly audience below.
The Splendid cinema - Bryan Forbes'
introduction to his later, illustrious, career
To this day I can recall the agonising delight of those afternoons, the bliss of coming out of the darkness into sunlight and crossing the road to Paterson's (sic) Dolls' Hospital on the bridge, to spend what remained of our pocket-money on a penny bomb. This was a small, but effective device, made of some cheap alloy and shaped like a hand grenade.... There was a satisfying explosion when it fell to earth.

Pattinson's Doll's Hospital, mentioned
 by Bryan Forbes, above - facing Forest
 Gate train station. Note correct spelling
The simplest and most effective ploy at the poor old broken-down Splendid was to raise money to buy one ticket. Once inside, the owner of the ticket would then work his way to the remotest exit, carefully open the door, where his partners in crime would be waiting outside. 
They would dart in like rats and occupy the nearest vacant seats., The aged usherettes were too bored and poorly paid to give chase, but from time to time a new manager (pathetically attired in some second-hand dress suit) would brush the dandruff off his collar and attempt a purge.
But if the Splendid was my village church, the Queen's at the top of Woodgrange Road was my Westminster Abbey. This superior palace, glorifying the Cunnard liner of British cinema architecture, demanded greater respect and the collection started at six pence. It was there on Friday nights, that blissful childhood day of the week, when school can be pushed to the back of your mind, that I became addicted.
The Queen's cinema, Romford Road -
bombed during WW11 - Forbes' "Westminster Abbey"
 His main local enthusiasm, apart from the cinema, seems to have been his membership of the St John's Ambulance cadet force. He wrote:
I joined the St John's Ambulance Cadet Force, since the uniform had more attraction to me than the Boy Scouts. Albert Herbert accompanied me to a series of lectures at Barclay Hall, Green Street ...
On other occasions I did duty with my father at Upton Park. Football crowds seemed just as violent then and I always considered myself lucky to be on the touchline with the police.
An abiding, and unfond, memory of the area, was the railway:
Trains from Forest Gate were appallingly dirty, the third class being little better than upholstered cattle trucks, and it was quite normal to have eight people standing in bleak proximity in each crammed compartment.
His last local connections

He was evacuated for the first time in 1939, but his parents soon brought him home:
It was now, when the war seemed suddenly much closer, that my parents decided I should return to London. I thus went back to Cranmer Road just as the Battle of Britain was beginning, a piece of timing which perhaps perfectly illustrates the most baffling piece of our national character.
My second exodus from London took place in September in September 1940. This time I travelled with the bulk of West Ham Secondary School to Heston in Cornwall.
Bryan Forbes went on to describe life in Cranmer Road during the Blitz. We will draw on these writings in our next article, which will be looking at how three writers described Forest Gate during that period.

And so ended his local association.

Post Forest Gate life

Nanette Newman, Bryan Forbes's
 second wife, who survived him
Bryan Forbes went to Hornchurch Grammar school, after his family left Forest Gate. He then trained, briefly, as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He did four years of military service in the Intelligence Corps and Combined Forces Entertainment Unit, 

After completing his military service in 1948, he began to act, appearing on stage and playing numerous supporting roles in British films, in particular An Inspector Calls (1954) and The Colditz Story (1955). 

He received his first credit for Second World War film The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), while other early screenplays include I was Monty's Double (1958),and The League of Gentlemen  (1959), his breakthrough. 

In 1959, he formed a production company, Beaver Films, with his frequent collaborator Richard Attenborough.

Forbes's directorial debut came with Whistle Down the Wind (1961), again produced by Attenborough, a critically acclaimed film about three northern children who conceal a criminal in their barn, believing him to be a reincarnated Jesus Christ.

The L-Shaped Room (1962), his next film as director, with Leslie Caron in the female lead, led to her gaining a nomination for an Oscar, and winning the BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards. 

Bryan Forbes at the height of his fame
Forbes wrote and directed Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and the same year he wrote the third screen adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel Of Human Bondage

In 1969, he was appointed chief of production and managing director of the film studio Associated British (soon to become EMI Films).

Under Forbes's leadership, the studio produced The Railway Children (1970). His tenure though, was short-lived and marked by financial problems and failed projects. Forbes resigned in 1971. 

From the early 1970s, Forbes divided his energies between cinema, television, theatre and writing. 

Forbes returned to Hollywood to direct The Stepford Wives (1975), it featured his wife Nanette Newman and was to become his best-known film. His final film as a screenwriter was Chaplin in 1992.

In 2004, he was made a CBE for his services to the arts. In May 2007, he was the recipient of a BAFTA tribute, celebrating his "outstanding achievement in filmmaking". 

In 1951 he married Irish actress Constance Smith and the couple travelled to Hollywood in the early 1950s. They divorced in 1955. Forbes went on to marry actress Nanette Newman the same year.

Forbes was diagnosed with MS in 1975, however, he revealed in a 2012 interview that it had been a misdiagnosis. He died at his home in Virginia Water, Surrey, on 8 May 2013 at the age of 86, following a long illness.

Footnotes and sources
1. Notes for a Life - Bryan Forbes , Everest Books 1974
2. Wikipedia:
3. Bryan Forbes Remembers Forest Gate, from The Forest Gate Times,  2001

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