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Great British film director celebrated with restoration of 10 films

22 January 2008

David Lean centenary year packed with tributes and celebrations

Ten films directed by David Lean during the 1940s and 50s have been faithfully restored by the BFI National Archive, in partnership with Granada International, to coincide with the centenary year of the great British film director. The sparkling new restorations were announced today at the BFI as part of a year-long programme of events, screenings, tributes, book and DVD releases involving different organisations and allowing people across Britain to discover and rediscover Lean’s work.

The £1 million restoration project was completed thanks to generous funding from the David Lean Foundation. The Foundation was set up at Lean’s request to promote the appreciation of film as an art form and to encourage skills and technical excellence in filmmaking.

David Lean remains one of Britain’s most widely known and respected directors and many of his films are part of our national memory, whether the forlorn couple in the station café or that tiny figure shimmering on the desert horizon. A master of visual storytelling, Lean was meticulous in his craft and admired by filmmakers for his loving attention to detail. Like Hitchcock, Lean loved to explore the nature of British – or English – identity whether on the Home Front of wartime drama, literary adaptations and doomed romances, or on the larger canvas of his later Hollywood-backed epics.

Most of us know the great Lean epics that won many awards here and in Hollywood – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) – but he directed 16 fiction films and edited numerous others in a career that spanned six decades. The BFI and its partners aim to cast new light on his earlier work which includes the classics In Which We Serve (1942), Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), also enabling people to rediscover lesser-known films such as The Passionate Friends (1948), to be released by the BFI in June.

At BFI Southbank in June and July there will be a retrospective of the 16 feature films Lean directed, as well as a number of the more significant ones he edited, including Pygmalion (1938) by Anthony Asquith and 49th Parallel (1941), directed by Michael Powell. The two-month season, in association with Film 4, will also include events with documentary clips, discussions and feature presentations from experts exploring themes around his career and working style. Full details of the programme will be announced in the spring.

Throughout the year, brand new 35mm and high definition digital prints of the restored films will be screened up and down the country by Granada International, through its theatrical partners Park Circus and the BFI, and by Canal Plus. A complete season is also planned for screening on Film 4 in September, taking Lean’s films to a wider audience across Britain. Also ITV DVD and Optimum will release the newly restored pictures on DVD in the UK in August.

BAFTA is a charity organisation with long-established links with David Lean, which supports, develops and promotes the art forms of the moving image. BAFTA will be holding events and screenings in London, New York and Los Angeles for the public and for Academy members, starting with a tribute to David Lean at the Orange British Academy Film Awards on 10 February. There will be further tributes in the US later in the year, and during the first weekend in August four restored prints will be screened publicly at BAFTA’s headquarters on Piccadilly. The annual David Lean Lecture will also take place as usual this year, details of the date and 2008 lecturer are yet to be announced.

Also paying tribute to David Lean will be Carnforth Station in Lancashire, the location for most of the key scenes in Brief Encounter (1945). This poignant story of unfulfilled passion and guilt will be shown along with other Lean classics during a week of screenings in March at the station itself or in nearby Lancaster.

In February David Lean: A Biography is being republished by Faber & Faber UK. Written by filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent many hours in conversation with David Lean and his family and co-workers, the book is universally acknowledged to be the definitive biography and provides the reader with a unique insight into the man, the director, his career and his work.

A two-day conference gathering together filmmakers, writers, scholars and collaborators of Lean is planned for late July at Queen Mary University of London and will offer a broad range of perspectives examining aspects of the director’s life and career in cinema.


All film restorations require collaboration, but the David Lean Film Restoration Project partnership is a model for how this kind of collaboration can most profoundly affect film heritage.

The David Lean Foundation, whose resources come directly from the revenue the films of David Lean still generate, sponsored the restoration of eleven of the sixteen films that David Lean directed. The BFI undertook the technical side of the restoration of ten of these titles, working with Granada International and Canal Plus.

The BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted is now the permanent home of the preservation elements resulting from the restoration work. The restored films will be the basis of all distributed elements in the future, ensuring that every audience everywhere will see the restored version of each film.

The overall technical approach to the project, led by Andrea Kalas, Senior Preservation Manager of the Archive Film Lab, was to find the best surviving material on each title and restore and preserve each film using the best methods available.  For 8 of the films this involved collaboration with Granada International’s Perivale archive and working with the technical team headed by Fiona Maxwell, Director of Operations and Servicing. As quality considerations focus mainly on elements duplicated from an original, each element was inspected for quality and condition. Dirt and scratches can be printed in, and focus and fluctuation issues in the image can also occur. Condition issues can include signs of deterioration, mould, and most often the effects of usage. 

Original camera negatives of many of the films were badly damaged: with scratches, frames missing, tears, even one important original negative entirely missing.  Elements from both the BFI and Granada International archives were viewed and compared to find the best materials to work from.

The next stage was to decide how and where to complete the restoration which needed specialized equipment and expertise. Archival film is often fragile and in need of printers and scanners that have been optimized for this purpose, and the knowledge of the experts who are restoring the films is crucial. The ability to ensure that Guy Green’s black and white cinematography is brought back to life with utmost care is the ability to understand how to effectively reproduce sharpness, contrast and the greyscale range.  To ensure that the Blithe Spirit is a shade of green that looks ghostly and not cartoonish, requires an understanding of the Technicolor process and how to replicate that in modern film stocks.

The ten films were restored by one of three standard film restoration processes: Photochemical, Digital Sections and Full Digital Intermediate. Each film also had digital audio restoration. Although the Archive Film Lab at the BFI National Archive was the main facility for the restoration work, other film labs such as Cineric in New York were used for additional specialized work.  Following the photo-chemical work, Granada International remastered their films to High Definition with full digital picture and sound restoration.


Lean shared the directing credit with Noël Coward, who wrote and starred in this tense and moving account of life on board a wartime destroyer. Although based on the experiences of Louis Mountbatten, this is a state-of-the-nation film with social divisions on shore faithfully mirrored aboard ship. Lean arranged all the camera set-ups and directed Coward in his scenes in front of the camera.

With John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Richard Attenborough. UK / 1942 / bw / 116 mins / Granada International / Park Circus

Noël Coward was again the source for this story of a London lower middle-class suburban family in the inter-war years from 1919 to 1939. The finely and wittily observed family feuds unfold against a panorama of public events ranging from the General Strike of 1926 to the outbreak of war itself. Beautifully acted by an ensemble cast and shot in Technicolor, the film was a huge contemporary hit and has lost little of its appeal.

With Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, John Mills, Kay Walsh, Stanley Holloway. UK / 1944 / Technicolor / 114 mins / Granada International / Park Circus 

David Lean’s first comedy, again scripted by Noël Coward from his Broadway hit, stars Rex Harrison as a successful and cheerfully cynical novelist whose marital bliss is interrupted by the mischievous ghost of his first wife, visible to him but invisible to everyone else. The simple but effective special effects, all the more impressive in Technicolor, won an Oscar.

With Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford. UK / 1945 / Technicolor / 96 mins / Granada International / Park Circus

David Lean’s international reputation was established with this study of unfulfilled passion and guilt – themes that were to recur in his later work. Critically debated, mocked, referenced and remade, this account of an unconsummated affair between a middle-class housewife and a doctor, forced to meet at a railway station, retains a tight emotional grip on any contemporary audience.

With Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard. UK / 1945 / bw / 86 mins / Granada International / Park Circus

Undoubtedly one of the finest Dickens adaptations, the film is studded with memorable set-pieces, from young Pip’s hair-raising encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard to the eerie Gothic fantasy world of Miss Havisham. The Oscar-winning team of cinematographer Guy Green and production designer John Bryan bring Dickens’ settings to vivid, indelible life.

With John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Bernard Miles, Alec Guinness. UK / 1946 / bw / 118 mins / Granada International / BFI (licensed by Park Circus)

Dickens’ extravagant vision of Victorian London is perfectly balanced by superb performances and Lean’s fierce grip on the sprawling narrative. Guy Green and John Bryan lend an Expressionist look to Fagin’s hellish underworld and Alec Guinness, in his second major role, gives a finely judged theatrical – if controversial – depiction of Fagin himself. Lean was always eager to open a film without dialogue and here he excels himself with a tour de force sequence of Oliver’s pregnant mother battling against a storm.

With Robert Newton, John Howard Davies, Kay Walsh. UK / 1948 / bw / 116 mins / Granada International / BFI (licensed by Park Circus)

Re-released by the BFI to mark David Lean’s centenary in 2008, The Passionate Friends has been hailed by critic David Thomson as his work ‘most deserving rediscovery’. Mary (Ann Todd) has chosen a comfortable secure life with her rich banker husband (Claude Rains) over romantic passion with her first love Steven (Trevor Howard). Turmoil ensues when Steven suddenly reappears in her life. With its subtle performances, nuanced direction and beautiful cinematography, Lean’s absorbing romance, adapted from a story by H G Wells, is a fascinating companion piece to Brief Encounter.

With Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Rains.UK / 1948 / bw / 91 mins / Granada International / BFI (licensed by Park Circus)

In this period drama, set in Victorian Glasgow and based on a true story, Lean exploits the ambiguous and enigmatic screen presence of Ann Todd. Here she plays a young woman who, rebelling against her patriarchal father, falls for a penniless but exploitative French aristocrat who later dies of arsenic poisoning. Madeleine is anything but a victim, daring to expose her sexuality. Guy Green’s deep focus photography owes much to CITIZEN KANE.

With Leslie Banks, Elizabeth Sellars, Ivan Desny. UK / 1949 / 91 mins / Granada International / BFI (licensed by Park Circus)

The human cost of scientific progress underlies this story of an aircraft manufacturer whose obsession for perfection leads him into near madness and brings his family suffering – a tendency shared by Lean himself. The script by Terence Rattigan delivers the drama, but the exhilarating aerial footage and the score by Malcolm Arnold are what lodge in the memory.

With Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick. UK / 1952 / bw / 118 mins / Canal Plus

Charles Laughton delivers a bravura performance as a self-important Lancashire bootmaker who attempts to dictate his daughter’s choice of husband, only to find that she marries his downtrodden and simple-minded employee and starts a rival business. Set in the 1890s, this working class comedy by Harold Brighouse was first staged in 1916 but is here given a fresh breath of cinematic life thanks to luminous cinematography by Jack Hildyard.

With John Mills, Brenda de Banzie, Prunella Scales. UK / 1953 / bw / 107 mins / Canal Plus

For further information please contact:

The David Lean Foundation
Anthony Reeves (PA Chris Buckham)
01782 202020 /

Theatrical Release
Colette Geraghty
020 7957 8919 /

BFI Southbank Retrospective
Ilona Cheshire
020 7957 8986 /

Granada International

Debbie Lawrence, The Lippin Co Ltd
020 3008 5406 /

Corinna Downing
020 7292 5851 /

Park Circus
John Letham
0141 332 2175 / 07793 363 790 /

Canal Plus
CandyVincent-Smith, Optimum
020 7307 1519 /

Alice Burden, Granada Ventures
020 7389 8609 /

Chloe Dunbar, 020 7306 8726

Carnforth Station
Sheila Ashcroft, 01524 735165

National Film & Television School
Karin Farnworth, 01494 671 234