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Gilbert captured beauty of Bermuda in classic

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Paradise Lagoon: a scene from The Admirable Crichton on the South Shore beaches

Lewis Gilbert, a master- craftsman of postwar British cinema spent three months in Bermuda in 1956 directing the comedy classic The Admirable Crichton.

The death of Gilbert, a staggeringly prolific director who started his long career in Second World War documentary film units, was announced on Tuesday by the James Bond production company Eon, which he had worked with on three 007 outings.

He passed away at his home in Monaco at the age of 97.

Before his retirement in 2002, he helmed movies ranging from such intimate character studies as Alfie, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine to the wartime dramas Reach For the Sky and Sink The Bismarck! to the Bond espionage extravaganzas You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

Born in London’s East End, Gilbert had been something of a mentor to Bermudian Earl Cameron in the early 1950s when the now legendary black actor was embarking on his transition from the stage to working in British films. Gilbert cast the transplanted Bermudian in two of his early big screen dramas, There Is Another Sun and Emergency Call.

Gilbert was already a well-established and well-regarded director by the time he adapted the venerable 1902 satirical play The Admirable Crichton by Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie into a hugely popular movie starring top British box-office draw Kenneth More and Sally Ann Howes, perhaps best known as Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 children’s film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The story of a wealthy Edwardian family and their servants who are shipwrecked on a South Seas desert island where traditional class roles are quickly reversed, The Admirable Crichton has been described by one modern critic as “Downton Abbey meets Cast Away”.

Other cast members included Australian-born leading lady Diane Cilento, who later married James Bond actor Sean Connery, and such veterans of British film and theatre as Cecil Parker, Martita Hunt and Peter Graves.

With Bermuda substituting for the fictional South Sea atoll where the action takes place, the film proved to be a major hit when it was released in Britain and the United States — where it was retitled Paradise Lagoon — in 1957.

The production’s sumptuous Technicolor photography by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper showed Bermuda to eye-catching advantage, with director Gilbert shooting the film largely at Grape Bay and other South Shore beaches, including Chaplin Bay and Jobson’s Cove.

“It really does look like a ravishing location on which to be stranded,” rhapsodised one critic.

Some of the interiors were filmed on sets built in the old flying boat hangars on Darrell’s Island, which were then being used as TV and movie production facilities.

In 2011, former Bermuda resident Tom Burton recounted how Gilbert told him of The Admirable Crichton company encountering a living theatrical legend then living in Bermuda during the shoot.

“I live in London now and sometimes see Lewis Gilbert in the local café,” said Mr Burton. “When he heard I used to live in Bermuda, I remember Lewis telling me stories about filming The Admirable Crichton on the island.

“He said the whole crew was invited up to dinner one evening at the playwright/actor Noel Coward’s place [Spithead Lodge on Harbour Road] — and that Coward had insisted on cooking.

“Everyone was apparently too much in awe of him to tell him his cooking was simply awful.”

It was at the glittering 1957 red-carpet London premiere of The Admirable Crichton that co-star Diane Cilento first set eyes on future husband Sean Connery, then a largely unknown bit player on the British stage and TV.

Her strongest memory of that night was “the presence of a tall, funny actor with two gold eyeteeth, who leapt about firing off a barrage of one-liners in a broad Scottish brogue. He walked with the forward-leaning, slightly pigeon-toed gait of a body builder”, she later recalled, “and his thick eyebrows met between his eyes. He looked dangerous, but fun.”

She married Connery in 1962, the same year he starred in the first 007 thriller, Dr No — the signature role Lewis Gilbert later directed him in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.

Still broadcast regularly on Turner Classic Movies as well as other cable and satellite TV channels and video-streaming services, The Admirable Crichton remains one of only a handful of major motion pictures shot largely on location in Bermuda.

Gilbert published his autobiography All My Flashbacks in 2010 when he marked his 90th birthday and included reminiscences about filming The Admirable Crichton in Bermuda in that book.

Lewis Gilbert
Diane Cilento