My film family's greatest hits
The Oldie Magazine|July 2021
Downton Abbey producer Gareth Neame follows in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandmother, a silent-movie star
Gareth Neame

At the Royal Command Performance of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969, my late grandfather Ronald Neame (1911-2010) was admonished by the Duke of Edinburgh.

As the film’s director, he had been instructed only hours earlier to cut a scene deemed to be unsuitable. The scene in question involved the actor Robert Stephens, in the role of art master Teddy Lloyd, and three of Miss Brodie’s girls admiring a sketch of a nude male torso. It wasn’t the image that was thought inappropriate, but Stephens’s dialogue which involved the words ‘pectoral muscles’.

‘Do you think we’re all children?’ barked the Duke as he passed my grandfather in the receiving line.

Brodie is one of the most celebrated films in Ronnie Neame’s long and illustrious career as a director, producer, writer and cinematographer. In one of her most memorable performances, Maggie Smith received her first Academy Award.

The film also marked my first foray into showbusiness. Another featured painting was of Teddy’s family: to expose his obsession with Jean Brodie, his wife and five children all resemble her. The children are depicted in descending order of age with me at the end sitting on a potty. As the producer of Downton Abbey, I have a working connection with Dame Maggie that continues over half a century later.

But the Neame film dynasty doesn’t begin with Ronnie Neame; rather with his parents. His mother was Ivy Close (1890-1968), the Edwardian beauty queen who won the Daily Mirror’s 1908 competition to find the world’s most beautiful woman. Stuart Elwin ‘Senny’ Neame was the youngest and certainly the most successful photographer in London (‘If it’s a Neame, it’s you at your best’) and had been engaged to photograph the 25 finalists. They married shortly afterwards.

Then, as now, modelling led to acting – while Senny tried his hand at the new art of cinema, directing his wife in several films, such as the eight-minute-long The Lady of Shalott in 1912. He shot on location and had a daylight studio in Walton-on-Thames, where he built the sets himself, on a revolving platform so that the sun would always come from the same direction.

In a career move that still happens over a century later, Ivy went to make films in America, but before Tinseltown became dominant. Joining the Kalem Company in Jacksonville, Florida, she worked alongside Oliver Hardy – known to her as ‘Babe’. It is her leading role in Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece La Roue that placed her firmly in the archives for ever. On a DVD, I have watched a great-grandmother I never knew as a movie star of her day. At a total running time of seven hours, it is quite a commitment.

When Senny was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1923, in his thirties, money became tight. Young Ronnie was removed from school in his early teens and sent to work. He arrived at Elstree in 1927, soon working for the young director Alfred Hitchcock, already considered a genius and already corpulent. Following his father’s footsteps into cinematography, Ronnie was on the set of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), the first British talkie, which famously started production as a silent film.

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