Insurance clerk; 1928—first play,
, an overnight success; 1931—hired as writer by the director James
Whale at Universal Studios in Hollywood; returned to Britain;
1935—returned to Hollywood, remained during World War II; returned
to Britain after the war.
In London, 1975.
Journey's End (Whale)
The Old Dark House (Whale) (dialogue)
The Invisible Man (Whale)
One More River ( Over the River ) (Whale)
The Road Back (Kenyon)
Three Comrades (Borzage) (uncredited)
The Four Feathers (Z. Korda); Goodbye Mr. Chips (Wood)
Lady Hamilton ( That Hamilton Woman ) (A. Korda)
This above All (Litvak); Mrs. Miniver (Wyler) (uncredited)
Forever and a Day (Clair)
Odd Man Out (Reed)
No Highway (Koster)
Home at Seven (Richardson)
Storm over the Nile (Young); The Dam Busters (Anderson); The Night My Number Came Up (Norman)
No Leading Lady (autobiography), 1969.
Radio Times (London), vol. 259, no. 3388, 5 November 1988.
* * *
R. C. Sherriff's career as a writer began with the play Journey's End , a bleak study of life in the trenches during the First World War. Sherriff, a veteran of the war, was an insurance clerk when he wrote the play for his local amateur dramatics society. Favourable notices brought Journey's End to the attention of an aspiring actor, Laurence Olivier, and the director James Whale, both of whom were instrumental in arranging a West End production of the play. Despite the fact that Journey's End carried an antiwar message and had "no leading lady" (the title of Sherriff's autobiography), it was an enormous success and established the insurance clerk as an esteemed author virtually overnight.
When subsequent success in the West End eluded him, Sherriff joined James Whale at Universal Studios in Hollywood in 1931, where he adapted J. B. Priestley's The Old Dark House and H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man . These were very successful and are now regarded as classic horror films. Sherriff did not return to the horror genre, but found himself in demand as a writer of films concerning the First World War ( The Road Back , Three Comrades ) and as a faithful adaptor of British novels. In the late 1930s these adaptations had developed a patriotic flavour. Goodbye Mr. Chips , for example, is a nostalgic celebration of British traditions, while The Four Feathers wholeheartedly endorses British rule over the Empire.
Goodbye Mr. Chips set the tone for Hollywood's many tributes to Britain at war; and Sherriff, along with expatriate writers James Hilton, Arthur Wimperis and Claudine West became one of the leading writers of this genre. Lady Hamilton , a costume melodrama that told the story of the adulterous love affair of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, was also the story of Nelson's triumph over Napoleon, and the contemporary parallels to Hitler were broadly drawn. It was one of Sherriff's few original screenplays, and was reportedly Winston Churchill's favourite film. This above All , an adaptation of a novel by Eric Knight, was a more typical example of Hollywood's wartime "British" melodramas. The usual British stereotypes—the haughty aristocrats and the quaint Cockneys—are portrayed as working together for the common wartime cause.
It was Mrs. Miniver , though, that made the most impact. The story of an "average" British housewife facing the blitz won six Oscars and was MGM's top grossing film of the 1940s. Although Sherriff did not receive a screen credit, he wrote two key scenes for Mrs. Miniver : the opening scene, in which a frivolous prewar Mrs. Miniver shops for hats; and the scene in the bomb shelter that shows Mrs. Miniver reading Alice in Wonderland to her family during an air raid. The latter scene was almost identical to scenes in Journey's End and Goodbye Mr Chips , in which we witness the same example of the British stiff-upper-lip in action. In Journey's End , however, the reading scene has an ironic edge, as the men's bravery leads to their death. In the later films the irony has been removed, and the bravery of Mr. Chips and Mrs. Miniver is presented in the spirit of "Britain can take it." Patriotic propaganda was the order of the day, and the author of the "antiwar" Journey's End proved to be particularly adept at providing it.
In Britain after the war, Sherriff's thematic concerns continued to centre on the archetypal, understated Englishman and how he responds to war. The Dam Busters , for example, shows an English intellectual applying his genius to defeat the Germans; and the plot of Home at Seven hinges upon the aftereffects of the war on a suburban gentleman. In the late 1950s, with the "kitchen sink" in vogue in British theatre and cinema, Sherriff found his patriotic themes and middle-class characters out of date, and he retired. Despite his long career and impressive filmography, his usual epitaph states that he never quite lived up to the standard set by Journey's End .
—H. M. Glancy