The Daily Telegraph
Debutante and bohemian who found her métier as a set designer for top directors in film and TV
MARIANNE FORD, who has died aged 82, was a leading art director for British film and television during the transition to colour TV and the birth of the commercials industry; her company, Scenery, was pioneering in providing props, wardrobe and decor all in one “wraparound” service, and she worked with directors including Tony Scott, Michael Seresin and Jim Henson.
Marianne Adele Hermione Ford was born in London on November 11 1937, the oldest child of Richard (later Sir Richard) Brinsley Ford, art collector and historian, and Joanna, née Vyvyan. She was educated at St Mary’s Convent, Ascot, where, despite being on the verge of expulsion on several occasions, she disconcerted her parents by expressing a desire to take the veil.
In an effort to dissuade her they dispatched her to finishing school in Lausanne; there, as her father recorded in his diary in 1954, the curriculum consisted of “French Literature and Language, Domestic Science, Theoretical Work, Domestic Economy, Hygiene, Household Accounts, Ambulance Work, Infant Laundry work, Housework, Care of little children.”
“In short,” he went on, “she will become the perfect wife at the awful cost of £500. I shall then have to spend another £750 on a Season, in the hope of finding her a husband … If after all this she becomes a nun I am in the unfortunate position of not being able to get my money back from her spouse – the Almighty.”
Fortunately, through bunking off to Paris for her final term, Marianne discovered enough worldly distractions to abandon her vocation, and duly entered Society as a somewhat reluctant debutante in 1955.
She also made her debut in the Daily Express in an article headlined “The Battle of the Gulls’ Eggs” in which the paper claimed she had become involved in a food fight at a society ball with another girl, though Marianne always maintained her innocence.
She then tried a series of short-lived jobs before finding her métier in set decoration. Growing up in a house festooned with works of art, she had inherited her father’s aesthetic sense, and began working as assistant to the photographer Keith Ewart in the late 1950s, just as he was taking on commissions for television commercials.
Among other coups she charmed the managing director of the jewellers Garrards into lending a diamond necklace for the Benson & Hedges “burglar” ad, in which the diamonds are set aside by the thief in favour of the cigarettes.
Through Ewart she obtained an art director’s ticket from the ACTT union, and embarked on a freelance career. She worked with the young directors Ridley Scott, Bob Brooks and Hugh Hudson and, with some talented girlfriends went on to set up her own company, Scenery, to supply props, décor, wardrobe and food for film and television sets.
Marianne Ford worked on dozens of advertising campaigns, including those for
Fairy Liquid, After Eights, Dubonnet, Hovis, Le Piat d’or, Barclaycard, American Express, Renault and Stella Artois. Though she was talented and reliable, her cut-glass voice and aristocratic bearing made her a rather incongruous figure in the business.
A suggestion from David Ogilvy that Scenery should set up a New York office sent Marianne to the US on a scouting trip in the early 1960s. There she ran into an old friend, Patrick Laver, a diplomat, and fell in love. They returned to London in 1966, Marianne having taken against the US advertising scene, and married and had a daughter.
The marriage soon ended, however, and with her father’s help, Marianne bought and did up a house in Notting Hill where she, her daughter and a nanny moved in 1970.
In that decade she began to work on television shorts, and was invited by Tony Scott to do the sets for his contribution to a series of adaptations of Henry James stories,
L’auteur de ‘Beltraffio’ (1976). The lead role was played by Tom Baker, who, as she recalled, had told her “in great secrecy that he was to be the next Doctor Who and was deeply disappointed to learn that I hadn’t a clue who Doctor Who was.”
They entered into an eight-year relationship, during which she became known as “Mrs Who” by her neighbours and ended up knitting many replicas of the Doctor’s famous scarf for charity auctions.
In the 1980s she became involved in longer television productions and feature films. She collaborated with Anthony Minghella and the Henson studio on the Storyteller series and worked on Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild (1985), about Alice Liddell, and Michael Radford’s White Mischief (1987), which dramatised the events of the Happy Valley murder case in 1940s Kenya.
During filming she experienced some embarrassment when thousands of flies she had ordered to swarm around the dead body of the Earl of Errol (Charles Dance) arrived “not, as promised, semi-conscious and anxious to fly, but too stiff to get out of their boxes”, causing filming to be held up.
As well as her work as an art director she published a craft book for children, Copycats (1983, with the artist Anna Pugh), inspired by a visit to a Fabergé egg exhibition and an experiment in creating a decorated egg at home with her daughter.
The book was praised in The Times Literary Supplement as “testament to the belief that children can be inspired by works of art, instead of being patronised by oversimple lessons in making ugly objects”.
A vigorous bonne vivante, Marianne Ford dreaded losing her independence and was a member of Dignity in Dying for some years before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2020. It was a real blow to find herself in palliative care a year later, unable to choose a time for her own death, and two weeks before she died she made a video urging MPS to legislate to allow assisted dying.
Her daughter survives her.